Believe!

Reflection on John 14

In Memory of Richard Engel

October 3, 1941–November 29, 2022

Pastor Karen Crawford

Dec. 1, 2022

I met Richard at a party.

I guess that’s a funny way for a pastor to begin a funeral meditation, but Richard had a great sense of humor, and I know he wouldn’t mind my starting that way.

You know how parties often end up in the kitchen, even though the host is trying to get everyone out of the kitchen so they can prepare and serve the food?

Well, the party was the end of the choir year shindig. The choir director and members of the bell and voice choirs had come with their significant others, as well as the pastor. It was outdoors on a Long Island spring evening. Yes, you guessed it. As the evening went on, the wind started to whip up. Before too long, it was cold. And I am wearing summer clothes because it had been hot earlier in the day.

Richard and I and a few others came inside to get warm. Into an increasingly crowded kitchen. We sat at a little table together, eating chips and other delicious appetizers. We talked and laughed. About what, I don’t recall. At the end of the evening, I felt like I had gotten to know him, and I wanted to know him more, especially because I knew he was Trudy’s beloved husband! And that he was struggling with a serious illness. He came to the party anyway that night because he didn’t want to let Trudy down. He didn’t want to give in to the illness, which drained him of his strength. He came to the choir party because he loved the people Trudy loved. He wanted to show his support for her church involvement.

Trudy and Richard had met on a blind date when she was 14. They went to Bar Beach in Nassau County with another couple. They had a second date. And that was it. They were smitten. They married on Sept. 1, 1962, at Community Congregational Church in New Hyde Park.

Trudy told me that Richard had been a cop. She said it proudly. He had also worked as a draftsman, and for a greenhouse, and had delivered newspapers. He was a hard worker! Dedicated. Community minded.

He was also a musician—playing flute in parades and playing the accordion when he was a child at Carnegie Hall.

He joined the police department and went to the police academy in 1967 on the advice of a friend, a fellow draftsman, who was also applying to serve as a police officer. Richard wanted to provide for his family, and he wanted to help people. He cared about people. He joined on July 13, which is meaningful to the family now because it was the birthday of their granddaughter who passed away suddenly, tragically, at age 29. He retired on their daughter, Debbie’s birthday– June 2, 1992, after 25 years on the Force. He worked in the 2nd Precinct, the 4th Precinct, and the Marine Bureau. He took many courses with the Marine Bureau.

But he wasn’t a stereotypical cop portrayed on TV crime dramas.  He was a family man. He was a good provider, not just financially; he was emotionally supportive. He was a good listener.  He was there for his wife and kids—and he was there for his grandkids. He enjoyed being a chauffeur for the grandchildren’s sports’ activities. He was humble, patient, loyal, honest, forgiving—but he could be stubborn.

He was funny. He had a way of telling stories and you would believe his stories, though they weren’t true. Not a word.

His sense of humor strengthened him through the hard times. He joked around with the medical professionals. He introduced Trudy to all the medical people as his bride. “My Bride,” became Trudy’s nickname, she said, though they had been married 60 years.

He was proud of her.

He took time to care for his own health—so that he could be there for his family. He hated not being able to be active. He hated being tired, he told me that night at the party. Up until the beginning of last month, he went swimming 3 times a week at LA Fitness.

He battled his illnesses bravely. He persevered, in spite of the many hospitalizations and treatments—good news and hopeful progress, then disappointments and more struggle.

When medical treatments were failing, and it was time for Richard to begin the journey home to the Lord, he wanted to leave the hospital and go home to his family. Trudy and her son and daughter went home and prepared a place for him, moving furniture out to make room for a rented hospital bed. All the details were important, down to having the right size sheets to fit the bed.

They knew he would only have a few days more with them, at most. They wanted him to be comfortable, happy, peaceful, not in pain—and they wanted to be with him, to make sure that all his needs were met—not just to care for his body, but to give him emotional support, like he had always given them when they needed it. They didn’t have a few days. His home was only a brief stop on his way to heaven.

And this is what I think it means when Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them—for all of us. He is concerned for all the details—for all our needs. And he isn’t going to leave us alone—not in this world, not in the world to come. We don’t have to wonder the way to get there or how it will happen, though Jesus doesn’t mind the questions. He encourages thoughtful questions. Look how he patiently answers Thomas, who just can’t get his head around Jesus’s news to them – that he is going home to be with God, that he is going to die.

We don’t have to worry. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says, more than once, to his faithful followers. All you have to do is BELIEVE and let your BELIEVING guide your life. Believe in God. Believe in the Son and the promise of everlasting life. If you know Jesus, he said, you have seen the Father! God is love.

Christ is going to return to us and take us home with him, so that where he is, we may be, also. His preparing a place for us required that he suffer and die for us—but he did it willingly, obediently, knowing it was all part of the Father’s plan.

The place where we are going is mysterious to us now. We can’t imagine it, not really, our life when we are living with new, resurrected bodies with Christ. Most of the time, we aren’t thinking about God and Jesus and the world to come. We are worrying about all the problems of today and responding to them, thinking how we can help support and provide for our loved ones in every way.

