“A Rich Man’s Regret”; Luke 16:19-31; September 29, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A Rich Man’s Regret”
Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01In today’s scripture lesson we read a story of two men, one rich one poor. This is a tale of wealth disparity, social inequality, and a broken system. They live and operate in an economic state where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer. The rich are the keepers not only of wealth, but also of the political capital that accompanies it. The poor are disenfranchised, voiceless, and looked over.

Sound familiar? One only needs to turn to the news to hear stories of the way this story echoes over the centuries. I do not lift it up to you from a political perspective, but simply in light of the Gospel in the words of Jesus, one who always shook up the establishment.

Berkeley Professor and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, said recently that “The 400 richest people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.”[1]

Nobel Prize-winning Economist and Columbia Professor Joseph Stiglitz wrote in an editorial earlier this year, “Inequality [is] at its highest level since before the Depression.”[2]

Slide04Our scripture today begins, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19)

Picture this man: he was a man of great wealth. With that wealth came political capital, people wanting to associate themselves with this man, to support him so they might gain power for themselves. These followers, these cronies and “yes men”, likely surrounded him so that he didn’t have to be alone. This would allow him to make decisions in the community, to impact what would happen to all those less wealthy than him. This man’s wealth was reflected in bank accounts and material possessions. It was invested in favorable relationships and that which he deemed “important.”

Slide05Verse 20 tells us that, “at [the rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

Picture this second man, who keeps him company? What does his day-to-day life look like? Certainly he was unable to get the care of doctors, his sores would keep others at a distance. He keeps the company of dogs who would lick his sores, likely providing some comfort, but mostly adding to his distress and worsening his situation.

Slide06Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. There is no doubt that this man could’ve had Lazarus escorted from his property and cleaned away from his doorstep if he wanted. No, the rich man lets Lazarus stay there, but he stays utterly uninvolved.

Slide07Elie Wiesel author of “Night,” about his time in a concentration camp, wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of sacred is not profane, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

The rich man was not actively harsh towards Lazarus, he was simply disconnected. He was indifferent to his plight, ignorant to his pain, but later on when he is in torment, the rich man is able to identify Lazarus by name. Lazarus is not a stranger to the rich man, which makes this ignorance even worse. He notices him, knows him by name, and still ignores his plight.

Slide08In verse 22 our passage continues, “22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ Slide0925But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

God does not care for the world economy, or earthly definitions of who is supposed to receive the attention of the powerful.

Slide10In Matthew 25:41-46, Jesus offers a harsh sentence for those who do not follow the will and motivations of God, saying: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Slide11You don’t have to be the richest man in town to carry his sorts of regret, all you have to do is place your values in the wrong things. What is lasting? What is worthy of your dedication, your life? When have you had misplaced priorities: popularity over kindness, quantity over quality, occupation over rest, the world over God’s kingdom.

I know when I read this story I tend to place myself in the shoes of the rich man. While by average American standards I would not be considered wealthy, when you look at the scope of the greater picture of the world, simply by having running water, a car to drive, and a home to live in, I am considered wealthy. And so, when I think of someone working to do well in this world, and being happy in what I have, I tend to look at myself as this rich man. I tend to look at my own regrets, my own missteps.

Slide12What if we look at this parable from a whole different angle? What if we think of ourselves as Lazarus?

“At the [rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21)

In the world, Lazarus was what Jesus called “the least of these,” he was outcast and disenfranchised. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that would make you feel to be the “least.” Maybe you’re not waiting for table scraps, but you’re waiting for something that will help you get out of the rut you are in, the cycles of trying to make it on your own. Maybe you are simply refusing to support the powers of this world, seeking instead a life apart.

Slide13 “Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 1625)

How different does this sound when we consider ourselves as Lazarus? If in this story we are Lazarus, there’s an amazing promise that can be discovered here. The promise that the pain of this world is temporary, that salvation comes after our suffering on earth. That oppressive power structures are only of this world, and not a part of God’s economy.

Slide14In verse 27 we read “[The rich man] said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house-28for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In the Gospel of Luke, the story ends right here, with a frightening and condemning declaration, that the brothers of the rich man, and all who have miss-prioritized their lives, are simply doomed. If they won’t listen to all the leaders of the faith so far, why would they be convinced in one rising from the dead?

