Rev. Michelle Grunseich
Welcome to Aston Presbyterian Church!
My name is Michelle Grunseich, and I am the pastor and the worship leader here at Aston Presbyterian. I was ordained in 2004, after finishing up my studies at Princeton Seminary, and in the course of my time as a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery, I have had the opportunity to serve as the chaplain at the Children’s Village; as an Associate Pastor for Children’s Ministries; and as the Director of Communications for the Presbytery. Over the years, I have also been fortunate to have the chance to preach and share in worship with a number of churches in the area as a guest minister. Through the challenging times and the joyful times in each experience I’ve had, I am thankful to be a child of God, and to know God’s guidance and grace in hard times and happy times alike.
So on to the important question—where do you find YOURSELF? Are you a life-long Presbyterian? Or a believer in God but not exactly sure what that means? Are you inspired to serve and looking for a worshiping community with whom to share that joy? Are you struggling with grief, doubt, or loss and searching for God’s Word through it all? Are you curious but unsure about church? Have you fallen away from worship but now want to reengage?…..Perhaps you see yourself in a few of these—which puts you in good company with so many disciples in our church and beyond!
We are so glad that you are interested in our congregation, and we would love to have you join us in worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30am to worship together and share fellowship. God’s love and grace know no bounds, and God meets each of us where we are. I am confident that you will find this congregation to be a warm, welcoming place where you can grow as a disciple of Christ.
On behalf of the congregation of Aston Presbyterian Church, I thank you for your “virtual visit” and I hope that you will join us in person on Sunday! May the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit fill you with peace.
Come and join us as we begin a Lenten series titled: “Created… for Him”
The Thorns of Temptation A Meditation on Luke 4:1-13 Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
We are at the very beginning. Or maybe it’s nearly the end. Is that right? Is that it? The beginning… of the end…of the beginning. It sounds confusing—that a mere handful of weeks after our Christian calendar began on the first Sunday of Advent, here we are again marking time in an expectant way. The shadow of the Cross lengthening out across our days, even as the clock offers us more hours of daylight and the first fresh breezes of spring bring robins to our gardens. We are here in the days of dust, having just been reminded anew that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. With the question lingering…hanging heavy all around us—how might we grow with God in the days between dust to dust? How will the ashes change us? Here— at the beginning of the end of the beginning.
For many, the season of Lent is a season of sacrifice and denial. Friends you may know—and perhaps even yourself—may decide to give up something, so that the feeling of denial and sacrifice will become ever more real. What would it be for you? If you were choosing to do this? Would it be sweets? Coffee? Shopping? Or “giving up” a hobby that you enjoy or something that you spend a lot of time on? There are so many things we can think of that we could “give up”.
I remember, when I was a teenager, that I had some friends who were very devout in their faith, and who regularly observed the practice of “giving up” something for Lent. Although this was part of my faith in a tertiary way, for them, it was a very big part of their tradition, and they would think about it intently. They would agonize over what they were going to give up, and if they slipped and accidentally had something sweet, or drank a soda, or ate pepperoni pizza on a Friday, they would be so upset. It was a big deal— “oh no! I had cookies at lunch!” or “uh-oh, I just ordered soda with dinner!” and they would be honestly dismayed by it.
I have questions about this….ones that I’ve always had but would never have asked my friends then. What end did that deprivation serve? Did it really make them identify with the sufferings and temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness? Or did it actually, and inadvertently, make them more focused on themselves?
What if the real temptation that we face isn’t so much a temptation *toward* something, such as sweets or coffee or any of the myriad things we might be inclined to give up. No, what if the real temptation is temptation *away* from God?
With respect for the faith and traditions of my childhood friends—and I do understand the lesson their pastors were trying to teach— I feel the same now as I did then: a chocolate bar is not what is going to come between you and your Savior.
But there ARE things that could. Real, actual, true temptations that every one of us can be enticed by and that could very easily come between us and God.
This is what the true lesson of this passage is, is it not? This passage appears in three of the four Gospels, so it’s clear that the writers of the canon wanted people to know this story and seek its truth. In this passage, we see the devil tempting the hungry and tired Jesus with the three things he might be likely to desire most in his time of searching—bread, authority, and safety. He is hungry. He’s had nothing to eat; and the devil cajoles him to make bread out of stones. He is weak, there alone in the Wilderness; and the devil tempts him with power over all the kingdoms of the land. He is dwelling in humanity; and the devil chides him with doubt that he is even the Son of God.
And what does Jesus say? That one does not live on bread alone…but, as we have heard, on every word from God. That we should serve only God. That we should not test Him in any way. Despite all the devil offers, Jesus knows not to fall prey to the trappings of self-reliance. He knows the Truth. To be reliant on God for life, glory, and identity. He knows to find himself in God’s story, and not his own.
But we are certainly not Jesus, so how do WE get there? To that same place of trust? With a heart of commitment and strength? How do we do that?