There’s something so much more than our day- to-day experiences. When we believe, we can see the Kingdom of God through glimpses in this world that the Lord allows us to see, moments that are kind of like a lifting of a veil. Maybe you have experienced these God moments—just when you needed one.

There was a moment like that for Trudy, not long ago—during one of his recent hospitalizations. He suddenly turned to Trudy, his bride of 60 years, and from his hospital bed asked, “Will you marry me?”

She said, “Of course!”

He would be pleased to know that today, hearing his story, some of us will vow to spend more time with our loved ones, take care of our health and well-being so that we can care for others, and to not take ourselves too seriously.

He would be happy to hear us laughing, telling stories, and sharing food. He would be glad that his passing has stirred a coming together of family and a wide circle of his friends, many of whom don’t know each other well.  He would be pleased to hear the stories about him, even if they aren’t all completely true, as long as they are funny. He would be glad to know how he touched our lives in powerful ways and will be remembered with joy and love.

When you think about it, laughter is the opposite of what Jesus tells his disciples not to do—when he says, “Don’t worry. Let not your hearts be troubled.” When you are laughing, you aren’t worried. You aren’t anxious.

Laughter is a sign of a spiritual gift from the Lord, with us now in Spirit, as he promised. Friends, let us remember that gift—and that the joy of the Lord is our strength!

Jesus says we know the way to our heavenly home, though we might have many questions, like Thomas. Christ assures us that he is the way– believing in his work for our sakes, reaching out to him in prayer, seeking to follow in his footsteps. But it struck me this time reading this familiar, beautiful gospel passage. He is also the actual mode of transportation, much like Richard enjoyed being the chauffeur for his grandchildren.

 “For I will come again,” he says, “and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Believe, dear friends. Live in love, as Christ calls us to do. Live in peace, a gift from the Lord meant to be shared.

 “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Amen.

While We Are Waiting

Meditation on Matthew 24:36-44

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Sunday of Advent

Nov. 27, 2022

My husband, Jim, and I traveled to see our family in Cambridge, Mass, on Thanksgiving. Did anyone else go out of town for Thanksgiving? Did any of you have family or friends from out of town visiting you? This was the first time we have been able to gather on Thanksgiving with our two granddaughters, 5 and 8, and their parents.

While many good memories were made on our trip, two things stand out to me as being especially good. One was when Grandpa Jim, who is usually very serious and extremely competitive, let 5-year-old Maddie beat him at chess. She was so proud to have “won”!

The other remarkable thing that happened was on the ferry ride back from New London. We were traveling with our toy poodle, Minnie, so we were sitting in a special area for people with pets and people who like pets and want to be near them. We had dogs of all sorts around us. At times, it sounded like a scene from the movie, 101 Dalmatians, when the puppies are stolen, and Pongo alerts the neighborhood dogs through the Twilight Bark.

A young couple with 4 or 5 children sat in a booth diagonal to us. The youngest was a girl of about 18 months. The others were boys. She was showing signs of fatigue right from the beginning of the one hour, 20-minute-long ferry ride. About 40 minutes into the journey, she started to cry inconsolably. Nothing the parents could do could calm her down.

One by one, the people in our pet section started to leave, until there were just a few of us left.

I sat there wishing there was something I could do to help, but I knew there wasn’t. Suddenly, a woman with a black lab came over to their table. Jim and I had ridden the elevator with the woman and her dog. The dog was old and could no longer walk up or down stairs. We could see large lumps on the dog’s back and neck.

The woman asked the little sobbing girl if she wanted to see her dog do some tricks. Although she was an old dog, she said, she was a smart dog and could still do tricks.

The crying stopped immediately. A hush fell over the room.

The woman bent over her dog and gave commands. The dog raised her paw to shake hands, she lay down, rolled over and “played dead.” Then the woman asked the little girl what else would she like the dog to do?

The little girl giggled, and yelled, “Sit!”

“Of course,” said the woman. “Sit,” she told the dog, and the dog who was too old to walk up and down stairs on the ferry sat—and brought joy and peace to a little girl and to all of us watching.

Maybe it was 10 minutes. That’s all the time it took from the woman’s journey. She didn’t have to come and visit the little girl and her family. But she did it, anyway—with the ease of someone who probably has done it many times before, perhaps for schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

She said goodbye and walked away, smiling.

The girl waved and said, “Bye bye, dog! Bye bye!”

And the mother turned to Jim and me and said, “Thank you. Thank you for staying.”

In my mind, we hadn’t done a thing. Then I realized the Spirit had led us to stay—when others left to escape the crying child—and by staying, to be kind, a witness to the kindness of the Lord who says in Revelation 22:20, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

 The One for whom we are waiting in hope and prayer,

 “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

***

To help prepare us for Christ’s promised return, our reading in Matthew provides images from our Lord’s daily life and from the Scriptures Jesus learned from childhood. He compares his coming to a thief in the night and to the flood of Noah—a story that everyone in his faith community would know, just as most everyone knows the story today. We can imagine how those who didn’t know the flood was coming or believe in Noah’s God were doing ordinary things—eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. We can picture how it will be for us, when Jesus comes again, and we are working at jobs, some not so unlike the workers in the fields of Christ’s time and others preparing food for their families, like the women “grinding meal.”  