Slide15We know that this is not that ending of the greater Gospel story. That we are not left in condemnation by a God from on high, but that God comes near in the person of Jesus Christ to be a living and breathing manifestation of God’s love. When he was killed for his radical message of brazen equality and justice for all, he went to hell and suffered the torments of death so that he may overcome it on our behalf. He was risen from the dead to offer to us, over and over again, God’s great message of love and forgiveness.

Slide16In Luke 16: 26, Abraham, speaking down from Heaven tells the rich man in torments of hell, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

That was the task of Jesus. To overcome that great chasm, to bridge the worlds of those deserving and those underserving, to bring all close to a great God who loves each and every one of us and wants to spend eternity with us.

Slide17In Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Maybe you came here day with deep regrets, maybe you have a hard time thinking of how to move on, how to get out of your own mistakes. Christ comes to meet you in all of your imperfections, exactly as you are, and desires to give you rest for your souls.

Slide18May we consider today all those who are still waiting at the gates of the powerful for someone to care; still waiting to be noticed, to be brought in. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide19May we also consider who are those sitting high off in their comfort, in the promises of the world; investing in that which does not last, surrounding themselves with only those who say yes. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide20We are called to bring about Christ kingdom here on earth. We are called to bring Christ near to all those who feel far off. Those who don’t know they’re far off. We are called to tell everyone, and remind ourselves that the chasm of sin created by regrets and fear and ignorance has been bridged by the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior. May we be empowered to set aside our regrets and build a new way forward, always sharing the love of Christ. Amen.

“Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship”

Yesterday I attended a seminar put on by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa called “Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship” led by Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell & Rev. Dr. Gray Norsworthy. Here are some of the highlights:

“Passionate Worship is not restricted to any particular style; it can be highly formal, with robes, acolytes, stained glass, organ music orchestral accompaniment, and hardwood pews with hymnals on the rack in front. Or, Passionate Worship can take place in an auditorium, gym, or storefront, with casually dressed leaders, images on screens, folding chairs, and the supporting beat of a praise team. Authentic, engaging, life-changing worship derives from the experience of God’s presence, the desire of worshippers for God’s word, and the changed heart people deliberately seek when they encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians. Worship leaves people challenged, sustained, and led by the Spirit of God, and it changes how they view themselves and their neighbors. An hour of Passionate Worship changes all the other hours of the week.” Robert Schanse, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Pg. 39

Worship is not about style it is about connecting with God. Worship is about remember what God has done (Deuteronomy 6:4-12). Worship is about experiencing forgiveness and being transformed (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Three Spiritual Principles of Worship

  1. People are starving for authentic experience of the worship of God. Our worship should connect to the lives of people.
  2. Worship is the central act of the people of God, everything else flows from worship. We need to take time and effort to prepare for worship because it impacts all in the worshiping community.
  3. In worship we remember that God is sovereign and we are not. Worship is not about us it’s about God. Worship is about getting our will in tune with God’s will. The point is not to evaluate, it’s to be transformed. When we experience God our world becomes bigger

“People have a point of view, God has view” – Madeleine L’Engle

“We need to remind ourselves that even when Christian worship is at its best… it is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love” – Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Quotations from The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton, 2007

“Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”

Bibliography of References at Seminar

Mark Labberton, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”

Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Robert Schanse, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”

Craig Barnes, Sermons at Princeton Seminary

Shannon Kerschner, Sermons at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

Gray Norsworthy, Sermons at Johns Creek Presbyterian Church

“Faithfulness,” Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13; September 22, 2013; FPC Jesup

 “Faithfulness”
Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13
September 22, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - ScriptureOur scripture lesson today pairs two difficult passages, one from a conversation with John the Baptist and one with Jesus. In each there is discussion about what it takes to be faithful in our stewardship. Stewardship is often a word congregations become wary of when they hear it in sermons, and pastors often balk at preaching because there is often the presupposition that when we talk about stewardship we’re just talking about money. But these two passages show us the need for faithfulness in our stewardship within money management but also far beyond it.

