Charge to the Congregation of FPC Maumee at the Installation of Rev. Emily Mitchell

Today I’m in a blessed and unique position, as both someone who grew up in this congregation and as a fellow pastor. One of the greatest joys of being a pastor is having the honor of being present at tremendously pivotal moments in people’s lives: baptisms, weddings, even deaths. It is our job, our vocation, to witness to God’s presence throughout all of life.

Standing before you, Emily, in my role as a fellow pastor I can tell you how excited I am to be in this moment with you, for your call to ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Maumee that was sought, discerned, confirmed, and now finally installed.

I am thrilled for the way God is already working through her to change your lives and hers through the community you will form together.

As someone who grew up in this church, and will always consider it my “home church,” all of this strikes me in a very personal way. I know you. I know the immensity of your care for one another and this community. I know the joy and humor of a TNT evening. I’ve slept on those upstairs floors at lock-ins and sung VBS songs as both a child and a leader outside on that lawn. In this sanctuary I was confirmed and married. I’ve experienced firsthand this church’s authenticity in both joys and struggles. I know this church, because I am this church. I grew up in this church, and I grew up with this church, I have seen change and transformation throughout many seasons, and today we are at a new moment of change and transformation.

And so, in this pivotal moment in the life of this church, my charge to you today is to invite Emily in. Welcome her into your lives, into your fellowship. Allow her to be a witness to God’s presence in your life in the good, the bad, in whatever is to come. Invite her passions and gifts. Invite her ideas and opinions. Invite her whole self, in all that God has created her to be and all that God has called her to do.

By calling and installing Emily into this position, you have all affirmed that she is indeed the person that God has called to be your pastor. Trusting that God knows what God is doing, open yourselves fully to her leadership and guidance. When she tries new things, support her. When she does something different than the way it’s always been done, trust her. When she leads, follow. In doing so, you not only enable her to be the best pastor she can be, but you allow yourselves to be the people that the Holy Spirit is leading you to be.

Emily’s presence among you will change you, if you let it, and so my charge to you, is to let it. Allow her to be an influence on who you will become as individuals and as a community. Welcome her in, and know her as your pastor. May it be so. Amen.

Laying on of hands during a prayer of installation for Rev. Emily Mitchell

Laying on of hands during a prayer of installation for Rev. Emily Mitchell

Pastors Kathleen (Me), Emily, and Clint following Rev. Mitchell's Installation

Pastors Kathleen (Me), Emily, and Clint following Rev. Mitchell’s Installation

“Grandmothers of the Faith;” 2 Timothy 1:1-14; October 6, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Grandmothers of the Faith”
2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 6, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

What is your earliest memory of church or of worship?

SLIDE 2 - Washington CongregationalMy earliest memory is sitting between my Mom and Grandma in church at Washington Congregational Church in Toledo and asking for gum. My grandma always had gum in her purse. I’ll be honest, even though I I don’t remember a whole lot about what was said or all that was going on in the front of the church, but I know what was going on in the back, and that was me, sitting at church each Sunday morning with people who loved and cared about me, and that it was important to them that we were there.

SLIDE 3 - FPC MaumeeMy family started going to First Presbyterian Church of Maumee when I was five and my earliest memory there comes from our very first Sunday attending, when I went to Sunday School. I remember walking up to my now best friend, Claire, and asking her if she would be my friend. Twenty-two years of friendship later, I’m still glad she said yes. It was in that Sunday school room and throughout that church that I really started to figure out who this God everybody was talking about was all about. In that church I felt God’s own call for my life and was nurtured by so many Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School leaders, youth group leaders, and pastors.

Who are some of the people who have helped you to form your faith?

SLIDE 5 - TimothyIn our scripture today we hear about Timothy’s influences. Timothy was a follower of Paul, traveling with him as a messenger and support for newly forming congregations. He was instrumental in the founding of the early Christian church and is known as the first Christian bishop of Ephesus. After his death he was canonized as a saint.

SLIDE 6 - Young TimothyBut before he became all of those things, he was a child and a grandchild. In 2 Timothy 3:15 we read that from childhood Timothy knew the sacred writings of scripture, taught to him by his mother, Euince, and his grandmother, Lois. Here we see a picture by Rembrandt of young Timothy with his grandmother. Timothy was surely taken to worships each week to sit with his family and come to know our great God. I know he wasn’t given pieces of gum to keep his attention, but certainly he was fed by that same feeling I had as a child, that he was with people who loved and cared about him, and that it was important to them that he as there.