I admit, the image of two in the field, “one will be taken, and one will be left” is unsettling. Is that unsettling for you? This phrase is repeated for emphasis in verse 41, “Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left.”

Honestly? I think it’s supposed to be unsettling. God’s word is meant to challenge and convict us, when we get too comfortable with our routine, our faith, and circle of friends and family. We can take for granted our salvation and forget about our neighbors who may not know the Lord. This passage helps us remember who we are, because of the gift of Jesus Christ.  It reminds us that while we are waiting—not just for Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth, but in anticipation of our Savior’s return—we have work Christ himself has called us to do—sowing seeds; discipling the nations; nurturing faith in our children and youth; loving our neighbors; forgiving those who hurt us; feeding the hungry; gathering for worship, study, and prayer; healing and caring for the earth; and more.

When I read this passage about one being taken and one left, while the people are doing ordinary things, I can’t help but read it, also, through the lens of what is happening in our country. It is hard to hear about the violent acts committed against innocent people gathering in public places. And maybe it feels more terrible because of its seemingly randomness—lives taken, while other lives are left to grieve and try to heal from the trauma.

But let the grief stir us not to lash out in anger or to live in fear or to remain quiet and passive when the Lord stirs us to speak and act. My prayer is that our grief will help us to be more kind and seek understanding, wisdom, and reconciliation. For this is what Christ would want us to do—and we want the Lord to find us at our best, being faithful! As we wait and work in hope for peace, anticipating when all things will be made new. When Jesus comes again.

I near the end of my message today still thinking about the woman and her dog on the ferry—and the precious gift she gave that family—and to all of us who stayed.

I know what you are thinking. It isn’t going to change the world—these little acts of kindness. It won’t stop the violence, the seemingly random shootings in public places. But I promise you this: it will make a difference when we pray and respond to the Spirit’s leading and do what is right. It will change us.

When the pastor of Nanume Church invited me to share a message this afternoon, I was excited, and said yes. But then, last night, I suddenly felt nervous. I wondered if my knowing so little of the language and culture would be a barrier to my being able to connect with this congregation, share my heart, and be understood. Then, I thought, as I had when Pastor T.J. asked me, it’s the best way for me to get to know the flock. And it’s a good way for the flock to meet me and know my heart.

God reminded me that Nanume, like First Presbyterian Church, has come to hear what the Spirit is saying—and not my voice. And that, just as God needs us to stay and be present with people in need, the Lord also just needs us to be obedient and go where God desires to use us. We have to trust that when we get there, the Lord will accomplish God’s purposes.

The message is the same for all Christ’s followers. Be watchful and present, in this world, in the here and now. Don’t look back and dwell on yesterday’s flaws or missteps. Don’t worry about the future. While we are waiting in hope and working for peace, let us be ready for the One who is coming at an unexpected time, like a thief in the night.

The One who says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

 “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for the Spirit’s message today, to both our communities of faith under this one roof. Thank you for all the people who are Your Church and this beautiful place where we are being equipped for and doing ministry together in Christ’s name. Wake us up, Lord! Stir us from spiritual sleep. Slow us down in our busy-ness, especially this time of year. Open our eyes to the needs around us and lead us in your will. Strengthen us to be ready for your Son’s return at an unexpected time. And come quickly, Lord, and make all things new. We long to see your face and for every tear to be wiped away. Fulfill your promise, “I am coming soon.” Amen.

Blessed Are You!

Meditation on Luke 6:20–31

All Saints’ Day

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Nov. 6, 2022

Pastor Karen Crawford

Here is the link to the live-streamed video:

https://fb.watch/gEVWgATyiF/

Jim and I attended our church’s book group on Wednesday night. Isabel led us in a discussion of a book about JP Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. The young woman’s career in 1905 is a rare occupation for women. But Belle isn’t like most women of her time. Her job is to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books—including Gutenberg Bibles—and artwork for Morgan’s newly built library.

But she isn’t who she says she is. She lives a lie. Her name is really Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard, and a well-known advocate for equality. She’s black, passing as white.

We talked about whether she had a choice in the matter, really, since her mother is the one who orchestrated the ruse from the beginning and told Belle and her other children what to do and say. The mother is the one who reports her and Belle’s siblings’ race as white on the census and registers them as white when the children start school in New York after moving from Washington, D.C.

Belle probably worried about being caught in her lies every single day. And because of it, she never married or had children of her own. Being found out would destroy her career and reputation, and ruin the lives of her mother and siblings, who would also be outed as white. Then there’s minor detail that Belle’s family relies on her generous income as Morgan’s personal librarian.

But the lies aren’t discovered within her lifetime. Belle is famous now for amassing the collection for Morgan that is now open to the public. Her story serves as an inspiration to all women to follow their ambitions and passions, work hard and persevere, until their dreams are a reality.