In the Wilderness, Jesus was tempted by food, influence, and security. And although the details differ, aren’t we tempted by the same? Maybe it’s not stones into bread…but are we not tempted by influence? By the ability to have others see our viewpoint and agree with our opinions? And maybe we aren’t surveying the kingdoms of Jerusalem from above, being promised power over all. But are we not tempted by security? By needing to have plans and safety nets in place for all we do. By hesitating to step out on faith when we can’t clearly see the outcome? And yes, maybe no one is suggesting we physically hurl ourselves from a lofty Temple to prove that God loves us and will save us, but aren’t we prone to deny God in the face of adversity, preferring instead to rely on our own wit and wisdom?
We are tempted every day. By a million things that would draw us away from God. The simple temptations of sweets and coffee pale in comparison to the heavy weight of the temptation of influence, power, security…THESE are the things that divide our attention and shift our focus from God. THESE are the things that pull us away from our identity in Christ and our relationship with God. THESE are the real thorns of temptation…the ones we can’t see, but live every day.
We do have the power to resist temptation, but only when we find our story in God’s story. We do have the power to resist temptation, but only when we rely completely on His grace and mercy. God will meet us in the Wilderness, just as He did at Sinai AND on the stones upon which Jesus trod.
But where do we find that power? That resistance? That strength? Resisting all those things sounds just so….so….hard.
We find it in relying on the Holy Spirit. In recalling the Author of our story. In remembering our baptism. We began our Lenten journey with the Cross upon our foreheads, reminding us that it is from but dust that we came, and to dust we will return. And this morning, we find ourselves celebrating baptism—with the Cross upon our foreheads reminding us that we are each God’s beloved child. All of the love and life that we need to stand strong over the temptations of the world are given to us in those three words, “God’s beloved child.” So that when we lose confidence in our ability to remain steadfast; when our faith becomes unbalanced in favor of our own abilities over God’s…then we can come here and be reminded of who we really are. Because we are not who the world says we are. We are who GOD says we are. The baptisms this morning speak that so clearly; helping us to recall our own blessing, the one that will restore our identity and renew our confidence when the thorns of temptation try to take hold.
The Lenten journey is rightly one of sacrifice and resisting temptation. But it is not an empty goal. It is not intended to be suffering for the sake of suffering or denial for the sake of denial. It is a tangible way to remain focused on the Cross—on all of God’s love and grace and mercy poured out for us beneath those awful thorns. “Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.”
It is quite natural that we, in our mere humanity, would give in to our insecurity that leads us to mistrust God. That is an easy temptation to succumb to. Even “the church” does it in its unyielding attempts to stay relevant in an increasingly secular world. It is natural that we should bend under the prickly thorns of doubt. And when we are here—at the beginning…of the end…of the beginning….when we see the shadows lengthening and the air beginning to drip heavily of abandonment and suspicion….it is here that our insecurity and mistrust feels ever more cloying. Here. In the Wilderness. How will the ashes change us? What truth do the thorns hold? Amen.
The Weight of the Cross A Meditation on Phillipians 3:17-4:1 Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
“ Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
Back in the ‘90s, there was a popular movement in Christian circles focused on asking the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Do you remember that? It was often abbreviated to “WWJD?” and it was printed on all kinds of things—tee shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers….lots of Christian youth group members would wear the acronym printed on wristbands to help remind them to demonstrate the love of Jesus in all they would say and do.
But long before it was a catchphrase on a coffee cup, it was born of the theological concept of Imitatio Christi, “imitation of Christ”. Saint Augustine saw this as a fundamental part of the Christian life. Saint Francis of Assisi believed in the imitation of Christ in both his physical and religious life, committing to a life of simplicity and meagerness. Thomas à Kempis wrote of the commitment to withdrawing from the world and focusing on inner thoughts as a way to imitate the life of Christ. This important element of both Christian ethics and spirituality has deep roots in Scripture and in the early church. Although Paul did not use the word “imitate” specifically, we see the word “follow” again and again in the Gospels and in the biblical message. It is clear to us from the beginning that we are to follow in Jesus’ steps, living as he lived and doing as he did. But do we? Do we really live lives that “imitate Christ”?
In our passage this morning, we find Paul communicating with a group of believers that he loved—the believers at Philippi. Of all the congregations that Paul visited or exchanged letters with, this particular gathering at Phillipi was one that was particularly supportive of him—especially while he’s in prison.
We see that theme of “imitating” or “following” here again—Paul wants the believers at Phillipi to join in imitating HIM, the idea being that HE is imitating JESUS and so by THEM imitating HIM they are also doing the same. This is what Paul is talking about—being so empty of self that imitating Christ fills the believer completely. Paul isn’t saying that he has reached that point—not at all. Just that he is on the path, trusting the he (—-and all of us—-) are citizens of Heaven. I read this in a commentary as I was preparing, “Paul wants the Philippians to do more than wait for heaven or pray for personal salvation. Instead Paul urges them to live now as though heaven is shaping their lives on earth. The Roman emperor is not the source of salvation; Christ is.”