SLIDE 7 - Wiggly WorshippersI’m not sure I can say often enough how important I think it is that the children of this church are here, and how equally important it is, that we’re all in worship together with one another. Our hope of our Wiggly Worshippers room is for our children to be able to be present in worship, but engage with it on their own level. Each and every parent that brings a child into this space is engaging in an important act of passing on the faith. And as a congregation it is vital that we support all who come to into this space looking to grow in faith, from our youngest members to our most established members.Print

SLIDE 9 - GrandmaAs we celebrate World Communion Sunday today, it’s an amazing and slightly overwhelming thing to think about all the great many grandmothers of the faith all over the world that are bringing their children to worship, striving for so many to hear the words of God’s great love for them, and to claim this faith as their own. SLIDE 10 - Children in WorshipBut the act of welcoming others into faith is not only an action passed down by grandmothers to grandchildren. It’s an act we’re all invited into. As people who have understood and claimed God’s love, we are also tasked with leading others in the faith.

SLIDE 11 - World Communion SundayWhen we celebrate World communion Sunday, we are called to consider that the Church is so much bigger than the building we are in right now. It is so much bigger than all the churches around Jesup, so much bigger than all of the Presbyterians out there, so much bigger than all the congregations who worship in a language we understand. The Church stretches across all cultures and communities, to places where it is a dangerous thing to call yourself a Christian, to places where Christ is only just becoming known. When I think of all of these countries all of the world I think about how that original Gospel word reached each one of them, what missionary set off to tell that community about the beautiful promises of God. I pray for missionaries around the world, and I think that we all should, but it’s a mistake to get stuck thinking about these people in abstract way, in worlds beyond our own experience. Missionaries aren’t superhuman people assigned to do some impossible task. They are simply people who have followed the call to share God’s love with others.

SLIDE 12 – MissionariesA friend of mine from college told a story once about how her younger sister asked what a missionary was, and she said, “it’s someone who tells other people about God.” I remember it struck both of us how profound and simple this call is, how in fact, all of us are called to be missionaries. You have the opportunity to influence someone else’ faith. You have the opportunity to be one of those grandmothers or grandfathers of faith, to come alongside someone as they are growing in their faith. They don’t necessarily have to be a child, but merely someone who is growing in their faith.

SLIDE 13 - Timothy and Paul In our scripture today we saw modeled for us the relationship of Paul and Timothy. Paul was a mentor to Timothy, someone devoted to seeing Timothy grow in faith, invested in Timothy’s personal future as a Christian, as well as in his future as a leader of the church. Throughout their relationship Paul made sure that Timothy was ready to take on the challenges of being a Christian.

So who is it that God has place in your mission field? Who is it that you are called to take under your wing, to sit beside in the pew and let them know that you love them, God’s loves them, and it is important that we’re all in this together.

SLIDE 14 - Mission FieldAs Paul urges Timothy, I will urge you: “rekindle the gift of God that is within you. You have a sprit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of Paul his prisoner, but join with Paul in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. …Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from Paul, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May we share this good treasure of the Gospel with all those growing in the faith. Amen.

“Christ Alone,” Galatians 2:15-21; June 16, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Christ Alone”
Galatians 2:15-21
June 16, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 2 - FPC MaumeeAs a Presbyterian pastor, some people find it strange that I do not personally have strong roots in the Presbyterian Church. When searching for a church, my family historically has picked churches based on the community found within the church. The church I’ve spent most of my life in, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, was chosen by my parents because of the children’s programs it provided, as well as fellowship for my parents. I grew up in and into the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian tradition, confessions, customs, and processes shaped how I experience God and specifically, God’s call for my ministry. But here’s something shocking, I do not believe that we as Presbyterians have everything figured out. And here’s something even more shocking, I think that’s okay.

30459-Least Still Christian_pThere’s a book that came out January of 2011 called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian.” I like the concept of this book, a getting back to the basics of our faith.

SLIDE 4 - LutherIt is certainly not a new idea. When Martin Luther wrote up his famous 95 theses his main desire was to take the Christian faith back to the beginning, back to the core elemental beliefs that makes people Christians.

SLIDE 5 - FormingIf we hold to the Presbyterian tenant of being “reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God,” these institution shaking ideas of going back to the basics should excite us. But of course there are things that we very much enjoy about our tradition. We like the stability of history, the comfort of the way we’ve always done things. There is nothing inherently wrong in any of these things. What becomes troublesome however is when we believe that we’ve got it all figured out and that these man made rules of how to go about being faithful are the one and only way.

SLIDE 6 - LeviticusSometimes when I read Paul’s letters to all of those early Christian communities it sounds like he is simply giving them a talking to for a lot of things we don’t even do anymore. It’s tempting to read this simply as Paul scolding the Jews for their desire to maintain salvific legalism even after Jesus’ death and resurrection superseded the old law. Yes, that is in there, and I don’t know about you, but I’m under no temptation to return to all of the laws given in Leviticus. I have no desire to give up shellfish or cheeseburgers or try to figure out what fabrics I’m allowed to wear. And I’m not tempted to believe that any one of these practices will bring me closer to God, let alone will bring me salvation.