SLIDE 2 - Parable GraphicEach of our passages is strange in it’s own ways. In the parable preceding our passage in Luke 16 a “dishonest manager” is introduced. When he comes up short in his accounting, instead of shouldering the blame, he goes to all of his debtors and tells them to fudge the numbers a bit so it’ll all work out evenly for him. When he does this his creditor rewards his efforts.

SLIDE 3 - Parable of ManagerAlyie McKenzie explains, “In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. SLIDE 4 - Parable of ManagerThe steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - ParableAnd so, he fudges the numbers and while the manager commends his efforts, we’re not told whether or not he gets his job back, but just that he has helped himself to have some political capital among the other dishonest people and so even if he’s left without a job, at least he has some friends he could fall back on.  Whenever I read this parable I want to ask, really Jesus? You’re uplifting those making friends by dishonest wealth? Are you being sarcastic?

This parable is a bizarre example to come before the moral tale we read here, that God calls for our faithfulness, and that faithfulness in little and in managing the wealth of others allows us to be given much more as our own wealth to manage. Bizarre, yes, but is this the word of God? Well yes, yes it is.

And though the parable is hard to interpret I think there is still a message beyond that parable: God calls us to be faithful, and to be stewards of the gifts we have been given. Perhaps the challenge related through that parable is how easy it is to manipulate the system for our own profit and wealth. While such manipulation may have immediate earthly rewards it leads to the sort of deception that is condemned in our earlier passage in Luke.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist lays out specific directions of how to honor God in our stewardship. In verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

SLIDE 7 - Peter“What should we do?” This is the question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message,  “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While he begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.

“What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question. They were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.

SLIDE 8 - John the BaptistBut the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of every day life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives, and how we operate within our work, choosing at every moment grace over profit.

Helen Debevoise offers this reflection on our scripture passage for today, “Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”[2]

SLIDE 10 - Burying treasureBurying our treasures keeps it out of the hands not only of those who make take it from us, but also out of our own hands so that we are unable to create good with our use of it. Burying our treasure keeps us from offering it up to others. How often does our own desire for security keep us from opening our hands, our minds, and our lives to another?

John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.

SLIDE 11 - Bearing fruitIf we are living only for ourselves, this call to bearing fruit in our worldly relationships simply doesn’t make sense. If stewardship was about hoarding, those holding on to their treasures to separate themselves from those who they deemed below them would be the one’s getting things right, but that’s not what is being asked here. John is asking this crowd to look beyond their own treasure, into how their treasure can be invested in the lives of others, can be invested in God’s kingdom.

Every one of these acts explained by John have to do with taking from our neighbor what they need. Repentance is not just about the difference between faith and sin within our own being, but it is about living out our love of neighbor, extending the love and grace we have received from God.[3]

SLIDE 12 - luke 3v9Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?

Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”[4]

SLIDE 13 - Bearing_FruitSo, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully?  What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?

You are tasked with being a good and faithful steward, not only of your resources, but of your position in this life. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

One year Pastorate-versary!

This Sunday I celebrate one full year as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA. It has been an incredible year, and to sum up all that has happened would be impossible, so I will simply offer up some highlights:

September 9: Arrived in Jesup

welcome

Welcoming Sign on Front Lawn of Manse

welcome1

Welcome Sign at Church

September 10: Officially voted in by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa to serve at FPC Jesup

September 16: My first Sunday at FPC Jesup, preached “What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22

October 9: Adopted Bailey, my sweet yorkshire/rat terrier dog, his story is posted here

October 21: Ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament at my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, OH, reflection post here

ordination

My Ordination at First Presbyterian Maumee

October 28: Installed as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA, sermon preached by my mentor, James York, is posted here

December 16: First Baptism, reflection post here

baptism

Morning of First Baptism

December 31: First Wedding Officiated, sermon posted here

February 6: Led First Funeral in Jesup

March 18-19: Attended Barnabas Cohort Retreat at the Presbyterian Camp, Continuing Education with Northeast Central Iowa Presbytery

March 24-31: Holy Week

Created this video for Good Friday Worship:

April 12: First date with David

May 5: Blessing of the Tractors Service, sermon here

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

May 13-17: Festival of Homeletics

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

July 1-5: Massachusetts Vacation with Family

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

July 11-13: Jesup Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

July 21-26: Synod School

Synod School

Synod School

September 7: St. Louis with David

At the St. Louis Arch

At the St. Louis Arch

Feeling so blessed at the end of this difficult and wonderful first year as pastor. I am grateful for the support not only of a great congregation, but also of colleagues, mentors, friends, family, pastors, and professors who have provided resources, support, and a listening ear as I have navigated this first year of ordained ministry. Thank you also for your support, reading this blog and taking this journey with me. I am looking forward to many more years as a pastor to come!

“Knit Together” Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 September 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Knit Together”
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
September 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Close up of knitted pink yarn with a pair of knitting needlesAs a knitter, I can’t help but love the imagery of Psalm 139, verse 13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Eleven years ago when my family was together for Thanksgiving, my sister sat down with me and taught me how to hold the needles just right, how to wrap the yarn around the needle in a way that would make a knot that would connect to another knot, and then another. I may have had quite a bit of practice with it at this point, but I still get excited to see how these small little actions can be transformed into something much more than the yarn that composes it.

Those of you who knit and those of you who have knitters in your life will know knitting a sweater, afghan, scarf, or even a hat can take a long time. I’ve had friends of mine try to argue the logic of knitting. Why knit something when you can go out and buy it in the store? Buying something in the store can often cost less than knitting it, and will surely involve less time, but these days anyone knitting simply for an efficient way to have clothes probably won’t be knitting for very long. Rather, knitting is about intentionality of a design; customization through color, pattern, and texture; the joy of breathing life into a bundle of string, or skein of yarn for you knitters out there.

Slide 2 - Knitting SweaterKnitter, author, and spiritualist Deborah Bergman writes about this. She says, “Fact: it is going to take you longer to knit a sweater than it would take you to open a tasteful mail-order catalogue and order one right now. It is probably going to take you longer to knit a sweater than to go to the store and by one, even if you have to try five different stores on three different weekends. It takes a wild kind of patience to be a knitter. Not that it’s so difficult or challenging to be this wildly patient. When we knit, we become patient almost by accident. Almost despite ourselves, because we also want to finish and wear whatever we are making in the next five minutes, and this is part of what keeps us going, we notice that even as we hasten towards the next stitch, the next row, the next decrease, the end of the collar, we are also entering the deep warm sea called slowing down. We are surrendering to this obvious but odd sort of alternate universe where waiting is not only acceptable, but pleasurable.”

Thinking then of God as a knitter knitting us together in our mother’s womb, I can sense that energy: the frenetic joy to have creation come to its fullness paired with a deep patience.

Slide 3 - Creation of WorldThe first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days through a series of commands and affirmations; the work of a creator excited to see what has been created. Genesis chapter two slows things down a bit. God enters into relationship with Adam, taking care not just for his physical needs, but also his relational needs. God forms Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, crafting them into being.

From what we’ve learned of creation scientifically and through the Genesis narratives, God’s act of creation is very similar to how we know God as a knitter, eager for fullness, but filled with patience.

Slide 4 - Big BangEven the big bang theory speaks of this frenetic energy bursting into being and then slowly putting piece after piece together until the circumstances were precisely right for life to exist. Creation was and continues to be an unfolding of God’s hope and purpose.

Moyra Caldecott writes of this saying, “Our being is the expression of God’s thought. We contain the love of God and God contains us and as we unfold on the earth through shell-creature, fish-form, reptile, bird, and mammal – through ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, and ape – we are learning step by step what containment means. The circles are still widening – still evolving the mighty concept – the magnificent Idea. Six days, Seven, a million years, a thousand million. The count is nothing, the Being – All.” We are a part of a magnificent idea, creation.

Genesis 1:27 also tells us that we are created in God’s image. God is a creator God, therefore we are created as creative people. As such, we also possess this energy and desire to create. The act of creating itself can be a way of connecting to God, a spiritual practice.

