“i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
– e.e. cummings
“i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
– e.e. cummings
“Made for This”
Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14
July 30, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was little, I always struggled with this question because I’ve always been interested in so many things. If I could’ve been a professional horseback riding, opera singing, francophone playwright, I might’ve ended up somewhere else entirely!
In eighth grade in the midst of confirmation and career research paper, God pointed me to a way that I could live a life of being totally and utterly myself, by becoming a pastor. It’s as though God was pointing to each part of my personality and character and saying, “I can use that.” My listening ear became pastoral care, my singing became praise, and my storytelling became preaching.
Our Psalm today tells us God’s knitting us together and I imagine each of these passions and traits being woven into a complex design. It’s incredible to think the level to which God knows us and the intricacies God has placed within each of us. Thinking of God as a knitter I 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. Each 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 item’s 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.
Our 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.
One of the greatest joys of ministry is discovering over and over again how God takes whoever we are and whatever gifts we bring and transforms it all to God’s glory. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in this congregation: You’ve got skills in construction? God has a call for you to maintain the building where God’s people meet. You’re able to create stained glass pieces? God can use those talents to teach others about the depth and breadth of God’s teaching over time. You know how to organize people, food, or equipment? You can serve God through helping others with the Food Bank and medical lending closet. You feel most alive when your hands are creating art? Your art can be a worshipful practice for you and inspire others.
What’s hard however, is when you feel like the multiple calls God has placed on your life are pulling you in different directions at once. Sometimes we want to say, come on God, can you be a bit more clear in your “searching out our path?”
One of the most profound and annoying things I have ever heard about discernment came from a professor at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was there for a prospective student visit and we were in a session talking about the ordination process. I don’t remember quite who it was that was meeting with us, but I remember distinctly that he said that when we are discerning where to go or what to do, God sometimes just says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to go to Pittsburgh or Louisville or Richmond for seminary and God says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to be a pastor or a playwright and God says, “yes.” Not that God doesn’t care what happens to us, but God will work through whichever choice that we make, and so sometimes there really isn’t a wrong choice to be made.
Recently in my own life, I have found myself pulled in several directions at once. Those who have been involved in the life of this church during my three years serving here will not be surprised to hear me describe this past year as challenging. From the myriad health concerns to the loss of both of my grandmothers, and all the typical stressors that come with being a new parent, I have said over and again, “I don’t know that I can take anything else,” and then something else came along. I remember I was talking to someone at my sister’s baby shower and she said, “remember, your car was also in that accident?” I figure life’s gotten pretty crazy if I couldn’t remember a car accident.
And so I found myself asking: do I serve the congregation? address my own health? care for my family? I heard God saying, “yes.” Over and over again, the answer was, “yes.”
Many of you have described my news of me leaving as bittersweet and I need you to know that that is absolutely the reality for me as well. In my time here I have loved you all, deeply and truly. My life is so much richer for having known you.
It is possible that one could look at a three-year pastorate as but a small dot on the 152-year timeline of this congregation, but to do so would be to disregard the incredible ways that God has been moving in our midst while I have been blessed to serve alongside you:
God’s newness among us, through baptisms, new life, Christmases, and Easters. God’s grace filled grief among us, through the valleys of death and loss, through Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays, through the meals of bread and juice. I will not forget God’s presence in the baptismal water dripping from my fingers or the crumbs of the bread broken in remembrance. This life we have lived together was God’s great, “yes,” to this season for each of us.
To look at each of us individually you might not see the connective threads between us, but they are there, knitting us, one to the other.
I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince of the story describes his relationship with the rose he has cared for to a garden of other roses:
“An ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe… because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”
Then a fox says to the Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
The reality being, all that work was no waste whatsoever, but a cultivation of love.
You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have been my rose, and I have loved you all the deeper through our work together. I have been honored to care for you in times of vulnerability, to listen to you in times of joy and struggle. My life is blessed through the ways we have sheltered and cared for one another these past three years. Not one moment of this ministry has been a waste and you have been deeply important to me.
I have been honored by this invisible bond between us, the unity we find in our love of God. For we read in 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
May your heart know the truth that God has formed each one of us and called us good. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace and Peace to you,
I am writing to share the news of my resignation as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt effective July 31st. David has accepted a full-time position in St. Louis, MO and I am looking forward to becoming a full-time mother, as well as do pulpit supply and freelance work. The great majority of David’s family is located in St. Louis, so we will be surrounded by family support. As certain as I am that this is the right move for my family and me, it breaks my heart to be leaving you all.
It has been an honor and privilege to be your pastor over these past three years. We have been with one another through some of life’s greatest joys and deepest struggles. Together we have laughed and prayed, worshiped and served. Together we have celebrated many births and grieved many deaths, including the birth of my son and the death of both of my grandmothers. I am grateful for your support and my life is forever changed for having traveled this road with you in this season. If it were possible, I would greatly desire to be a member here.
It has been a joy to see youth growing into faith filled adults, church visitors become church family, and passions for vocational ministry kindled. I delight in seeing you minister to one another through meals in times of grief, prayer shawls in times of illness, and home communion in seasons of isolation. It is my prayer that you will continue to be a place that delights in diversity, cultivates artistic gifts, and wholeheartedly embraces mission (in both this community and world). I pray that you will continue to be confronted with joy so great and grace so deep that you cannot help but sing God’s praises.
As surely as I believe that God is guiding me in this decision, I also believe that God will guide you in finding a new associate pastor to minister to and with you in the future. I am deeply glad that the congregation voted to secure the associate position, as I believe great things have been possible through allowing your pastors both collegiality and focus in ministry. I look forward to seeing how God’s plan for FPC Holt will unfold in the years to come.
I am excited to discover what God has in store for me as I live out my callings to both motherhood and ministry in new ways. In my time here I have struggled to be faithful to both of these roles together. My personal prayer is that this time away from pastoring may enable me to establish a strong foundation of family life, in the hope that any future professional work will complement, rather than compete with this call. I pray that future pastors of this church will be able to do the same.
From now until July 31st I will continue to pastor this church, engaging fully in the good and important ministry we have yet to do together and the hard but grace filled process of saying goodbye. I ask for your prayers and understanding as we all make this transition.
“Rocky or Rooted”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Gardening, to my mother, is not a chore. It is a passion. While some dread mowing the lawn, she sits on her back porch, iced tea in hand, plotting out some elaborate pattern she will mow in the grass. She knows which flowers need sun, which need shade, which she needs to coach to climb along the trellis. Her gardens are fed mulch, water, and sunshine. My mother has shown me the care, nurture, and love that go into maintaining a garden.
With that in mind the image of the sower is initially a strange one. Here this man known only by his function, “the sower,” and yet he doesn’t seem very intentional about the way that he cares for his seeds. Some fall on the path, some on the rocks, and only some on the good soil. He likely wasn’t a rich man, but rather a tenant farmer working from his scarcity to make life grow. The role of the farmer is not a passive one, but rather requires a working of the land, intentionality in where things are planted, attention given to make sure that the plants get enough water, but not too much.
So why then does this sower seem to scatter this seed so broadly? In this parable God is most often cast in the role of the sower as God is the source of life and the origin of the good news, but I’d say for me I see God as more likely being the seeds. God in Christ took root in the world, grew so we might receive the harvest of his grace. As we read in the first several verses of the Gospel of John: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
“The Word was with God and the Word was God,” this means that the Word that was being sown was God. The Word that was being spread was God. And God is famous for being everywhere, even the unexpected places: scorched in the heat, picked apart by the birds, in the rockiest of places. God shows up.
What from the outside looks like the sower’s wastefulness, is God’s uncontainable abundance. If what you’re spreading is an extension of God’s own self it’s bound to go everywhere.
A lot of fear in this world is tied up in scarcity: worries over not enough money, not enough jobs, and not enough time. Even when we look at the less tangible qualities like welcoming and love and compassion it may seem like we need to hold some in reserve, only welcoming those who can offer us something, or perhaps we go the other way only being loving and compassionate to strangers, but not to the ones we see everyday, taking those familiar faces for granted. Sometimes it seems like we believe that the only way to be stewards of the goodness God has extended to us is to guard it carefully, in the fear that others might make what we have and who we are less.
When we are focused on the ways that our lives are lacking, we’re bound to be anxious and discontent. And when we’re living in that sort of space it’s hard to access the kind of imaginative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live into God’s plan for us individually, as a church, and as God’s larger church in the world.
When we seek to point out the inadequacy in our community and in one another over God’s abundance we miss out on God’s Good News for us:
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
It can be both painful and convicting if we stop to consider what sort of environment it is we provide for God to grow in and among us.
Maybe we’re the path, hard packed into a set pattern of how we’ve always done things, entertaining the presence of new growth from time to time, but more interested in keeping it all together than in being changed by something new.
As Protestants we affirm the adage “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” but change can be hard, especially when we feel like we have everything all figured out. A path is by definition a comfortable route, worn down over time by person after person deciding that that is the way to go. While it can be a comfort for those who travel have helped to travel that path, new growth in that space would require a rerouting, a disruption of what is known for the sake of the unknown. A new seed has no chance on a hard packed path unless one will make a space for it to take root, and will water the dirt that has become dusty from it’s barrenness. And as we see in the parable, an exposed seed is vulnerable and easily snatched away by the bird that will consume it.
Perhaps we’re the rocky soil, binding ourselves to what we are comfortable with and in doing so creating an impenetrable rocky border between ourselves and all that are on the outside. We leave room for others to come near, but like the rocky soil we don’t allow for roots to form, and those new and challenging things are unable to stay long enough for any stability or lasting growth.
I would hope that we would not be the thorny patch! Lack of growth on the part of the thorns is not the issue here, they themselves are growing, but their growth serves to keep others out, and chokes the other plants that grow there. Thorns are focused only on their own agenda and growth, but do not seek to serve others, rather they curl in on themselves in a tangled mess.
Ideally, of course, we would be the good soil, the most hospitable of the parable’s environments. The good soil provides nourishment and support. When the seeds fall on it they help each other to grow abundantly, providing stability to the soil, shade in turn for one another. By growing together these seeds each only bear a little bit of the burden of the outside environment. And as our parable illustrates, these seeds multiply in their growth yielding abundance!
Why does God waste God’s time being out among the rocks and the path and laid out as food for the birds? Because there is an abundance that springs forth wherever God takes root. This is the promise of our text and the prophecy of Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
When the seed we are sowing is God’s own self, we can be secure in the knowledge that it will grow beyond our wildest expectations. God seeks to bless us richly, to take root in our church, in our homes, in our lives, and in our very hearts. By commissioning all who follow Christ as God’s disciples, as “joint heirs with Christ,” each of us are entrusted with that which is most precious, God’s own self. But unlike many precious resources, God’s goodness is multiplied when shared, the hope of Christ expands in the hearts of those who receive it. God’s word can only bear fruit when we scatter it broadly in all places, even and perhaps especially those who do not seem deserving.
While we should treat the love and care of Christ as precious, it is not scarce, but limitless. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Christ died for all to extend grace to all. Might we share this grace so that others may grow in this truth. Amen.
“Hide and Seek”
Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27
July 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
“Peek a boo!” If you’ve spent any time around a young baby, this is a pretty good go-to for entertaining them. Something is there and then it’s not and then it’s there again! Like magic!
Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, tells us that this is because of object permanence, which is a fancy phrase for understanding that objects exist even when we’re not experiencing them. A slightly older exploration of this is hide and seek, the joy coming from the anticipation of when you’ll be found.
Martin Luther and other theologians of his time used their own hide and seek language in relation to God. Deus absconditus, which literally translates to “hidden God.” It’s defined disparagingly to describe God as being so remote that God doesn’t seem to be able to effect any change.
Luther however, couches it in terms of the things that God tells us about God’s own hiddenness in scripture. Luther refers to Exodus 33, which we read today. Moses asks to experience God, but instead sees only God’s backside.
Luther writes, “Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei (backside of God) revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.”
While some would define this as God turning away from God’s people, Luther frames it in terms of opposites. Moses, and by extension all of God’s people, experience God in reversed expectations. God who is invisible, becomes visible in Jesus. God who is all powerful shows God’s self in the humility of the cross.
In a similar reversal, our New Testament passage speaks of God being revealed to infants, but not to the wise. While I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about the simplicity of thought in a sermon in which I quote Luther’s use of a Latin phrase, I believe our New Testament passage isn’t calling for ignorance, but for looking for God on the margins, in the unexpected places of humility and meekness.
Where do you expect to see God? God’s glory is indeed revealed in glowing sunsets and rollings hills, but also in the small dandelion that makes its way through the concrete. God’s omnipresence is revealed in the vast twinkling sky and in the intricacies of a mosquito’s wings.
Might you come to know God better through that person in your life who has hurt you as you are moved from bitterness to empathy? Could God show up not in spite of your pain, but within it, the ways your relationships have been formed in the wake of your greatest loss or deepest suffering?
Columbia Seminary professor, Stanley Saunders wrote, “We are most likely to experience God’s presence and power in the company of the humble and vulnerable, the people who are usually found at the margins… They may be children or strangers, people who are not sure whether or how they fit. They may be poets or artists, who are trained to look at the world differently. Whoever they might be… they will always be people who see what others do not, and thus help the rest of us deal with our blinding arrogance and entitlement. They may be people whose lives challenge the ideals over which we argue and divide.