SLIDE 7 - SplitsBut that’s not the only legalism we’re dealing with. There are so many theological conventions, liturgical rituals, and sociological assertions that have developed over years and years of Christian faith, reformations, and denominational splits. In this cartoon it shows a membership class and the presenter has a chart that says “Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History.” The presenter says, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And one of the people in the class says, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.” While I value the history, wisdom, and community found in our denominational structure, the splintering of denominations throughout time points to the very religiosity that Paul railed against, saying, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:18-19) Paul tells us that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ. Period. The end.

Presbyterian pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong writes, “Salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else: not Jesus and certain cultural practices; not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective; not Jesus and a particular income level; not Jesus and a specific denominational brand; not Jesus and one political party; not Jesus and being good enough. Just Jesus. If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died for nothing” (v.21)”[1] The community of Galatia used to depend on the law to bring them to salvation. If they just followed all the rules they would be saved from their sinfulness. Jesus came about to bring another way, a new path to salvation.

SLIDE 10 - Shrek Jesus is a burner of old bridges. Like Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, and so many action movies where the pathway crumbles behind the person who steps on it, as we follow Jesus, the old pathways fall away. Any way we try to access salvation apart from Jesus is like Wile E. Coyote trying to run on air. We are not left midair. Christ makes a new pathway, one designed for the forgiveness of all.SLIDE 11 - Midair

Emory professor, Wendy Farley wrote, “If we begin with faith, we can inhabit our traditions more lightly. We can enjoy the formation our particular community provides without insisting that it is the only way. Our faith can allow us to be nourished by tradition without assuming that those who practice differently have not knowledge of God. Faith gives us the confidence to honor our heritage, while recognizing the new things God is doing in other people’s lives.” [2]

I love the idea of inhabiting our traditions lightly. I think it helps to place the emphasis on our elemental faith in Jesus Christ, while allowing our traditions to compliment and support our faith, without overshadowing it.

SLIDE 13 - FeetThis passage also brings up a beautiful image, allowing Christ to live in us. We affirm that Christ came for all, and so might Christ live within all for whom He died, that’s to say, everyone.

Farley continues, “Through death and resurrection Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions but on love. This community should reflect our common human situation as recipients of grace and bearers of the Divine. The Divine dwells in Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. This indwelling reveals the essential intimacy that exists between humanity and its creator, an intimacy that even we cannot neutralize, because it does not depend on us but on the graciousness of the living God. Faith allows the indwelling of Christ to become more transparent. Free from the logic of a social world built on the oppression of others, we are able to recognize others as bearers of the Divine. Faith is the sire of unity, where God’s desire for us and our own desire are woven together.” [3]

When we acknowledge one another as bearers of the Divine we are compelled to treat each other differently, to open up our eyes a bit wider to recognize Christ in our midst. And once we do recognize Christ in the other, we must make room for all to experience Christ’s great love.

SLIDE 15 - Communion TableMaking room for all at the table of Christ may mean we get a little scrunched. We belong to a faith that affirms, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” We may approach the table as the last and then become the first, but what will we do from that position? At a certain point we need to cede our place as “first,” in order to allow others to come close.

This was also a concern of the Jews in Galatia. The first line of this passage could probably even be read with a bit of sarcastic bite: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (Galatians 2:15) The Galatians were concerned that if even Gentiles could be a part of this new covenant, could access salvation, that all of their law-abiding had been for nothing.

Slide17Why should they get to be a part of things when the Jews had done the hard work of establishing the community? You see, the idea of equality in the eyes of God is not so appealing when you think you’ve got the upper hand or the moral high ground. It’s tempting to think, what’s the point? The point is such equality expands the Kingdom of God. The second you perceive yourself as more worthy of salvation because of your great life or your good works you are missing the point. Your salvation comes not in spite of but because of your inadequacy. All are justified by faith in Christ. All of us, all of you, all of them, whoever the “them” is in your life. Those “others,” are also bearers of the divine image. They are also beneficiaries of grace.

Slide18In the time Paul wrote his letter to the community at Galatia the observant Jews would avoid eating with Gentiles, not because of any specific law, but because it would help to maintain purity of their faith. After observing the many dishes required to maintain a kosher kitchen I would imagine part of this avoidance was probably simply because it was easier. Christians who had been Jewish since birth and still desired to maintain these practices had a hard time sharing a table with Gentile Christians. It was difficult to bridge the difference between the old law and the new, and harder still to welcome others on equal standing to a table where they would always seem “the other.”[4]

SLIDE 19 - DenominationsIt can be tricky and strange to explain to people in other denominations why we do the things we do, especially when many of our practices are based on tradition or what we’ve found works best for us. What is important is to make sure people know that these practices are not what brings salvation, Christ is. We too are tasked with welcoming these “others” to the table.

