“#Blessed” Acts 20:32-35, October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“#Blessed”
Acts 20:32-35
October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-23-slide-1-ethete-high-schoolSeveral years ago I worked with “Group Workcamps,” an organization that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth and their leaders going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

2016-10-23-slide-2-workcampIt made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed.

Thinking of this from the perspective of that girl from this neighborhood, it’s very possible that she can’t even imagine having enough money and free time to be able to give it away like that. When you are barely scraping by, mission work and financial giving is an uncomfortable and risky stretch.

All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving what we had to give. Allowing youth to experience firsthand the joy and benefits of putting others before yourself, encouraging lifelong patterns of selflessness and generosity.

On the surface it seems like giving of our time and money is indeed quite weird. Why should others receive what we have worked for? Our money, our energy, our free time. Ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine. 2016-10-23-slide-3-seagullsI’m reminded of the seagulls in Finding Nemo, “mine, mine, mine,” swooping and diving with crazed desire to be the one to eat that particular fish. They all want to claim it as theirs, devour it on their own.

We, however have a different understanding of “mine.”2016-10-23-slide-4-brief-statement-stained-glassThe money, energy, and even free time that we have are not ours to claim, but they are gifts given by God. We are stewards of what God has given us. Extending those gifts to others expands the reaches of God’s work here on earth, and enables those in need to see Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world. When we give as we can we are reflecting the image of God within us, our God of abundant love and generosity.

But it is not just those in need that experience the joy of this generosity, Matthew 25:37-46 tells us of how our giving honors and delights God’s own self. This passage reads: “the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘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.”

2016-10-23-slide-8-heaven-or-hell This passage is rather explicit about the the benefits of caring for those in need, eternal life with God, as well as the penalty for ignoring those whom God has called you to care for, which is is eternal punishment. Read that to someone unfamiliar with church and they will really think you’re weird! Thankfully we don’t need to wait until our afterlife to experience the benefits of generosity.

2016-10-23-slide-9-paradox-of-generosityProfessor Christian Smith and Doctoral Candidate Hilary Davidson, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a book reflecting on these benefits, called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” It seems so nonsensical, giving what we have would seem to produce a deficit, but that seems to not be the case. In this book, Smith and Davidson wrote, “the results of generosity are often… unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win. Rather than generosity producing net losses, in general, the more generously people give of themselves, the more of many goods they receive in turn. Sometimes they receive more of the same kind of thing that they gave – money, time, attention, and so forth. But, more often and importantly, generous people tend to receive back goods that are often more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose, and personal growth.” This discovery came about through quite a bit of statistical analysis, proving empirically that increased generosity increases our likelihood of happiness, health, contentment, fulfillment, and feeling close to God.

“By grasping onto what we currently have,” Smith writes, “we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’” It may seem then that generosity is the cure not the cause for financial anxiety and protective hoarding.

2016-10-23-slide-10-blessedIf you spend any time on Twitter you will have likely seen the hashtag blessed. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, hashtags are a word or phrase begun with the pound sign and function as way to provide a topic or category. The hashtag blessed is often filled with pictures celebrating material wealth or personal achievements. If we only used secular media as our guide for showing us the blessed life, we would think that the end game to life was to accumulate as much money, things, and accolades as we can.

2016-10-23-slide-11-makariosIn this last phrase of our passage today, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” the word “blessed” in the original Greek is makarios. It doesn’t really translate fully but using the word blessed. Makar is the basic word for blessed, but makarios is more expansive, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, or well off.

This type of “well off” is very different from that of Twitter’s #blessed, the blessedness coming from generosity is rooted in love, spurring a wealth of joy, compassion, hope, contentment, and interconnectivity.