The empire of heaven, after all, is not an ideal, but a reality made known through real acts and experiences of judgment, repentance, and redemption. The church that banishes the marginal, the vulnerable, and the humiliated does not prevent itself from being subject to the judgment of God; to the contrary, it is precisely through their eyes and voices that we can most clearly discern God’s judgment and mercy, through which our ongoing repentance is made possible. Judgment is a tool God uses to open our eyes and ears, to draw us toward repentance — not to induce brokenness but to uncover and heal what is broken. “
To believe only in God’s philosophical attributes, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, without knowing God’s willingness to enter into our existence, is to know only one side of God. And I’d go so far as to say, not the most compelling aspects of God. God’s love for us as creator and spirit are deepened through God’s love for us as the person of Jesus Christ. God literally put God’s skin in the game of humanity by being born as that helpless baby in Bethlehem.
Can you imagine Mary and Joseph playing peekaboo with their little boy? Even in his infant cries and giggles he was the embodiment of the divine… not very intimidating as deities go! As he grew he played his own game of hide and seek, staying behind his traveling group to remain at the temple. That was a terrifying game of hide and seek for his parents! In a role reversal of those early games of peekaboo, that time they were the ones not sure where he had gone.
But this is how God operates, showing up over and over again, in the most unexpected places. Even when we aren’t directly experiencing God’s presence, God is indeed there, waiting for us to open our eyes again.
How has your sense of God’s permanence been shaped as you’ve grown in faith? Does God disappear from your life, when you aren’t immediately experiencing God?
It’s not unfaithful to feel like God is hidden during a season of our lives. In fact, all throughout scripture God plays hide and seek. Throughout Deuteronomy God hides from the children of Israel in response to their selfish sinfulness. In the book of Job, Job has a whole series of losses and pain that would make anyone question where God had gone. In the Psalms, God’s seeming hiddenness is an undercurrent in all the laments.
It is very human to become frustrated and unsure when we don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives. Recognizing the permanence of God is part of our spiritual development.
One of the tools that helps children in their understanding of object permanence is the use of words. To this end, the accounts of God in scripture are a tremendous resource towards our understanding of God’s permanence.
In the book “Subversive Spirituality,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Words are our primary tools for getting our bearing in a world, most of which we can’t see, most of which we’ll never touch – this large, expanding, mysterious existence that is so much larger, more intricate, more real even, than we are…When I learn the word “God” I am able to deal with a person I cannot see. God uses words to train us in object permanence…. When we discover that God reveals [Godself] by word, we are back in the realm of the sensory again – a word is spoken by a mouth/lips/tongue/throat; it is heard by ears, or n the case of the written word, seen with eyes. But once the word is uttered and hear, or written and read, it enters into us in such a way that it transcends the sensory. A word is (or can be) a revelation from one interior to another. What is inside me can get inside you – the word does it. Which is why language is the major bridge from basic biology to basic spiritually.
And why Christian spirituality insists on listening.
By God’s grace, God’s Word is also written. And that makes Holy Scripture the text for Christian spirituality. Holy Scripture is the listening post for listening to God’s Word.”
As we grow in our faith we are like children learning object permanence, delighting when we sense God once again. After all, God promises never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that if we search for God, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13-14) Thanks be to God. Amen!
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”
Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know it was a matter of life or death. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still, Jesus stays two days longer where he was.
What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.
Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.
Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture, God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point, this existence ended and life was no more. Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence.
It was a matter of life or death.
If you turn on the news there are a terrifying number of situations where innocent lives are killed because of those complex sins of fear, bias, and hatred, all stemming out of a deep well of pain.
I watched a very important and troubling video these other days about parents and grandparents explaining to their children how they should respond if stopped by a police officer. I’d like us to watch it together, fully acknowledging that this will likely be uncomfortable for many, but also, that that discomfort can stem from the privilege given by the color of our skin and that for many of us in this room, these are not conversations we’ve ever had to have with children. For others among us, these conversations are likely far too real, perhaps even with your own experience of how who you are has warranted undue attention from law enforcement.
In the video, each adult is adamant that there are both good and bad police officers, even when a high school girl tries to dismiss them as all bad, a mother says, no, there are good ones too.
My heart ached at seeing an 8-year-old recite a well-rehearsed speech, saying her name and that she is unarmed and has nothing that will hurt them. Her father sits next to her and tells were about a time he was stopped in the mall and tased, not because of anything he’d done, but because he was mistaken for someone else. She becomes visibly upset and goes to get a hug from her dad who then is also crying.
There’s a grandmother talking with her two grandsons, pointing out that the lighter complexion child will likely not have to deal with this. Another mother says to her daughter with her voice being to crack, “do everything that you can to get back to me.”
Where is Jesus in all of this?
Martha and Mary were angry.
Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.
Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”
Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.
In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.
“Come out,” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.
This is such a strange story.
With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?
It is in asking these questions we become confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are tasked with creating justice, restoring what is right. Sometimes resurrection doesn’t look like a man stepping backward out of a tomb. Sometimes it looks like a community surrounding a family in the face of loss. Sometimes it looks like lobbying and rallying. Often, it looks like listening, watching, and not turning away from the pain and death of those who do not look like we do, knowing full well that they, too, are created in the image of God and by knowing them, we are better able to know God.
In the strange story of Lazarus, Jesus uncovers hope beyond hope, and new life after death. We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. That after our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.
This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We know that death doesn’t have the final word. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin into new life. We are called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.
And with the Holy Spirit’s breath circulating through us, we are called to speak out for justice, for hope, and for new life devoid of the hatred and pain that have changed us all so completely.
Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.
God is not through with our world yet. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Matthew 19:13-14 and Romans 5:1-8
June 18, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
What is your earliest memory of church? My earliest memory is sitting between my Mom and Grandma in church at Washington Congregational Church in Toledo and asking for gum. My grandma always had gum in her purse. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot about what was said or all that was going on in the front of the church, but I know what was going on in the back, and that was me, sitting at church each Sunday morning with people who loved and cared about me, and that it was important to them that we were there.
My family started going to First Presbyterian Church of Maumee when I was five and my earliest memory there comes from our very first Sunday attending when I went to Sunday School. I remember walking up to my now best friend, Claire, and asking her if she would be my friend. Twenty-five years of friendship later, I’m still glad she said yes. It was in that Sunday school room and throughout that church that I really started to figure out who this God was that everybody was talking about. In that church, I felt God’s own call for my life and was nurtured by so many Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School leaders, youth group leaders, and pastors.
Who are some of the people who have helped you to form your faith? Who are the gum providers who’ve sat beside you and helped you find your place in the hymnal? Who are those who, seeing your need for extra assistance, in any season of life, have come alongside you, helping open a door when you approach with your walker, or providing a worship bag as you’ve been a frazzled parent.
When I was in seminary my very own Grandma away from home was named Lena Love. Lena and I met my first Sunday at that church when, seeing her sitting by herself, I came and sat beside her. We talked every week after service and eventually would go out to lunch from time to time. She was a great listener and I felt like I could truly be myself around her, telling her about stresses and struggles, heartaches and hopes for the future. In my last few months of seminary, at the age of 93, she became ill, her health declined rapidly, and she died just a few days before my graduation. In our short time together she taught me the importance of investing in the lives of others and making family where you find it.
The first time we had lunch together, I was a bit reluctant, not wanting to take up her time, and she said, “I’m taking you out because I hope someone is doing this for my granddaughter.” She always made me feel at home, sitting beside her in the pew, in a restaurant, or beside her bed in those last days in hospice.
In our scripture today we hear about children coming to Jesus to receive his prayers. In the familiar scene of many children’s Bibles, disciples try to hold the children back, but Jesus insists that come forward.
I’ve heard this story, and I’m guessing more than likely you’ve heard this story too, focusing on the disciples actions and Jesus’ correction, but something that stuck out for me uniquely this time around was reading the emphasis not on the children themselves, but on the push and pull between those who brought them close to Jesus, and those who wanted to turn them away. It is those bringing the children that are reprimanded for their actions. Let’s read this part again:
“The little children were being brought to [Jesus] in order that he that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them.”
How do you see yourself in this Biblical narrative? Certainly, we’d all like to see ourselves as those acting as an encouragement. I feel like often the Gospel writers cast the disciples somewhat of dunces. In this passage it seems like Jesus is saying, silly disciples, sermons are for kids!
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not always easy to be the ones inviting in energetic children or welcoming every guest. I get it, it’s been a long week, you’re dealing with a lot. Can’t you just have one hour a week to take some time alone with God? The thing is, corporate worship is just that, corporate. It is the time when we come together, the separate parts of the body of Christ making the whole. If it were easy, I really don’t think Jesus would’ve had to mention it so often.
And one of the incredible things about corporate worship, is that each one of us gathered, is created in the image of God, so when we are all together we are better able to understand the full nature of God. And when I say all together, I mean all. Those who have sat in these pews for 50 years and those whose energy has them dancing down the aisles. Together, we are the church.
I’ve often heard those familiar Whitney Houston lyrics, “children are the future.” This is said in the sure and certain knowledge that when we are gone, today’s children will be tomorrow’s elders, deacons, and pastors. They will be the ones shaping what decisions the church makes in who and how it will serve.
But, and this is quite important, the children are not just the future, they are also present in the here and now. As much as we are called to model what it is to listen and engage with worship, they simultaneously are teaching us what it is to be so moved by a song you can’t help but dance, how to mourn deeply, when they’ve lost a beloved pet, and many other important lessons. They’re not afraid to ask questions and seek adults who are willing to be vulnerable in asking questions, too.
Christian Education Director and blogger, Christina Embree, wrote an excellent post about children in worship, saying that worshipping with children not just about keeping kids occupied so as not to distract from the worship the adults are doing, but it’s about Jesus’ repeated call to value the contributions of kids in worship.
Embree writes, “I can’t imagine Jesus’ church being a place where children are not engaged with His body. I can’t conceive of His church being one where children and adults grow separately in their own spaces rarely if ever, sharing in Christ as one. I can’t believe that Jesus the preacher would be okay with never having the chance to be a part of the lives of the kids.”
She continues, saying: “Collectively, we must say, ‘We welcome you, with all of your idiosyncrasies and distractions, with your questions and your confusion, with your gifts and your talents, with your hearts and your praise, with your child-like faith we so desperately need, we welcome you!’ And then, I don’t think it will really matter to us if a baby is crying and needs attention or if a little one is bored and needs to color or if a child is fidgeting and needs to move around a little. After we create and embrace that culture of welcome, we can engage strategies to invite and welcome kids into worship…We need them as much as they need us.”
As a congregation, it is vital that we support all who come to into this space looking to grow in faith, from the very youngest to our most established members. I know many in this church have been members for over 50 years. To say that is incredible is an understatement. Someone doesn’t stay a member for 50 years because they think it’s a pretty building or because they’ve always gotten what they wanted. If you’ve been here for 50 years, chances are you are here because this is the place that you’ve experienced God at work, maybe in the friendship of those you’ve come to know through a mission trip, Circle, or work on a committee; perhaps through the care of Deacons as a new parent or after the death of someone you loved. You know the body of Christ because you’ve seen it in action through this congregation and you’ve had opportunities to act as this body too.
I’m not sure I can put into words how important I think it is that we’re all in worship together with one another. We call this body of believers our church family and at baptism, we promise to support one another as we each grow in faith. In order to do that, we need to know one another. We need to be attentive to times when someone is in need of a pew buddy, a helping hand, or just a whole lot of grace.
May we be this sort of church to one another. Amen.
“Live for Righteousness”
1 Peter 2:19–25
May 7, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Have you ever been reading the Bible and you’ve thought, “I’d really like to cut that part out?” Or, “following God would make so much more sense if we just skipped over this verse.” If so, this passage which says God approves of enduring suffering unjustly, would certainly be on the chopping block.
In the case of Thomas Jefferson, this was quite literally what he did. The Smithsonian reports, “Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents.
So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument… to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called ‘the corruption of schismatizing followers.’” Being a very pragmatic man he cut out anything that seemed “contrary to reason,” including miracles and even Christ’s resurrection.
“Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.’”
And then theologians throughout time immemorial rolled over in their graves. Or so we can imagine.
Interpreting scripture can be a very dangerous thing if we, like Jefferson, take away every bit that makes us uncomfortable to we manipulate the text to cater to our own biases and presuppositions.
This passage in particular is a dangerous one as has been used time and again to silence victims and to embolden abusers. There are some who have twisted these verses to mean that domestic abuse is something they simply have to endure, a byproduct of living the Christian life. I want to say upfront that that is not what this text is about.
Seminary professor, David deSilva writes, “I must especially stress that domestic violence and abusive marriages are not ‘sanctioned’ in some way by this text.. [it] has led to such problematic applications, with the result that some pastors or other Christian friends will advise a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship because this is God’s will. Physical abuse between spouses, however, was not sanctioned even by Greco-Roman statutes, and so persevering in an abusive relationship cannot have been an aspect of the witness to the unbelieving spouse…
the author is speaking very specifically about suffering endured for ‘doing what is right’, for ‘doing good,’ ‘for the name of Christ,’ and for ‘bearing the name’ of ‘a Christian.’ Suffering ‘in line with God’s will’ is quite explicitly limited by this author to suffering encountered because of obedience to Jesus’ call.”
In 1 Peter there are two different Greek words for used for suffering. One of them is path’-ay-mah. This word speaks of the things that happen to us, a trial we have endured. In our particular passage today the word for suffering is paschko. Paschko is slightly different. It refers to our experience, “a sensation or impression.”
The suffering of pain is apart of the human condition, but our vulnerability to fully experiencing suffering is more deliberate. Path’-ay-mah is inevitable, paschko is not.
Paschko, the suffering highlighted in our scripture today, is the type of suffering that stays with us, that makes us able to give and receive compassion. It is the beginning of empathy.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, best known for the five stages of grief she describes in her book, On Death and Dying, writes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
This call to enter into the suffering of Christ, is a call to become beautiful through vulnerability. Every one of us is shaped by the pain and suffering in our lives. We can choose to shoulder the burden, stuff the hurt inside and never let it see the light, allowing it to embitter us. Or, we can invite the peace that Christ embodied, even and especially, as he surrendered his earthly life on the cross.
Parker Palmer wrote about this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness. He says that there are two kinds of broken hearts: the first is one that is “an unresolved wound we carry with us for a long time, sometimes tucking it away and feeding it, sometimes trying to “resolve it” by inflicting the same wound on others.” The second is a different way to consider what a broken heart might mean. He says, “Imagine that small clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into the largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” He then shares a Hasidic tale where a disciple asks the rabbi, “”why does Torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
It is not a comfortable thing to know that Christ died for us, that Christ’s pain brought about our freedom. Right after speaking of Christ’s suffering we are told by the author to follow in Christ’s example. This is not a call to sadistic self-depreciation, but an invitation to embrace the reality that Christ died for us, Christ rose for us. Christ reigns in power over us and Christ prays for us. That there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace, but everything we can do to respond to this great sacrifice.
This is the call to discipleship: knowing to our core that God cares so deeply for us, to allow that love to fall into our broken hearts, and then to live as the loved and liberated children of God we are. Amen.
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11
April 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
God’s love endures forever. God’s love endures forever. There are times it is easy to echo the Psalmist’s words: when we see God’s beauty in nature, when we experience miraculous healing for ourselves or someone we love, or when falling in love. God’s love endures forever.
What about when the pain of this world seems all too much; when pain, death, and destruction can be found under every headline?
I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where so many terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief. As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord is near indeed.
However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but, by the Holy Spirit, to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, as each of us takes a break from the 24 hour news cycle and from our social media feeds, that is what I will do.
Bookending today’s Psalm we hear our refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam. It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us.
Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty. With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world. Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.
In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ.
God’s love endures forever. “Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”
It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to stay in that space of pain makes us frozen to the action we can take. In the often quoted Psalm 23 we hear of the constancy of God’s provision. In verses 4 and 5 we read: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
God is not merely creating comfort in an abstract intellectual way, but is walking alongside, co-creating peace, anointing with oil, and providing protection.
This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.
Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.
Author and activist Eve Ensler writes about our particularly American perspective of security in her book, “Insecure at Last.” She writes: “All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because now you have to watch out all the time. There are people not like you, people you now call enemies. You have places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit…Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission…Of course you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, contradict your stereotype, destroy the whole structure…. There are evildoers and saviors. Criminals and victims. There are those who, if they are not with us, are against us.”
She continues, “How did we, as Americans, come to be completely obsessed with our individual security and comfort above all else? … Is it possible to live surrendering to the reality of insecurity, embracing it, allowing it to open us and transform us and be our teacher? What would we need in order to stop panicking, clinging, consuming, and start opening, giving— becoming more ourselves the less secure we realize we actually are?”
There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we be conduits of God’s love, so that through us others will know, “God’s love endures forever.” Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.
Breath to Live
April 2, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
What is the meaning of life? Now if you’ve been reading your Book of Confessions you may echo the Westminster Catechism and tell me why of course it’s “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” If you’ve been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and you’re feeling a bit silly you may say, “42.” Even when we have full confidence in knowing our lives are in God’s hands, everyone experiences a season, or two, or many of thinking, “what is the meaning of my life?”
When you feel in a rut, or a valley if you will, and your wells of inspiration and perhaps even hope have dried up, it can be difficult to see God’s meaning or purpose in it. With this in mind, Ezekiel’s prophetic conversation with God doesn’t seem outside the bounds of what we might want to discuss with God as well. For some, these dry bones are far too close of an analogy, for those struggling with the ravages of cancer or loss, or in the deep throes of depression or grief, you know what it is to feel dried up and hollowed out.
In this text we hear God asking Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And there seems to be some annoyance coming from Ezekiel as he responds with something akin to, “I dunno. You tell me!”
Like anything in the Bible, this text is not an isolated little story of some time that Ezekiel spent talking to God in a valley, but comes to us from the historical context of the Babylonian Exile. Ezekiel, alongside other Judeans, was thrown out of Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Previous to that time the people of Israel were similarly deported, losing their communal identity in the ravages of life as refugees in Babylon. Ezekiel then was speaking to a people who were, in a great many ways, lost. By many markers of ancient culture, these followers of the God of Moses and of Abraham would have every reason to believe that their God had indeed lost out to a Babylonian god. They’ve taken over the Davidic monarchy, broken down the temple, uprooted the people, what’s left? It is in this context we hear, “mortal, can these bones live?”
It reminds me of a question in another story, that of Mary Lenox and Dickon discovering a Secret Garden and asking, “will it grow?”
When I was younger my parents would read to my sister and I every night. One of my favorite reading experiences was the Secret Garden. My experience was most certainly heightened by my mother’s love of this story, particularly in the musical stage adaptation. When we read the Secret Garden we had plans to go to see the musical in Detroit at the Fisher Theater when we had finished it. As we read the story, we accompanied it with a listening of the soundtrack, but my mom was always sure to stop it before it got past wherever we were in the story so as not to spoil any of the plot for us. So, needless to say, we heard that soundtrack quite a bit over the weeks leading up to seeing that production.
One of the songs was titled, “Wick.” When Mary and Dickon uncover the Secret Garden, Mary believes that all the plants have died because, well, they look like they’ve all died. Dickon explains that it’s not so simple, there’s still life in those plants, life that can be coaxed out with attention and care. He calls this spark of life within the plants their “wick,’ and sings:
“When a thing is wick, it has a light around it. Maybe not a light that you can see. But hiding down below a spark’s asleep inside it, Waiting for the right time to be seen. You clear away the dead parts, So the tender buds can form, Loosen up the earth and Let the roots get warm, Let the roots get warm.”
Dickon knows the potential left in those plants and knows the way to bring it out. He will prune and water, weed and rake. He will take away the dead parts to give room for life to flourish. He knows that though this garden has experienced abandonment, it’s story is not over yet.
Ezekiel finds himself in a similar position, but learning how to bring renewed life only through God’s good counsel, who tells him to prophesy to the bones, to tell them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
When you are feeling like those dried bones or that neglected garden, it really isn’t a matter of pulling yourself out of it, you need that prophetic word. You need someone else to believe on your behalf that there is life in you that is worth saving; noticing and naming that you are “wick,” and then tending you back into blooming.
This spring there has been an incredible example of renewed life in, of all places, Death Valley. As the name would suggest, this valley is known for being dry, a place where not much grows. But… every decade or so, there is just enough rain that there is a super-bloom that brings life and brightness to the valley. Rangers are saying that this year is the best one they’ve seen since 2005.
The Washington Post describes it this way:
“The types of flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as ‘desert ephemerals,’ since they are so short-lived, according to the National Park Service. Their brief lifespan is a survival strategy; rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground….One upside of the hot, dry conditions is that they keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout. A winter like this one provides that moment. An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.
“The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, the NPS explained, allowing them to sprout. Then, the “godzillo” El Niño climate cycle that has chilled and drench parts of the West Coast… brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the … plants alive as they waited for spring to come. With the arrival of warmer weather … the plants finally began to flower.
In a video we’re about to watch, Van Valkenburg says “I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these super blooms. “And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he continued. “… When you get the perfect conditions…they can all sprout at once.”
What in you is lying in wait for God’s breath to make it live? Who around you needs the care and tending that you can provide to help them bloom to their fullest? As we enter this Spring season, may we be attentive to that which is “wick” in one another, seeking to speak God’s message of hope, that God is ever eager to fill our lungs with the breath of new life. Amen.
“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats
February 19, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Alright, we’re going to play a game, Let’s call it Matthew 5. When you hear something that applies to you, raise your hand:
Who out there has given clothing to a friend?
Who has gone the extra mile to help someone out that is close to you?
Who has given money to someone you care about?
Now, who has given clothing to someone you really don’t like?
How about going the extra mile, who has gone above and beyond to help someone who has gone out of their way to be unkind to you?
What about money, who has given money to someone who they don’t trust at all?
Okay, now raise your hand if you are perfect.
When we really think about the practical applications of this text, it’s a hard one to follow. It’s made harder by the fact that we probably don’t name those around us the same way this text does.
Who is your enemy? Perhaps someone popped into your head immediately. If so you may be thinking, guess I’m really failing that, “be perfect,” test? Or maybe not. I’d like us to think about this for a minute. Who is your enemy? You might be sitting there thinking, “oh, this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have any enemies,” but let’s really think about it. Who is it that has caused you pain? Who has acted unjustly in your life? Who has caused pain to those you love? Whose actions diminish your way of living?
Jesus does something interesting in this text. He doesn’t say “don’t have enemies,” or “avoid evildoers,” in fact Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer,” and “love your enemy.” Because it’s in the past we can fall into thinking that it was a simpler time. I know those pictures I’ve seen of Jesus preaching have everyone in rapt attention. No one questioning, no one doubting. Everyone on his side. I remember hearing about the crucifixion when I was younger and thinking, “why on earth did they kill Jesus?” “what did they think that he had done?” “wasn’t he nice to everyone?”
What I didn’t know then, and what I’ll likely always be trying to understand, is that if you are nice to some people, there are others who won’t like you very much. And if you profess loyalty to God’s kingdom of justice through equality, those who benefit from being on top really don’t want you around. There really aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys that we may boil things down to for the sake of Veggie Tales and children’s books. There are so many more nuances in between, and perspective is everything. How can we love those so against who we are and what we are?
Luther Seminary professor, Karoline Lewis wrote, “Loving your enemies will not sit well with most… First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects… Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think… We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, ‘Do you really know who they are?’”
I know there have been times in this current political climate where I have felt wary of those around me with symbols and clothing that have designated them to be of a different ideology than me. Though never threatened directly, I didn’t feel entirely safe to be who I was, where I was. And if I feel this way as a Christian, white, cisgendered, heterosexual American female citizen with european ancestry living in a small town, you know there are many in other demographics who feel exponentially less safe than I do, those whose demographics place them automatically on the “other” list for a majority of the people they interact with every single day. Many have enemies, not of their own choosing, but who are self-identified by their proclamations of xenophobic opposition and hate.
In his challenging book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” Gregory Boyd writes, “While people in the kingdom of the world usually do good to those who do good to them, followers of Jesus are called to do good even to those who harm them (Luke 6:34-35). When struck on the cheek, we are to offer up the other (Luke 6:29). When asked by an oppressive Roman guard to carry his equipment one mile, we are to offer to carry it two (Matthew 5:41). Understood in their original context, these teachings do not tell us to allow people to abuse us, as though we are to love our enemies but not ourselves. To the contrary, Jesus is giving us a way by which we can keep from being defined by those who act unjustly toward us. When we respond to violence with violence, whether it be physical, verbal, or attitudinal, we legitimize the violence of our enemy and sink to his level. When we instead respond unexpectedly—offering our other cheek and going a second mile—we reveal, even as we expose the injustice of his actions, that our nemesis doesn’t have the power to define us by those actions. (p. 39-40)”
This is the very principle that spurred Martin Luther King Jr. to found a movement of nonviolent resistance, and the very thing that made it so powerful. Hate is the expected response to hate. Confront pain with peace and it is thrown off balance. Are we really to love our enemies? What would that love even look like?
Presbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too. You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.”
Too often we believe conflict avoidance is the way to be a Christian, but avoiding our enemy gets us no closer to being able to love them. Our scripture says “do not resist an evildoer,” no, instead Christ invites us to draw closer to them, to offer our other cheek, and our cloak, and to walk that extra mile. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about a movement of nonviolent resistance. It wasn’t violent, but it was still confrontation.
How can we faithfully confront hate without allowing ourselves to reflect that same hate? How can we use our opposition to unmask our enemies rather than drive them further away? What would it mean to really and truly know your enemies?
African American musician Daryl Davis has spent his life working to figure this out. I recently saw his story in an incredibly thought-provoking documentary, “Accidental Courtesy.” He seeks out members of the Klu Klux Klan and asks over and over again, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” His passion is meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to change their minds and forge racial conciliation.
In the documentary, Davis says, “Let’s say you and 20 other people have this group that is anti-racist and all you do it talk about how bad racism is, what good is that group doing? All you’re doing is preaching to the choir. If you and I agree, I’m not accomplishing anything by trying to convince you of which you already know. The way you resolve that is you invite somebody to the table who disagrees with you and so you can understand why they have that point of view. Then, perhaps, you will figure out a solution to dissuade our fears.”
His words echo that of Jesus in our text, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
Davis most certainly practices what he preaches, going out of his way time and time again to come alongside members of the KKK and learn what it is that motivates their white supremacist beliefs. He told a story of helping the family of a klansman to visit the man in prison and the way that his care for them, even and especially in the face of their hate, enabled him to change their minds and hearts.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”
Let’s think about that “enemy,” that you identified earlier. Let’s use some different questions this time. What pain has your enemy experienced? What has shaped their sense of justice? How is their life diminished by the absence of your story and experience?
I’ll admit, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m still figuring out what this radical vulnerability in the face of an enemy would look like in my life, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe wholeheartedly, that our efforts to show love and compassion in the face of hate are not in vain.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We hear these words and feel inadequate, but this word that we have translated in the text as “perfect,” can also be translated as “complete.” When we seek the wellbeing of those who do not seek the same for us, we do come closer to the completeness only found when two sides meet to form a whole. May we ever seek to bring about the perfection God desires for us, so it may be on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Here is a trailer for the documentary I reference:
The full-length film is available here till the end of February 2017.
February 5, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Growing up with lake effect snow from Lake Erie I am well acquainted with the beauty of winter. We all know the beauty of that new fallen snow. Each snowflake coming together to form a blanket of white… But, we’ve also been around long enough to know what comes next… the not so pretty colors of this season.
Michigan Live drew up this handy depiction of the winter colors that set in later on. Here we’ve got “just another cloudy day,” “pothole cold patch,” “parking lot snow pile,” “dirty car,” “it’s snowing again,” and “Vitamin D deficiency.” We know these colors all too well.
If we look at our shoes or our cars in this season they are inevitably covered in salt. It’s impossible to keep a car clean, as they all turn grey from the salt. In winter, we use salt to melt the ice, salt to make traction for our safety as we drive. Salt is very important. However, salt in and of itself does not eliminate the ice. Rather, it is aided by sunshine, by just enough warmth that it can do it’s work.
Our scripture today carries this same equation of elements to revitalize the world: salt and light.
When Matthew’s Gospel calls us the salt of the world it’s an interesting comparison. What does salt mean to our faith? What does our flavor do to the world around us?
On a basic level, salt is about balance. It can cause harm or good. Salt is a building block of life, it aids in processes of the body, directly affecting functions of the body such as blood pressure. Too much salt in the body can lead to hypertension or stroke, not enough salt can create low blood pressure.
To follow the apostle Paul’s metaphor, belief in God without understanding of God’s abundant grace can also cause great stress in our lives and those around us. Faith in God’s mercy without understanding of the breadth and scope of God’s love for all around us creates a faith without flavor, a faith that lacks the ability to reach beyond one’s self.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read his prayer for such a faith: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
In Jesus’ time and for many years before we had the conveniences of modern refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative, helping to keep something edible over long winters or periods without fresh meat or produce. Maintaining the flavor of faith requires preservation, opening ourselves to the spiritual practices that keep us fresh over time. As the salt of the world, we are to preserve and protect God’s creation, in all of its forms among all of God’s people.
Another application of salt is the ancient practice of “salting the earth” or “sowing with salt” as an act of sabotage or revenge. This act would prevent water filtration and drainage and make the land unusable for farming. This was used after conquering a place in war, salting the earth so that it would not produce life for many years to come.
In Deuteronomy 29:21-25 those who have knowingly defied their promises to God are faced with such a fate. The scripture says, ‘The LORD will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the LORD has afflicted it—all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger— they and indeed all the nations will wonder, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?’ They will conclude, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.’”
Salt can be a dangerous thing if used incorrectly. Salt used out of spite can cause destruction. Unfortunately, there are many who profess a faith in Christ who use the title of Christian as a weapon, wielding judgment and unbiblical messages of hate. If you’re not sure what this looks like in practice, here’s a hint, all messages of hate are unbiblical. Our God calls us to love others and to leave God alone as the judge, a judgment we are saved from by the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.
1 John 4:20-21 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
This cartoon reflects humorously on the way some people, unfortunately try to use their faith as a weapon.
Romans 5:6-13 affirms our confidence in our salvation through Jesus Christ. The scripture says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 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. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.”
In popular science fiction and folklore, salt is used as a deterrent for evil spirits, ghosts, and vampires. In some stories, it is even said that fairies and vampires must count every grain of salt if they come across it before moving on. Salt is cast in these stories as a purifying element, which we experience medicinally through saline used in cleaning and healing the body.
Scripture also speaks of the importance of the purity of our faith, and how it may be an example. In 1 Timothy 4:12 we read: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
When we eat something with salt, salt can bring out the best of the flavors, aiding bread in rising, helping water to boil. While salt in all of its applications has quite a bit to do with balance and order, we also know, that salt in and of itself is not so exciting. In fact, I bet none of you want to go home and just eat a spoonful of salt. If Mary Poppins had suggested that I am certain her song would have far less fame. Salt causes thirst, a desire for something beyond that taste, something to wash it down, or at least complement the flavor. Salt by itself will not satisfy.
It is a Christian tradition to place salt on the tongue of a candidate for baptism saying, “Satisfy him [her] with the Bread of Heaven that he [she] may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.” The symbolic significance is that the truth of baptism will be preserved from error, that the baptized person will reflect the flavor of Christ in life, and that by tasting salt they will have a yearning for the sweetness of Bread of Life and the Living Water, that is to say, Jesus.
This week I heard a new, new to me that is, application for salt: putting salt on a bird’s tail as a way to catch it. Show of hands, who has heard of this one before? So, the story goes, that if you are able to sneak up to a bird and put salt on it’s tail, that the salt will weigh it down just enough so that it won’t be able to take off and then you can catch it. Now the member who told me about this and I did some googling to figure out if this were indeed true, and the answer we got was a “sort of,” the logic being, if you are close enough to a bird to be able to put salt on it’s tail, you just may be close enough to grab it as well. In our faith, when we are receptive to the flavor of faith, it’s not the flavor that draws us in, though that may be the initial lure, it’s our God that comes close and brings us into God’s arms.
So how are you being this salt in the earth? Are you keeping your faith fresh? Are you preserving the Gospel of Christ? Are you demonstrating a purity of faith? Are you causing others to thirst for God?
Scripture tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Not we might be or we need to work to be, but we are. How will you use your saltiness for good? How will you create balance and create newness?
Certainly, we do not do these things by our own means but through Christ, our light and salvation, working together as salt and light for the goodness of all.
Next time you look at the saltiness on your shoes or coating your car, may you think about how salt and light work together to make this world whole again. Amen.
Many people, even those who are lifelong Christians, are surprised to hear that the trinity is not in scripture. We have it in our creeds, our confessions, our catechisms, look out in the Narthex and you’ll see it represented on the stained glass depictions on the confessional banners, but at no point do Jesus, Paul, or any other apostles stop amidst their theological teachings and lay out the spiritual math equation of 1 Creator + 1 Savior Jesus + 1 Holy Spirit = 1 God. Christian teaching is one of very few places you will be taught that 3 = 1.
I know I’ve struggled with this understanding, especially in the Old Testament when there is so much language simply referring to God as “Lord.” For much of the Bible you only have one aspect referred to at any given time. It’s always struck me like one of those movie tropes where you only realize people are twins once you get them in the same room. But here, in this story we have the big three all together in one place: Parent, Child, Spirit; Father Son, Holy Ghost; or my favorite, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Here also we we have the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is perhaps one of those most common ways that the Holy Spirit is depicted. If you look out in the Narthex, both the Nicene Creed and the Brief Statement of Faith banners feature a dove as a depiction of the Holy Spirit. The imagery of the Holy Spirit as dove is so foundational to our specific tradition that we feature it prominently in the Presbyterian cross.
If you’re as intrigued by the symbols of the Bible as I am, “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue is a really interesting read. The book highlights the role various birds play in the Biblical narratives as well as other layers of historical secular meanings. One of the ways that the dove as Holy Spirit is described is as the creative catalyst, the initiator. Blue writes, “In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art throughout the centuries has depicted this hovering presence…as a dove… Once we get to the baptism of Jesus the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus’ shoulder and a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son… with whom I am well pleased.’ “
This often used symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, is nowhere nearly as common in scripture, this symbol of the Holy Spirit explicitly as a dove is only actually present in our particular text today, in verse 16: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
Now I have a bit of a linguistic confession to make. Without being hyperbolic, I think I can honestly say I’ve read this passage at least 100 times. And every time previous to very recently I read “alighting” as some derivation of the word “lighting.” Now, being that we’ve been focusing on being “held by the promised light” all throughout Advent, it really comes as no big surprise that light is on my mind. But this word carries two meanings, one, the one I had originally thought, is a poetic way of going about saying something was set aflame. This is how I pictured the dovelike presence, not with the soft politeness one might typically see from a dove, but coming down to earth in a blaze of Pentecostal glory.
Turns out, when you dig around a bit in other translations and in the Greek, the real definition of “alighting” here is, “to descend and settle.” This evokes images of a crisp tree in autumn falling on green grass, a butterfly on a flower, or a pigeon on a park statue. Not quite as intense as I thought.
Still, there is power in this alighting. At Jesus’ baptism we have the convergence of God the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. In this moment Jesus is named as God’s beloved child and Jesus’ ministry begins.
And where does he go from here? Does he have an internship at the office of a minor deity or perhaps an apprenticeship so he can learn the family trade of divinity? No, there’s no easy resting for him, once these words come to him he goes out into the wilderness,
automatically thrown into the most difficult of tests. And if being in the wilderness isn’t hard enough he is forced into a battle of wits and temptation with the devil. From there, from the wilderness place, he goes out to perform miracles, challenge the status quo, and teach a new way of living. The beginning of his career serving as a preview of the way his life on earth would end: death, hell, and then resurrection. He goes through the worst the devil has to offer, bearing the brunt of sin for us.
Debbie Blue writes of the symbolic significance: “Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized. Baptism is a symbol of death and renewed life. It’s a bold statement to begin with. God’s don’t generally die. – nor would they stoop to be baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary. To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. “
In baptism we acknowledge the grace through which God claims us as God’s beloved. We acknowledge our inclusion in the family of God, function as the body of Christ, and enlivenment by the Holy Spirit. In baptism the spirit of God calls out new life from the muck of our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.
December 12, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
On the Wednesdays we have Committee Meetings here at church we have a time of devotions based on the scripture for the upcoming Sunday, and so this past week we reflected on this text. I can’t name who it was exactly, but someone said upon reading this passage what stood out to them was the word “magnifies” and that this magnification brings Christ more clearly into view. Christ more clearly into view. This image has stayed with me throughout the rest of this week.
You see, the word “magnificat” comes from the Latin for “magnify,” so of all of the parts of this song, the magnification of God is at the heart of it. And there’s something about this season for me that could use a bit more clarity. I turn on the radio and hear of all the ways I could be spending money or events I could be attending. I open Pinterest or Facebook and see all the traditions I could be establishing with Calvin and David, or the perfect display of food that I could bring to my family’s celebration. If I’m not careful I spend a lot more time looking at to do lists than looking to the savior whose birth we are remembering.
What would it look like for our souls to magnify the Lord?
For Mary it meant giving her full self in service of God’s kingdom. I don’t believe it was simply a matter of surrender, rather it was an act of co-creation, a divine collaboration of God’s incarnation and Mary’s humanity. She refers to her lowliness and acknowledges how worth is transformed in God’s economy: power brought down, lowly lifted up. Jesus comes as the revelation of love from God and the revolution of justice for Mary and all God’s people.
We magnify the Lord through our own collaborations with God, seeking God’s will and acting out of the creative capacity that God has given us. Our acts of love and justice make space for God’s kingdom to be manifest in our communities, families, and individual lives.
This past week at our presbytery meeting we had the absolute delight of hearing the stories of two seminarians moving through the ordination process from the status of inquirer to candidate, one of them being our own Ashley Bair. It was incredible to hear how each of them in their own way was living into the call that God had placed on their lives. Through their respective passions of justice and peacemaking, imagination and creativity, Jesus’ incarnation was magnified and God’s love for God’s people was made clearer. After hearing both people speak, one of the pastors of the presbytery was so confident in the hope of their gifts for ministry that he jokingly said, “well, I guess I can die now!”
Most, however, don’t feel a defined call to ordained ministry or are visited by an angel who spells out the ways that we will “magnify the Lord.” Given the frustrations that a lack of direction can bring us, it’s tempting to say that following God’s will was less complex for Mary.
It can be easy to take Mary’s joy at face value. She has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus, why wouldn’t she be joyful? She’s going to be celebrated for generations to come! How lucky is she? But things were more complicated than this song may lead us to believe. We know after all that she was bringing Jesus into a world that didn’t look kindly on women, or the poor, and particularly not unmarried pregnant women.
We also know that though Jesus was sinless, it was not necessarily easy to be his parent. There’s only one account of Jesus as a child and it involves him breaking away from their traveling group, staying behind at the temple, and essentially scaring his parents to death when they thought he’d been lost. I’d imagine that this wasn’t the only story of his rebellion throughout his childhood. Divinely guided or not, any parent would be stressed out trying to keep up with a child as precocious as this one story paints him to be.
And then of course, there’s Jesus’ adulthood. How different things look for Mary a little over 30 years later: her son, her beloved Jesus is arrested, mocked, beaten, and crucified. As Simeon tells Mary at Jesus’ temple dedication, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Just in that first week of parenthood I’m sure that prophecy gave her several gray hairs at the thought of it.
This soul, all too soon to be pierced by grief, is first the site of God’s magnification, bringing God close, not just through a magnifying glasses optical illusion, but through living and breathing, flesh and blood incarnation. It’s not about pointing to some divine presence in the skies, but rather pointing to our God at work in the right here and right now. In the same way, she points to how in God the lowly aren’t just comforted where they are, but they are given positions of honor and their voices are valued.
But magnifying doesn’t just provide clarity, it can also serve as a way to focus light, even to the point of creating fire. Sometimes that focused light-turned-heat looks like anger at injustice, protesting and speaking out against oppression. Sometimes it looks like creative passion, making beauty and art that bring hope or move people to compassion. And sometimes it looks like shining a light on what has been kept secret in the darkness, speaking out about abuse or shame, telling the truth about who and whose we are, knowing that the truth will set you free. All of these are ways that we, and others of God’s children, magnify God’s love, and create more light through our lives.
More Light is a phrase we as a church family know personally, as we identify as a More Light Congregation. In November of 2015, our session voted to affirm this statement: “Because we are a people who follow the risen Christ, we move that the First Presbyterian Church of Holt become a More Light Church to offer a true community of hospitality for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in society.”
It was interesting to me to learn of the origin of this phrase. Though the organization by that name did not come about until 1992, the phrase is traced back all the way to 1646, a full 210 years before our congregation was even founded. John Robinson was a spiritual leader of the pilgrims who founded the Plymouth colony. As they set sail on the Mayflower in 1646 he sent them off urging them to be open to new religious teaching, saying, “if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry.” In other words, Robinson urged his congregation to follow what we as Presbyterians declare, that we are reformed, and always being reformed according to the word of God. Speaking of the limited knowledge of God by anyone teacher Robinson said: “For though they were precious shining lights in their Times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received.”
Perhaps this a way that God will be magnified in your soul: through shedding light on a theology of God’s expansive love. Through acknowledging all people as God’s beloved children. Perhaps there is another frontier of compassion and justice that you are called to ignite through your magnification. Where are the powerful that God will bring down or the lowly to be lifted up? How can you collaborate with our God of justice to pair flesh and blood with the divine?
May our souls ever magnify the Lord. Amen.
November 27, 2016, FPC Holt
Think of some of the most life changing days of your life. So many of these days we can’t see coming: when you were downsized from the job where you’d worked for many years; when you happened to be in just the place at just the right time and met your significant other; when you wake up in the morning to find your beloved pet isn’t acting quite right and then suddenly you have to say goodbye; when you found out that you were expecting a baby; or the moment you received the call with a frightening medical diagnosis. Times when, for better or for worse, your life is suddenly altered, your daily patterns are askew and you move forward in a different direction than you predicted.
That is the type of occurrence that we read about in our scripture today. It describes how everyone is simply going about their day, eating, drinking, marrying, planting, cooking, and then all of a sudden God incarnate shows up and shakes up everything.
First Jesus references Noah and the flood. A terrible and frightening occurrence, that has some surprisingly cheery depictions in some children’s curriculums. What about the other animals? What about the other people? It’s a grim tale of God’s creation being swept away in God’s wrath. And yet, in those paired off animals and rainbowed sky, we are given the hope that this is the worst there is and will ever be.
The second account in this passage is that of the coming of the messiah, a new way to save the world from the blight of sin. This time God doesn’t erase that which God has created, but rather erases that which separates the people from God: the pain of sin and death. They’d likely heard the story of Noah and knew how frightening that all turned out, but the coming of the Messiah was an unknown.
Back in this time they had no sort of Advent calendar counting down the days to Christ’s birth and we can be quite certain that Mary wasn’t given a due date. What they do have are instructions to “keep awake.” A call for vigilance was all they received for an itinerary, with what may seem like dismissive direction they are told to go about their business, and to do some knowing that at any moment God’s presence will be among them and the reign of heaven will come to earth.
These were a people who’d heard the prophecies of a messiah coming to bring salvation for humankind, so these stories Jesus was telling weren’t news exactly, but more of a clarification of how things were to come about. What they didn’t understand was that God’s own presence was before them: the God, “who is, who was, and who is to come.” And yet, God’s incarnate self in Jesus wasn’t just letting them off the hook because he had arrived. God’s realm continues to be revealed, as God’s people seek for God’s kingdom to come and will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
There’s a huge difference between knowing that something is coming and knowing when. Even many of the anticipated events in our lives don’t come with a known time and date.
Many of you know the sort of anticipatory energy I had for an event that happened in my life four months ago to this very day. For nine months previous I had been living in both fearful and joyful anticipation of my dear son Calvin’s birth. At the end there it was truly such a strange season: I felt a bit like a ticking time bomb. I knew that at any moment Calvin would come into the world and shake everything up. It made it tricky, to say the least, to plan our preaching schedule, let alone buy too many groceries for fear that Calvin’s birth would prevent me from preaching or allow our food to spoil. People would tell us, “your life is about to radically change,” and I would respond, “I sure hope so!” I knew he was coming, and that pregnancy wouldn’t last forever, but when he was nine days overdue it did become hard to believe that was the case.
Another event happened in my life recently that I also knew was coming, but in a much more general sense. Friday, September 16th I received a message from my mother: My beloved Grandma Martha had had a stroke and the prognosis did not look good. I knew on a base level that she would not live forever. No one does. But she was such a presence in my life, and the lives of those around her, that it seemed impossible to imagine her gone. Upon receiving the news we got in the car and drove straight to Toledo to be with her. Though she was only occasionally responsive, I held her hand and told her many of my memories with her, family vacations every summer at Higgin’s Lake, the road trips the two of us had, our bi-weekly phone calls on my commutes to or from church. And then just a few days later, she was gone.
In both life and in death, we want to live without regret, doing all we can for the safety and well being of not only ourselves, but those around us. This very desire is what keeps insurance companies and estate lawyers in business.
Knowing that something is coming doesn’t mean we’re prepared for it. We prepare for our predictions, what we think will happen, for the direction we anticipate our lives taking, but ultimately we are not the ones in control, God is. But knowing that God is in control and even surrendering our own will and praying for God’s will to be done doesn’t mean we lose agency or responsibility. We are called to work as we wait.
There’s a song that came to mind when I read this text, called “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The words go: “True love will find you in the end This is a promise with a catch Only if you’re looking can it find you ‘Cause true love is searching too But how can it recognize you Unless you step out into the light? Don’t be sad I know you will But don’t give up until True love finds you in the end.”
For me this song speaks to the paradox faced when anticipating something, both patiently waiting and anxiously working towards transformative love.
We are called to wait for Christ’s coming, but it is not a passive act. While we wait, we work. We eat. We drink. We marry. We plant. We cook. Knowing that God’s reign is coming doesn’t preclude us from seeking to make God’s kingdom manifest while on earth. This Advent Season may we live in this tension: ever waiting for and working towards God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.
October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Several 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.
It 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. I’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.”The 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.”
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.
Professor 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.
If 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.
In 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.
When 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. I’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. 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.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
When 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.
Every 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.
As 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.
When 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.
When 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:
One 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.
One 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.
Other 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. 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.
This 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.
This 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.
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.
In 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. “
These 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.
While 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.
October 2, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Unclean! 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? It’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.
What 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.
This 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.”
Jesus 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.
This 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.
In 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.
One 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.
UCC 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.”
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.
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.
“Out of Control”
June 26, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Anybody listen to this scripture text and think, “wow, Jesus is a bit cranky!”? Really, I can’t bury my father? And I can’t even say good bye to my friends and family? Can I at least leave a note? Jesus seems quite unreasonable, given the would be followers’ requests. Is it really so much to ask to want to get your affairs in order before following Jesus out into who knows what? With our story today, Jesus says, yes.
Following Jesus requires not only willingness, but first priority. Faithfulness is not faithfulness without follow through. What Jesus is asking is not for them to just take on a new extracurricular activity, but to take on an entire new way of life. What he is ultimately asking them to give up is control. Giving up control can be a very scary thing. We are taught to be self-reliant, to make well reasoned, thought out decisions.
Each would-be disciples’ responses are met with Jesus’ counter-cultural control-arresting admonitions. First is the one who says“I will follow you wherever you go.” To him Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Housing security is one of our most basic needs. Your safety and physical well being are directly tied into your ability to have a roof over your head at night. If you have a consistent place to sleep each night, chances are your rent or mortgage, along with utilities and property taxes are your highest expense each month. And we pay those bills because of how highly we value the security and consistency of having a place to call our own, a place where we can live as we please.
Jesus, however, is calling the disciples to set aside control in this very basic aspect of human life, and to take on a nomadic existence, not knowing where they will end each day, or how they will get their meals. If you have experienced housing insecurity perhaps you understand what a seemingly impossible task to which Jesus is calling the disciples to willingly undertake.
In Jesus’ example he lifts up foxes and birds as having a home, while asking the disciples to go without, which would mean that they have less control in their lives than animals. This is a bold and frightening thing.
Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has generated some interesting conversation and some controversy through his statue of a homeless Jesus. He has made over 30 of these statues at this point, the first in Toronto and then in cities across the United States, including Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Austin, Buffalo, and D.C., as well as around the world in Belfast, Dublin,Longton, and the Vatican. Through the statue Schmalz has said that he’s trying to generate conversation about Matthew 25, and how we care for Jesus through caring for those in need.
As far back as Psalm 127 and David in 2 Samuel 7, followers of God have been concerned with making a home for God, but over and over again God has insisted that God’s presence is not to be contained. While we may never be exactly comfortable with the idea of God as homeless, we can come to trust that Christ is at work in and through experiences of our unrest and lack of control.
A second would-be disciple asks Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And to him Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Rituals surrounding death have a long and deep history, involving social, physiological, and sacred purpose. Jewish burial customs of this time included a tearing of garments, constant watch of the body before it was buried, hiring of paid mourners, very specific body preparation, and then a week long mourning period for the family called Shiva.
It’s also important to note that the body was supposed to be buried on the same day in which the person had died. So this man was likely being called upon to leave and follow Jesus on the very same day as his father’s death. Asking this man to leave those family responsibilities and personal desires to process grief seems like a cruel thing. Why would Jesus ask that of him?
While grieving the death of a family member can be deeply personal there are also quite a bit of logistics to go alongside it. By asking this man to leave at this time Jesus speaks to man within his grief and stress and frees him from the work surrounding this death so that he may experience new life. In doing so there are decisions that he will have no say in, possessions he will not inherit. Jesus is asking him to willing give up control of his family’s situation so he may be able to take his place in the family of God.
The third potential disciple, tries to bargain with Jesus. He says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus is not one to negotiate, saying to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’ve never personally plowed a field, but understand that doing so, particularly with a mule and plow as would’ve likely been the method at that point, requires much concentration. Often mules will be outfitted with blinders to keep them headed straight. If the farmer looks to the side, or worse, turns around, chances are the mule and the plow will swerve, messing up the work that has been done, slowing down the process and creating more work.
Jesus saw this man’s request to say goodbye as a sign of reluctance, a lack of focus for the work that laid ahead. There’s a possibility too that in turning back and saying goodbye to those in his home they might try and talk him out of it. They might give him reason to never make it back to Jesus, never begin to pursue Jesus’ mission. Jesus was asking for unconditional surrender of control. No, “First I’ll do this and then I’ll follow you,” would work for following Jesus.
Each of these acts, nomadic living, operating outside of societal burial customs, and focusing on God’s kingdom, require renouncing the control that they thought they had, and placing their trust in Jesus’ ministry and mission. Each act requires faith.
Presbyterian minister, Carol Howard Merritt, writes, “In these three responses, Jesus…calls out to those in this time who will follow him and be his disciples. To follow Christ means a reordering of life that includes the possibility that one may never settle down. To follow Christ entails understanding oneself in relation to Jesus, even when experiencing disorientation in one’s own family and confusion in one’s sense of self. To follow Christ requires a single-minded resolve that looks forward to the work ahead and is cognizant of the risk that accompanies discipleship.”
Does Jesus seem cranky in his responses? Perhaps, but Jesus’ eyes were set to Jerusalem, set to the place where crucifixion awaited him. He was running out of time and nothing but resolute faith through action would do. May we relinquish our control so we may follow Jesus with the focus he requires. Amen.
“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved”
June 19, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
It was early last Sunday morning that the stories started coming in. There was a shooting in Orlando. 20 people were dead, more were injured. It happened at a gay nightclub. When we got to worship on Sunday these were the things I had heard, but no one really knew what all had happened, how many shooters, what their motivation was, or how high the death toll would climb. As the investigation continued, and still does, the numbers rose. 49 people killed, 53 injured, making it the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
The story was horrifying to hear, but for a while all of these facts seemed so abstract to me, numbers and demographics. And even the fact that it was a shooting was abstract, living in a country where there are so, so many shootings.
That’s the frightening thing, these people were numbers and demographics to the shooter as well. How else could someone be capable of such horrors? His connection to ISIS is still being uncovered, but it is clear that this man didn’t know his victims names or their stories. He saw them as other, as a threat to what he saw as good and correct.
Our scripture today says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
In these two simple verses the world’s divisive dichotomies are brought down, and a true and full inclusion is offered, people no longer known by their demographics, but as their role as those whom belong to Christ, who are heirs of God’s goodness. Belonging to Christ changes everything. We are no longer the other at a distance, we are siblings in the household of God. When we belong to Christ, we belong to one another. Each of us is God’s beloved, a label that overwhelms and supersedes every other label this world seeks to assign us.
It’s easy to hate in the abstract. It’s hard to love in the abstract.
Many acts of hate are done at a distance through bullets, bombs, and barricades. Actions justified through blanket definitions of “those people,” “enemy,” and “other.” Throughout this week this hate has become manifest in homophobia, Islamophobia, as well as both anti-immigrant and anti-hispanic rhetoric and action. Hatred hidden behind many of the labels that our Galatians text would renounce.
Love, however, necessitates proximity. Love is more than just the absence of hate, it requires action. Stepping out from behind the barriers requires vulnerability. It requires allowing yourself to be known and seeking to know the other. And when fear gets in your way, love requires taking the time to see as God sees. Love in the face of this tragedy looks like listening to the LGBTQ+ people you encounter in your life, donating blood, calling out the evils of bigotry, donating to organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they respond to this tragedy, and reflecting the light of Christ into the dark corners of this world.
As happens in the wake of every tragedy, we hear the stories of those who are affected. With such a large number of people killed, the list of victims of the shooting came out gradually, name by name, person by person. Each one a family that would never be the same, a story cut short.
The very first name on that list was Edward Sotomayor. A name I hadn’t heard until a week ago, but one that changed everything about this shooting for me. You see, to my friend Tony Letts, Eddie wasn’t a name on a list, he was a dear friend. I’ve known Tony since I was 15 and met him through a program for high schoolers interested in vocational ministry. When Tony posted on Facebook about losing his friend Eddie in the shooting, I was shocked. I knew that each of the people killed had those had loved ones, but now knew someone I cared about was one of those people. Just that quickly the world became much smaller.
Throughout the week Tony has shared stories about his friend. Eddie was 34, worked for a gay travel agency, and was known for the top hats he often wore, as well as his quick wit, energy, and kindness. He was so very loved, by his friends, but also, by God who formed him, created him, and called him “beloved.” “Beloved” is the name by which God knows Eddie, as well as each of those affected by this shooting.
I heard a powerful story this week about a synagogue in Washington DC responding to this tragedy by taking the time to support the LGBTQ+ community in their own area, seeking to make their own world smaller, and their love less abstract. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld shares their experience:
“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah…I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.
We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.
I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.
Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.
We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.
Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.
…As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”
In 1 John 4, we read, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because God has given us of God’s Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Creator has sent the child as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the child of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us…. We love because God first loved us.”
It is God who teaches us to love, and God’s love that draws us towards one another when the pain, fear, and hatred of this world tries to pull us apart. Our love for one another enables God’s love to be perfected in us, making us instruments of God’s love in this world.
Sunday night at the Tony awards Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, accepted an award for Best Original Score and shared a sonnet he wrote for the occasion. Here is part of that sonnet:
“We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.”
We know from scripture that “love never ends.” May we allow God’s love to live in us, that all may know that each of “us” and each of “them,” is God’s own beloved. May we abandon the labels of this world to know the truth of God’s kingdom, that beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved. Amen.
“Much Forgiveness, Much Love”
In our scripture today, the primary character of our story is given a strange introduction, “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Reading that this week I thought, “hm, well that narrows it down.” Growing up in faith with the understanding of Romans 3:23, that is that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” to me this distinction is a funny one, basically just saying she was human, not divine. But in this specific account her status as “sinner” is different from the general sense of humanness that we all carry around with us, it was part of this woman’s identity, part of what made her very presence and actions towards Jesus unwelcome by the Pharisee who was hosting Jesus that day.
However, her interaction with Jesus is not an extension of her sinfulness, as the Pharisee seems to believe, rather it is a response of abundant joy and love. Jesus tells the Pharisee, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
One of the criticisms I’ve heard about Christianity in general and worship in particular, is that we spend too much time dwelling on our sins, on our failures, on the ways that we have fallen short of the glory of God. To me, I find the time we spend in worship focused on the confession of sins to be one of the most life giving parts. When else in our daily lives do we stand up in a crowd and confess that we have been wrong? Where else do we receive such complete forgiveness? How are our lives changed by receiving God’s grace in this way?
Historically confessions of sin have taken place throughout one’s community and personal life. Puritans wrote extensively detailed private diaries to allow them to confess their sins to God. These diaries were so thorough and so personal that they were most often burned at the time of the person’s death. Before there was a professional priesthood, Christians would gather together and confess their sins to one another to pray for each other’s healing. In the Catholic tradition priests use confessional booths to hear the confessions of their parishioners.
It seems our society these days is filled with opportunities for confession. One-camera “confessionals” are part of nearly every reality show misconstruing the term “confession” as a venting of frustrations with another or rare moments of self-reflection. Social media allows for quick opportunities to reveal our thoughts to whoever will listen. Many we interact with day to day receive our confessions: hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers in lines.
While there is nothing inherently wrong in this self-reflection, we should be aware of our motivation for these confessions. Are we simply trying to clear our minds? Gain accountability or advice from someone we trust? OR are we seeking forgiveness from God and other’s we have hurt out of a repentant heart?
It’s often a blessedly strange moment when I’m out in public and people find out I’m a pastor. I have been privy to many a confessional: on airplanes, in coffee shops, grocery stores, and just about everywhere else, just by someone learning my title. People often tell me of their church attendance, or lack thereof, confess their desire to strive to be a “good person,” some might tell me of their works in mission.
Often I want to ask, “Why are you telling me?” But then I remember who this position calls me to be. Over the centuries the role of clergy has been as a medium to God’s grace. In the Presbyterian Church we uphold a “priesthood of all believers,” which means that each of us can ask for God’s forgiveness directly/ However, it can be a daunting thing to approach God in confession, and so pastors and other clergy become a proxy.
Though these unsolicited confessions can lead to very interesting and insightful conversations, they most often seem like a defensive response, sort of a “making this right,” rather than the thought out contrition of a penitent heart. On the occasion that these conversations become a bit deeper they can lead to some pretty profound views of how those outside a church home view the church and their relationship to God. Many tell me that they don’t go to church because they’re just too busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.
Confession has long been one of my favorite parts about being a part of a worshipping community. I love the beautiful vulnerability of standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another.
Imagine what would happen if we went out to other places and relationships in our lives and confessed this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship. What a strange and wonderful world that would be.
So what is it that we’re even doing when we confess our sin? Do we think that our confessions will surprise God? Do we think that our words undo the hurt that we’ve caused to ourselves or to others? Why do so many of us have such an urgent desire to confess our sinfulness? Why is “making things right with God” such a priority?
Psalm 139:1-3 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”
God knows us intimately; there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. God surrounds our action and knows our hearts. God is well aware of each and every sin we have committed. God knows when we have willingly chosen other paths.
In 1 John 1:9 we hear, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
When we confess our sins it is not God who discovers our sinfulness, but rather it is our eyes that are opened to the presence of those sins and we begin the journey beyond our sinfulness.
The woman in our story today is overjoyed by the forgiveness she received through Jesus. So much so that she can’t help but have her joy spill out, washing, kissing, and anointing Jesus’ feet, with no regard for how people may perceive her actions. She seems to really get what is going on there, that by being forgiven her story changes, her identity changes. She is no longer shackled by the sin that had so long defined her.
Psalm 32 says “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” But then the Psalmist is turned in verse 5: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay P. Armstrong wrote, “Focusing on fault and magnifying its importance is not confession but megalomania, as if we know better than God does that we are undeserving of forgiveness. Such a posture narcissistically keeps the focus on our actions, when what God has done and continues to do is far more important. It involves refusing forgiveness and features failure to follow God’s lead into fresh ways of living.”
Confession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It’s not about us knowing what exactly made the woman in our story be so clearly defined as a sinner. Confession is about being drawn to reconciliation, it is about responding to God’s great love and God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Confession is about acknowledging what we’ve done, but then moving past it so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us.
2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says, “God reconciled us to Godself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.“
What do we do in worship each week after our confession? We are assured of our forgiveness and then, we pass God’s peace to one another. When we know we are forgiven, we are compelled to respond, taking that peace that we have received from God and extending that peace to one another.
The woman in our story knew that. Once forgiven she couldn’t keep bear to keep it to herself. Knowing that we have received God’s abundant forgiveness, may be we so compelled to respond. Amen.
Beloved Community: Beauty
May 29, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
I’ve always liked musical theatre. To me there’s something freeing about people breaking out into song when their emotion simply can’t be contained in spoken word, and dancing when even song won’t quite capture what they’re feeling. After witnessing me breaking out into song on more than one occasion, a friend of mine in seminary told me that being friends with me was the closest he’d ever get to living in a musical. I decided to take that as a compliment.
Our scripture today comes to us from our biblical songbook, the Psalms. Like a scene from a musical, this particular passage is a psalm of thanksgiving, but not only through song and words, but through the gladness of the heavens, the rejoicing of the earth, the roaring of the sea, the exulting of the fields. Everything is uncontainably breaking out into song, and all of creation knows the choreography.
This litany of all of creation’s praise reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke 19:40 in the context of the parade of palms, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The crowd is shouting praise and joy and excitement. The Pharisees tell Jesus to make the disciples stop, and Jesus says to them,“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Our Psalm has all sorts of parts of creation singing out with joy and gratitude for the glory, majesty, and beauty of God. When we look at a sunset, a field of flowers, or a waterfall, it’s easy to attribute beauty to God’s creation. When we see winter bud into spring we can see the creative energy of God, creating life where there had been frost and emptiness. When we hear rain fall and thunder crash we are confronted with the enormity of God’s presence. The beauty of God’s creation is less apparent on the days when the world seems dreary, or when we have snow on Pentecost in May. And It can become even harder to see beauty in the part of creation closest to us, that is our own being. We’re used to these bodies that we inhabit. We’ve seen the good and bad that they can do, and consequently struggle to see what makes them worthy of admiration, much less breaking into song and dance at their beauty.
St. Irenaeus, an early theologian who lived around a century after Jesus’ death, wrote this about our created nature:
“The tender flesh itself will be found one day
–quite surprisingly– to be capable of receiving,
and yes, full[y] capable of embracing the searing energies of God.
Go figure. Fear not.
For even at its beginning the humble clay received God’s art,
whereby one part became the eye, another the ear, and yet another this impetuous hand.
Therefore, the flesh is not to be excluded from the wisdom and the power that now and ever animates all things.
His life-giving agency is made perfect, we are told, in weakness– made perfect in the flesh.”
Our purpose as we know it in scripture, as God animated, created flesh, was assigned from the very beginning of creation: to be made in God’s image. It can be tricky to reconcile that call to our lived out reality. Do we really see ourselves and those around us as created in God’s image? Do we treat one another and ourselves like this is true? Do we seek to bear God’s beauty in our lives and actions, or do we hide behind our insecurities and self-defined imperfections? Do we celebrate the ways that God’s own creative energy and capacity for reason empower our abilities, or is the beauty of our mind lost in apathy and ignorance?
Benedictine monastic, Macrina Wiederkehr writes this in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” “The most exciting of all calls is the call to be like God… There was a common belief in the Old Testament that if people were to see God face to face they would die. The reasoning behind this thought makes a great deal of sense. Our frailty simply can’t take all of God’s glory in one gaze. It would be too much for us. Our task, then, if we want to see God and live is to start looking like God. We must lessen the difference between us.”
What would it mean in your life, for you to lessen the difference between you and God? Not so you may be worshipped in your own arrogance, but that you might draw close to the beauty that God has instilled in you by virtue of your very creation. We live in the tension of ever being drawn to seek to be like God, while simultaneously knowing that we are not God and will never achieve God’s greatness. By acknowledging this struggle and still seeking to ever reflect as much as we can of God’s beauty, we live into God’s purpose for us.
The Psalmist explores this tension in Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
What are we that God is mindful of us? And why do we have such a hard time taking on our role in God’s desires for us? Do we see ourselves as capable of bearing God’s beauty? Have you ever taken the time to gaze into the mirror, not in a spirit of vanity or critique, but rather in gratitude? Do you see in yourself the beauty of God’s creation?
These bodies of ours can be harder to see as beautiful when they are not functioning in the ways we would hope and not allowing us to do the things we would like. Many of you know that I have had my own experiences with limitations throughout this pregnancy, particularly this last week, when various health complications required me to spend most of the time lying on my side, and even then experiencing quite a bit of pain. It’s a humbling and frustrating thing to be so confronted with our embodiment, at the mercy of our incarnation. And yet, the reality that right now, my son’s heart is beating inside of me and his feet have been kicking me all throughout the day, it is nothing short of miraculous. After witnessing so many friends and family members struggling with fertility and infant loss, I don’t take it for granted for one moment that Calvin’s very existence is possible. But one doesn’t need to go even as far as that to marvel at what our bodies are able to do, and the care with which God created us.
Whittaker Chambers, initially an avowed atheist, started towards conversion in a creator God when when he had his own experience of the divine beauty of creation 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’.”
When you look for the beauty of God’s creation in others, what do you look for? It’s easier to see the beauty of God in your children or your spouse, but have you ever tried to seek this beauty in a stranger, or in that person at work or school that you just really don’t like?
When we step back and think of the intricate beauty of creation, of the way each of us are fashioned by God, we can’t help but notice God’s beauty in every single person, the intentional convolutions of each person’s ear, the miracle of hearts beating, the dependability of lungs circulating each breath.
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples.” May we forever be in awe of God’s beauty in this world, both around us and within us. Amen.
Hospitality. What do you think of when you hear this word? I think of my grandmother’s blueberry muffins, of Hawaiian pineapples as a symbol of welcome, and of meals I’ve been blessed to have with several of you in your homes.
I think of how my mother would rally us all to clean the house when company was coming over, straightening our rooms, vacuuming, mopping, dusting, all to create a sense of welcome for whoever was coming. I remember writing notes for my grandmother to place under her pillow at night. I remember my uncle coming to stay, always bringing a box of Dunkin Donuts, and being sure to say, “thank you for your hospitality,” every time he was there.
Both of our scripture readings today feature a very specific type of hospitality, opening our lives and our hearts as a faithful response to God’s presence. In the passage in John Jesus says to the disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In the passage in Acts Lydia says to the disciples, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Jesus identifies faithful action as the way to invite God’s presence to be at home with them and Lydia responds from her experience of newfound faith to invite the disciples to be at home with her.
When I read this text I wonder a bit at Lydia’s quick invitation. Though I’d like to think otherwise, I’m not so sure I’d be that fast to invite people over to stay, checking through the list in my head of vacuuming that needs to be done, sheets to be changed, and dishes to be washed. But not only was Lydia quick about it, the text also says that Lydia “prevailed upon them,” to accept her invitation. For her the priority was unquestionably the continued conversation and presence of the disciples, and she was more than willing to allow them into her house, whatever the current state, to enable that to happen.
In the book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren F. Winner, a Christian converted from Judaism, speaks of the practice of hospitality throughout Jewish and Christian history, as well as how we may live it out now. She writes, “To be a hostess, I’m going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted. This is tough: My mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, most especially if she’s expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I will never have a guest.” She continues, writing, “The reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that…we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining into hospitality.”
In the life of our congregation, we have recently taken steps to increase the reach of our welcome, with our priority placed on forging relationships. Last summer and fall we spent some time as a congregation discerning whether or not God was calling us to be a More Light congregation, and in the fall, our session voted that we would do so. More Light is an organization within our denomination, the PCUSA, that frames it’s work in this way: “Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.”
In becoming a More Light congregation we have taken the hospitality approach that Lauren Winner advocates, not rearranging our lives in order to invite our siblings in Christ into our congregation or putting on a false front, but authentically welcoming all people with love, and honesty in our questions and our desire to better learn how to care for each other in all the particularities of experience that each of us bring to the table.
I spoke with one of our newer members, Jon James, this week on what it looks like to be welcoming to those who identify as LGBTQ, asking how we can be allies to those whom God places in our lives. His number one advice? Have humility and be willing to called out when you are in the wrong. Notice, this doesn’t mean holding off until you know all the appropriate terminology, but willingly entering into the lives of those whom God has called you to love. This goes back to the very same hesitations that can keep us from relationships, waiting until we have everything in our homes, hearts, and minds all straightened out before we’ll let anyone in. This is not the case with welcoming God into our life and ought not to be the case in welcoming in all whom God calls beloved, that is to say, everyone.
If you turned on the news or spent any time on social media these past few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly run into posts, articles, and stories about the passing of legislation in North Carolina that requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with their assigned gender at birth. The response has been loud and polarizing, many highlighting hypothetical scenarios and remarks disparaging entire groups of people. When it all comes down to it, all of this bathroom talk is not really about bathrooms at all, but about fear and prejudice, on both sides. It’s about failing to see the presence of God in one another.
I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.
It is important how we respond to those God places in our lives, how we extend the love of God to one another.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The listeners in this passage are confused, asking “when did we do any of those things?” But Jesus, responds ‘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.”
With the spirit of God dwelling within us, may we seek to extending God’s hospitality to all we meet. Amen.
“Ibega ha Ibega: Shoulder to Shoulder”
April 16, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Presbytery of Lake Michigan Presbyterian Women Spring Gathering
When you think of missions what do you think of? Working to help the “less fortunate” of your community? Providing aid to someone in desperate need, who needs your particular help to make it through the day? Far too often when when we think of missions we think of being help to those people who are over there, casting our self in the role of helper, and the other in the role of helpless.
The goal of Agape Community Transformation (ACT) Uganda is not this top down type of support, but rather stands by their goal of: “Working shoulder-to-shoulder supporting self-development of villagers in Muko Sub-County, Uganda.”
Shoulder-to-Shoulder, or in Rukiga, Ibega ha Ibega, means that ACT is about relationship, being resources to one another, strengthening each other. It means that we don’t assume that we are the only ones offering something in this relationship, but rather it is an exchange of ideas, experiences, and hope.
Though he was instrumental in founding that church community, he places credit where it is due, acknowledging that God, not Paul is the one who enables good work among them. Paul is not their savior, but a co-laborer in building the kingdom of God. Paul prays for the people of Philippi with joy because of their “sharing in the gospel.”
In Greek, this word that we have translated as “sharing in” is “koinonia.” Koinonia has a rich depth of meanings including: partnership, participation, communication, communion, contribution, fellowship. It is in its very essence about mutuality, not being above or below, leading or following, but being shoulder-to-shoulder, ibega ha ibega. This koinania type of relationship is the way we are called to serve in missions, acknowledging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Just this past week I read a quote in the PCUSA Mission Yearbook that I think typifies this well. In speaking of mission partnership a volunteer wrote, “We thought you came to give us something. Now we understand that you came to help us see what we already have and use what we have to find solutions to our problems”
This is the work that we are called to do, provide what we have to provide, but also fully understand that God is already at work in and among the people we are called to help. By acknowledging the many gifts of our partners in mission and “praying with joy,” as Paul did, we are better able to be full partners in serving God’s kingdom together. May we indeed ever strive to live Ibega ha Ibega with our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. Amen.
“Tend, Feed, Follow”
April 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
What do you do when nothing seems right? When you need a bit of a reset button? Is there a place or a practice where predictability brings you a sense of peace?
Believe it or not, when I was a freshman in college and overwhelmed by a majority classes that required critical thinking and never had just one answer to a question, math homework brought me a sense of peace, knowing that if I did things just right, there was just one right answer.
Nowadays knitting does that for me, one row building off of the next, each stitch linked to the one beside it, hats, scarves, and socks building up in predictable patterns.
In our scripture today, the disciples are looking for this very same sense of predictability, a reset on the pain surrounding them. This story comes to us in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus had appeared to the disciples three times previously. By doing so he had confirmed the promise of his resurrection and proved, even to the doubters, that he was indeed Jesus and had returned from the dead. But for Peter things were yet a bit unresolved. Peter was stuck in the grief of having denied affiliation to Jesus. He was grief stricken and not quite sure how he could continue to follow Jesus when he felt like he had failed him when put to the test. In his defeat he returns to what he knows, what is safe and predictable: fishing.
But then, after a night passes with no luck in their fishing, Jesus shows up again and gives fishing instructions to the disciples. When fishing on the other side of the boat yields a tremendous catch, John realizes that Jesus is the one on the shoreside. At this news, Peter jumps into the water, eager to be by Jesus’ side.
In this moment we see two different responses to the presence of Jesus. First, John is the disciple who sees, who recognizes Jesus and names him. Second, Peter is the disciple who acts, diving into the water to pursue Jesus.
In our relationship with God we need both, we need to see Jesus and to act in response. Or to put it in Biblical terms, we need both the faith and works, both believing and responding.
In James 2:14-18, 26, we read, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith… 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
One without the other is incomplete. A point which Jesus further drives home with Peter by the firelight. Peter is desperate to be reconnected with Jesus whom he loves.
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
As Peter seeks reconciliation, Jesus not only forgives him, but welcomes Peter back into the community of disciples and empowers him to do the work of God’s kingdom.
In the Greek this passage takes an interesting turn, through the use of two different terms for love, agape and phileo. Agape is the word for the strongest form of love, unconditional love, while phileo is a more subdued term for love, a type of sibling or friendship love.
With these words in play the exchange goes a bit more like this:
Jesus says to Peter “Do you agape me?”
And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”
The second time Jesus asks “Do you agape me?
And Peter says again, “Yes Lord, you know I phileo you.”
The third time however, it changes a bit, Jesus asks “Do you phileo me?”
And Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I phileo you.”
This could be read as Peter’s lack of commitment to Jesus, but I think it’s equally possible, that after Peter’s confidence in his allegiance to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed by his betrayal, Peter wanted to be a bit more realistic in what he was capable of. Jesus asks for unconditional love, and Peter not wanting let down Jesus any farther says that he can provide this friendship type of love. They repeat this exchange one more time, and then the third time Jesus meets Peter where he’s at, asking for brotherly love, which Peter confidently says he is indeed able to provide.
Jesus’ generosity in abundance, patience, and grace with the disciples and particularly Peter underscores this entire story. When giving help with the disciples’ fishing he provides not just enough for breakfast, but enough to overwhelm their nets and boat. When Peter wants forgiveness, Jesus provides both understanding and a way forward, a way that requires Peter to respond with his own acts of generosity, putting his faith into action.
For me, Peter makes this story a bit more accessible than some of the other acts of the disciples. In this exchange Peter is humbled by his past failures, but that doesn’t exclude or excuse him from the important work God has for him. This is a message of hope for all of us, our mistakes do not make us ineligible to serve our neighbor in God’s name. Thanks be to God for that!
Some refer to this story as a “re-commissioning “of the disciples, who were commissioned at the beginning of their ministry to leave their nets and follow Christ. So much has happened between then and our story today. They’ve seen healings, heard parables, and walked long distances, all alongside Jesus who took every opportunity to invite them into God’s will and work for them. Then, this man in whom they’d come to love and trust, was met with the betrayal of one of their own and the opposition of an overwhelming crowd. In the pain of these circumstances, all but John withdrew from Jesus’ company, filled with the very real fear that to remain would be to invite the same fate for themselves.
But over and over again Jesus meets them behind the locked doors of their fear and at the shores of their grief, bringing an abundance of hope and grace. When they’re not sure how to carry on, Jesus gives them a new direction, a new way to throw their nets. When Peter’s worry turns his focus inward on his own failings, Jesus turns him again to look outwards, to tend his feed his lambs and tend his sheep.
Luther Seminary professor David Lose had this to say, “we will fall short of our goals and aspirations. We will at times have to compromise. We will not always follow through. And we will time and again disappoint and even fall away. Which is why we not only need Luke’s story of commissioning, but also John’s of re-commissioning. Because Jesus does not give up on us. Ever! Rather, after each failure he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment – what else is our Sunday gathering? – and then calls us to add what we have and depart worship to meaningful work in the world.”
To what is God calling you today? To what “other side” are you called to extend your nets? What different way forward does God have for you?
Life is messy. Peter knew that, and Jesus certainly does too. But our mess is not an end, but a beginning. Our deficit is not a stopping place, but a place to start again. For where we offer little, God multiplies it into much. In Christ we are called, claimed, and commissioned to be a people of generous abundance. Thanks be to God.
“Joining the Parade”
March 20, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Throughout the past several weeks we have been preaching through what it means for us to build God’s beloved community, addressing sanctuary, vulnerability, self-awareness, brokenness and redemption, and shared life. At each step along our way I hope that it has been a chance to better understand what it means to be the beloved community and a challenge for each of us to fulfill that calling. Our word for today is accountability.
Accountability is not exactly a fun word, not one that would be highlighted in some peppy promotional video trying to get someone to buy something. “Check it out, it’s fresh, new, and comes with a side of accountability!”
When we hear the word accountability on the news it’s generally in reference to calling someone to task, an assignment of blame, a call for justice. Just this past week I saw parts of Governor Snyder’s hearing about the Flint Water Crisis. The word accountability was used repeatedly to establish the lines of responsibility for this tragedy and assess what action should be taken going forward.
At any point in the 24 hour news cycle we can see presidential candidates seeking to hold one another accountable for any number of actions they took part in, either explicitly or implicitly, turning the race into an overwhelming tide of vilification and hyperbole, through which no one escapes untarnished.
In our denomination, the PCUSA, we have a specific section in our constitution called the Rules of Discipline, whereby we seek to hold our members and leaders accountable to their actions.
Accountability is foundational to a functioning community of any kind, from governments to families to classrooms to churches. It serves as a covenant between all of us, enabling justice, yes, but also helping us to uphold one another into being our best selves.
Our text today serves as the opening to a world changing week, when accountability was demanded of temple sellers, disregarded by Judas, denied by Peter, deferred by Pilate, and wrongly dealt to Jesus.
But before we get to all of that, we find ourselves in the midst of Jesus and his disciples, setting out for a parade. While joyfilled, this parade is far from tame, rather it is a revolutionary act.
At this time in Jerusalem parades were a way for Romans to demonstrate their physical and political might, especially during Passover when there were a lot more Jews in the city. It was an act of sedition to be holding their own parade, offering their devotion to a rabble rousing Jew who they claimed as king.
Not too long after this particular gathering, about 111 CE, the emperor Trajan writes in a letter to Pliny the Younger, saying, “When people gather together for a common purpose — whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them — they soon become political groups.”
Indeed this was the case that day, as their support of Jesus was more than just that of a fan in a crowd. They were placing their trust in who Jesus was and the change that Jesus represented. In both Matthew and Mark’s accounts of this story, the crowd shouts, “Hosanna,” meaning “save us.” Shouted over and over, it was both a question and a plea. Can you save us? Will you save us? Why haven’t you yet saved us? They wanted revolution and were determined to hold Jesus accountable to making that happen.
While they were busy holding Jesus accountable, their own accountability would all too quickly be disregarded, as the shouts of “Hosanna” at the beginning of the week turned to “Crucify him,” by the end of the week.
Every time I read through these texts I struggle with that shift. What is it in them that makes them so fickle, so changeable? Can hate really become so loud and be so unchallenged? Why isn’t anyone stopping this?
I hesitate to say this, but it makes me think of our current political landscape, where all too often the volume of the voice bears much more weight that the content of the words and the more inflammatory the rhetoric is the more broadly it is shared not only on the news, but also in personal social media accounts.
Jesus says to the Pharisees, “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Why do we fall silent in the face of opposition? Why are we so hesitant to oppose the status quo? To speak justice? To hold one another accountable to the gospel we profess? Or perhaps even more challenging, how are we like those Pharisees who want that Jesus loving mob to just be quiet?
The value we place on comfort cannot be overstated here. Change is hard, especially when you are in a place of power and that change would mean conceding some of that power, even when it expands the reaches of justice in our world.
It’s more comfortable to join our voices with the parade around us than to speak out against them, even when the shouts become “crucify him.” To oppose such a mob would be to risk making ourselves the target of their shouting, it’s better to blend in, right? It’s much easier to be nice than it is to be honest.
Will our silence keep us safe? It might, for a while at least. But lauding civility for the sake of civility over the justice that the gospel demands is to disavow the accountability merited by being in community with one another.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre spoke at our most recent presbytery meeting about the importance of language, highlighting many of her theses from her book, “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” In it she writes “An appropriate response to the competing claims of public voices is to take these obligations quite personally. We have been ‘called by name’ – not every one of us to public speaking, political activism in streets and on telephones, or investigative journalism, but all of us seek truth and follow after it, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” continuing she writes, “How much information is sufficient to allow me to take a position? To support or resist a policy that has implications for other human beings? Whose is the burden of proof? What is my burden?”
What we say and what we left unsaid both matter. As we make our way into this Holy Week, may we be ever mindful of the accountability our Gospel demands. Amen.
“Light and Salvation”
February 21, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Sanctuary, it’s a word that sometimes is functional, the way we point to the room we are sitting in right at this very moment; sometimes historical, as the word was used to identify a place of refuge in which people could have protection; sometimes referring to spaces that enable us to feel a sense of peace and connection with God; and sometimes this sense of sanctuary comes not from the feeling of the space itself, but rather the particular intention of the people gathered together in that time and place.
Throughout history, religious people of all beliefs have gone to great lengths to experience this sense sanctuary, an experience of God’s presence. Like the Psalmist, there is an intrinsic desire in us to “live in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] lives.” Some seeking this experience using their life savings to travel thousands of miles on pilgrimages to places that their tradition have identified as holy, from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Stonehenge in England, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There are also personal pilgrimage destinations, where others you’ve known have experienced God at work in their lives: perhaps the church in which your grandparents were married, the place your church family goes on mission trips, or the camp that your youth group has gone to year after year. There is something in these places that draws us near, beyond what the place itself could offer us, a sense to experience what others have before us, that is, sanctuary.
For many of us, this church is one of those places, a place where we have experienced the presence of God, sensed God’s light and been awashed with God’s salvation, where we have engaged in worshipping God, and where we have sensed God at work in others. If you have been around here for a while, and I know some have 50 years on some of the rest of us, this space is more than just this space in this moment, it is also where you and your children were baptized, the place you held Christmas Eve candles alongside your family and church family, where you married your beloved, where you were anointed with oil and ash year after year, and the place where you mourned and celebrated the life of loved ones. Some of you even helped to build this very building, deciding what sanctuary would look like to all of us these many years later. But this space is so much more than this roof and these walls, it’s a summation of the experiences had here, and the enduring sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all.
In “The Power of Place,” historian Thomas Bender writes, “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.”
In other words, this sense of sanctuary comes not from without but within, the sense invoked in us, the hope stirred, the wholeness felt. For us, the strongest of these “inner resources” is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the places in this world that from an objective perspective might seem ordinary into the extraordinary, opening our hearts and mind to God’s presence in and among us wherever we may be.
When you sense this sort of peace and healing in a space it’s tempting to want to somehow bottle it up, keep it safe and protected from any who might somehow alter this experience. But if our intention is to follow the Gospel, to welcome all into an experience of Christ, this sense of sanctuary is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. Sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the world, but it is not a place we should set at a distance from any of those who are seeking that same sense of God’s presence.
If we truly believe that we as followers of Christ are the body of Christ, welcoming more into our midst won’t diminish God’s presence, but increase it, as each individual with all of their unique gifts, challenges, joys, and struggles enable us all together to better be the full body of Christ.
Layton Williams, Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago speaks of what this greater inclusion looks and feels like from her perspective as a woman who is bisexual. She writes, “Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. ‘Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,’ the thinking goes, ‘but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.’”
She continues, “ Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning.”
By being fully inclusive of the entirety of the body of Christ we give greater credence to the safety and wholeness that we have experienced, for what is safety that is unsafe to some, and how are we to have wholeness as the body of Christ if we choose to sever or ignore any part of ourself?
Like the Psalmist, we can see “the goodness of the Lord” revealed “in the land of the living.” Christ’s hands and feet at work through all people who seek God’s will. The greater the diversity there is among us, the better we are able to know the fullness of God, who created each and every single one of us in God’s image.
In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read of God’s presence in and among us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
When we embrace our own ability, as the body of Christ, to be a living sanctuary for God’s presence to be known and felt, we expand the reaches of God’s kingdom here on earth: God at work in and through each of us.
In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
God does not need human made shrines, temples, altars, or even churches to be felt in this world, but will meet us in the spaces where we seek God’s presence. It’s important for us to realize this distinction: God is here among us because of the intentions of our hearts and our own receptiveness to God’s Word, witness, and work in our midst. That is what makes this space we inhabit into sanctuary, rather than just another room in just another building.
Building these buildings and calling them churches can serve an important function. Our human designations of sacred space point people to places where presence of God is sought and the body of Christ is alive. In that way our human made sanctuaries are signposts in our journeys, postcards saying “wish you were here” sent out to those who are searching.
As those who have experienced God in our midst, we are the ones tasked with making sure all who seek God may receive their own invitation into the light and salvation of God’s sanctuary. May we ever endeavor to welcome all into the sanctuary we have experienced. Amen.
“In the Wilderness”
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Think of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time, and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.
When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.
Pastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”
I remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.
So what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.
I recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many. She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said ‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…
In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named “‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.
When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened. After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’
Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.
I believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.
This empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.
And in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.
Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.
“Remember Your Baptism”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. It is always an honor and a privilege to perform a baptism. Every one of them is different: I’ve seen wonder and innocence in the eyes of small babies, a range of joy and vulnerability among adults and youth. There were some babies who were calm and happy in the waters, others who squirmed and cried. Each time I’ve made the trip down the aisle with the newly baptised, telling each of them how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for them. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.
We say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and many of these babies included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”
“Remember your baptism.” The echo of those words across the years are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of your baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.
“Remember your baptism.” Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.
“Remember your baptism.” Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.
[Story omitted in text for privacy]
“Remember your baptism.” Especially because remembering your baptism is not just about remembering your baptism, but remembering everyone else’s too: the promises we make to one another, the interconnectivity brought at these waters, the ongoing covenant that we inherit…together.
The Directory for Worship of the PCUSA affirms that our sacraments, including baptism, “are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” It also says that “The body of Christ is one, and Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ. As they are united with Christ through faith, Baptism unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. Barriers of race, gender, status, and age are to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome.” And we affirm that, “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”
What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service. We are called to be united in that baptism, in equality throughout time and beyond all earthly demographic divisions. We remember our baptism by living into God’s call on our lives, individually and as the body of Christ.
How do you remember your baptism? How do you fulfill God’s call to equality through the promises of baptism? How do you seek to be the body of Christ? What are the ways that we as a church can better live into the baptismal promises we give to one another? What is a way that we can reflect the love of God we have received, to this broken and hurting world?
Some of you do this through teaching church school classes, coming together for bible study, leading our youth groups, participating in Faith Forest for all or VIPS. Some of you do this through mission work in Mexico or Uganda, working with Global Family Fellowship, or helping out at the food bank. Some of you do this by sharing your own peace and joy in the redemptive waters with your friends, coworkers, and family.
In our baptism each one of us is called into new life, and at every baptism all of us together are called to live into this new life together, to embrace the covenantal promises of our God.
The Directory for worship says, “In Baptism, the Holy Spirit binds the Church in covenant to its Creator and Lord. The water of Baptism symbolizes the waters of Creation, of the Flood, and of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, the water of Baptism links us to the goodness of God’s creation and to the grace of God’s covenants with Noah and Israel. Prophets of Israel, amidst the failure of their own generation to honor God’s covenant, called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24) They envisioned a fresh expression of God’s grace and of creation’s goodness, a new covenant accompanied by the sprinkling of cleansing water. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water. So, Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s grace and covenant in Christ.”
Through our baptism every one of God’s children enveloped in the promises of God, each one of us named and accounted for, sharing in God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, that each of us is beloved, and in each of us God is well pleased. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Home by Another Way
January 3, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Last Sunday a few of you met my aunt Karen, as she came up here for worship. On Monday she was to head back to her home in Plano, TX, via the Detroit airport. Well if you’ll remember Monday’s weather, that was when the ice storm was hitting Michigan while Texas was recovering from tornadoes and getting hit by snow. My aunt went up to Detroit in the hopes that her flight would take off as planned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly up until a few minutes before the flight, when they shared the news that their flight crew did not make their flight in from Chicago. Not too long after the flight was cancelled. After standing in line for several hours to get her bags and trying to get a new flight she learned they didn’t have anything available till Thursday. She decided to go to a hotel for the night, but after trying six different hotels, none had any room, she rented a car and drove back to Toledo. Hoping to get home sooner than Thursday so as to not leave her shift uncovered as a neonatal nurse practitioner, she called the airline and saw what airports had any flights available, and ended up finally flying out of St Louis on Wednesday, connecting in Charlotte, NC and finally heading to Dallas.
In our scripture today we hear a story not entirely dissimilar from the travel woes my aunt experienced. We’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus’ fateful delivery in a manger after there was no room at the inn. But we rarely pay quite as much attention to the latter half of the journey, when they are told by the wise men to travel home by another way. The trip there was already difficult, so to take the long way home was likely a tremendous inconvenience, and then added onto it the reason why they needed to go this way it must’ve been a very frightful situation. More frightful even than flooding and ice blizzards.
When the wise men first met with Herod they were meeting with him in the hopes of getting direction, perhaps even to placate him in his own authority. Herod even tried to make the wise men believe that he too wanted to come pay homage to Jesus, but things were not as they seemed. The reason why they needed to take this long way home was the wise men had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was fearful of what a king of the Jews would do to his power.
Joseph too is visited by an angel in a dream who says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” This was not an idle threat. In the verses following our passage today we are told, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” New parents as they were, I can’t imagine the horror that Mary and Joseph felt at hearing of so many children’s death due to their actions, and the simultaneous relief for their own son’s safety. The divine rerouting of this dream altered the course of history, saving Jesus to live into adulthood.
The great modern theologian, James Taylor summarizes the story in this way: He writes, “Steer clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do. A king who would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you … Time to go home another way. Home by another way … Me and you can be wise guys too and go home by another way … We got this far to a lucky star but tomorrow is another day. We can make it another way …”
What are your own stories of a divine rerouting? A time in your life when you thought you knew the path ahead of you, maybe you even had a boarding pass in hand ready for a specific trip, or for a specific educational path, relationship, or career. When those things we’ve planned for change it’s hard to know what to do next. Often in the moment being rerouted does not feel divine at all, rather it feels much more like being inconvenienced, or worse, being misled.
The Bible has many examples of this divine rerouting. Jonah thought he had things all figured out when God told him to go to Nineveh, when he resisted God went as far as scooping him up in a big fish to get him turned in the right direction. Joseph, son of Jacob, is deceived by his brothers, thrown in a well, and unjustly imprisoned, but he ends up becoming a trusted advisor to the king in the midst of drought and famine. In their exodus, the Israelites thought that praying to an idol would get them out of the wilderness, but Moses showed them that they would only survive by God’s provision of manna and quail. Ruth thought she knew what lay ahead of her, marrying into a good family, but then her husband, brother in law and father in law all died in quick succession and she and her mother in law Naomi were able to find a way forward by staying close to one another. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the son thought he had everything figured out of how he would be happy in life, but in humility he ends up returning home and is joyfully received.
It doesn’t feel good to be inside of a fish, betrayed by your family, reprimanded by a tablet wielding Moses, encounter a succession of tragic deaths, or slinking home after squandering the family fortune, but God shows us over and over again, that in seeking God’s guidance we are able to make it home again, home to God’s will for us, which may look nothing like where we started. As Joseph says when he forgives his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” To be clear, I am not saying that God causes the harm, but rather that God can work through our adversity for good.
Mary and Joseph also had plans for what their lives would look like. They were engaged to be married, had lived piously and now their lives were uprooted by a pregnancy that was hard to explain to their families or community. But God had revealed to them that Mary would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and bring Jesus, the very son of God into the world. This change from what they thought they wanted changed their lives and the entire world for the better.
This child, come into the world through difficult and extraordinary circumstances provided the divine rerouting that changed all of us. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for all of our sins, and was resurrected so that all of us may experience eternal life. Jesus made it possible for every one of us to go home by another way.
We don’t know all that awaits us on the path in front of us, we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but if we keep our eyes and ears open to God’s direction, we can have hope that even the long way will lead us home in the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“What Should We Do?”
December 13, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
John the Baptist was a great many things, but subtle was not one of them. From the very first account of John in action we hear of him moving about in his mother’s womb to alert her to the presence of Jesus growing within Mary. And this action is echoed throughout the rest of his life as he is always making a ruckus demanding that people pay attention to the presence of Jesus.
In our text today we hear him confront those who have just been baptized in a very unsubtle way. Keep in mind these are the ones already seeking Christ, who have sought out John specifically so they may be baptized into this new way of being. But John doesn’t want them to use their baptism or God’s grace as an excuse to become complacent. Now that they have this new life they are to bear fruit, they are to thoughtfully and passionately follow the life that God has set before them.
“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.
But 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 everyday life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives. It required some serious discernment about what their lives would look like now that they had been so utterly transformed.
Discernment is one of those words that we tend to use in pivotal moments in our lives. Figuring out where to go to college, what career path to take, who to marry, all of these decisions are best made with serious discernment. Which means taking the time to figure out what is best, not just financially or logistically, but spiritually. What will bring you deepest joy? How can you best glorify God?
But discernment should not just be limited to those big decisions, rather our understanding of God’s desires for our lives should inform our every action.
The youth of this church are used to doing “highlights and lowlights,” as a way to reflect on their lives, where they experience joy, and where they experience sadness. In spiritual discipline terms this practice is called “examen.” Another way to look at this is what is life giving and what is depleting? Or what makes you feel closest to God and what makes you feel far away?
There is a book I’ve read about examen, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
The authors of the book use this story as an example of how clinging to the things that give us life help us to be better equipped to serve God and others. And the way that they discern what is life giving is through the examen process, pausing to take account of what has made them feel close to God and what has made them feel distant, keeping track of these patterns throughout the weeks, months, and years, and working from that full knowledge of their relationship with God to shape what direction they should take in their lives.
In our passage today, John shares with those gathered in no uncertain terms that now that they are baptized their work as Christians is by no means finished. They must now live lives of fruitfulness. Using examen and prayerful discernment, we become attentive to God’s presence and direction, which can help us figure out what to do, as well how we may best live into our baptized lives.
In Luke 3, verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked [John], ‘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.’”
“What should we do?” This is the same 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 John the Baptist 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.
Through this, 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.
Luke 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.”
So, 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 paying attention to the ways God is directing your life, and responding in ways that further God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.
“Anticipation of the Journey”
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.
I’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.
Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.
You see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.
As a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.
For years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.
It seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!
For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. I looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?
This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!
I made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. Stumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.
It was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.
But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.
For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.
But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.
In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.
Finally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.
After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. When those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.