SLIDE 20 Baptism and CommunionWe approach the table and the font not because we’ve got it all figured out, but because we are so in need of God’s redemption. The sacraments are not about getting right with God, they’re about getting honest with God. They’re about being vulnerable. They’re about showing up. And since we are all sinners, we all approach the table at an equal footing.

God through the Holy Spirit makes us able to receive the waters of baptism. God through the Holy Spirit turns bread and juice into a life-giving feast. Christ’s presence is forever renewed in our midst when we acknowledge Him, seek Him out, and put our faith in His redemptive power.

May you approach the table today seeking Christ’s redemptive power for you and for all, even those you never might’ve thought we’re invited. Amen.

[1] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[2] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[3] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[4] Gregory H. Ledbetter, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

Photo a Day Lent – Day 10: Spirit

“Spirit”2 22 Day 10 Spirit

This photo is from a Taizé worship service that I led at FPC Maumee as my mentored project for Project Burning Bush when I was in high school.

“Come Holy Spirit,
from heaven shine forth
with your glorius light.”

– Come Holy Spirit, Taizé

"So Great A Cloud of Witnesses," Hebrews 12:1-3; March 18, 2012, First Presbyterian Church Maumee

View Sermon: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

Since this past Fall we have been preaching our way through the book of Hebrews, a series which will conclude on Palm Sunday. Today we have perhaps one of the most familiar passages of the book of Hebrews, Chapter 12, verses 1-3:

“Therefore, 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, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. “

There is a distinct scent to older churches. Some combination of wax from years of flickering candlelit Christmas Eve services, hymns and Bibles that have been opened and closed by a great many people over a great many years. Even in our Fellowship Hall, which was remodeled 9 years ago into the worship space we have today, there’s a feel of history: the meals that were served here, the community that has grown from this space. When I imagine the cloud of witnesses, this is what comes to mind: that very apparent lived-in feel of a church that has had a great many witnesses. Spaces like these are not often the norm in our day-to-day lives.

In American culture, we are taught that newer is better, more independence is better, owning more things and space and land are better. In learning these lessons, we distance ourselves from our shared past, our neighbors, and the sharing of public space. In our race to live the “American dream” we have left others in the dust.

Other cultures have a much greater deference for their foundations I am reminded of Chinese culture portrayed in Disney’s Mulan and the relationship that she has with her ancestors, praying for them to intercede on her behalf. The Catholic faith lifts up people from throughout Christian tradition as Saints, praying for them to intercede on their behalf, one Saint encyclopedia website I saw even referred to Saints as “extended family in heaven.”

Though in Presbyterian tradition we do not pray to saints or ancestors to intercede on our behalf, we do affirm the “communion of saints.” This can be rather confusing. Though we call them “saints,” we are not referring to the Catholic canon of saints, but rather, the collection of everyone who has, is, and will be faithful to Jesus Christ. In this larger communion of saints we affirm a fellowship united through Christ. We see this greater fellowship with all Christians in our passage today, in the phrase, “cloud of witnesses.” This passage in Hebrews follows an account of the faithful who have willingly and sacrificially served God throughout Biblical accounts.

In our passage today we read: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This word that is most often translated as surrounded, in the Greek also carries the meaning “bound.” In a world focused on being independent, how different does it look then if we are bound to those who share our faith in history, in the present, and in the future?

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called, “Spiritual Care for Persons with Dementia.” I started reading this book primarily to be able to have a bit more insight in how to show specific care towards people with dementia. Though this book does have concrete practical examples of ideas on how to care for people with dementia, it also has many great theological statements on the temporal nature of health and how the Bible frames the worth of all people.

In one particular essay in this book, “To See Things as God Sees Them,” Stephen Sapp writes,

“In contrast to the radically individualistic attitude espoused by contemporary American society, Christianity strongly affirms that human beings are more than merely autonomous beings who exist as separate atoms in discrete moments of time, able to do exactly as they please whenever they please…. God sees humans not as such radically disconnected individuals but as social-historical beings who are undeniably linked with others, living in community and changing over time in ways over which they do not always have control.”

In our baptismal vows we affirm our participation in a greater body of faith. This understanding of each other as Christian family binds us to one another. When we stop seeing one another as competition or a burden, and instead wield to the fluidity of our interconnectedness, we are able to more fully participate in the greater cloud of witnesses.

This is affirmed in scripture by another familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:

“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. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 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.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But 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.”

We are all members of this great body, this great cloud of witnesses. This passage in 1 Corinthians has always challenged me to think about what part of the body that is the church I might be at any given moment. When I really feel like I have it all together, I feel that I just may be the brain, leading the other parts of the church body in the way they should go, reacting to the pain felt by any given part, and making decisions to move things forward. Other times, I feel like I might be the hand, doing the work of the church in the world, reaching out, planting, building. And sometimes, perhaps I’m simply a fingernail, providing some support, some comfort, but largely going unnoticed. As this scripture passage tells us, each and every part of the body of the church is important, not in and of itself, but in the way we all work together as a functioning whole.

When we look back at Hebrews 12:1 and read, “let us run with perseverance this race,” it 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.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy being a part of a denomination. While some say it is divisive to have denominational affiliations, I see it rather that our denominational group is the equivalent of a running group. These are people who take time out to be together with one another. They set goals together and work our plans of how they may go about achieving them. They support one another through injuries and work together in relays. Most importantly, they run alongside each other. This is how I see our denomination: people who have decided to stick things out together, and run this race alongside one another, surrounded by the larger and greater cloud of witnesses.

Today our congregation is participating in our denomination in a unique way. As the denomination prepares to release a new hymnal in Fall of 2013, they have organized “hymn sings” for various weeks throughout the year. For each “hymn sing” congregations throughout the Presbyterian Church join together in all singing the same song.

These songs are filmed and shared with one another, so we may participate in worship with one another through our common songs. Even within our own congregation we are joining together to sing the same song in all of the services, so we may be united as a congregation as well.

1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” This causes us to look to the greater body of faith. Who is it that needs help running this race? How can you strengthen them? Perhaps you could help with our youth group or contribute to a growth group. Maybe God is calling you to be more intentional about reaching out to a friend or family member who has not yet formed a relationship with Christ.

We are called to a part of the great cloud of witnesses. We are called to run with one another, supporting one another in faith. It is my prayer that this week you may pay attention to who needs support and to find ways to run alongside them. God calls us to honor the cloud of witnesses from our past, support the cloud among us, and cultivate a future for the witnesses to come.

"Holy of Holies," Exodus 25:8-11, 21-22 and Hebrews 9:1-14; January 29, 2012, First Presbyterian Maumee

View Sermon: Holy of Holies

Next Sunday is a pretty big day. Don’t worry, it’s not yet Valentine’s day, and no, it’s not yet Lent. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not one to make many sports analogies when it comes to preaching, but today I think it’s pertinent. Super Bowl Sunday. This is a high holy day in the world of sports. The crowd will stand with hands over their hearts and sing the national anthem along with Kelly Clarkson. There’s the coin toss. People dress up in goofy outfits, cheer at their team’s touchdowns, and boo at the other team. Having not had much involvement in sports while growing up, to me, games like next week’s Giants/Patriot’s game can at times seem like a snapshot of a whole other world. A world with it’s own rules and order. And what is it that they’re doing? Ritual.

This feeling is not unlike the feeling that I get when I read of the rituals surrounding the temple that are presented to us when we hear the passage we read today from Hebrews 9.

If you think that passage was a bit long, or confusing, you should spend some time in the book of Exodus. When God and Moses had their famous mountain top conversation at Mount Sinai he provided Moses with the Ten Commandments, and then spends the next 10 or so chapters providing more guidance of right conduct and worship. Exodus chapters 25 through 27 are simply directions on how the temple should be arranged. When the God’s people were wandering in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt, they were looking for a right way to worship God, and God provided that for them in the instructions God established for how to arrange the temple.

Thanks to Lynn Bova and the Children of God Bible time, we have here a model of what the temple looked like. [Video of sermon]

As we read in our text, there would be a room called the Holy Place that would hold a lampstand and a table with the bread of the Presence. The golden lampstand had seven candles, as a reminder of when one day’s oil lasted for seven days. It might look a bit familiar to you, as it is present in Jewish synagogues and households today. This miracle of God’s provision over seven days is remembered in the Jewish holiday, Hannukah.

The bread of the presence was a collection of 12 loaves of bread, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. This bread symbolizes God’s presence with the people of Israel and serves as a symbol of fellowship and communion. We see also the altar of incense, which welcomed people into the divine presence.

At the back of this room there is a curtain and behind is the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. It held the ark of the covenant. This ark was formed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, passed to Moses from God’s own self. To enter into the presence of God’s own will manifest, was to be present to the power of God. This was not something to be taken lightly, but something that only high priest could do. And the priest had to wash himself not only physically, but also had to be ritually clean in order to step foot behind that curtain. The construction of the temple itself also had to be carried about in such a way to honor God. The cloths of the fabric surrounding the temple reflected gradations of holiness, with purple, the color of royalty, as the closest to the temple.

And while we can sit here today and wonder why anyone would ascribe such significance to the colors of the temple cloth, let us think about next weekend and the significance of the combinations of red and blue we will see. How we adorn our environment and ourselves has significance. It can show allegiances, reveal wealth, point to function or profession. I guarantee people would have a hard time taking me seriously as a preacher right now if I were wearing a football uniform. Or if one of the football players were wearing this outfit in the game next week, that would garner the same confusion. This room is clearly not a stadium.

Sure there are places to sit, a place where the seats are directed, but that’s about where the comparison ends. And though we are far from the design of the temple, there is still intentionality in the arrangement of our worship spaces. In the chapel and sanctuary we have communion tables, baptismal fonts, organs, and pianos. When you walk into that space you have expectations of what is going to happen there.

In fellowship hall we have projectors that serve to invite us into song, prayer, and listening to the word of God. There are still very apparent rituals that surround how we breathe into this space.

While we are undergoing our renovations, we are not perpetually referring to the Book of Exodus to make sure we have the cubits right, or a color scheme that appropriately reflects a particular verse of scripture, we are still designing and decorating in expectation of something amazing taking place there. We are still making room for God’s presence to show up. That is after all, what the synagogue and the church are all about, making space for God to show up. Making space for us to show up before God. We want to be close to God.

The “Holy of Holies,” which held the ark of the covenant was something only accessed by the chief priest. It was technically something you could get to, but it would cost you. You could train to become a priest, hope to become the chief priest, and be able to access God’s presence. Or, if you dared, you could simply pull away the curtain, but it was said that only the High Priest could survive being so immediately in the presence of God. The Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, interprets this by showing people’s faces melting off in the presence of the ark. A gory thought, indeed.

Proximity to the action is still expensive in modern day rituals. You can attend the Super Bowl, but it will cost you. At the beginning of this past week I was checking ticket prices. The cheapest seats available cost $2785. The best seats available cost $15343. And now, in our worship space? Sitting in this front row here won’t cost your your life. You don’t need to be a high priest. You don’t even need to pay $15,343.

If you look around in any of our worship spaces you will notice some very striking differences between our spaces and the tabernacle of Jesus’s time. While we may burn candles from time to time, there is no fragrant incense. With the exception of communion once a month, there is no bread of presence.

Most importantly, there is no curtain that divides us from God’s presence. Front row interaction with God is always free to us, though it was indeed bought at a great price.

In the time the temple was built, the curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was a safeguard. The rules and regulations surrounding temple life provided a safe way for people to interact with God. Equipped with God’s rules, handed down from Moses, people knew when they had upset God, and knew when they were in God’s favor. And when they needed to get back in God’s favor they would offer up a sacrifice. They will kill an innocent animal to atone for their own guilt. The predictability of this set of pluses and minuses made a relationship with God safe and manageable. But, in the time the temple was built, this was the way that people followed God, this was the way people sought access to God, because this is the way God told them God would be present. As the directions became more and more complex, the people dutifully followed, believing that these rules were what brought them in proximity to God.

To interact with God’s actual presence was so overwhelming, that to truly encounter God was to forfeit life. However, the good news is that the exact opposite has happened. God came to earth to encounter us in the form of Jesus, and in doing so, forfeited His own life.

Hebrews 9 explains this for us saying: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”

All those sacrifices of all those animals only served as a bandage. Their death was only a temporary fix, which lasted only until the next sin was committed. And though God’s people tried to follow God, by following every rule and regulation they came across, what we needed was relationship. We needed a living-breathing example of how to welcome God into this world. Our God, who cannot be contained in rules boarded up in a box, however shiny and gold it may be, wants us to help to generate a Kingdom that is larger than any building we can build. We belong to a God brighter than the shiniest gold and deeper than the deepest purple. And so God sent Jesus Christ came to bring us that example and grant us that proximity to the Divine. Jesus Christ came to earth as the ultimate sacrifice. . Jesus came to hand us our very own ticket to a first row relationship with Him.

Jesus eliminates the separation between God and us. When Jesus died on the cross he said, “‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”

The curtain was torn. The barrier was removed. God is not contained any longer to the “Holy of Holies,” or even the “Holy Place.” God’s holiness is let loose in this world, restricted only by humankind’s hard heartedness to keep God at bay.

“It is finished,” Christ said on the cross. His sacrifice was finished, his life was finished, but more importantly, any separation between God and humankind was finished. And with all of that finished, our work as followers of Christ had just begun. We are the one’s tasked with being Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are to breathe the love of Christ into our space, and make what is ritual real to those who have yet to encounter God. The living “Holy of Holies,” breathed and moved among us and seeks to breathe and move through us. Let us create space in our spaces, lives, and relationships to make that happen. Amen.

“Bread for the Journey,” Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; and John 6, September 18, 2011, First Presbyterian Maumee

One of my favorite books read to me while I was growing up was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” In this story a man tells his grandson about a land called Chewandshallow where three times a day food would rain from the sky. There were pancakes and orange juice caught in the mornings, baseball games cancelled because of pie, and fried chicken caught on the way home from work. The people of this place do not see this food as anything special or miraculous, but rather it is just how they’re used getting their food. It is simply provided for them without any effort on their part.

This is the book that came to mind while I was reading another story where food rains from the sky, a story that Clint read to us today from Exodus. In this passage, God provides both bread and quails to feed Moses and Israelites.

Of course in this Old Testament narrative the menu is simpler than the pie and fried chicken of the children’s book, but it serves a much more profound hunger. These people are not just looking for a meal, but for a reason to keep going.

It’s important to know that the Israelites in this passage are the very same Israelites who were initially slaves in Egypt. And it’s also important to know that these Israelites originally came to Egypt because of hunger. There was a famine in Canaan and they went to Egypt because they had heard there was food there. Through a strange sequence of events their brother Joseph had become an advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt and Israel’s sons are permitted to serve the Pharaoh in order to have food and survive.

These Israelites lived under the ruling of the Pharaohs for the next 400 years, and over the course of that time with changes in leadership, the Egyptians forgot the nature of the relationship between themselves and the Israelites. The Egyptians did not like how the Israelites had multiplied over the generations and sought to assert power over them first with hard labor and then a plan to have midwives kill every Israelite male that was born. This is where we enter into the story of Moses.

By God’s help and through some rather frightening plagues, Moses brought these people out of the oppression of harsh enslavement under Pharaoh, in the promise that God would bring them to their own land.

They’ve known much pain and have hungered for freedom for their people for years. But now, here they are, free from slavery, and so very hungry that they think it would be better to return to slavery than live with the hunger they are feeling now.

This short sightedness seems alarming to me, sitting here in a 21st century context. How could anyone who has suffered so much be willing to return to that suffering just for the sake of the stability of a meal? Why would anyone give up that freedom?

But then, I realize how many times that happens in our world today. How many people stay in a dead-end job because taking time away to get additional education or training for another position may put their current lifestyle in jeopardy? How many people go back into situations of domestic violence, because they believe that their partner is the only one who will ever love or provide for them?

We allow ourselves to be bound to situations that are not the best of what God has in store for us, because we believe that they fill our short-term needs. How many times do we do this in our relationship with God? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if people at school make fun of me for going to youth group, I’m not sure I want to go, because I want to have friends now, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if my boss at work wants me to work Sunday mornings and scoffs when I mention attending church, I have to back down, I need a job, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but if the person I’m dating gets mad when my growth group interferes with date night, I’ve got to skip growth group and spend time with them, right? Trusting in God will provide eternal life, but following this call I’m sensing to go and do mission work would mess up my work life and uproot my family and I can’t do that, right?

There are so many ways that we settle for less than what God intends for our lives because we are so eager to be comfortable. There’s the saying “hindsight is 20/20,” and with this clarity of vision we take pleasure in retracing our steps. If we’re working backwards we know what we will come across, and there’s comfort in that. If we keep returning to what we’re used to, no matter how bad it is, at least it is something we can depend on.

Proverbs 26:11 says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” Though this is also known as one of the grossest passages in scripture, there’s a truth to it. Dog’s return to their vomit not because they think it’s good, but because they know it’s there. How often do we also return to things that aren’t good for us, just because even if bad, they are reliable? Seeking this comfort is our way of gaining control over our situation. We like to be in charge, have a plan, and when we’re going backwards we choose our own destination.

The much scarier option, to let God have control, seems crazy. Why go out in the wilderness? Why walk out into a life without guarantees? If you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from, can you really put your family through that?

At this moment in my life I am working my way through the ordination process for the Presbyterian Church. When I was in eighth grade and taking Confirmation classes here at church, I felt a call to ministry. Though I’ve been grateful to have all kinds of support from this church family, from my family, and from my seminary community, there have surely been times of wilderness. When I started seminary off with two semesters of Hebrew crammed into seven weeks of summer classes, returning to my college Freshman level French class seemed like a much better idea. When I had to write five quite difficult ordination exams, I would have much rather gone back and retaken the SATs. And now, while I’m just about to begin searching for a call to fulltime ministry, it seems like it’d be more comfortable to go back to the babysitting I did in high school.