I read that sentence over a few times because it had such weight for me. To “live as though heaven is shaping my life on earth….” I wonder about the impact that this had on the people of Philippi. Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony. It was very far east of Rome—nearly 800 miles, but as it was surrounded by territories of Rome, its members were subject to Roman law and took part in Roman customs, even though they were not rightly citizens of Rome. So the people who lived there felt very much as though they were Romans, and certainly lived into that identity for all its benefit. And that worried Paul. Because he didn’t want the people of the church at Philippi falling into the trap of living the way those around them lived. He wanted them to remain fixed on their far more important identity—as children of God and citizens of heaven. He didn’t want them to imitate the wrong types of people. He wanted them to imitate HIM and other Godly people.
Imitation is the first—and most basic—-way that we learn, isn’t it? I am reminded of this anew as I see my youngest sister, Sharon, interact with her newborn daughter, Evangeline. In regular messages and videos that Sharon will send to the family, we see itty bitty Evangeline, all of nine weeks old, do her best to imitate her mother’s laugh and smile and even her syntax of speech, through her baby coos and infant chatter. From birth, babies learn to imitate the people in their lives who love and care for them, so that they can see how to become, well, big people. Every one of us learned these basic things from our caregivers, to give us a blueprint for how to be a citizen of the earth. As parents and adults, we strive to be good examples for our children and the children we know, and to ensure that they are surrounded by others who are also setting the example that we want imitated.
But I think the question for us in this Lenten season is, how are we doing that? We’ve received this invitation to imitation….and how are we living this out? Similar to our example of the “WWJD?” bracelets from earlier in our morning, many of us choose to wear the Cross as a pendant or bracelet or earrings. And, like that WWJD bracelets, that symbol is a clear message to others about whom we belong to. About where our true citizenship lies. But, when we get up in the morning and we put on that Cross pendant or other jewelry, are we doing it because we always wear it? Or are we thinking about the weight of that Cross? Are we thinking about our own commitment to and love for God? Are we thinking about the example we are to others? And the way in which our wearing of the Cross makes bold the statement, “I am a citizen of Heaven.” Are we remembering that call to imitate Christ in all we do?
For Paul, the Cross is central to the Christian story. And it is for us, too, even when we allow it unconsciously fade into the background of our Christian lives. We spend so much time thinking about the love that Jesus shared and the miracles that he performed, that I worry that sometimes we forget what the Cross calls us to do and remember. The Cross is, at one and the same time, our hope and glory and release from the bondage of sin as it is a real and tangible reminder of the burden of sacrifice, humiliation, and shame. The Cross is heavy. There are no two ways about that. Who we are and all we do—as individuals and as a society—find their meaning in that Cross. From our individual actions with our families and friends to our collective actions in how we respond to mass incarceration and immigration status and the trauma of opioid addiction, the Cross has central place. Calling us both to glory in God and challenging us to live counter-culturally as citizens of a different place. I might live here in the United States of America….but I am a citizen of heaven. And sometimes I forget that. And I need more than a WWJD bracelet or a Cross around my neck to remind me of who I am. I need someone to “imitate” who calls me and reminds me of the higher citizenship to which I lay claim.
I feel that the call to us, in this Lenten season, is to reflect on our heavenly inclusion and to seek among us those who are the most faithful to emulate. Who is your heavenly guide here on earth? Who do you see reflecting the grace and truth of Christ? Who do you see encircling others in a supportive and encouraging embrace, as would the Holy Spirit? Who do you see acting with compassion? With mercy? Without fear in the face of opposition? Who do you want to imitate? Who will bring you closer to God? Someone—sitting here with us this morning or in your life in the week ahead—is that “someone” for you. We are called and invited and given our very own modern-age Paul to help us on this journey. There is a disciple out there for you who is ready and willing to show you The Way—even though they may not even realize they are doing so for you.
We are in our own Philippi time capsule here in 2019—citizens of heaven living in the midst of the chaos that is the world around us. No matter which direction we turn, we can find lots and lots of people living lives that we should NOT imitate. Lives of greed and pride and power. Lives that look so good from the outside, that we could easily be tricked into believing that theirs are better than ours. That what we are striving for pales beside their fortunes. Yes, perhaps they have found their fortune in things of earthly worth; but those things are empty and hollow, as capricious and fleeting as the whims of those who seek only them. But ours…ours is solid and strong. And would we hold even one splinter of the splendor, we will be blessed beyond measure by the One who is calling us to lives of charge and consequence. We know the weight of the wood that is stronger than anything the world could provide.
Perhaps the best place to begin is right at the beginning…as we spoke of last week, the “beginning of the end of the beginning”. When you weigh your life by the weight of the Cross, and all that the Cross is and was, how much of it is you and how much of it is Him? We all want to live a life that is worthy of the Gospel, and we know the weight of the Cross humbles our pride, knowing that even in our imitation, we are only made right with God through the salvific act of Jesus Christ. Whatever your reminder might be—a Cross on your chest or the name of your “Paul”—your guide, your “imitation Christi”—taped to your mirror or whatever way you choose to remember your citizenship in heaven… we have been offered both a promise and a command in shouldering the weight of the Cross. What has it meant to your past? But more importantly, what will it mean to your future?