Near the end of our discussion, I was asked whether I had heard of passing before, as in passing as another race, and if I could imagine the life. I hadn’t thought about it, but I suddenly thought of how my own family was quiet about being my father being Jewish in the rural and largely Christian community where I grew up. It wasn’t a secret, but it was kept private. And there were other secrets. I would later learn that my father’s uncles changed their names because they sounded too Jewish.  And that my father’s mother wasn’t born in this country, as she had always told us. She had come over on a ship as a Jewish immigrant with her parents from what is today Latvia, when she was a young girl. She told a story of how she had lost her birth certificate and primary school records when her school had burned down. She wasn’t sure of her birthday or birth year, so she chose July 15—payday for her job with the Bureau of Engraving in Washington, D.C., until she retired.

All those years she kept her secrets—probably out of fear, like Belle, that something bad would happen to her and her family if she admitted to lying about her citizenship and her age, while working for the federal government.

So, here I am, thinking about my father and my Jewish family on the day we remember and give thanks for the gift of the lives of all the saints—and we consider how their lives affected ours and loved us into being. And I know that there was suffering in my family’s past and fear of antisemitism, not just in Europe leading up to and during WWII, but here, at home in the United States.

Yet, my father and his family always stayed true to their faith. Grandma covered her hair, lit candles, and said the Shabbat prayers in Hebrew as the sun went down every Friday. She fasted and prayed on Jewish holidays, attended synagogue when she could, and celebrated God’s faithfulness every year with her family gathered around the table, feasting on Passover.

It was partly due to their courage to be who God made them to be and live with hope that tomorrow will be better that helped make me who I am today.

And I know I am truly blessed!

***

On this All Saints’ Day, we read the familiar passage of the Beatitudes in Luke, The Sermon on the Plain. Jesus is sharing a vision of the Kingdom of God that he ushered in—and it’s nothing like the way of the world of his day—or the way of the world today.

Jesus baffles his audience of ordinary people with words that defy logic. He has their attention—and he has ours. For all of us have experienced suffering of some kind—suffering that comes without warning, that isn’t deserved, just as the audience for Luke’s gospel, the Early church, are experiencing. Many of them, as this minority religion, a sect of Judaism at first, are experiencing poverty, grief, hunger, fear, and persecution.

And this word blessing….This is a surprising thing. it isn’t the word for a priestly blessing. This Greek word makarios “implies a person’s inner happiness due to some good fortune the person has received.” So, everywhere we see the word “Blessed,” in this passage, we can substitute the words “Happy” or “Fortunate.” Which begs the question, how is it they are being encouraged and congratulated on their good fortune of being poor, hungry, sorrowful, and persecuted?” Since when did being poor, hungry, sad, and persecuted become a good thing?

This is what I want you to understand about this passage. The Beatitudes describe the Kingdom of God—which is in this present life and all around us, and it’s also not yet here. It’s coming and will be brought to fruition when Jesus returns to reign over His Church.

So, before we can show and tell others about Christ’s Kingdom and live it out, we have to first understand and imagine it. Jesus paints a picture for us. In the Kingdom of God, the poor are lifted up, those who mourn are brought to joy, and the proud and powerful are brought down. There’s justice, peace, mercy, love.

In the Kingdom of God, we don’t have enemies. We love one another. So that explains the command to love our enemies—and pray for them. When you love your enemies and pray for them, they aren’t your enemies anymore, are they?

When we do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us, we are changing the world right where we live! And yes, people will think we are being foolish—but we are not afraid to be fools for Christ, as the apostle Paul teaches us to do. For by this foolish behavior, everyone will know that we are his disciples—and others will be made ready for the Kingdom of God to become a present reality.

If you’re wondering, well, what do Presbyterians believe about the Kingdom of God and our responsibility as the people of faith? we read about it in our Book of Order. Our Constitution tells us that “in the life of the congregation, individual believers are equipped for the ministry of witness to the love and grace of God in and for the world. The congregation reaches out to people, communities, and the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to gather for worship, to offer care and nurture to God’s children, to speak for social justice and righteousness, to bear witness to the truth and to the reign of God that is coming into the world.”

***

Friends, we have an important job—bearing witness to the coming reign. One way that Session has decided to do this is by remembering Kristallnacht on the anniversary this Wednesday. On Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis terrorized Jews in Germany and Austria in the night that became known as Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass. Nazis killed at least 91 people that night, burned down hundreds of synagogues, vandalized and looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, and arrested up to 30,000 Jewish men, many of whom were taken to concentration camps. Weeks later, Nazis escalated their persecution of Jews, forcing them out of their own homes and businesses and banning Jewish children from German schools. Kristallnacht foreshadowed the coming genocide of 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust.

We can’t change the past, but we can work toward a more peaceful future. Let us hold onto our vision of the Kingdom of God in the Beatitudes and share the vision with others. There’s no hatred or persecution in God’s Kingdom.