SLIDE 7 - AnskarIn the ninth century there was a monk named Anskar who became Archbishop of Hamburg and then later was sainted. He was an ascetic, who placed great importance on prayer and fasting, but not at the expense of useful activity, and so he was often seen knitting while be prayed. The phrase “ora et labora,” “pray and work” refers to the monastic practice of striking a balance between prayer and work and is often associated with the Benedictine order.

By working while he prayed, Anskar served as an example of how these things needn’t be separate, that prayer and work can happen simultaneously. In his knitting, Anskar was offering a creative response to our creator God.

God has indeed gifted us with a purpose, knitted us together. God knows each stitch of how we are put together and calls it good. John Calvin wrote, “When we examine the human body, even to the nails of our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered without felt inconveniency… Where is the embroiderer who, with all industry and ingenuity, could execute the hundredth part of this complicated and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed humankind so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of us after we are ushered into the world. “[1]

SLIDE 9 - EarWhittaker Chambers, who initially an avowed atheist started towards conversion in a creator God when when he had his own experience of the divine in examining his daughter’s ear as she was sitting in her high chair eating. He writes, “She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life…My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by an immense design’.”

Our existence, our intricate design provides a witness to the care of the creator who made us. Thinking of God as a knitter we can think of how the act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation, from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit.

SLIDE 10 - Sheep and knittingEach part of the journey impacts how the item turns out, reflecting the quality of the grass, the life of the sheep, the expertise of the spinner, and the temperament of the knitter. There are items that I have knit in Bible studies, on planes, with friends, by myself. When I see the knitted garment I know where the yarn came from, the pattern that was selected or designed, where I was at each part of the items creation, and how much work went into all of it. Because of this, I am connected to that item. This connectivity means that I care about what happens to it.

There have been a few times with this connectivity has been hard: a hat made with specialty yarn, knit from a new pattern with a complicated technique was lost in the mail as I tried to send it to a friend; a backpack that I designed the pattern for, and learned how to crochet so that I could make drawstring straps turned out not to be sturdy enough to hold much of anything; and a hat made from five different beautiful yarns all cabled together turned out to be much too small. In each of these instances, it was hard to know that this item that I had spent so much energy on, were not able to be utilized in the way I had intended.

SLIDE 11 - CreationOur creator, who knows us so intimately, desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives.  With a knitter’s energy, God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, but God also waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.

SLIDE 12 - PredestinationOne way we can talk about this theologically is through the doctrine of predestination. This is one of the big theological words associated with Presbyterianism, but I’d hazard a guess that not many Presbyterians really get what it means.  Fundamentally, Presbyterians get their association with predestination from Calvin whose theology established the Presbyterian denomination.

Donald McKim explains the doctrine of predestination and its association with Presbyterianism in his book, “Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers”: “Calvin came to the doctrine from a very pastoral concern: Why is it some people respond to the Christian gospel and others do not? His answer, as he studied Scripture, was the God had elected or chosen (‘predestined,’ as Romans 8:28-30) those who believe. This is a gift of God’s grace, because humans are sinners and do not deserve the salvation God gives as a free gift in Jesus Christ. For Calvin, predestination should lead to gratitude and joy! It means that when we believe the gospel, we believe because of God’s powerful Spirit in our lives, and that God has elected us out of God’s free grace. When Presbyterians talk about predestination, we are talking about the actions of the God of the Bible. God is not the blind laws of nature or an impersonal force (like ‘fate’). God here chooses to enter into relationships with sinful people (covenants) and to provide the gift of salvation by sending Jesus Christ into the world (John 3:16-21). This is a God who cares and loves and gives grace to undeserving people like us. So predestination is a comforting doctrine, since it assures us that our salvation rests in God’s work, not our own.”[2]

SLIDE 13 - PredestinationUnderstanding God’s give of predestination should bring gratitude because it allows us to experience the loving power of God. As it says in Romans 5:8-11: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

God formed you and called you good. God claims your life in baptism, dying for your sins before you even asked, loving you beyond your own limitations of love. God has placed worth on your life and is eager to see how it will unfold. You are a treasured creation of God. May you live with gratitude for God’s great love of you. Amen.


[1] Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V: Psalm 139

[2] Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers: Exploring Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2004), 9.