French, too, was difficult while I was taking it, the SATs were stressful, and not every kid I babysat for listened to me or went to bed when they were supposed to, but the stressful aspects of each of those things seem more comfortable because I’ve been through them before. If I were to go back to any of those I would know what I was getting into.

I am excited about serving God as a minister, but at this moment, I don’t know what that service will look like. I don’t know where I’ll be or what the congregation will be like, all I know is that it won’t be a life I’ve lived before. And honestly, that scares me.

Over Judeo-Christian history the word “manna” has come to stand-alone as it’s own word describing the flakey food that was given to the Israelites. It also is used in common speech in our time as a term for something that is an unexpected relief or in describing the deliciousness of a meal. The word “manna” however, actually comes from the Hebrew, which means quite literally “what is it?” Though we now look back on this story as a way that God took care of God’s people, giving them abundant and consistent food to eat, at the time the Israelites just looked at this powdery, flaky substance and said, “what is it?”

I’m sure anyone who has prepared a meal for children has had a similar experience at some point. You find a great new recipe, go out to the store to find just the right ingredients, figure out how to cook this meal, and serve it, excited to see how they will enjoy it and you are greeted with a “what is it?”

The Israelites were hungry, so very hungry, but even when God provided food for them, it didn’t look quite like what they were used to and they were wary of it.

God sent another type of bread from heaven, living bread, in the form of Jesus. Jesus was sent to provide salvation, to satisfy both our immediate and eternal needs. By His life and teachings, Jesus provided an example of how we should live in the world right now. By his death on the cross, Jesus provided a way for us to have eternal life.

But this way is a wilderness way, with “what is it?”s echoing still across thousands of years.

Jesus’ birth is confusing. An angel comes to Mary telling her that she will have a child, she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Jesus’ call for us to be born again is confusing. In John 3:9, Nicodemus comes to Jesus trying to understand what Jesus was saying about rebirth, he says, “How can this be?” To be born from Heaven as an old man? To him, it sounded ridiculous.

Jesus’ miracles were confusing. John 7 us a of a story of a man who Jesus healed from blindness and all the Jews of the synagogue can ask is, “How did he open your eyes?”

As surely as Jesus’ birth, life, and resurrection bring us hope, they also bring confusion.

“What is it?” How often do we find ourselves asking this when faced with Jesus’ promise and teachings? “What is it?” we ask about where God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do. Even when we know God’s plan for us will be life giving, we’re not sure about it. Following God means walking away from what’s not good for us, but it also involves walking away from what we know into the wilderness.

What is it that God is calling to walk away from? Is there a wilderness God is calling you to walk towards?

The good news about follow God’s plan is that you are not walking out into that wilderness alone, God will be with you in that wilderness. God will sustain you. And no, that sustenance is not likely to be the elaborate meals of “Cloudy with a Chance of a Meatballs,” but it might just be manna. And if you take just what you need, there will be more tomorrow. Glory be to God. Amen.

“You Knit Me Together,” Psalm 139:1-24 and Romans 8:12, July 17, 2011, First Presbyterian Maumee

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

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

Knitter, author, and spiritualist Deborah Bergman writes about this. She says, “Fact: it is going to take you longer to knit a sweater than it would take you to open a tasteful mail-order catalogue and order one right now.

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

Thinking then of God as a knitter knitting us together in our mother’s womb, I can sense that energy: the frenetic joy to have creation come to its fullness paired with a deep patience. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days through a series of commands and affirmations; the work of a creator excited to see what has been created. Genesis chapter two slows things down a bit. God enters into relationship with Adam, taking care not just for his physical needs, but also his relational needs. God forms Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, crafting them into being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, not all of our acts of creation are done with string and needle. The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of creation. Perhaps your acts of creativity involve the creation of a legal brief, with the care towards each detail and energy towards the argument. It may be in doing plumbing for a house: which types of pipes should be used where, how each element connects, care to leaks or breaks. A teacher may creatively respond through considering their students, state curriculum, and their own passions for teaching in creating a school lesson plan. Architectural design can be a response, through relation to the site, attention to details of the design, and an eye for aesthetic appeal. When we are able to use the talents God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about our creative expressions of work in the world. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 it is written: “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands…so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” Colossians 3:17 says, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In the Message translation of the Bible, Galatians Chapter 6 verses 1, 4, and 5 reads: “Live creatively, friends… Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others.  Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

Your creative best can and should look different from others, and that is part of God’s call for you and for your life. By working with a mind set on Christ, we are able to live into our call wherever we may be.

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

The act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation, from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit.

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

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

Our creator, who knows us so intimately, desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives.  With a knitter’s energy, God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, but God also waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be. May you be open to discovering God’s call on your life. Amen.