It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

We will show our solidarity with our Jewish neighbors and take a stand against the rising tide of antisemitism. We will join with synagogues and churches around the world in leaving the lights burning in our house of worship all night.

Light shall replace darkness… Friendship shall replace destruction. Good will triumph over evil.

May the sight of the lights blazing Tuesday night remind you of our hope and the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom that we can see and live by faith.

May you hear the words of Jesus, assuring you of the promise of the present and coming Reign of God and your calling to share it:

“Blessed are you!”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we are blessed—happy and fortunate—with the vision you paint for us in the Beatitudes. Thank you for your love and the gift of Christ’s peace, that defies logic—surpasses human understanding. We are blessed with the promise of the present and coming Reign of God—when the poor and lowly are lifted up and the rich and proud are brought low. And there will be no more hatred, prejudice, or persecution, no more hunger, sickness, or poverty. Strengthen us by your Holy Spirit to see and bear witness to this vision so that we can make a difference, right where we live, and draw others away from the darkness and into your light. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

The Days Are Surely Coming

Meditation on Jeremiah 31:31–34  and John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Oct. 30, 2022

Here is a link to the worship service, with my message:

https://fb.watch/gvTuwGiCKs/

I was all set to begin writing my message for Reformation Sunday, when I found a letter that one of our members—Ron DeHart—gave to me after last Sunday’s service. I read the letter and tears came to my eyes. I pray the Spirit will touch your heart as it touched mine as I share some of it with you.

It was written by a young man named Joe Zimbler, a student of Gettysburg College. He writes of his plan to attend an event hosted by the campus chapter of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). He is going to listen to the speaker, though he does not agree with the group’s views. Joe describes himself as someone “who hung a rainbow flag in (the) locker room.”

Joe is Ron’s grandson. His letter was published in school newspaper, The Gettysburgian, on Oct. 18. The headline is “Opinion: I Have Two Moms, Yet Will Be Attending YAF’s speaker.”

He sees polarization as the “biggest issue facing the world today.” “People on both sides of the political spectrum generally refuse to interact with those with different beliefs,” he says. “When your friends share similar beliefs, you are not exposed to other ways of thinking of ideas. It is so easy to look at the other side of an issue and say things such as, ‘How can people possibly support this?’ and ‘What is wrong with these people?’ and ‘Why don’t they see it the same way as me?’ People become so entrenched in their views and surround themselves with others with the same opinion that, over time, they cannot imagine how anyone can view it differently.”

He writes in response to the “hostile environment,” he says, that has “taken over the school.” “Everyone is frustrated, believing that their side is being silenced by the other. Listening to the other side of this issue would allow people to see that those on the other side of the aisle are not monsters, they are just people.”

He emphasizes the importance of taking time to try to understand why the “other side” feels the way they do. When his friends learned that Joe wanted to attend the event and hear the speaker, they were “appalled,” he says, “claiming this to be hate speech and feeling as though interacting with this speaker empowers him to spread a message of hatred towards members of LGBTQ+. And I understand this fear,” he goes on, “as giving someone a voice to challenge your identity or the identity of those close to you can be terrifying. However, if we want to change and coexist, we must listen to the other side and understand why they do not support the LGBTQ+ community. It is easy to say that it is because these are bad or hateful people, but how can you ever know until you engage them?”

Joe adds, “Change comes with active listening, listening, not to respond, but to understand. With that, we can work to foster a more inclusive world and understanding, a world where no one must feel threatened by sharing their beliefs. And a world where, regardless of your race, sex, gender, orientation, etc., you can walk around with little fear of being hated by others for those factors. So I will be attending the event.”

***

Here on Oct. 30, we commemorate the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, and, along with other reformers, helped bring the necessary changes in belief and practice that have made us who we are today. This is also the day we have chosen to welcome our seven confirmands into membership.

If there’s a word to describe this confirmation class, I would say it’s “gentleness.” I was warned, before we began meeting, that these students are “quiet,” and that I shouldn’t take it personally if they don’t talk. But in this short time we have had together, and through their faith statements shared through word and music, we have come to know each other better. And I have come to appreciate their kind and gentle ways!

They still need our help and encouragement to become the people God wants them to be.

Are we prepared to invest the time and energy into getting to know them and encouraging them to grow in faith, hope, love and service, not just by our words, but by our own acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity? Will we help them find how they may use their gifts and talents to serve the church and participate more fully in ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown?

Some of our confirmands would like to help with children’s programs or continue with their strong involvement in music ministries. Some will serve as liturgists and others may be working behind the scenes, such as helping with our church-wide cleanups, such as the one coming up in November. Others may labor on our Stream Team, helping us to share our hope in Christ beyond our church walls, something we never thought we would be doing until 2020 and the pandemic forced us to adapt to a strange new, virtual way to “do church.”

As we celebrate Reformation Sunday, this is a good time “to reclaim the great motto of the Reformation for our congregation, “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda”:  the church reformed and always reforming.”

Dr. Fred Heuser at the Presbyterian Historical Society says, “While Reformation Sunday may prompt us to look back to the great truths and insights articulated by Reformers … 500 years ago,” “it is even more important to look forward, especially at this time in the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). … Shaped by our theology, (a) common heritage unites us, despite what differences may divide us as a people of faith. As with other periods of transition in our church, our history has helped to both inform and inspire us. But it also continues to challenge us to listen and discover what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do in a new time.”

Friends, this is a time to seek God’s face and listen for God’s voice and remember that the Holy Spirit speaks through the young, as well as the old, as it did on Pentecost, when Peter preached with the words of the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
        and they shall prophesy.”

I pray that we, together, will recognize the promise of Jeremiah and the New Covenant come to fruition in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit. For “the days are surely coming,” the prophet proclaimed, “that I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…”

I have said this during our confirmation class—and I say it again to this quiet, gentle group. I pray you will be brave and find your voice and share it with the world through words and actions. Speak up for the oppressed. Work for peace and justice. As Christ told those who wished to follow him, we must live out what the Lord is teaching us, at the risk of our own lives. “If you continue in my word,” he says in John, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

And I pray that more people will listen to young people like Joe, who speaks the truth in love, with a heart of peace, when his college has become a hostile environment, where people are not free to be themselves. A place where people are afraid and feel unsafe.

May God bring about the changes for which Joe and many others long—so that people with different beliefs are able to talk to one another and “listen actively, not to respond, but to understand” and “foster a world where no one must feel threatened by sharing their beliefs.”

“I will not yell at the speaker or be angry with those who disagree with me,” he says. And “maybe I will have the chance to ask one good question… Or maybe I won’t. Either way, I will walk out with a newfound understanding of the opinion of the other side, an opinion that, just like all others, deserves to be heard.”

“And after,” Joe says, “I will call my moms and tell them how much I love them.”

Let us pray.

Gracious and merciful God, thank you for creating us all in your image, but giving us the gift of diversity—being delightfully different from one another, in many ways. Thank you for the Holy Spirit that unites us, when the visible Church around the world is still scandalously divided. Help us all to be One, as your Son prayed for us, and to be peacemakers, sowing seeds of kindness and modeling active listening when we encounter hostile environments. Lead us to follow you more faithfully and live justly, by the power of the Spirit, as people grateful to be saved by your grace and know the truth that has set us free to love, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Meditation on Luke 18:9-14

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

Oct. 23, 2022

We gathered to celebrate the life of Pat Sartain yesterday and bear witness to our faith in a Risen Savior and the promise of resurrection to eternal life.

It was quite a crowd of people! And a beautiful service, filled with music, tears, and laughter, and the sharing of personal stories. We had some members and longtime friends who traveled a long distance to honor Pat and offer words of comfort to her family.

A little girl sitting in the front pew between her parents caught my attention. She is Pat’s granddaughter. She wore a wonderful yellow dress made from Grandma Pat’s plaid sash. And she was well behaved and patient, for a little girl of maybe 3 years old, who couldn’t possibly understand what most of the service was all about. And it was a long service—more than 90 minutes!

She was a little fidgety—so I gave her some chocolate, and it probably made her fidget more. One of the chocolates I gave her had a nut filling inside. She made a face and took it out of her mouth, announced that she didn’t like it, and gave it to her daddy. I couldn’t help but smile to myself.

I kept thinking of what Jesus would do. I know he would smile, too.

I remembered the time that he grew angry with the disciples for sternly ordering away the people bringing their babies to him, that he might touch them.

This story of Jesus blessing the children immediately follows today’s reading In Luke, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus actually calls for them to come back, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

In our modern translations, a subheading separates the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” with “Jesus Blesses Little Children,” but I am sure that Luke didn’t mean for there to be a separation. None of this was in the original Greek manuscripts. Nor was there punctuation or chapters and verses. Those divisions are all modern editorial decisions. And it’s only because of the way the lectionary divides these passages that we read them on different Sundays, as if they are not related or connected to each other.

If we read the two passages together, we would go from the lesson of the parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” to “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them…”

The model example of holiness for Jesus is “even infants,” who have no idea what the faith and the practice of the faith is all about; they don’t know anything about the rules or expectations. And yet, God loves them, and the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Jesus takes it one step further—and he’s trying to teach his faithful disciples—that unless they “receive the kingdom of God as a little child (they) will not enter it.”

What he’s talking about, if you connect the two passages, is their own arrogance, maybe not so unlike the Pharisee in the parable—keeping the children away from Jesus, as if they are not good enough or worthy enough for his time, touch, and blessing. Connecting the two passages, Christ may be saying that the children would never trust in their own efforts at righteousness. They can’t help but come just as they are to Jesus, without worry about their good works and worthiness. They would trust in God’s love and mercy for them.

Dear friends, this is the challenge of today’s reading. Our justification—our salvation—is not obtained by doing things!  And this is hard for us to accept because we are constantly focused on the things we are doing and planning our lists of things we are going to do. Some of us may be making mental lists right now of things you need to do today—and you can’t help it! This is what you and I have been taught. We are a society that values doers; people who do things and get stuff done!