“Come to the Feast” Luke 14:1, 7-14 September 1, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Come to the Feast”
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CafeteriaI’d like you to imagine this scene, for some of you it might just take rewinding back a few weeks, for some a few decades: It’s the first day of school, you walk into the cafeteria and look around, try and gauge where your friends are sitting, or at least people who look like they might be friendly, and take your place. Why do you sit there? What happens when you can’t figure out your place? What would happen if you sat somewhere else? What happens if you sit with people who are higher up the social ladder than you see yourself to be? What happens if you sit with people who are lower down the social ladder than you see yourself to be?

 Our Gospel lesson today gives us a story of seating arrangements. Jesus offers this parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)

SLIDE 3 - LadderWhat would it mean for this to play out in the cafeteria? For you to purposefully pick a less desirable table? For you to refuse to care about the social ladder? What would happen to your own standing? How would that impact the school year for you?

Particularly in high school these social orders can be quite apparent, but that doesn’t mean they disappear when we leave high school. It happens in workplaces and social gatherings and who invites who to a party and unfortunately, even in the work and worship of the church.

What does it look like to allow others to have a better place than you? What does it look like if on a Sunday morning you show up and someone has taken your seat? What if we sat somewhere else?

Jesus also questions who is invited to the table, challenging hosts to expand their guest lists: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 12-14)

SLIDE 5 - Roman GatheringLuther College Professor, Rolf Jacobson had this to say about our scripture today, “In Urban Roman culture, patronage and the idea of status is everything. From how you’re dressed to how you present yourself there’s a clear demarcation of where you belong. So if you’re invited to a party it’s not like you’re going to look at all the chairs and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder where I’m going to sit.’ You know right away based on who you are and who everyone else in the room is, you just do. And to try to upset the balance of that threatens to shame you and shame your host… It sounds kind of weird to us and really calculating and maybe it was, but it’s just the way it works. So if you start to overturn that, and to mess with that and say ‘I’m going to invite people who could never ever pay me back or who could never return the political favor or the generosity or whatever,’ some people are going to start to get in their minds they don’t have to pay attention to those rules. So those who guard the social order, or those who are simply trying to find their way in the world soon find this is a dangerous thing. You don’t give hope to certain people. You don’t upset the balance… this isn’t just nice, that ruins the entire system for everybody else potentially… There’s an edge to this, there’s a threat to this depending upon how it’s carried out.”[1]

Changing the status quo threatens the powers that be and threatens the value of social currency. Inviting everyone to the table will absolutely change what sort of meal happens there, but it will also allow for a richness of diversity, a wealth of gifts, and a breadth of fellowship. Such a banquet may be chaotic, but it will be a life giving reflection of the Kingdom of God to come.

SLIDE 6 - Winter at UPSemOne winter, while I was in seminary we experienced our own sort of haphazard banquet. We were snowed in for several days right before Christmas break. Being here in Iowa, especially in the midst of a hot a humid couple of weeks it’s hard to imagine all of that snow or a community unable to deal with all of that snow, but that was how things went in Richmond, Virginia that December day. It hit Richmond late on a Saturday night and then of course the next day was Sunday morning, the morning most in the seminary community would spread out over Richmond, attending and leading worship throughout the 30 plus Presbyterian churches in the city. That morning, however, nearly every church had cancelled services.

And so, on that wintery December day we sent the word out that anyone who could get there would gather together for worship on campus. We put on our snow boots and walked across the quad to the campus chapel. Our service had a call to worship that was intended for a rural church 30 minutes outside the city, music from a praise bandleader who usually played in a suburban church, and a sermon from another church in the heart of Richmond. We cobbled together our prayers and praise and carefully prepared words and worshipped God in a very unusual sort of service.

Afterwards we gathered for a potluck. Since people had been getting reading to get out of town, each person’s cupboards were nearly bare. It was the strangest potluck I’ve ever attended. There was canned fruit and Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese. There was half of loaf of bread and half a jar of jam. Someone brought some hot chocolate packets. It was weird, but it was also wonderful, because though none of us had a lot of food, or even food that made much sense all together, we were all fed by the meal and nourished by the company. It was communion.