2016-10-23-slide-12-sanctuaryWhen I look around this room I see a people who seek God’s blessedness. I’m not referring to any one’s bank account, but when I see all of you I see a supremely blessed, fortunate, and well-off crowd. 2016-10-23-slide-13-prayer-shawlI’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. 2016-10-23-slide-14-pumpkins I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. 2016-10-23-slide-15-fpc-holt I’ve seen you step up and speak to one another about the joy of giving what you can in the capital campaign, planned giving, and annual stewardship campaigns. Your generosity in the tangible things in life have in turn made you wealthy in intangible ways.

Proverbs 11:24-28 says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”

If we live our lives to give to others, will it be considered weird? Yep. Will it be difficult? Probably. Will it be fulfilling? Without a doubt. Alleluia. Amen.

 

“Seeking Shalom” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, October 9, 2016, FPC Holt

“Seeking Shalom”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-9-slide-1-richmond-hillWhen I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

2016-10-9-slide-2-prayerEvery day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers. On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness. Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants. Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

2016-10-9-slide-3-meal-prayerAs a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

2016-10-9-slide-4-seek-the-welfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

2016-10-9-slide-5-fpc-holtWhen I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:

2016-10-9-slide-6-aaOne man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.

2016-10-9-slide-7-medical-equipmentOne of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.

When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.

2016-10-9-slide-8-food-bankOther people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.

One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. 2016-10-9-slide-10-kalin The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.

2016-10-9-slide-11-walk-to-schoolThis past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.

2016-10-9-slide-12-mission-handsThis is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about sharing what you can with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

2016-10-9-slide-13-jeremiah-29-11 Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

2016-10-9-slide-14-james-howellIn my preparation for this sermon I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “

2016-10-9-slide-15-crosshandsThese plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

2016-10-9-slide-17-welfare-of-the-cityWhile God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.

“Table Grace” Luke 17:11-19, October 2, 2016, FPC Holt

“Table Grace”
Luke 17:11-19
October 2, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-2-slide-1-healingUnclean! Unclean! No, this isn’t about the new parent plight of struggling to take a shower, rather it’s what these 10 men in our story today were required to shout when they got near to anyone, lest they expose others to this terrible and infectious disease. Unclean! Unclean! Each shout creating a boundary, putting oneself at a distance.

Often when I read the miracle stories I have trouble connecting them with our current reality. But this one? 2016-10-2-slide-2-divisionsIt’s a scene of divisions: racial divides, religious separations, and health as a barrier to relationship. There’s nothing foreign about those concepts in our world today. We know what lines drawn in the sand do to our understanding of “us” and “them.” We know what fear is capable of when used as a weapon to divide and denigrate.

2016-10-2-slide-3-lepers-at-a-distanceWhat is unfamiliar, however, is the healing practices surrounding leprosy, and how that plays into the divisions in this story. We know it is an undesirable and contagious condition, but the disease had further implications in society. Social and religious convention of that time dictated that once leprosy was contracted those who had it were unclean, medically and ritually. The duality of their uncleanliness meant that even once they were healed medically, they needed to be healed ritually as well, with sacrifice and the priest’s blessing.

2016-10-2-slide-4-one-leperThis story draws our attention to the Samaritan. He, like the other nine, is healed of his leprosy, but unlike the nine, his status as a foreigner means that even though he has received that same medical healing, he is unable to receive the ritual healing of the priest’s blessing. He comes to Jesus, and because he has been healed physically he is able to come close. His healing moves him from experiencing Jesus at a distance, to being able to truly know him face to face.

He is overcome with gratitude and Jesus says to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

2016-10-2-slide-5-lepersJesus draws his attention to the other nine, wondering why they don’t display such thankfulness. A big part of gratitude is acknowledging that there is actually something outside of yourself that is making things happen, improving your life in perceptible ways. If you believe that your health and wellness are solely your own doing, why would you express gratitude to one beyond yourself?

These nine were taking the steps they needed to take, like following through on a prescribed workout plan and diet. I guess one could see that as the upside to legalism. If things are so straightforward and dualistic: healthy and sick, broken and whole, and you believe that your move from one side of the coin to the other is determined by your actions, then you are indeed the one to be praised. Way to go, you! But the independence exercised by these nine, reveals an ignorance of God at work.

2016-10-2-slide-6-one-leper-shadowThis tenth man saw things a bit differently. He didn’t fall within the bounds of Jewish culture, and therefore was not privy to the benefits of their legalism. When he experienced healing he knew it not as his own doing, but as an act of grace from God. In his great need, he was able to see his lack of control, and thus was more receptive to God at work in his healing.

Gratitude is fundamentally an acknowledgement of our limitations and a humble response to our interdependence.

2016-10-2-slide-7-calvin-hospitalIn this recent season of life, welcoming sweet Calvin into the world, I’ve been surrounded by many moments of great need and humility. When you are in great need and have those needs met it can’t help but spur gratitude. So many of you saw me through many months of morning sickness, that was certainly not contained to the morning. Try as I might to find my own ways out of it, I instead was required to find ways through it, accepting the help of others, surrendering to my need for God’s presence.

In the midst of those first few days with Calvin, there were many opportunities to learn this lesson over and over again, through my inability to walk, climb stairs, or drive. I was utterly dependent on the help of others and on the peace and comfort God’s presence. Little by little I regained some semblance of health, but the interdependence in that time of utter need stayed with me.

As we sought to figure out this parenting business, so much was new and unfamiliar. In one specific instance I was trying to figure out how to sterilize bottles. What do you know, that very day we received a package from the Lloyds with another set of bottles and a steamer to help clean the bottles! The generosity was the Lloyds’, but the timing had to be God at work.

2016-10-2-slide-8-praying-around-tableOne of the first implicit lessons I was taught about faith was the importance of acknowledging need and interdependence through praying before eating a meal. In these prayers we were naming our need, naming the needs of others, naming our gifts, and thanking God for what we had.

2016-10-2-slide-9-prayerUCC pastor, Rev. John Thomas reflects on how our gratitude shapes our prayers. He wrote, “Saying a prayer before meals quietly or with others acknowledges that my life depends on God’s bounty and on a host of people who grew, processed, distributed, prepared, and served the food that gives me nourishment and delight. Saying a prayer by a hospital bed admits that my health rests in God’s love as well as the skills of scientists and physicians and nurses and a host of people who maintain these places of care. And, yes, even sending a thank-you note… is far more than social convention, but an awareness that the best gifts and thus much of the joy of life are not things we can give ourselves but come from beyond us as an alluring expression of love, even an invitation to love. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are weaned away from the myth of entitlement and the arrogance and isolation of independence. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are shaped by the truth of our belonging to others, even to Christ.”

2016-10-2-slide-10-communion-table Today we have the opportunity to acknowledge the healing we’ve experienced through Christ and to draw near God in gratitude, coming to the communion table. In communion we are fed by the body and blood of Christ, a meal of unmerited favor, that is to say, grace.

Just as we are drawn close to Christ in this sacrament, we are also drawn close to Christ’s universal Church. When 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 how to be healthy and whole and good. We forgo our independence to be enveloped in the beauty of our interdependence, so that we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we may fully partake in Christ’s grace.

2016-10-2-slide-11-hands-on-arms Seminary professor of mine, Beverly Zink-Sawyer had this to say about the teaching enacted by the Samaritan, “It is his actions that are exemplary for us as a community of faith. Recognizing the healing that has occurred, he turns back to praise God and falls at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. The verbs “praise” (doxazo) and “thank” (eucharisto) echo references to worship frequently used by Luke and other New Testament writers. Luke seems to be connecting the practices that mark Christian worship with the restoration of health. We are reminded by the leper’s action that the ultimate place where we can cry out to God, receive mercy, and be transformed is the church, the place where we gather to offer our thanksgiving and praise.”

So as we are gathered today, in our worship, and most especially at this table of grace, may we remember that we are not our own, but we belong to one another and to God in blessed interdependence. May we respond with the utmost gratitude. Let all thanks be to God. Amen.