Let me say it another way. Our justification—our salvation—is not achieved at all—at least not by us. Justification comes through God’s reaching out in mercy to helpless sinners like us, redeeming us through God’s own work, the sacrifice of the Son. It is a free and gracious gift to be received with joy and gratitude because we know we have done nothing to deserve it.  Just as the tax collector cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 

But the opposite can happen if we lose the proper focus for the work of ministry. We can lose our gratitude and start feeling resentful if we are pouring ourselves into the work of the church. I have seen this happen to good people, and it makes me sad. It’s hard not to look around and compare ourselves to others who might not seem to be working as much or giving of themselves at the same level we are giving. In that way, we may be tempted to be judgmental like the Pharisee in the parable.

If we begin to feel this way, there are questions we can ask ourselves to keep us on the right step in our faith journeys, such as, “Who are we doing the work for?” And, “Why are we doing it?” And, “Is it the work God is calling us to do at this time?” Because there are many good things we can be doing for God, but we cannot do every good thing. And God doesn’t want us to do every good thing we can think of doing.

We can, in our own enthusiasm to serve the Lord and the Church we love, take on too much and become overwhelmed and unhappy. The work God is calling us to do usually leads to peace, even if it makes us tired and takes us out of our comfort zone, every now and then. Does the work of ministry we are doing lead us to act in more loving and generous ways to others? Does the work we do for God lead us to feel nearer to the heart of God? Are we growing in our prayer life? Are we growing in faith?

And the comparisons can go wrong the other way, too. We might be in a season of our lives where we can’t get around as easily as we used to. We aren’t able to do the volunteering we used to do. We might not be able to get to worship every Sunday because of our health struggles—or because we are no longer driving and have to rely on others for transportation.  We might feel bad about ourselves, comparing ourselves to others – or to the level of giving and participation we used to be able to do.

This isn’t God’s will for us. For our God doesn’t condemn us for what we do or fail to do.

The Lord wants to be in loving relationship with us—and for us to love one another, too.

So, come to the Lord with a humble heart, like the tax collector. Seek God’s mercy, without looking around or comparing yourself or your life to another.

Come as you are, today, trusting not in your own righteousness, not in anything you have  done or what you plan to do, but in the righteousness that is a free gift to the humble and merciful from a gracious and loving Lord.

For you and for me and for everyone who believes.

Come like a child, knowing that Christ welcomes you into his embrace and will never shoo you away. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs!

Let us pray.

Holy One, thank you for all you have done for us and especially for the free gift of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We forget sometimes that the good works we do are done with and for you and for the sake of growing your kingdom. Forgive us when we become so focused on what we are doing that we begin to rely on our own righteousness and lose our sense of gratitude for all you have done and for your love. Keep us from feelings of resentment or comparisons to others, unless we are seeking to be more like Jesus. Help us to remember your grace and mercy for sinners—and your desire to be in loving relationship with us, most of all. Teach us to humbly pray, to come to you with the trust of children, for to such as these your kingdom belongs. In Christ we pray. Amen.

Unbound!

Meditation on John 11, selected verses

In Memory of Patricia Sartain

Pastor Karen Crawford

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Oct. 22, 2022

The yellow sweetheart roses were in a vase on the dining room table when I visited Tom on Tuesday. It was the 18th of the month—the special day he always celebrated with his wife, Pat, with the gift of a yellow rose and words of love scrawled on a florist card.

She kept all the cards he had ever given her with the roses—one every month, faithfully.

The yellow rose never lost its meaning—love. A love that never ends.

She was the pretty girl in the pink dress. Tom noticed her at his cousin Margit’s sister’s wedding. Do I have that right? He liked the way she held her head up high when she walked. Tall. Poised. He was so relieved to discover she wasn’t married—as he first thought. She was cousin Margit’s best friend.

Somehow, soon after that, Tom ended up riding with Pat to a music camp in New Hampshire for a 3-day weekend. She drove. A five-year-old nephew, Steven, served as the chaperone that weekend, going along with them on what could have been a romantic boat ride, if Steven hadn’t come.

Still, love was in the air. Pat lost the garnet setting from her ring that weekend. She told Tom later that she saw it as a sign the ring would soon be replaced. Tom was in law school, had no money, and was $10,000 in debt when $10,000 was a lot of money. He went back to his life after that wonderful weekend with Pat and little Steven in New Hampshire. Pat was with Tom when he graduated from law school. He passed the bar exam, but he hadn’t made up his mind, yet, about his plans for the future.

What day it was when he realized that his plans needed to include Patricia, he doesn’t recall. He proposed near the fireplace at Peter’s Back Street Pub on Jan. 9, 1978. She had already decided that if he didn’t propose by Feb. 18, she was going to dump him. They had been dating for 2 years, and she was a year older than Tom. She had a good job and was ready to settle down.

“Yes!” she said. “Yes. Yes.” And maybe she added, “What took you so long?”

They were married in the church in which she was raised, where her grandparents were founding members – Community Church of Little Neck. It was August 18, 1979. She was 31. He was 30. Pat, a gifted seamstress, sewed all the bridesmaids’ dresses for their wedding.

She had other gifts, too, nurtured from childhood. She had sung in choirs since she was 7.  She shared her alto voice in Christmas Cantatas and played bells, learning in a “Genesis” handbell choir for beginners. She loved the camaraderie of choral groups.

She also had beautiful penmanship and was a good cook and hostess, knowing how to plan and organize meals for large crowds. She set the most beautiful table settings for special days, planning every detail down to the tablecloths and serving dishes. You would not find a ketchup bottle on her table.

She was a perfectionist. She was creative, stubborn, headstrong. She was “spirited,” Tom says.

She was a good public speaker. She wrote out and gave speeches for Eastern Star chapters and Grand Sessions in Buffalo, Syracuse, Lake Placid. She served in various leadership positions for the organization, including District Deputy. One year, she traveled to Scotland with her father to represent New York State Eastern Star.

Pat and Tom came to First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown in 1984, when the Rev. Bill Edwards was pastor. Their 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, born on Feb. 18, 1981, had been attending the Co-op preschool at the church. Pat served on the Co-op preschool board. They met other members through the school—and eventually made the church their worship home. They attended 9 o’clock services and brought their two children—Elizabeth and Thomas, born in 1983, to Sunday school.

 Because of Pat’s family history with the church in Little Neck that her grandparents founded, she kept her membership in the church of her childhood. That didn’t stop her from strong involvement with her new church family. She sang with the choirs, rang bells, taught Sunday School and music and art for VBS.  She was a counter with Adele and Harold Carson and Ruth Bosch. She loved to arrange flowers and was in the Flower Guild with Michelle DiGiacomo, Betty Deerfield, and Virginia Newcomb. She was active in supporting the Adopt an Angel program. She was a member of the Highlanders. The group would put on a social event once a month, including the Burns Supper in January. The family attended 3 worship services on Christmas Eve because of her participation in the ministry of music. They hosted a wassailing party between the 9 and 11 o’clock services.

She was a hard worker, generous with her time.

If I had to choose which biblical figure in the Mary and Martha stories who was closest to Pat Sartain, I would have to say she was probably more like the take-charge Martha. She was the one who organized the dinner for Jesus and his disciples, in contrast with her quiet, contemplative sister Mary, content to be still and sit at the Master’s feet.

Martha isn’t shy about sharing her disappointment with Jesus in our passage today, when he arrives several days after she has sent a note requesting that he return to Bethany, where she, Mary and their younger brother Lazarus lived. Lazarus, “the one whom Jesus loved,” as Martha wrote in her note, was gravely ill. She speaks plainly with Jesus. She doesn’t mince her words. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus answers, “Your brother will rise again.” 

He had taught them about the resurrection of the dead “on the last day.”  Martha assumes he is only offering her hope for what is to come, in the fullness of time, when all who had died were made alive, again, for eternity. She isn’t prepared for him to say, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

“Do you believe this?”  he asks.

She responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

This passage on the raising of Lazarus reveals a God who shares in our sorrows. We hear how Jesus wept when he sees the family grieving for Lazarus, and how he is “troubled,” though he knows what will happen when he prays to God and calls out the deceased man’s name. This is the God who comforts us and can handle our anger and disappointment. The God who will embrace and strengthen us with divine love and forgiveness and the promise of life everlasting as we open our hearts to receive it.

There’s a surprising part to this passage, for me, at the end. Jesus invites the community of faith to participate in the raising of Lazarus. Christ doesn’t need any help in freeing Lazarus from his graveclothes to begin his new life after being in the tomb for an astounding four days. Christ could have done it all by himself. But he chooses not to. Instead, he makes the task of unbinding the work of the faith community.

As Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

This is our calling right now, as a family of believers, offering love to help the grieving family bear this burden of sorrow, reminding them that they do not walk this way alone. We, too, will help carry the load, just as Christ shed tears for Lazarus with the grieving community, even when he knew that death wouldn’t have the last word.

We have the power to grab hold of and take off the graveclothes of sin and negativity that can so easily surround us and weigh us down. We have the power to live as Resurrection people, set free to change the world by witnessing to our faith in a risen Savior and live UNBOUND.

On Tuesday, Tom’s hand trembled as he held the cards he had given Pat every month—always on the 18th—the day they met, the day she was going to dump him if he didn’t propose, the day they were married, the day their daughter Elizabeth was born. He held the tiny cards in his hands on the 18th of October and was comforted by her act of keeping them, and his faithfulness in giving them. The yellow rose never lost its meaning, nor did the words scrawled on florist cards. The meaning was love.

Dear friends, the cross and empty tomb will never lose their meaning for us. The meaning is love. We are loved with a love that never ends.

Let us pray.  Holy One, we thank you for the hope of our resurrection with Christ and the power of your Spirit to overcome the sin of this world through forgiveness and kindness. Stir us to loosen the graveclothes that so easily surround us and take hold of our new life in Jesus Christ—UNBOUND. Thank you for your love that never ends. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

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