SLIDE 7 - PotluckPreacher and teacher Sharron R. Blezard wrote this, “Serving God and neighbor is more like a community potluck than a gourmet meal in the finest restaurant. It’s less about perfection and more about improvisation. It’s less about form and more about function. It’s less about looks and much, much more about love. It’s has something to do with rubbing elbows with strangers and kin alike; after all, both can present challenges. Instead of a guest list carefully crafted to reflect our wishes and wiles, Jesus crafts a “grace list” that is an open invitation to the party. The point is this: At Jesus’ banquet table there is room for everyone. Great Aunt Mabel’s lime Jello salad can exist peacefully with vegan Valerie’s fresh green bean vinaigrette. Homemade mac and cheese can sit side-by-side with a bag of store-bought potato chips. Hamburgers and tamales and sno-cones co-exist and complement one another in delightful ways. When everyone brings his or her best offering, when we all show up, the banquet table groans with the goodness of God”[2]

This comic reflects the beauty of this radical kingdom banquet where all are invited.

SLIDE 8 - Comic Strip

SLIDE 9 - CommunionWhen we come to the communion table we are all eating a common meal, bread and juice, but it is indicative of a much larger and more varied table. We come to this table in the midst of fellow Christians all over the world and all throughout time. At this table we offer up ourselves, our own ideas of who we think we should be, what we think we deserve. We forgo social conventions and pecking orders so that we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we may fully partake in Christ’s grace.

WOMAN DISTRIBUTES COMMUNION DURING 2008 MASS IN NEW YORKAt the communion table we celebrate the unconventional sacrifice of the ever-worthy Christ, for the perpetually unworthy sinners. We are fed and nurtured and renewed and valued in a way that has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with our own perceived worth, but has everything to do with the way God sees us and loves us and values us. We are an honored guest at this feast of God’s grace, not because of our bank balance, occupation, or social popularity, but entirely because of God’s love for us.

SLIDE 11 - CommunionThe message of the gospel is learning to see yourself as God sees you, learning to see that the systems of worldly standing don’t matter to God and your ability to break out of them isn’t the measure of who you are as a Christian, but it’s the way in which you actually can see the Gospel and can tangibly experience it in our presence.[3]

This is a table for the last, the lost, and the lonely. If you feel like you don’t belong, you’re in the exact right place. If you feel like you have fallen short, here you are more than enough. All of us and all of them, whoever the them of your life may be, are welcome to this table, and welcome to God’s larger kingdom.

SLIDE 12 - Jesus CommunionSo what are you going to do with this grace you’ve received? As great as this gift of love and redemption is, there are some who have yet to have received their invitation to this table. There are those out there who still don’t understand how much God loves them, or what sort of church family is available to them. We are urged, tasked, called, and commissioned by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to invite others to this table and to this place of worship.

In two weeks we have “Homecoming Sunday” at church. Today, as 2000 years ago, it can feel like a strange thing to invite others to be a part of the banquet of Christ. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable with this pushy preacher in front of you who keeps telling you to invite someone to worship with you on Homecoming Sunday. Perhaps you’re just sitting there, arms crossed, scoffing at the idea. Why should we invite people? Aren’t things fine enough how there are? I like these people, why would I want to invite others? Why should I take that awkward step of asking someone to come to this church?SLIDE 13 - FPC

The question I would ask you to think about is why are you coming to this church? What makes you keep coming? I would hope it’s because you find something of value in our life together. I pray it’s because someone has made you feel welcome in this space.

I heartily believe that what we do here together each Sunday is worthwhile. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have spent the past 12 years of my life working towards this job, this life, and this specific church. I feel called to serve this community and I feel that what we do here each week makes a difference to this community, to the furthering of the Gospel of Christ, and to the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Do you?

I’d like you to honestly consider that these next two weeks. And if you do truly believe that none of us are wasting our time here, I would invite you to count the blessings that you have received from this church, from worshipping together, from living life among these Christians. And out of that gratitude, I ask that you open your heart and your mind and your arms to invite someone else to experience this church. I ask that you welcome them to the “home” you have experienced here. Amen.

Video created for worship shown after the sermon: