“Living Alive,” John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11, June 25, 2017, FPC Holt

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
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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.

https://www.facebook.com/thismatters/videos/714035155442346/

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?

What about all those other brothers of weeping sisters? What have they done to deserve this? When is Jesus going to intervene for them?

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.

“Hosanna,” Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11, April 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hosanna”
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.

“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats, Matthew 5:38-48, February 19, 2017, FPC Holt

“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats
Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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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.

2017-2-19-slide-2-enemyWho 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?

2017-2-19-slide-3-jesus-preachingJesus 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. 2017-2-19-slide-4-jesus-crucifixion 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?

2017-2-19-slide-5-karoline-lewisLuther 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?’”

2017-2-19-slide-6-fear-of-the-otherI 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.

2017-2-19-slide-7-boyd-bookIn 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)”

2017-2-19-slide-8-mlkThis 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?

2017-2-19-slide-9-buechnerPresbyterian 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.”

2017-2-19-slide-10-confrontationToo 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?

2017-2-19-slide-11-accidental-courtesyAfrican 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.

2017-2-19-slide-12-davisIn 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?”

2017-2-19-slide-13-davis-handshakeDavis 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.

2017-2-19-slide-14-mlk-quoteMartin 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.”

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Hand on shoulder, close-up

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?

2017-2-19-slide-16-compassionI’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.

2017-2-19-slide-17-perfectionBe 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.” 2017-2-19-slide-18-puzzleWhen 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.

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved;” Galatians 3:23-29; June 19, 2016, FPC Holt

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved”
Galatians 3:23-29
June 19, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

 

SLIDE 1 - Outside PulseIt 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.

SLIDE 2 - Dark Blurry CrowdThat’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.

SLIDE 4 - Love HateIt’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.

SLIDE 6 - LoveLove, 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.

SLIDE 7 - VictimsAs 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.

SLIDE 8 - Edward SotomayorThe 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. SLIDE 9 - Eddie and Tony 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.

SLIDE 13 - Lin-Manuel MirandaSunday 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.

SLIDE 14 - Love is LoveAnd 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.

Litany of Joy from NEXT Church National Gathering 2015

I started this post out with the formal title of “Reflections,” but once I decided what I really wanted to hold onto from this conference, it came out in bursts of inspiration and joy, the little and big things that were life-giving in this short, Spirit-filled three day conference. So here are the gifts of inspiration that I am bringing with me out of this experience:

  • Collaborative Arts Workshop at Grace Commons: A tremendous, eye opening workshop, reflecting on the collaborative art that has been created in community at Grace Commons including stations of the cross reflecting on individuals’ experience of immigration
  • Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb

    and creation of icons through collage in various liturgical seasons. I appreciated that Pastor Nanette Sawyer shared the processes of the different projects, including showing us how for the collage the icon was first traced and then set up in a sort of paint by number fashion, with one color painted each week, which was then to be filled in by magazine clippings of that same color.

    Another helpful piece of that workshop was hear about Grace Common’s four-fold liturgical pattern. Most intriguing of which was a poetry based liturgy with improvised music to match

    We also had the tremendous privilege at that workshop of hearing the liturgical music of Rob Clearfield, the musician of Grace Commons. He has written many beautiful theologically thoughtful songs to accompany the liturgy at Grace Commons.

  • John Hendrix‘s sketch art responses to the conference throughout our time together:

  • My own chance encounter with Dwight McCormick: Dwight’s business card reads “Pastor, public speaker, and comic,” and he happened to join the group of people I was talking to informally on Tuesday night. I’m so glad he did. He had taught a workshop the previous day on “Improv: the Art of Listening, Being Present, and Not Being Afraid,” which I did not attend simply for the fact that I could not be two places at once. We chatted about improv, the way it cultivates attitudes and ideas that are life giving in relationships…which is a very polished way of saying we had a great time geeking out about our shared love of improv.
  • Crowdfunding the Church IGNITE presentation: I’ve experienced different crowdfunding initiatives, but it was interesting seeing crowdfunding framed as a way to draw people from outside of your church into your community through the very things you are most passionate about.
  • Biblical Storytelling by Casey Wait FitzGerald: I first experienced her ministry last year at NEXT Church and have been blessed to get to know Casey and her ministry through the Young Clergy Women Project as well as her podcast, Story Divine and blog, Faith and Wonder. It is always a joy to hear her lead worship in person. The story begins at 3:05 in the video below, which also contains a service that is all around wonderful with a great discussion of the church as a “third space”:
  • Collaborative art during the conference, which was transformed into the final form of a bird lifted up in the sanctuary

So grateful also for the less easily defined, but tremendously life-giving interactions I had throughout the conference with many individuals who offer a hopeful vision of the future of the PCUSA. To learn more about NEXT Church, as well as see orders of worship, recordings of the conference livestream, and additional conference notes check out the website: http://nextchurch.net/ .

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2015

A favorite practice of mine on this blog is to put together playlists for liturgical seasons, based on the songs that have been buzzing about my brain on the themes of the Biblical narratives. Some of the previous years’ Holy Week playlists are available on my blog:

– 2013: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist – 2014: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2014 Addition

As we are now approaching Holy Week, here are some songs that resonate for me this year:

Note: These songs are not specific expositions on the Gospel, but rather they reflect the mood and themes in ways I find helpful as approaching these narratives

Maundy Thursday

“Believe” by Mumford and Sons

“I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me

I had the strangest feeling
Your world’s not what it seems
So tired of misconceiving
What else this could’ve been”

This song speaks to me of the disciples’ frustration in trying to understand what it is Jesus is saying to them.

Good Friday

“No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” by Sufjan Stevens

Be aware that this one does have explicit lyrics

The depth of the frustration, pain, and exhaustion in the repeated line “no shade in the shadow of the cross,” speaks for me to the lost feeling that the disciples must have had following Christ’s crucifixion

Holy Saturday

“World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies

“Woke up and wished that I was dead
With an aching in my head
I lay motionless in bed
I thought of you and where you’d gone
and let the world spin madly on

Everything that I said I’d do
Like make the world brand new
And take the time for you
I just got lost and slept right through the dawn
And the world spins madly on”

This song echoes for me how lost the disciples felt, knowing that they were called to carry on Jesus’ message of hope, but not quite able to rally without guidance from Jesus.

Easter

“I Ain’t the Same” by Alabama Shakes

“I ain’t the same no more
In fact I have changed from before
No, you ain’t gonna find me
Oh no, cause I’m not who I used to be”

I’ve always been intrigued by the way Mary is unable to recognize Jesus post resurrection. This song makes me think of the way both Jesus and Mary were changed by the resurrection, and how we are transformed by encountering Jesus at Easter.

Advent & Christmas Playlist

Though they are not necessarily all typical Advent or Christmas songs, here are some songs that are bringing me a sense of hope, peace, joy, and/or love this Advent season. May it be so for you as well!

Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” by So Elated

Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

“Faint Not,” by Jenny & Tyler

The problem’s not a gun, not a color, not a hundred dollar bill
We think the struggle can be won with simple thoughts like ‘come together be good willed’
The gap between the rich and poor is spreading out all the more or so they say
We ignore the claims

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love

It’s not that we don’t know or we’re not shown the proof of poverty
It’s not that we don’t have the tools to go to break this yoke of slavery
We quit because it’s not an easy fix and then forget that they are even there
We forget to care

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love

Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, let me pardon
Where there is darkness, let the Light come, come

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love
O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love
Faint not
Faint not

“Mary and Joseph,” by Dave Barnes

Mary was the first of three
Long black hair and sugar sweet
Daddy’s eyes and Momma’s crooked smile

She was barely seventeen
Got a job keepin’ dishes clean
Planned to stay in this city for a while
For a while

Joseph ran a lumber yard
About a mile from Olive park
Quiet boy, he never had much to say

It was love right from the start
He bought a ring and won Mary’s heart
Had hopes for a home and kids someday
Kids someday

The angel scared her half to death
She would’ve screamed but she lost her breath
On a midnight there in the middle of May

He said “Oh Mary, don’t be afraid
You’ll bear a son that the Lord has made
Name him Jesus, He’ll light the way”

She packed the clothes, he made the plans
They had to go to Bethlehem
But there was nowhere left to stay

So in a barn she gave birth
To the King of Kings, the Lord of Earth
Just a little bitty thing sleeping on the hay
Sleeping on the hay

The story’s too long to tell
But He walked on water and lived through hell
Killed on a cross and rose from the grave

We got a King, they got a Son
Mary and Joseph were the only ones
There on that very first Christmas day
There on that very first Christmas day

“Hear Oh Hear,” by Kris MacQueen

Couldn’t find a transcript of this one and so typed it up myself. Some of the words were unclear which I indicated by […]. I would welcome clarifying suggestions on these lyrics.

Hear, oh hear, he’s come at last
He’s resting now on Mom […]
Come and share the air he breathes
God in flesh the newborn king

The love the flows through infant veins
Will buy all people’s peace with God.
And set the world as it should be.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

See, come see him lying there
Was there ever one so strange?
From flesh and bone and earthiness
Of heavens throne’s and spirit’s […]

The love the flows through infant veins
Will show all people’s peace with God.
And set the world as it should be.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

“Cradle in Bethlehem,” by Sleeping at Last

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

While wise men follow through the dark
A star that beckons them
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

“A little child shall lead them”
The Prophets said of old
In storm and tempest keep ’em
Until the bell is tolled

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

Advent August: Week Two Update

Last week I posted about this month of intentional Advent in my life, utilizing the four-fold pattern of Advent signifying hope, preparation, joy, and love. Here are some updates on goals I established in my last post:

Hope

  • Working on a book proposal for the Young Clergy Women imprint of Chalice Press: While in seminary I did a directed study on multi-sensory worship utilizing Howard Gardner’s theories on multiple intelligences in a worship context. I have started some preliminary research on what other books are out there so as not to write something that’s already available. At the moment I think I’m planning to work from the angle of a workbook that would provide options for multi-sensory experiences for church depending on the church’s size and resources available. Many churches get stuck on multi-media/multi-sensory worship having to look one particular way, and if they do not have technology available they might think it is outside of their reach. I want to create resources with these different settings in mind to show that’s possible in each context. I’m excited how this work will go hand in hand with the “Upstream” contemporary/participatory service at FPC Holt.

Preparation

  • Packing is going relatively well. I am grateful for my husband’s support as we sort through things. I’m also in a pretty good place with having enough boxes with offers for more boxes from friends who have recently moved.

Joy

  • Spending with friends in the area:
    • Visited with my dear friend/FPC Jesup secretary and her son. I got to join them in releasing a butterfly that had recently hatched from a cocoon! It was so cool and I was reminded that I definitely want to raise butterflies whenever we have kids.
    • Bailey and I visited with a sweet fellow pastor friend and her kids, enjoying reading kids books, singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and sharing pictures from the wedding. It was such a nice day!
  • On the cross-stitch front I finished creating a pattern, off of others I had seen, on an Excel spreadsheet and just began stitching it.

image

Love

  • Today I finished editing up a very abbreviated video of our wedding ceremony, which makes it possible to show the wedding to friends and family who were not able to be at the service:

Thank you for your prayers and support! May this season be a blessed one for you as well!

Advent August: What’s Next? What’s Now?

I finished my last day as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA and will beginning my new position as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI in just a few weeks. With the blessing of this time in between the two positions I am using these next few weeks as an intentional time of Advent. While we’re used to Advent in terms of the expectation of Christ’s birth, it can be a more general term for the anticipation of something to come. In the season of Advent we use four candles on the Advent wreath signifying hope, preparation, joy, and love. I’ll be using this same formula to share some of my goals, and then to touch back on them throughout the coming weeks, though most likely not in this particular order.

Hope

Preparation

  • Spending lots of time sorting, cleaning, and packing as we prepare for our move.
  • Spending time unpacking once in Michigan.

Joy

  • Enjoying sabbath rest
  • Spending with friends in the area
  • Praying while knitting
  • Reteaching myself how to cross-stitch

Love

  • David and I married on August 2nd and we’ll be going on our honeymoon to the Grand Canyon!
  • Here’s a video from the wedding reception a sweet family friend made for us:

I appreciate your prayers and support in this Advent season so that I may be strengthened in faith and ministry for many years to come!

“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Our Turn Now;” John 17:1-11; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Our Turn Now”
John 17:1-11
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide02There are times when the events in the world line up so incredibly with the lectionary scripture that it’s impossible not to notice God’s hand in things. When Maya Angelou passed away this past Wednesday her son, Guy B. Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”[1]Slide03The official day celebrating Jesus’ ascension was Thursday. There is something powerful and unsurprisingly poetic about Maya Angelou’s son employing the language of the hope of resurrection and ascension granted to all of us through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Slide04 The ascension of Jesus Christ is a story that is often forgotten in the larger narrative of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. After Easter we tend wrap up the story of Jesus’ live on earth and slide quite comfortable into what the church calendar calls, “ordinary time.” But, as many liturgical nerds will remind you, Easter is not just one day, but fifty! The official church season of Easter doesn’t end until Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday in worship.

Slide05Ascension is a strange sort of day to acknowledge, because if we really think about it, it’s rather frightening. After Jesus’ death and resurrection Jesus comes back to be with the disciples; he comforts them in their sorrow, he demonstrates his grace. But then when the time comes for Jesus to rejoin God in heaven, that means that Jesus leaves this world in our hands.

SLIDE 6 - Ascension Holy Spirit The good news is we are certainly not alone. Jesus leaves us with the Holy Spirit. Our scripture on Sunday two weeks ago affirmed this promise. In John 14:15-17 Jesus says to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Slide07The Holy Spirit remains with us so that we may do all that Christ has commanded, and live into the joy and the promise of unity with God. In our scripture today we read Jesus addressing our creator God in John 17:11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Slide08Christ prays to God for unity, so that we may together serve God’s people. How is that working out for us? Our world today is filled with division after division, limiting us from coming to a full knowledge of God’s love for all of us. In John 17: 3 Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When we stop acknowledging the others in our world as fellow created children of God, we limit ourselves from experiencing God’s grace fully.

Slide09As is befitting this scripture lesson and this day, I will quote Maya Angelou once again with a quote I posted to our church Facebook page this week upon the news of her passing. She said, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

Slide10Christ’s ascension leaves us as caretakers of this world. With all of its flaws and beauty, or as John Legend would put it, “perfect imperfections.” We are created in God’s image and commissioned to serve God’s people, or in other words, everyone.

If you want to overthink the whole thing, feel free to look up philosophical discussions of paradoxes of perfection, but one that stuck out to me was the baroque esthetic of art which says, “the perfection of an art work consists in its forcing the recipient to be active—to complement the art work by an effort of mind and imagination.” We are perfect in the way God intends for us when we respond to God’s presence in our lives, God’s desire to be active in this world through our activity: taking up Jesus’ call to discipleship.[2]

Slide11In our scripture today Jesus says to God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

Slide12Could we still say that this is true about us? Do we seek to know God through Christ? Do we seek to serve this world as caretakers of creation and of one another?

We affirm in our recitation of the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “ascended into heaven,” but we are not and will never be alone. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us, and together may we be bold enough to work towards bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-poet-author-dies-86

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection#cite_note-TatarkiewiczSu1980p120-16

“Fierce Love: Abundant Life;” John 10:1-18; May 11, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Fierce Love: Abundant Life”
John 10:1-18
May 11, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Mother’s day as many holidays in our household growing up meant breakfast in bed. My sister and I would conspire with our Dad to pick out some breakfast treat, perhaps pick some flowers from the garden, then put them all on a tray and carry them to my parents room. Nowadays, Mother’s day has taken on a different meaning for me as I have grown up and had so many dear friends become mothers themselves. I delight in the joy of my friends’ parenting, the milestones of walking, talking, and being called “Aunt Kafleen.”

Slide03At the same time, I have a number of friends and family, for whom desires of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood have brought many struggles, frustrations, and pain. Perhaps you have experienced similar struggles. If so, know that especially on this day of the celebration of mothers, your pain is known by God, upheld by our God who knows the birth pains of creation and the deep loss of the death of a child.

Slide04For some this day is a day that is a sharp reminder of being single. A day lifting up motherhood as if it is the absolute highest calling for everyone can be frustrating, possibly even belittling for those who long to be mothers and are not as well as for those who do not feel called to be a mother. If this is so for you, know that God has a call for each of us in every place of our lives, every family configuration, every life stage. God has a call for you.

SLIDE 5 - StrugglesFor some this day stings as a reminder of strained or absent relationships with mothers or grandmothers. Know in this day and all days that you have been adopted into the family of God, and surrounded with God’s unfathomably deep love.

As a pastor, my task is to bring God’s Word to you all, to invite the Holy Spirit into my words so that they may be transformed into something that will draw you closer to God, challenge or strengthen you in your walk of faith. With that goal in mind I struggle with how to address Mother’s day, not wanting to hurt or alienate anyone in the varied ways this day can effect us all. Some preacher just avoid speaking about the day at all together, after all it’s not a day on the church calendar, but rather it’s a national holiday. I too was tempted to avoid it, until I came across the 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation.

Slide06Did you know that Mother’s Day was originally started after the Civil War, as a protest to the carnage of that war, by women who had lost their sons? I had no idea, but I was inspired by the place of vulnerability and strength from which this day arose. I will read to you the original Mother’s Day Proclamation from 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, who is also known as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God. In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[1]

SLIDE 10 - Peace What a change this is from how Mother’s day is celebrated today. While I am certainly not opposed to honoring our mothers with cards, flowers, brunches, and presents, I was amazed that the sweet feminine holiday we now celebrate today originally came from such activist and feminist roots.

What would it be like to reclaim this sort of unification and message of peace that this mother’s day originally symbolized? What if we were to honor our mothers through compassion for the weak and support for the disenfranchised?

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 68:5-6a: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in.” In fact, ten different times throughout the Bible there is a pleading appeal for the care of widows and orphans. God cares deeply for those who are marginalized.

Jesus offers his own image of what this sort of care for those in need can look like. SLIDE 12 - Mother Hen In Matthew 23:27b Jesus’ care for us is described as a mother hen, saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” I know a number of you have witnessed this sort of care firsthand, a hen with chicks beneath her, covering them with her warmth and any protection. Hens are not known for any notable amount of strength or intelligence, but in the face of trouble, they will protect their chicks with all they have, which is their wings, their warmth, their own lives.

In our passage we read today we hear another example of what God’s bold and vulnerable love looks like, a good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. When I was working with a youth ministry while in seminary I had an experience where a boy of another group was cruel towards a girl from my group. I would not put up with this. I immediately snapped to attention, stopped him right there, alerted his counselors and my supervisor. SLIDE 13 - Momma Bear This intense mothering reaction towards this girl from my group earned me the nickname “momma bear” among the youth with whom I was working. And though I am not a parent I get what it means when Jesus says “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” It doesn’t even seem like a choice, but rather an inevitability, that love propels us towards protection, and if need be, sacrifice.

What would it be like to take up our role in bringing about God’s kingdom; to reflect the great and good shepherding passion of Christ?

SLIDE 14 - Girls A real and jarring image of those lost and in the grasp of wolves is the story of the over two hundred girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria. It is a heart-breaking story, made even more troubling in how the media for largely ignored it for over two weeks before it enter the public consciousness.

Knowing that our good shepherd cares about each and every one of us and knows by name does not mean that we’re off the hook for knowing and caring for one another. These girls are quite exceptional and it is important that we know their story, that we share in the international outcry to bring them back to their community, to their lives.

Slide15 In a part of Nigeria where 72% of the population never attends elementary school, these girls were in high school, living in a boarding home so that they could pursue an education. They have goals and desires for a brighter future for themselves and for their country. [2]

Slide16 I saw an interview this week with the family of a girl who was taken. Her mother pleaded, “Let them release these girls…. probably one of them was born a president or a doctor or a pastor or a lawyer who will be helpful to the country. Please let him release them.”[3]

I can’t even imagine the ache of this mother’s heart, the ache of this whole region. Imagine then, the ache of God’s heart at such a great many people around the world who are hurting, oppressed, and separated from loving community.

Slide17So what can we do, half a world away from this tragedy? We can take up the cries of the women of that original mother’s day proclamation. We can strive to reclaim peace in our world through seeking reconciliation in our personal relationships, action in our government, and prayer in our communities.

We can take seriously the worth of all people around the world, seeking to know their stories and bring injustice into the light. We can shed the docility with which we treat our mothers and women at large and seek to support them in empowering ways. We are called to bring peace to this world but not hide in docility. May God reveal your role in transforming this world into God’s kingdom. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.peace.ca/mothersdayproclamation.htm

[2] http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2014/05/why-girls-in-nigeria-should-matter-to.html#ixzz31HHjIfM5

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/07/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Here’s some songs that have brought me joy this Advent season:

Love the enthusiasm of this:

The Roots and Jimmy Fallon make any song better:

The instrumentation on this is pretty incredible:

Same guys as the last doing an incredible rendition of my favorite carol:

I love this guy’s voice (his version of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” is so great):

This video continues to bring me joy:

May your Advent be filled with wonder, expectation, and joy!

“Humbled;” Luke 18:9-14; October 27, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Humbled”
Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

TSLIDE 1 - Reformation Sundayoday is Reformation Sunday, a day that marks the beginning of the Protestant Church as we know it today. It’s a day for celebrating how far we’ve come as a church. Our affirmation of the priesthood of all believers: which means all of us are called to read and interpret scripture, minister to the community, and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The ways that over the generations we continue to be reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God, a principle that has motivated believers throughout the year to stand up for justice for the enslaved, equality of all of God’s created people, and expand the pulpit to women and minorities. So, let’s just pat ourselves on the back! We’re so righteous, so much better than everybody else!

Wait. That sounds familiar. In fact, that first verse of that passage we just read seems to fit it exactly.  “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Hmm. Maybe it’s not time quite yet for a celebration.

Slide3Our Gospel lesson gives us a rather confrontational passage for this Reformation Sunday. One that shows someone so pleased by their righteousness, a Pharisee. Verses 11-12 tells us, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”

SLIDE 5 - Tax CollectorIt’s an uncomfortable comparison to put side by side with a Pharisee. In Luke 7:29-30 we are told, that upon hearing of Jesus’ miracles,  “All the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

Pharisees had confidence in their own goodness, their own ability to follow all the rules, their own efforts to be right by God. In our passage today when the Pharisee is counting his blessings, instead of worry about the salvation of others, he is thankful only that he is not a thief, rogue, adultery, or the tax collector in front of him.

SLIDE 6 - phariseeAndTaxCollectorThis tax collector doesn’t try to defend himself when being bad-mouthed by the Pharisee. He wasn’t working on a list of his good deeds or his exceptionalism, rather he defers to God’s great power. In verse 13 we read, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

The tax collector isn’t trying to be justified by his own doing, but only by God’s great mercy. He declares himself unworthy on his own.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains it this way, “You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition –  If you follow all the rules in the Bible God then will love you and you will be happy.  If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved… The Law is always conditional and it is never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as Gospel there can never be life and happiness and worthiness.”

The Pharisee was caught up in all the “shoulds,” all the ways that he has worked to live up to the law. The tax collector declares his own unworthiness pursing God’s mercy instead of his own self-worth. SLIDE 7 - Luke 18 In verse 14 Jesus tells the assembled crowd, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May we approach God with humbleness this Reformation Sunday, and all days. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year Pastorate-versary!

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

September 9: Arrived in Jesup

welcome

Welcoming Sign on Front Lawn of Manse

welcome1

Welcome Sign at Church

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

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

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

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

ordination

My Ordination at First Presbyterian Maumee

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

December 16: First Baptism, reflection post here

baptism

Morning of First Baptism

December 31: First Wedding Officiated, sermon posted here

February 6: Led First Funeral in Jesup

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

March 24-31: Holy Week

Created this video for Good Friday Worship:

April 12: First date with David

May 5: Blessing of the Tractors Service, sermon here

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

May 13-17: Festival of Homeletics

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

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

July 1-5: Massachusetts Vacation with Family

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

July 11-13: Jesup Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

July 21-26: Synod School

Synod School

Synod School

September 7: St. Louis with David

At the St. Louis Arch

At the St. Louis Arch

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

Happy Birthday Wendell Berry

In honor of Wendell Berry’s 79th birthday today, here is a poem of his:

“A Homecoming”

by Wendell Berry

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distances of our faith,
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

Which makes me think of this:

"The Way Home" by Brian Andreas "I'm not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you're ready, I'm here to remind you of the way home."

“The Way Home” by Brian Andreas
“I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

“Who is My Neighbor?” Luke 10:25-37; July 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Who is My Neighbor?”
Luke 10:25-37
July 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Mr RogersThis song sung by Mister Rogers at the beginning of each episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood welcomes us into a familiar, comfortable and slow moving world of love, understanding, and community. Mister Rogers asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” as an invitation, a desire for relationship and connection.

SLIDE 2 - who-is-my-neighborIn our scripture today we hear another question about neighborliness, coming from a very different place. “Who is my neighbor?” This is the question of the lawyer in our story today, trying to figure out what exactly is required of him to attain eternal life. “Who is my neighbor?” This is a question that seeks boundaries: If you can tell me who my neighbors are, then I can also know who my neighbors aren’t. The lawyer desires to place limitations on whom he should love. The lawyer invites Jesus’ help in identifying his neighbor. This means that there is a category of “nonneighbor.” The lawyer wants to draw a line.

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborAs your pastor tasked with bringing God’s word to you each week I carry the blessed duty of letting the Sunday’s scripture color the rest of my going about as I think of what God has to say to us all in worship. This week was a particularly interesting one putting the text and life side by side. All week I’ve had this question of “who is my neighbor?” buzzing about in my brain.

SLIDE 4 - who-is-my-neighbor“Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I encountered others in travel plazas as I traveled back from Massachusetts last weekend. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I had dinner with Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity on Monday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked when I learned that my favorite knitting store in Cedar Falls was closing. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked at our Community Celebration Service on Wednesday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as rides and food stands were set up for Farmers Day. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as the streets became filled with people walking about to enjoy the festivities. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I read the news of the George Zimmerman trial. All of these experiences have made me examine who my neighbors are and think about how I can be a neighbor.

SLIDE 5 - Passing ByJesus shares his own such story, a familiar one: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

SLIDE 6 - Samaritan33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

SLIDE 7 - ThreesIn the storytelling of Jesus’ time and in the Goldilocks storytelling formula we are used to, audiences expect that series of three will create a pattern in the first two actions of characters that is broken by the third. In Jesus’ time the expected sequence would be a priest, a Levite, and then an Israelite. Jesus often brought into question the relevance of the law in the scope of God’s greater kingdom and so such a sequence would uplift the common person rather than the leaders of the temple pointing out that an ordinary Israelite would do what the priest and Levite would not.

However, our story shows us that it is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan that comes to the aid of the injured man. Jesus makes an unfamiliar and uncomfortable comparison, placing the two Jewish characters as inferior to the Samaritan. In Jewish culture of this time, Samaritans were seen as not only unclean but antagonistic. In this story they would be more assumed to be the robbers than any other character, and certainly not the hero. The neighborliness of the Samaritan therefore, would not be attributed to his being a Samaritan, but rather because someone was in need of a neighbor.

SLIDE 9 - ManInterestingly, in a story where we are provided with the nationality of the majority of the characters, the lead character is not given any identifying characteristic. He enters the story as a “particular man,” is abused, and then identified only by his need. He became a neighbor because he is in need of a neighbor to help him. Through these two characters in this story Jesus shows us that it is not class, social status, nationality, or ethnic identity that defines us, but rather we are defined by our actions. Someone’s need makes them our neighbor and our acts of love make us a neighbor in return.

Biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes this in his Luke Commentary: “Jesus has turned the issue from the boundaries of required neighborliness to the essential nature of neighborliness. Neighbors are defined actively, not passively…Neighbors do not recognize social class. Neither is mercy the conduct of a calculating heart, nor eternal life the reward for doing prescribed duties. Eternal life – the life of the age to come – is that quality of life characterized by showing mercy for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or region – and with no thought of reward. Mercy sees only need and responds with compassion.”[1]

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborBy simultaneously identifying the Samaritan and defying the cultural expectations by showing a compassionate Samaritan, Jesus forces us to look beyond outward identity and towards outward action.  True neighborliness is about the joy and inconveniences of being confronted with one another’s reality. It’s about realizing that there is someone in a ditch and not pretending we haven’t seen them. Being a neighbor in the way Jesus calls us to is the difficult commission to allow our own lives and plans to be inconvenienced for the sake of another.

Slide12 Perhaps you experienced some of this inconvenience this week: waiting behind others in line at Farmers Day, having to drive the long way around town in order to avoid construction designed to make things easier for those traveling through town with farm equipment, driving around the parade route. When streets are torn up or Farmers Day reroutes us, we interact differently, we see different things, and in a way, we have a different set of neighbors. And when we do try to go about in our regular ways we are forced to think differently.

We have to think about whether the person we’re visiting lives on the west or east side of 6th street. We have to think of where there are breaks in Young Street. In our detours we learn new ways of traveling. We change perspective. We change routine. We are caused to notice. We have a different set of neighbors. What seems a mere inconvenience is actually an opportunity to follow God’s call to love our neighbor, we just might not have seen them as neighbors before.

SLIDE 13 - ThreeUltimately, Jesus does not directly answer the question of “who is my neighbor?” Jesus instead asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” This reversal asks us to be more concerned with acting neighborly towards the other, than with deciding who is our neighbor. Acts of mercy are not to be done based on our neighbors worth but rather on their need.

SLIDE 14 - QuestionJesus responds to the lawyers questioning with questions of His own. That was one of Jesus’ teaching methods, not giving the answers, but asking questions that cause others to think through things on their own. This can be uncomfortable, annoying even when you are trying to get a straight answer or receive teaching.

Slide15Maybe some of you felt a bit of this a few weeks back when I asked you to respond to the sermon in groups during the sermon, and then went around for responses. You can rest easy, I’m not planning on doing that this week, but think about that moment. I know when I have been asked to respond to sermons within worship my response in the past has been, “wait, you’re the preacher, you want me to work on this too?”

Jesus wants us involved in reflecting, active in the process of understanding who we are called to be. The lawyer wanted to know “what must I do?” He didn’t want something to contemplate he wanted something to do.

SLIDE 16 - StepsThis is the appeal of so many self-help books: the promise of concrete ways forward, tangible steps to take, solid ways to measure progress. Jesus promises no such thing. What Jesus’ stories do, however, is give life to the question. While the lawyer was worried about steps, Jesus was worried about individuals. SLIDE 17 - ManStories make it real. Walking by individuals in our day to life make things real. Learning to know our brothers and sisters in this community gives flesh and blood to the word “neighbor.”

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. He seeks to limit, to check something off his to do list on the way to salvation. Jesus calls us to a much broader definition of neighbor. In fact he calls us to seek to expand our circle of neighbors, to widen the kingdom of God. Slide18So rather than asking “who is our neighbor?” the best question we could as is the one that Mr. Rogers asks? “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.


[1] Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.”p. 230

Fireworks: A lived out prayer of illumination

Two weeks ago today I was in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was an incredible week, made all the more incredible by the experiences of reuniting with seminary friends, meeting my cousin’s children for the first time, and seeing my dear friend Sarah preach in her new church. I met with my spiritual director on Wednesday of this week and was trying to explain to her this amazing feeling of spiritual wholeness that I felt that week.

Evan

Meeting Evan

Melora

Meme and Me! (wearing the cupcake hat I knit for her)

The best I could explain to her was by sharing with her the story of coming into the city of Chattanooga with Patricia after meeting my cousin’s children: We were rounding a corner downtown and I was telling her how extremely blessed and full of joy I felt after such a week and then there in the sky all of a sudden were fireworks bursting across the sky. Though I know they were for the baseball game that had finished a few minutes prior, they felt like a physical manifestation of my own joy. Fireworks. Bright, unignorably celebratory lights flashing across the sky. A monumental sort of thing that must be experienced and cannot be contained.

947214_10101192283241828_1934501116_n

Then, also on Wednesday I received the latest installment of the Atlas Project from my favorite band, Sleeping at Last. As they so often speak to my heart and experience, I was only slightly surprised by a new song on there called, “In the Embers,” about fireworks:

We live and we die
Like fireworks,
Our legacies hide
in the embers.
May our stories catch fire
and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.
we live and we die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

May we live and die
A valorous life,
May we write it all down
In cursive light,
So we pray we were made
in the image of a figure eight,
May we life and die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

This Festival of Homiletics, this time of great speakers and deep worship for me felt like an experience of “stories catch[ing] fire and burn[ing] bright enough to catch God’s eye.”

It is my prayer that this might be the experience of all worship of all preaching. Perhaps my prayers of illumination should revise Psalm 19:14 to say, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts catch fire and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.” Amen.

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

Today ,as flooding is threatening towns near Jesup and we are under a tornado watch, I was reminded of this story in Mark and of this sermon I preached on it last year. I hope that it will also speak a message of hope to you today.
Mark 4:35-41: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Presbydestrian

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this…

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“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30 April 21, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30
April 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Our Psalm today, which we read together at the beginning of the service, is arguably one of the most well known passages in all of scripture. At funerals I have seen people recite this alongside the minister. I have seen people with dementia that have a hard time with the names of their own children, but who can clearly remember this passage. This passage is shared as peace in present grief, and as a comfort in death for one dying, or for those in grief at the loss.

Slide02How eerily fitting that this passage would come in the lectionary schedule on a week when the news is filled with grief and tragedy.

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 such 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.Slide03 As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord has been so near throughout this week.

Slide04However, 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 to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, in the midst of everything that is what I will do.

Slide05Our scripture today says: 1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

These verses bring up images of rest and peace: green pastures, still waters, restoration. This Psalm claims God as provider, as sustainer, as life giving force.

Slide06This week I know that I am in the need of still waters and green pastures. When so much of the world has become “ground zeros,” tangible reminders of pain and loss, I am in need of spaces of stillness, of provision, of hope. My heart yearns for restoration, for escape from the pain of this world.

SLIDE 7 - Smart GirlsI saw a great video by Amy Poehler this week. Amy is well known for her comedic acting on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation,” but she is also part of an online-based show called “Smart Girls at the Party,” that lifts up important character lessons for young women.

In her video this week she said, “In light of recent events, I’ve …been looking at photographs that have been really hard to take. I’ve been thinking about what these images do to our brains and to our heart and how we should look at them, and when we should look at them.”

She continues, “What do I want my eye to see? How can I keep myself informed and connected without exploiting people and harming myself? Slide08 I kind of feel like my eyes need a break. Don’t you? And if you do, then my encouragement to you and to myself would be to take it. That it’s okay to not be looking at what everyone else is looking at all the time… to be okay with letting some things rest in peace.”[1]

I would say the same goes for us as Christians as we try and understand the grief of this world. The twenty-four hour news cycles and frequent “breaking news,” can break our hearts if we allow ourselves to be inundated with them. Why can’t we, as Amy suggests, “let some things rest in peace”?

Slide09Why is it that we pay so close attention to these stories? I know I have been guilty of watching more than a healthy amount of television coverage in the face of tragedy. I tell myself that watching these stories is helpful, that somehow I will be more useful for knowing the details. I think of how each individual story is important. Christ knows them by name, so shouldn’t we?

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.”[2]

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 do so may be to disregard the hope of the resurrection, the hope of eternal life. Even Psalms often quoted in times of death and darkness, bear messages of hope and restoration.Slide11

The middle of our Psalm says in verses 4 and 5: “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.”

Slide13This 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.[3]

Slide14There are so many things in this world that will make us feel unsafe: North Korea, the Boston Marathon, West, Texas, and even Evansdale. There are spaces in this world that evoke images far separated from the green pastures and still waters of our Psalm.

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?”

Slide17There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. Even if evil takes our life on earth, we can still be secure in the hope of resurrection, in the promise of God’s Kingdom, and in the joy of redemption.

The great, good news is this: NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

Slide182nd Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

While we are on earth, while we are in the body, we are not in our ultimate home with God.

Methodist Elder, Catherine L. Kelsey wrote about our passage saying,  “Psalm 23 is the most familiar of the many psalms that reassure us of God’s continuing presence, no matter what is happening to our bodies, our relationships or community, or to our world. It is easy in the midst of trauma to give our confidence over to doctors or leaders as if they hold everything in their hands. They do not. Psalm 23 helps us retain perspective in the midst of trauma, perspective that retains our agency in relation to those who intend to help us. We seek to discern the hand of God in the work of those who help in times of trauma, but we do not expect them to do everything on our behalf….Through it all, God and God alone is our true safety, our true shepherd.”[4]

Our New Testament passage speaks of these other agents in our lives as “hired hands.” There are people in this world who do their best to protect us, but ultimately are fallible, surrendering to their own safety and well being.

Slide20 Jesus says in John 10:11-13 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

SLIDE 21 – Jesus and SheepJesus assures us in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We are called to follow our shepherd, out of grief into redemption. 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 be the sheep of Christ, following our shepherd out of the pain of this world into the glory of the next.

Slide22But this is not just a call for our lives after death, this is a call for our lives right now. Our Psalm concludes in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

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 allow the tragedies of this world to rest in peace, knowing that our comfort is in our savior who loves and cares for us. Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

Amy Poehler’s video:


[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 434.

[4] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436.

Prayer for Boston

My sister is a runner. Two years ago I was her “media correspondent” as she completed her first marathon at the Cincinnati Flying Pig. We followed her all along the race. I was so excited that I got to see here six different times throughout the 26.2 miles. As she came in my dad was above the race on a bridge and I was below along the side of the race, both of us taking so many pictures you could’ve made a flip book. The mood at the end of the race was celebratory. So many people coming in with stories being told of people who were cancer survivors, war heroes, pregnant women and all of them were now marathon runners. We were so excited for my sister and loved hearing everyone else’s stories too. People coming over the finish line were sweaty, worn out, tired, but filled with joy at their accomplishment.

I can only imagine that the finish line at Boston Marathon today was filled with that sort of sense of celebration and excitement.

And then there was a giant boom. People looked up. Surely it was firework, right? Then they looked ahead at rising smoke and horror. Then there was another boom.

Two explosions causing 2 deaths and dozens of injuries.

I can’t even fathom the joy turned to horror that was experienced by so many in that moment. While I am lacking in words to accurately express how horribly frightening and sad this is, I ask that you pray with me:

God of grace, we pray to you in our horror, in our sorrow, in our grief. We pray for comfort, for peace, for healing. We ask that you bring swift protection to those who may still be in harm’s way. We ask for your hand on the police, emergency crews, firefighters, doctors, and nurses. Give them wisdom in their investigations and their work for healing. We pray for so many who are without answers right now: those searching for family members, those in hospital waiting rooms, those terrified at continued violence. Envelope this world with your love, and as the hymn says, “stop your child’s warring madness.” We ask all of these things in the hope of your kingdom of peace. Amen.

VDay 2013: One Billion Rising

Note: The videos in this post contain graphic content depicting violence against women (in order to raise awareness and demand it stop). While the message contained is important, please proceed with caution, especially if you are around young children.

Today, people all around the world are “rising up” to demand an end to violence against women. As people who follow a God who aches for the pain of the world, we too are called to “rise up,” in large and small ways to oppose anyone who would inflict violence or oppression on any of God’s creation. Below is a short film that was created bringing light to the horrors of violence and responding in a protest of strength through dance.

Please beware that the images in this video are disturbing.

This next video was created in Atlanta as a PSA for the day’s events:

Among the videos for the day, I was particularly moved by this “Man Prayer”:

More information, including places where you may join in the dancing are at: http://onebillionrising.org/

“Snow,” by Sleeping at Last

A favorite song of mine for the new year:

“Snow,” by Sleeping at Last
The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow

So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show

Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New year’s resolutions will reset tonight

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby; Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4; December 31, 2012; FPC Jesup

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby
Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4
December 31, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today as we stand here on December the 31st at the wedding of Ami and Bob we are standing on the cusp of new beginnings. All around the world people are counting down to the start of the New Year. When the clock hits midnight fireworks will go off, a crystal ball will drop, and where my parents are at Lake Erie, a walleye will drop. There’s an energy to the start of the New Year: the countdowns, the celebrations.

We are also standing here at the beginning of Ami and Bob’s marriage. Many of you have been counting down to this day with excitement and anticipation. Today their marriage begins! Today they join hearts and names and families! We won’t be dropping a crystal ball or setting off any fireworks, but there is a similar energy: it’s the start of something new!

Tomorrow, when all those partygoers wake up and clean up the confetti and streamers that marked the occasion, what will be different? Sure we’ll change our calendars and start writing 2013 instead of 2012, but most of our day-to-day life will be unaffected.

At first glance it’d be tempting to say that Ami and Bob’s relationship won’t be too affected by this brand new thing that is happening today. They’ve known each other for many years. Over the years they have supported each other through job changes, relocations, and all the day-to-day work of loving one another. In just a short while I will pronounce them married and Ami can start to write Liebsch behind her name instead of Merkle, but what else will change?

Unlike the dropping of the crystal ball in Times Square, the nature of this relationship does not change with flip of a switch, or with the turning of a calendar. It changes through the covenant they make here together today. Today they vow their faithfulness in marriage. They vow to be each other’s spouse, each other’s partner. The nature of this covenant of marriage reminds me of a favorite song of mine: Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.” The chorus to this song goes,

“Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

Though their relationship may have the same geography from today into tomorrow, this covenant changes everything.

When we were discussing possible scriptures to lift up in this service as a reflection of this marriage both Ami and Bob were drawn to our passage in Amos, which asks a short simple question

“Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren’t going to the same place?”

This is what the covenant of marriage does, unites their hands, unites their hearts, and allows them to move forward together. The day-to-day nature of this relationship will not be dramatically altered by this covenant today, but the intent of their life together is forever changed. They are bound together by a covenant.

All throughout scripture there is instruction of how we are to live life with one another. In our New Testament passage today we heard a summary of a way that this is done. We read:

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ami and Bob’s relationship has required and will require humility, gentleness, and patience. Each of these things takes work, at some times more than others. It is difficult to be humble when you feel like the other is in the wrong and you are in the right. It is difficult to be gentle when the other has does something that has upset you greatly. And it is difficult to be patient when the other is just not getting what has come quickly to you. But, by focusing on the love in our relationships we are able to do these things. The Holy Spirit unites us in the bond of peace, but that does not mean that it will always be easy. It will take work. As Ami and Bob enter this covenant today they commit themselves to this work, and pledge that they are now taking one another’s hands and walking forward together.

There’s another important covenant that we acknowledge today. God also promised to walk beside us into our lives and sent Jesus Christ to enact that promise. We are not perfect, and often the deeper we get into a relationship, the more we discover the imperfections that take root in each other’s lives. But because Christ offered His perfect life to pay for our sins, through Him we see an example of perfect love. Christ models selfless love and calls us to love each other in this same way. When we love with humility, gentleness, and patience, God is glorified through our relationships.

In this service of worship, we affirm both of these covenants, the covenant of marriage and the covenant of God’s grace for us in this gathered congregation. We promise to uphold Ami and Bob in their marriage, to demonstrate Christ’s love to them, and to enable them to draw closer to God’s desire for their lives and their relationship. They covenant to be faithful to one another, but they are not alone in this promise. As we surround them today with our presence, we and many others who together are the Church surround them with our continued support throughout their lives.

Today, we are on the cusp of a new year and they are on the cusp of a new relationship. Tomorrow as we wake up from the excitement of this New Year and this new relationship we will know that:

“Something unstoppable [was] set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

May we look towards the new things that God is calling us to do in our own relationships. And may we celebrate with Ami and Bob the joy of this new beginning. Amen.

Remember Your Baptism

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing my first baptism. I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. I’m grateful to this dear boy for not crying or fussing. I’m grateful I didn’t mess up the words or drop my Kindle in the font or trip down the aisle. I’m grateful for his dear family and the joy and pride in their faces for their sweet son. But most of all, I am grateful for the way he looked at the water as I said the words and the water washed over his forehead. It was a look of innocence and of inquisitiveness. He was fully engaged. We walked down the aisle together and I told him how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for him. 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 this sweet boy 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 and from my lips yesterday are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of your 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.

Watching the news reports on Friday of a man in Chengpeng, China stabbing 22 children and one adult and then a man in Sandy Hook, CT, shooting 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life, it was hard to remember what grace felt like. The stark contrast of such innocence with such violence seems unfathomable. These are children.To the stabber and the shooter they were nameless. Now these communities and parents cry our their names in prayers, petitions, and eulogies. We know them as children created and loved by God. God’s grace was manifest in Christ for them. As so many parents, relatives, and communities members morn, we draw our families in closer to us, say more “I love you”s, and pray for protection for this hurting world of ours.

“Remember your baptism.”

As hard as it is to recognize, God’s grace also came for these two men. Christ came for the redemption of the evil that took root in the actions they committed. The darkness of mental illness leaves us with so many unanswerable questions as to the “why” to these events. I urge you to read this article on mental illness from a mother’s perspective: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We live in a complicated world with much pain, but if we are to truly remember our baptism, the grace of our own atonement compels us share the grace that we have received. We can and should be angry when there is violence and injustice in this world, but we must also live into the hope that evil never has the final word.

 

The video below is one I created in collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Preaching and Worship Professor, Beverly Zink-Sawyer. The images were collected from various online sources. The song is “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by fellow UPSem students, Laura and Jamie Thompson. We showed this in worship this Sunday before the baptism.

Prayers for Chengpeng and Sandy Hook

Today was a horrific day all around the world.

This morning as children were arriving at an elementary school in Chengpeng, China, a man stabbed 22 children and one adult. No deaths resulted from the attack, but the horror of this act certainly caused trauma that will be present with these children far longer than the physical wounds they’ve sustained.

Then, half a world away as children were at school in Sandy Hook, CT, a man came in and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life.

The horror of both of these incidents is incalculable. I’m finding myself at a loss for words of how to truly convey any pastoral response to such a violation of innocence. I know no other way to respond than in prayer, so today I offer two prayers that have helped me have any semblance of sense of what to offer up to God today:

The first, a prayer written today by Max Lucado:

Dear Jesus, It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately. These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated. The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation? Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence. Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene. Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us. Hopefully, Your Children

The second, by W. Brueggeman, shortened and edited, in light of the elementary school shooting (posted by fellow seminary classmate, Jenny McDevitt):

Had we the chance,
we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.

We would have paused at that barn and pondered that baby.

We still pause at that barn–
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,

our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed in harm’s way,
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught
in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.

We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
and yet also, like every child, also at risk.

Our world is so at risk,
and yet we seek
and wait
for this child named “Emmanuel.”
Come be with us, you who are called “God with us.”

Amen.

“Simply Loving,” B-Side

Many weeks I feel like the sermons I write need to have a sort of “b-side” to them: a response to what was written, sort of the footnotes of more information that’s in conversation with the original sermon. So here goes:

After looking at the three scriptures in conversation with each other, this story immediately came to mind:

“One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.” – “Purple Madonna,” StoryPeople by Brian Andreas

This article provided many of the details of story and also came to it’s own conclusions about the necessity of giving:

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Should We Give a Homeless Man Shoes?”

No Act of Love is Ever WastedAlso, this sermon brought up for me the phrase “no act of love is ever wasted.” “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.” If I were to have gone that route with the sermon, there is much to be discussed of how some people with cognitive disabilities are often seen unworthy of the basic necessities of love and relationship simply because of an inability to respond. A perspective that is confronted by this book.

“Simply Loving; ” Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; December 9, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Loving”
Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
December 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1There’s a story that was in the news a week or so ago about a New York policeman who offered boots to a man who was elderly, barefoot, and homeless. The policeman, officer Larry DePrimos, bought the shoes with his own money and helped to place the socks and shoes on this man’s feet. A tourist captured it in a photograph and posted it online. The picture went viral and was seen by more than 400,000 people. When questioned about it, the policeman said that he knew he had to help and so he did.

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. People saying that this action restored their faith in the NYPD and their faith in humanity. People asking, “why don’t I do that?”

Then, a few days later, the story changed. The man, Jeffrey Hillman, was seen out on the streets without shoes once again. He said he hid them because they were “worth a lot of money.” Suddenly investigations were launched about this man and it was discovered that he was “not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. The New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft and more.”[1] Some say that his erratic behavior is indicative of mental illness, but he has received no treatment.

This story has become more than a simple good deed. In many people’s eyes, this act of generosity has become sullied by the complexity of the story of the man who received it. This is not a simple story.

The question remains, “is helping someone still worth it?”

In our passage in Matthew today we heard, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ Hear that Jesus is not saying, “give to those who need it,” or “check someone’s credit history and criminal record before you help them.” Jesus is calling us to love, calling us to respond. He preaches a message of love independent of reaction, of faithfulness independent of result.

Slide3Arnold Cohen, President of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City says, “We should be asking why there are so many people on the streets. And why a rich city… is so ill equipped to deal with the complexity of homelessness — because it is very complex.”[2]

It is tempting to think that Jesus’ message doesn’t apply to us because we live in such a complex world. But to do so would be to disregard the reality of the first century world. Slide4This was the time of the Roman Empire. There was oppression, persecution, and financial disparity. Many were illiterate and disenfranchised. All except those at the very top were vulnerable socially and economically. It was indeed a time of complexity, when good deeds could be confused and charity could be seen as gullibility. This was not a simple world.

Slide5Both the photographer and the officer described the homeless man’s reaction as lighting up like it was Christmas morning. They delighted in this man’s delight. The moment was deemed worthy of capturing, worthy of doing. But when the story changes, is the feeling still the same? Is the action still reasonable? I believe in my heart of hearts, that “no act of love is ever wasted,”[3] that God’s love is shown through our love. Since God loves with an unconditional love, we are called to love in the same way.

Slide6We affirm in scripture and in our creeds as a Church that Jesus Christ, God’s own self, came to this earth and in the most extreme act of love, lived a sinless life, yet died for our sins. We were not and are not worthy of such a gift. There is nothing we can even do to fully earn such an enormous love. But that’s the beauty of grace, it’s a free gift of love, of forgiveness, of redemption.

Our Old Testament passage today speaks of how loving us so fiercely, altered and ended Jesus’ human life here on earth:

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[4]

How can we even begin to respond to such a gift? We can love. Simply love.

1 John 3:16-18 says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is not a love that comes naturally. It takes work to love when that love is not returned. It hurts to turn our cheek. Giving our coat to someone may leave us cold. Giving shoes to a man who remains barefoot is a hard thing to watch. But still, we are called to love.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians urges, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” This is the calling to which we are called. When we enact Jesus’ kind of unconditional love we are allowing God’s presence to become manifest in our midst. We are welcoming God as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Slide9We are standing at the Advent of God’s presence in the world once again: A birth of One, fully God and fully human, inaugurated at Christmastime. We are also standing at the Advent of the possibility of God’s Kingdom lived out here on earth: God’s love through our love, God’s care through our care. God promised never to leave us or forsake us. God forever desires to be in relationship with us. God is always, God-with-us, Emmanuel. May we remember that promise this Advent season and every day. Amen.


[3] “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.”

[4] Isaiah 53:2-5

Letter for November Newsletter

Grace and peace to you,

It is finally official: I am now the called, ordained, and installed pastor of First Presbyterian of Jesup! I am grateful for the Pastor Nominating Committee, my ordination and installation commissions, and everyone who’s been a part of making me feel at home here in Jesup. As Thanksgiving Day approaches, there is so much for which I am grateful, but I’m also acutely aware that for many this move towards gratitude is a hard one.

There are many for whom this is a difficult season. Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, can be reminders of the family members that are not celebrating beside us this year. We have to learn new ways of being family to one another.  We might need to establish new traditions or at least alter our old traditions.

For thousands on the East Coast, this holiday season is particularly difficult in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Many have lost their homes, transportation is difficult, and resources are low. Approaching a holiday based on gratitude, family gatherings, and feasts, can strange in light of their circumstances.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. In Deuteronomy 31:6 we read, “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread… because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” God is always with us and calling us out of our particular circumstances and into hope. So in this time of natural disaster you can:

Give. Provide financial support to aid Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in recovery efforts. You can give $10 now by texting PDA to 20222 or mail your gift referencing DR000187 to P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA.

Read Scripture. The Psalms are a great place to start for songs of praise and a big picture look at God’s faithfulness over time. Luke 12:6-7 and 22-31 are also good verses to remember God’s care for us. When our knowledge of God is rooted in scripture we can see our God present beyond even our current circumstances.

Pray. Pray for families who lost homes and loved ones. Pray as they face power loss and other challenges. Pray for those seek to provide physical, emotional and spiritual comfort. Pray the hope of Christ will be evident in the response in their communities.

May we approach this season of Thanksgiving with gratitude for our great God who loves us and promises to be with us in all circumstances.

Blessings,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company 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 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. 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 youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. Amen.

“Abide in God;” John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30; James York; Installation Service October 28th; FPC Jesup

Today’s sermon preached by James York at my Installation Service:

Abide in God
John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30
James York
Installation of Kathleen Sheets, October 28th
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There once was a grape branch that was very proud of the grapes it produced. The grapes were beautiful, plump and were emitting a delicious aroma. The branch was overwhelmed with pride in producing such wonderful grapes. The branch thought wouldn’t it be great to produce even more grapes I bet if I detach myself from the vine then I can produce grapes from both ends of the branch. The branch had no intention, nor desire, to be anything less than a healthy, productive grape branch. It just thought that it could produce more grapes detached from the vine.

So the branch detached itself from the vine and before long the branch no longer felt strong and vigorous. In fact it felt utterly drained and limp. Its grapes withered and dropped off. Eventually it became just a stick on the ground. The other branches remained attached to the vine and were nourished producing a bountiful harvest. The other branches realized that without the vine, they could do nothing.
Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – John 15:1-11

 

Kathleen I am inspired by the way you first strive to abide in God then let God’s blessings flow through you blessing others. In confirmation you made getting to know God through prayer and scripture reading your priority. Your delight in discovering God’s will and blessings produced fruit, an inspiring personal statement of faith.

 

 
As a teenager you founded G.I.R.L.S. group which stands for Grace In Real Life and Service. Your desire was to discuss your faith, share God Sightings and grow closer to God and your peers. The G.I.R.L.S name reveals your passion to abide in God. First you abide in God’s grace, you name and celebrate God’s activity in your daily life and the lives of others. Filled with God’s grace you joyfully, graciously serve. You discipled, helped younger girls perceive God and abide in God. You started the Box City mission by sharing devotions that helped you abide in God filling you with the compassion to serve.
You worship with great passion giving all praise, honor and glory to God. You were so nourished through Taize worship that you came back to church eager to share, to lead a Taize worship service. When I ran the idea past the worship commission they were reluctant. Then you talked to them, a teenager, soaring from your experience of God. Upon hearing you speak about your connection with God their posture straightened, they smiled, and asked. “What can we do to help you lead us in Taize worship?”

 

At Workcamp you did not let the project get in the way of devotions or perceiving God. You were eager to talk about what God was doing, how you saw a facet of God in the person being served, how God was renewing people. You first abided in God, which then fueled your service to get the project done.

 

As North Presbyterian’s summer seminarian intern I marveled in how you have grown in abiding God. Your wonder in God’s creativity inspires you to create all sorts of beautiful things. You saw God in children running through a sprinkler and in a song so with delight you created and shared it as a video. You sense God’s longing to connect with every person so you were inspired to create the “Be Our Guest Ministry”.

 

 

Your awe of God’s joyful playfulness enables you to connect children with God. Your sermons are a reflection of your wrestling with God, your delight in being with God, the nourishment you receive from God. Your time in prayer with God has filled you with compassion and peace that comforts us.

 

 

Your delight in savoring God’s love overflows you with love for all of us. Your awareness of God’s abundance overflows you with generosity.

 

Jesus says that when we abide in God we are filled with joy. Kathleen thank you for abiding in God, for sharing God’s joy through your great sense of humor, upbeat personality, warm smile and contagious laugh.

 

 

God urges us all to abide in God. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and love in many forms is the fruit. Jesus gives us our top two priorities. Number one to abide in Jesus. Number two producing the fruit of love. If we do these two things in order then we are friends of God, are nourished by God and we will have abundant joy.

There is so much to do, so much clamoring for our attention it is easy to live like the branch who disconnected himself from the vine in hopes of bearing more fruit. It is easy to switch priority 1 abiding in God with priority 2 producing the fruit of love. If we are not intentional in daily abiding in God we will dry up, burnout, become exhausted and overwhelmed.

The dilemma for us is if we focus to much on producing the fruit rather than nourishing ourselves by abiding in God then we have nothing to give. One can easily fall into this downward spiral. It starts subtle with a busy season of urgent demands. One shaves some of the ways they abide in God to complete the tasks. With less nourishment from God one has less energy, love, creativity and inspiration resulting in the person needing to spend more time completing these tasks taking even more time away from God. Now the person becomes fatigued, a little under nourished with love, therefore they say a harsh word, they regret, which causes damaged relationships which now will take time and energy to heal and soon the downward spiral spins out of control. Without Jesus we burnout. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus was well aware of our human dilemma and stressed the utmost importance of abiding in God.

The word abide appears eleven times in the scripture reading. Other translations use remain in God, be in God at all times, live in God and be joined to God. Our number one priority is always to abide in God. We are productive and thrive when we are firmly joined to Jesus.
Half of the abides in our scripture are reciprocal; Jesus abiding in us. God is doing 99.9% of the work. God is the vine grower providing everything for abundant growth the soil, rain, sun, seed, and nutrients just as God has created everything and given everything to us as a blessing. Jesus is the vine the source of all love and nourishment. God knows we will have bad days, do bad things and get our priorities all mixed up but if we can just hang onto the vine even by the smallest thread, even if all we can do is just pray, “God help me”, then God will forgive us, nourish us and infuse so much love into us that we will become vibrant and joyful again.

 

Kathleen my hope and prayer for you, for all of us, is that we make abiding in God our priority. I will confess that there have been seasons, as a pastor, when I have failed to adequately abide in God. Times when I cut my time with God to attend to to many well meaning people’s good, loving ideas. Gradually I became fatigued and my entire ministry suffered. This is a really, really, hard part of ministry, it is a hard part of life, prayerfully with God’s help we all must prune some wonderful aspects of our life so we can abide in God.
Thankfully God has filled my life with a wonderful family, a spiritual director, a great personnel committee and a faithful congregation. Since I regularly share with them ways I abide and am nourished with God they lovingly help me abide in God. The congregation knows that when I ride my bicycle I am praying, being nourished by God through the beauty of creation.

 

My Spiritual Director often tells me to go on a date with Leslie and play with the kids. Leslie tells me to get out into the woods. Two years ago the congregation sent me to the Presbyterian Credo Conference.

 

 

They paid for me to go a week early to climb Mount St Helens and Mount Rainer. My time abiding with God on the mountain inspired a series of sermons. After one of them one of the personnel committee members told me that they knew the whole congregation would be blessed by sending me into the mountains to abide in God.

 

 

 

I believe I have been called to be a lead listener, to hear each person’s story, to listen until we are able to see how God is inviting them to abide in God. I keep listening to their story and whenever I hear that they are becoming worn out I encourage them to abide in God.

As a family of faith all of us need to listen to each other and encourage each other to abide in God. Kathleen I hope you will share with these people how you abide in God, how you are pruning to nourish your relationship with God.

How you are searching for a spiritual director, pray through knitting, are rejuvenated by family, friends, music, art, media, a coffee shop, and sunsets.

 

Kathleen I hope you will listen to their stories and encourage them to abide in God.

 

 

You listened to your mom’s story how she experiences God’s joy by playing with Abigail and Spencer so on Mother’s Day you paid for an airline ticket to send your Mom to be with the York family because you knew it would rejuvenate your mom.

A man was working in a remote jungle and had a portable generator that ran a single light that hung from the ceiling. The native people marveled at the light and begged for a light bulb. Communication was difficult therefore he was unable to explain the need for electricity for the bulb to shine. They persisted in their desire to have a light bulb so he reluctantly gave them a bulb.

 

It became a great source of frustration for the native people as they hung the light bulb by a variety of strings but it never shined.

 

 

If we are to shine we must be connected to God. When others enjoy our light may we always point them to God the source of all light, joy, hope, peace, grace and love.

 

 

God’s renewing grace, desire to nourish us and love for each of us is amazing. Jesus knows even with our best efforts, even with the support of family and friends even with our entire family of faith encouraging us to abide in God there will still be times when we become exhausted, make mistakes and overwhelmed with some burden.
Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” -Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be in your skin. Jesus is eager to partner with you, not for you to take the lead and try to do it yourself, neither to hold back and relay on Jesus to do all the work. Rather to live, play, work and rest in harmony, a partnership with God. God created all of creation with rhythm. God created you with a unique rhythm that Jesus is eager to match as Jesus walks with you. Jesus is inviting you to discover the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus is inviting you to let go so you can let come. Jesus is inviting you to enjoy time with God so that you will recover your life and overflow with joy.

All of us are called to show the world how to abide in God, to partner with Jesus, so we can bear sweet, abundant fruit, so we can fill the world with God’s renewing love. Amen

In Memory of my Grandfather

Today marks the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death. A year ago today I was working at FPC Maumee and got the call from Swan Creek that my Grandpa Charlie was dying. They hadn’t been able to get a hold of anyone else in the family yet, but the chaplain had my number so they called me. Graciously Pastor Clint drove me to Swan Creek as I tried to wrap my mind around what was going on and tried to get a hold of the rest of my family.

When we got to Swan Creek my grandmother and I sat beside him. I’m not even sure what I said other than, “I love you.” After a while my mom was able to get there and I was so grateful she was able to make it in time. She was much better with her words and was able to say all the things that needed to be said. Pastor Clint offered a prayer. Then we sat with him and after a while longer he passed away.

I am honored that I was able to be there, but it was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

My grandfather had a heart attack and a stroke in 2000. Throughout the last 11 years of his life the stroke had changed him greatly. He still had a great sense of humor, elevated vocabulary, and a vast knowledge of everything art history related, but the stroke stifled his ability to communicate and diminished his short-term memory. Those 11 years were filled with loss, but peppered with some great moments of when his eyes would sparkle, he would laugh, and for a short time we’d see who he’d been before.

My grandfather was a storyteller, full of tall tales and interesting anecdotes. He always loved being with children and had a genuine gift for approaching children on their level. He never talked down to kids, but was always looking for ways to bring out their creative spirit. He absolutely loved being a grandfather and took great joy in his family. Sunday night dinners at my grandparents’ house were a special time when he would create culinary masterpieces. When we would get together and watch a movie at my grandparents’ house he made great popcorn and put it in this giant wood bowl for everyone to share. He was a dynamic presence in the Toledo arts community and took a hand in helping to launch the glass movement.

I know over the years we will continue to remember and miss in him new and different ways as we think of a joke he would like, want his opinion on what we should do in our lives, or want to ask something about art. I know his absence will be felt greater at weddings, funerals, and births to come. I know that I am ever grateful to have had him as a grandfather and blessed to see how he impacted others with his life.

Letter for October Newsletter

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Happy Autumn! For me the beginning of October always brings the sound of crisp leaves crunching under my feet,  tastes of apple cider and pumpkin flavored everything, and scenes of red-orange-yellow trees where ever I look. Perhaps for you it brings up memories of family hayrides or corn mazes. Maybe you have traditions of apple-picking or pumpkin carving. As we see the leaves changing outside we are also aware of the many changes happening in our lives. For me this has been a major time of transition: moving to Jesup, starting work here at First Presbyterian, and getting settled into the community. What an amazing few weeks this has been. I am overwhelmed by the hospitality that this community has shown me as I begin here. A great big thank you for:

  • Everyone who worked so tirelessly on preparing the manse for my arrival. The house looks great. When I arrived I walked around the house in awe of all the work that had been done. It’s really starting to feel like home!
  • Everyone who helped to unload the moving truck. The crew unloaded a 20 foot moving truck (including an upright piano) in just 30 minutes!
  • The lovely housewarming shower. I appreciate all the gifts you have given me to help me get started here in Jesup. Thank you for your kindness and generosity.
  • A very special thank you to Kathy & Rich Bucknell, Dean Zuck, Gary & Gladys Rowley, Paul Nagle, Bruce Miller, Barbara Meister, Judy Fratzke, Bob McInerny, Dyrk Dahl, Mike & Donna Schares, Rob & Rachel Thomas family, Rick Zuck, Justin Zuck, Trent Zuck and Eric Zuck. Each of these people went above and beyond with their help in working on the manse and helping with the move (my apologies if I left anyone out!).

For each of you there are likely other transitions in your life: adjusting to the rhythms of the new school year, adjusting to an empty nest with kids gone to college or to new jobs, adjusting to being newly retired, or adjusting to a new family dynamic in the wake of a new marriage, a new life, or a new death. As the old axiom says, “the only thing constant is change.” Or, to tap into our Presbyterian roots, we are to be “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” As people of the “reformed” faith, we are particularly charged not to avoid change but to embrace it in all the possibilities that it brings. We know that as the leaves fall to the ground, they give way for new life to begin again. In an ever changing world, we have hope in the new life change brings. May it be so in all of our lives.

Blessings,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.

Officially the new pastor of Jesup, IA!

I am delighted to announce officially that I am now the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA!

I am so excited to serve with this congregation. This church is full of people who are family to one another, sometimes by blood, mostly by the love they have for each other. They have welcomed me with open arms and have been incredibly hospitable every step of the way. Members of the congregation have spent the past week and a half getting the manse ready for me to live in it and it looks beautiful.

The church seems excited by my passions for using technology in church life, especially in worship. It’s a very relational church and as I am a very relational person I think that it will be a very good fit!

Here are some other things people have been asking me about:

  • There is one worship service each Sunday and the worship style is blended with contemporary music every other week.
  • The town of Jesup has a population of about 2,500.
  • Average worship attendance is about 80.
  • Waterloo is the closest bigger city, only about 15-20 minutes away.
  • Cedar Falls is about 30 minutes away and has a street with a great coffee shop, knitting store, and bike shop all in a row. I think I will be spending a lot of time on that street!
  • Cedar Rapids is about 45 minutes away with all sorts of things going on there.

A big thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of me, praying for me throughout feeling a call to ministry in the 8th grade until finding this call. It’s been a long journey to get to this point and I am so very excited to see what God has in store for me in this exciting new beginning! Your continued prayers would be appreciated!

“Find your Greatness”; Ephesians 4:1-16; August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Find your Greatness”
Ephesians 4:1-16
August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

Who has been watching the Olympics? I love watching the competition, seeing those moments where one second can make such a difference; one misstep can change a future. But mostly, I love watching those human-interest stories that are shown alongside the coverage. I’ve never been too into athletics, but I am very much into stories. Seeing how a person’s life is oriented towards an Olympic goal, how they’ve flourished with family support or thrived in the face of adversity. Each story makes me watch a little closer to what will happen for that person in these games. Those stories make us care about what happens. Those teams become more than just a country represented on uniforms, rather they become a multi-dimensional, breathing force of will and intention. When we recognize the individual, we can see the function of the team all the better.

This multi-dimensional functioning team is similar to the example of the church that Paul gives us in our passage today. Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave gifts to his people… In verse 11-12 it continues saying: “11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In verse 16, “16from Christ the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

When we each are “working properly,” we are able to go forward, to grow as a community, to grow the Church universal. Notice, each working properly, does not mean each working the same. We each have different gifts and take different roles. When we use these gifts to work together towards a communal vision of service to God, we become “the body” of the church.

This passage’s example of the church as the body is echoed in another, perhaps more familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

The last couple of verses of this passage are particularly important, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Now if you look around at the Christian political climate right now, can we really say that we are consistently giving greater honor to those who need it most?

And do we even need to question whether or not there is dissension within the body and if all are having the same care for one another?

Hebrews 12:1 provides an example of how we may go forward as the universal Church. It is often quoted in an athletic context, as it says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” This verse can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.

When we take the time to listen to one another, to pay attention to what is important to each other, we are better equipped to run this race together. Like the Olympic coverage, we are more motivated to care when we know those human-interest stories. The reality is, every human is interesting in his or her own way, each has value, and each has a role they have been called to fill. When we open our lives and our hearts to taking in the worth of others, we are also better equipped to understand our own worth. We too have been called to serve God in our own unique and particular ways. We are not called to be all things to all people, but we are called to be faithful to the gifts that God has placed in our passions.

Admittedly another thing that I love about the Olympics is the commercials. Actually, we’re going to watch one here together. As we do so, I’d like you to think of the first verse of our passage today. In Ephesians 4:1 we read Paul’s encouragement to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Let’s keep that in mind as we watch this commercial together.

So what is your greatness? Are you a great listener? Are you a great talker? Are you a great musician or vocalist? Are you great at cooking or baking? Are you great at being present in times of need?

In your passions God has placed a purpose for your life, a greatness to which you are called.

Our passage tells us we are to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [you] have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

With this in mind, what is your greatness and how can you use it to point to the greatness of God?

[Walked around with microphone to receive responses from congregants.]

This Wednesday an online devotional called, “The Daily Word,” gave this great message,

“[The] Spirit within is always calling me toward the desires of my heart. I needn’t worry that I’m not ready or worthy to pursue them. When I am willing to be more, do more, and share more, [the] Spirit provides everything I need for success. My joy, excitement and passion tell me I am moving in the right direction.

“I am willing to share my gifts and talents, knowing the world needs every one of us to open to our greatest potential. Even if I do not feel fully prepared, [the] Spirit works within me and others, to synchronize timing and provide resources for the highest good of all. Fueled by my passion, I step into a flow of positive energy that carries me forward and expands my life.”[1]

2 Corinthians 8:12 says, “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have.”

It is my prayer that we may go forth together in eagerness to serve with the greatness we have been given. Amen.

A Dark Night

This past Friday morning I checked my Facebook and saw a strange collection of posts. Many of them were about people tired from a long night spent out watching the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. Some were about the simple going’s on of life: the joy of it being a Friday, quips about funny things their kids did, or excitement for the upcoming weekend’s plans. And then I started to see a different sort of post. Posts of shock and horror. Prayers for peace. I wasn’t sure what this was about, until I saw one:

What sad news about a gunmen entering a movie theater and killing 14, injuring over 50….it’s so sad that none of them were able to protect themselves or their children

I checked CNN’s page to see what had happened. Though the numbers had been slightly inaccurate in this initial post by a friend, the horror of it was true. 12 people had died. 58 were injured. I was shocked.

The Dark Knight Rises’ Director, Christopher Nolan posted this on the official Facebook page of the movie:

“Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community.

I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime.

The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.

Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.”

When I was in college studying film production I sat in classes alongside many with dreams of creating films that would create an impact on the world. While my intentions with film production were always through the lens of film in the context of church, most of the other students desired to be famous directors and producers. They would be the Christopher Nolans of the next generation. People would line up for hours to go to their midnight premieres, filling theatres and audiences with excited fans.

I’ve only been to a handful of midnight movie premieres, but at each one there was a palpable energy; an excitement that we were among the few, loyal, informed, and excited fans. As you can probably see by the multiple posts I wrote about “The Hunger Games,” it was a movie that I had looked forward to a long time. The premiere had been on my calendar for over six months and I drove three hours to watch it with my sister just so I could be in a group as excited about the movie as I was. We sat attentively, anyone who was leaving the theatre for a bathroom break got strange stares and we all thought “why would you want to miss a moment of this?”

With that experience in mind I can picture the mood in the theatre. It was likely celebratory, intense, excited. Initial reports from the massacre said that some movie-goers thought at first that the attack was special effects for the premiere. The idea that it could possibly be real gunfire, real evil was unconscionable.

I echo Nolan’s sentiments that, “The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.”

Movies are a place that we come together collectively to explore creativity and imagination. Brian Selznick, in “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” writes this about movie production: “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around. This is where they are made.”

In film classes professors encouraged us to be storytellers, giving voice and image to what would otherwise be silent and invisible. While working with the campus television show, Connections Live, we were encouraged to be open minded when looking for subjects for the show. We repeatedly heard the adage, “everyone has a story.” In the wake of this tragedy we are hearing the stories of the victims and the stories of the gunman. When tragedy is given a face and a name it becomes more real to us. These people are not simply a number, but unique and individual reflection of creation.

With any horrific act such as this there is an overwhelming desire to know why this happened. There is a belief that naming the root of evil can protect us. We think that if we are able to place blame on a societal, relational, or psychological cause we will be able to avoid it, inoculate our lives and our loved ones from pain.

Evil does not adhere to formula.

Blessedly, neither does hope.

I would encourage you to listen to this sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a preacher from “House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver Colorado. She writes of horror through the eyes of Mary Magdalen, who was witness to the horror of crucifixion:

I think St Mary Magdalen…would not shy away from the dark reality of innocent people slaughtered while it was still night.  She would show up and name the events of 2 days ago exactly what they were: horrific, evil, senseless violence without a shred of anything redemptive about it….

I think she would show up and tell us that despite it all despite the violence and fear that it’s still always worth it to love God and to love people and always, always it is worth it to sing alleluia.  For surely the devil hates the sound of it….

It drowns out the sound of the political posturing, the sound of cries for vengeance, the sound of our own fears and anxieties and the deafening uncertainty – because all of it is no match for the shimmering sound of the resurrected Christ calling our name. Because in baptism we are a people marked by the cross of Christ.  Upon our foreheads is the mark of violence and death but this violence and death has been overcome by the love of a God who in the 3 days between Good Friday and Easter reached into the very bowels of hell and said even here I will not be without you. This is the God to whom we sing.  A God who didn’t say we would never be afraid but that we would never be alone. A God who shows up.  In the violence of the cross, in the darkness of a garden before dawn, in the gardener, in a movie theater.”

At the end of Nadia’s sermon you can hear the congregation singing “Hallelujah,” with rewritten lyrics. It’s hauntingly beautiful.

It is my prayer that especially in the face of horror we would be a people of hope, people of the Light.

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 light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. – John 1:1-5

Amen.

A Letter to the Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

A seminary classmate of mine posted part of this poem today, hoping for people to speak “in an octave [their] kindness can reach.” The beauty of that line drew me to this poem. The clever and poignant words in this poem drew me to share it here. I hope that you will be blessed by it as I was.

A Letter to the Playground Bully, From Andrea, Age 8 1/2

maybe there are cartwheels in your mouth
maybe your words will grow up to be a gymnasts
maybe you have been kicking people with them by accident

I know some people get a whole lot of rocking in the rocking chair
and the ones who don’t sometimes get rocks in their voice boxes,
and their voice boxes become slingshots.
maybe you think my heart looks like a baby squirrel.

but you absolutely missed when you told the class I have head lice
‘cause I one hundred percent absolutely do not have head lice
and even if I do
it is a fact that head lice prefer clean heads over dirty ones
so I am clean as a whistle on a tea pot.
my mother says it is totally fine if I blow off steam
as long as i speak in an octave my kindness can still reach.

my kindness knows mermaids never ever miss their legs in the water
‘cause there are better ways to move through the ocean than kicking.

so guess what,
if I ever have my own team
I am picking everyone first

even the worst kid
and the kid with the stutter like a skipping record
‘cause I know all of us are scratched,
even if you can’t hear it when we speak.
my mother says most people have heartbeats
that are knocking on doors that will never open,
and I know my heart is a broken freezer chest
‘cause I can never keep anything frozen.

so no, I am not “always crying.”
I am just thawing outside of the lines.
and even if I am “always crying”
it is a fact
that salt is the only reason
everything floats so good in the dead sea.
and just ‘cause no one ever passes notes to me
doesn’t mean I am not super duper.
in fact, my super duper might be a buoy or a paper boat
the next time your nose gets stuck up the river
‘cause it is a fact
that our hearts stop every for a mili-second every time we sneeze
and some people’s houses have too much dust.
.

some people’s fathers are like attics
I’ve heard attics have monsters in their walls and shaky stares.
I think if I lived in a house with attic
I’d nightmare a burglar in my safety chest
and maybe I’d look for rest in the sticks and stones
‘cause my mother says a person can only swallow so much punch
before he’s drunk on his own fist

but the only drunk I ever knew
was sleeping in the alley behind our church
and jesus turned water into his wine
so even god has his bad days

but on your bad days couldn’t you just say
“hey I’m having a bad day,”
instead of telling me I’m stupid or poor,
or telling me I dress like a boy
‘cause maybe I am a boy AND a girl
maybe my name is Andrea Andrew.
so what.
it is a fact that bumblebees have hair on their eyes
and humans, also, should comb though everything they see.

like
an anchorman is not a sailor.
like the clouds might be a pillow fight.
like my mother says,
“every bird perched on a telephone wire
will listen to the conversations running through its feet
to decide the direction of its flight.”

so I know every word we speak
can make hurricanes in people’s weather veins
or shine their shiny shine

so maybe sometime you could sit beside me on the bus
and I could say,
“guess what, it is a fact that manatees have vocal chords
but do not have ears.
and Beethoven made music
even when he could no longer hear.

and I know every belt that has hit someone’s back
is still a belt that was built to hold something up.

and it is fact that Egyptians slept on pillows made of stone
but it’s not hard for me to dream
that maybe one day you’ll write me back
like the day I wrote the lightening bug to say,
I smashed my mason jar and I threw away the lid.
I didn’t want to take a chance that I’d grow up to be a war.

I want to be a belly dance or an accordion or a pogo stick
or the fingerprints the mason left
in the mortar between the bricks
to prove that he was here,
that he built a roof over someone’s head
to keep the storm from their faith,
my mother says that’s why we all were born.

and I think she’s right.
so write back soon.
sincerely yours.

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever”

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever.”

When I was at choir rehearsal last night, one of the women leaned over and said this to me as a way of explaining the camaraderie and sense of humor of the group. It is indeed a group that delights in one another and in sharing a good hearted joke. They have welcomed me graciously and I am enjoying getting to know them.

Her comment stuck with me. As a musical theatre fan I can’t help but hear echoes of “because I knew you, I have been changed for good,” from Wicked. And as very dear friends are graduating from Union Presbyterian Seminary this weekend, I can’t help but be caught up in the nostalgia inevitably produced by this season of graduations, it’s endings, and new beginnings.

You, First Congregational of Williamstown, are changing me. You challenge me to be ever more aware of who my neighbor may be, how I may serve and support them through pursing social justice and responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources. Your balance of intelligence and humor are shaping the way that I approach God’s word and will work to bring it to life in my ministry among you.

You, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, haved changed me. Though I ended my employment at FPC Maumee just under a month ago, my history with FPC started back about 20 years ago when my family joined the church. FPC raised me in the faith, helped to foster and support my call to ministry, and provided a second family to me throughout it all. In our ministry together I discovered much about who I am as a minister and how I hope to serve in the future.

You, Union Presbyterian Seminary, haved changed me. I am privileged to call this institution my alma mater and was blessed to call it home. Through my three years in seminary and three years in Project Burning Bush in high school, you opened up God’s word to me in invigorating and challenging ways. You challenged me to work harder academically and deeper spiritually than I had ever worked before. Most importantly, I am blessed by friendships with many classmates, professors, and staff. You provide crucial love and support, truly understanding the joys and challenges of ministry.

And you, friend, family, colleague, or blog stumbler-upon, change me through your desire to enter into conversation. I am grateful to have this outlet for sharing inspiration, musings, sermons, and stories. It is my prayer that you too are changed by what you read, see, and hear as we navigate through life and ministry together.

“All Things in Common”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:38-47

Yesterday we celebrated the founding of the Christian church, Pentecost. We read of the Holy Spirit descending upon a gathering of people and though all are speaking different languages, the Holy Spirit enables them to understand one another. And, “all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

All things? Really? We’ve been told that they come from a great many different places, with a great many different native languages. Surely each place had their own customs and varying experiences of life. I bet some were farmers, some were shepherds. Some came from pagan traditions and some were Jewish. But still…we are told that they had all things in common.

As the Christian church has continued over the centuries would we still say that we have all things in common? Throughout the horrors of the Crusades, when Martin Luther called the pope, “the devil,” in the ongoing tragedies caused by those who read God’s Word and decide that God hates anyone, our history is littered with many and terrible examples of ways we aren’t united.

A lawyer asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40

These two greatest commandments, identified by Jesus himself, must be the foundation for our faith in order for us to achieve any sense of unity. Having “all things in common” is not about unity in demographics, life experiences, or cultural worldview, it is about having love of God and neighbor in common.

This past week was my first week at First Congregational. Though it is a UCC congregation and I myself am Presbyterian, I find that denominational issues differences are not any sort of a problem, but rather a great experience for me to learn about the different expressions of the Church. These are a kind and caring people who love God and neighbor through striving for justice, providing homes for the homeless, and welcoming any who who enter the church with open arms. There’s a lot that could be argued is different between us, but in the things that matter, we do seem to have “all things in common.”

Halfway

Sitting here in Williamstown, Massachusetts I am in a very unique place in time and space. I moved here last past weekend and will begin my work at First Congregational in a few days, but for this week I am a bit suspended between my life in Maumee and my life here.

My favorite poem when I was younger was “Halfway Down,” by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh)

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn’t any
other stair
quite like
it.
i’m not at the bottom,
i’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
where
I always
stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

There’s something very exciting about being in between things. There’s a sense of newness, a novelty to being unknown. As in Milne’s poem, when you’re in the in between there’s no real assigned task for this place other than being present and thinking. This independence in space, relationship, and occupation provides for a deep sense of sabbath.

But, as a favorite artist of mine, Brian Andreas puts it in “Outsider,”: “I’m an outsider by choice, she said, but I’m hoping that won’t be my choice forever.”

Right now I’m sitting in the middle of a courtyard on the main street in Williamstown. It’s great people watching, seeing who is walking by and hearing snippets on conversations. Right now, I don’t know a single one of them. But, as my time here passes, I hope that I will gradually get to know people. Later, sitting in this courtyard will likely take on a different feel, occasionally catching the eye of someone I know, stopping to have a conversation.

Last night I volunteered for a special event at MASS MoCA. I decided being a volunteer would be a great way to make connections with people outside of the church. I met a few people and enjoyed being at the event. And as it turned out, one of the very first people I met, is a member of First Congregational. It’s funny how those things work out sometimes!

Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Gilmore Girls, but I’m excited to see how this small town will begin to be more and more familiar to me. I’m looking forward to getting know this town and for it to know me. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying being “halfway.”