That Holy Spirit Glow, Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–12 [13–16], January 8, 2017, FPC Holt

That Holy Spirit Glow
Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
January 8, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2017-1-8-slide-1-trintiyMany people, even those who are lifelong Christians, are surprised to hear that the trinity is not in scripture. We have it in our creeds, our confessions, our catechisms, look out in the Narthex and you’ll see it represented on the stained glass depictions on the confessional banners, but at no point do Jesus, Paul, or any other apostles stop amidst their theological teachings and lay out the spiritual math equation of 1 Creator + 1 Savior Jesus + 1 Holy Spirit = 1 God. Christian teaching is one of very few places you will be taught that 3 = 1.

2017-1-8-slide-2-jc-baptismI know I’ve struggled with this understanding, especially in the Old Testament when there is so much language simply referring to God as “Lord.” For much of the Bible you only have one aspect referred to at any given time. It’s always struck me like one of those movie tropes where you only realize people are twins once you get them in the same room. But here, in this story we have the big three all together in one place: Parent, Child, Spirit; Father Son, Holy Ghost; or my favorite, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Here also we we have the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is perhaps one of those most common ways that the Holy Spirit is depicted. If you look out in the Narthex, both the 2017-1-8-slide-3-confession-panels Nicene Creed and the Brief Statement of Faith banners feature a dove as a depiction of the Holy Spirit. The imagery of the Holy Spirit as dove is so foundational to our specific tradition that we feature it prominently in the Presbyterian cross.

2017-1-8-slide-4-consider-the-birdsIf you’re as intrigued by the symbols of the Bible as I am, “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue is a really interesting read. The book highlights the role various birds play in the Biblical narratives as well as other layers of historical secular meanings. One of the ways that the dove as Holy Spirit is described is as the creative catalyst, the initiator. Blue writes, “In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art throughout the centuries has depicted this hovering presence…as a dove… Once we get to the baptism of Jesus the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus’ shoulder and a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son… with whom I am well pleased.’ “

2017-1-8-slide-5-dove This often used symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, is nowhere nearly as common in scripture, this symbol of the Holy Spirit explicitly as a dove  is only actually present in our particular text today, in verse 16: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

2017-1-8-slide-6-fire-doveNow I have a bit of a linguistic confession to make. Without being hyperbolic, I think I can honestly say I’ve read this passage at least 100 times. And every time previous to very recently I read “alighting” as some derivation of the word “lighting.” Now, being that we’ve been focusing on being “held by the promised light” all throughout Advent, it really comes as no big surprise that light is on my mind. But this word carries two meanings, one, the one I had originally thought, is a poetic way of going about saying something was set aflame. This is how I pictured the dovelike presence, not with the soft politeness one might typically see from a dove, but coming down to earth in a blaze of Pentecostal glory.

2017-1-8-slide-7-butterflyTurns out, when you dig around a bit in other translations and in the Greek, the real definition of “alighting” here is, “to descend and settle.” This evokes images of a crisp tree in autumn falling on green grass, a butterfly on a flower, or a pigeon on a park statue.  Not quite as intense as I thought.

Still, there is power in this alighting. At  Jesus’ baptism we have the convergence of God the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. In this moment Jesus is named as God’s beloved child and Jesus’ ministry begins.

2017-1-8-slide-8-jesusAnd where does he go from here? Does he have an internship at the office of a minor deity or perhaps an apprenticeship so he can learn the family trade of divinity? No, there’s no easy resting for him, once these words come to him he goes out into the wilderness,

2017-1-8-slide-9-wilderness automatically thrown into the most difficult of tests. And if being in the wilderness isn’t hard enough he is forced into a battle of wits and temptation with the devil. From there, from the wilderness place, he goes out to perform miracles, challenge the status quo, and teach a new way of living. The beginning of his career serving as a preview of the way his life on earth would end: death, hell, and then resurrection. He goes through the worst the devil has to offer, bearing the brunt of sin for us.

2017-1-8-slide-10-baptismDebbie Blue writes of the symbolic significance: “Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized. Baptism is a symbol of death and renewed life. It’s a bold statement to begin with. God’s don’t generally die. – nor would they stoop to be baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary. To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. “

In baptism we acknowledge the grace through which God claims us as God’s beloved. We acknowledge our inclusion in the family of God, function as the body of Christ, and enlivenment by the Holy Spirit. In baptism the spirit of God calls out new life from the muck of our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Home by Another Way; Matthew 2:1-12; January 3, 2016; FPC Holt

Home by Another Way
Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - Family PictureLast Sunday a few of you met my aunt Karen, as she came up here for worship. On Monday she was to head back to her home in Plano, TX, via the Detroit airport. SLIDE 2 - Airplane in ShowWell if you’ll remember Monday’s weather, that was when the ice storm was hitting Michigan while Texas was recovering from tornadoes and getting hit by snow. My aunt went up to Detroit in the hopes that her flight would take off as planned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly up until a few minutes before the flight, when they shared the news that their flight crew did not make their flight in from Chicago. Not too long after the flight was cancelled. After standing in line for several hours to get her bags and trying to get a new flight she learned they didn’t have anything available till Thursday. She decided to go to a hotel for the night, but after trying six different hotels, none had any room, she rented a car and drove back to Toledo. Hoping to get home sooner than Thursday so as to not leave her shift uncovered as a neonatal nurse practitioner, she called the airline and saw what airports had any flights available, and ended up finally flying out of St Louis on Wednesday, connecting in Charlotte, NC and finally heading to Dallas.

SLIDE 3 - Bethlehem Inn

 In our scripture today we hear a story not entirely dissimilar from the travel woes my aunt experienced. We’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus’ fateful delivery in a manger after there was no room at the inn. SLIDE 4 - Wise MenBut we rarely pay quite as much attention to the latter half of the journey, when they are told by the wise men to travel home by another way. The trip there was already difficult, so to take the long way home was likely a tremendous inconvenience, and then added onto it the reason why they needed to go this way it must’ve been a very frightful situation. More frightful even than flooding and ice blizzards.

SLIDE 5 - HerodWhen the wise men first met with Herod they were meeting with him in the hopes of getting direction, perhaps even to placate him in his own authority. Herod even tried to make the wise men believe that he too wanted to come pay homage to Jesus, but things were not as they seemed. The reason why they needed to take this long way home was the wise men had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was fearful of what a king of the Jews would do to his power.

SLIDE 6 - Return Trip Joseph too is visited by an angel in a dream who says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” This was not an idle threat. In the verses following our passage today we are told, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” New parents as they were, I can’t imagine the horror that Mary and Joseph felt at hearing of so many children’s death due to their actions, and the simultaneous relief for their own son’s safety.  The divine rerouting of this dream altered the course of history, saving Jesus to live into adulthood.

The great modern theologian, James Taylor summarizes the story in this way: He writes, “Steer  clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do.  A king who  would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you … Time to go home another way.  Home by another way … Me and you can be  wise guys too and go home by another way … We got this  far to a lucky star but tomorrow is  another day.  We can make it another way …”

SLIDE 7 - PathWhat are your own stories of a divine rerouting? A time in your life when you thought you knew the path ahead of you, maybe you even had a boarding pass in hand ready for a specific trip, or for a specific educational path, relationship, or career. When those things we’ve planned for change it’s hard to know what to do next. Often in the moment being rerouted does not feel divine at all, rather it feels much more like being inconvenienced, or worse, being misled.

The Bible has many examples of this divine rerouting. Jonah thought he had things all figured out when God told him to go to Nineveh, when he resisted God went as far as scooping him up in a big fish to get him turned in the right direction. Joseph, son of Jacob, is deceived by his brothers, thrown in a well, and unjustly imprisoned, but he ends up becoming a trusted advisor to the king in the midst of drought and famine.  In their exodus, the Israelites thought that praying to an idol would get them out of the wilderness, but Moses showed them that they would only survive by God’s provision of manna and quail. Ruth thought she knew what lay ahead of her, marrying into a good family, but then her husband, brother in law and father in law all died in quick succession and she and her mother in law Naomi were able to find a way forward by staying close to one another. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the son thought he had everything figured out of how he would be happy in life, but in humility he ends up returning home and is joyfully received.

SLIDE 13 - Five Stories It doesn’t feel good to be inside of a fish, betrayed by your family, reprimanded by a tablet wielding Moses, encounter a succession of tragic deaths, or slinking home after squandering the family fortune, but God shows us over and over again, that in seeking God’s guidance we are able to make it home again, home to God’s will for us, which may look nothing like where we started. As Joseph says when he forgives his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” To be clear, I am not saying that God causes the harm, but rather that God can work through our adversity for good.

SLIDE 14 - Mary and JosephMary and Joseph also had plans for what their lives would look like. They were engaged to be married, had lived piously and now their lives were uprooted by a pregnancy that was hard to explain to their families or community. But God had revealed to them that Mary would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and bring Jesus, the very son of God into the world. This change from what they thought they wanted changed their lives and the entire world for the better.

SLIDE 15 - Cradle to Cross This child, come into the world through difficult and extraordinary circumstances provided the divine rerouting that changed all of us. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for all of our sins, and was resurrected so that all of us may experience eternal life. Jesus made it possible for every one of us to go home by another way.

We don’t know all that  awaits us on the path in front of us, we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but if we keep our eyes and ears open to God’s direction, we can have hope that even the long way will lead us home in the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Ready, Set…Now!”; Mark 12:38-44; November 8, 2015; FPC Holt

“Ready, Set…Now!”
Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 11 8 SLIDE 1 - Faith4GensThroughout the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on stewardship, on our Generations of Faith, the foundation of those who have come before us and the legacy we hope to establish for those who come after us; our giving towards the ongoing ministries of this church as well as investing in the future of what we will be able to accomplish in the future once our capital campaign is completed.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 2 - Widow Close upHow fitting it is then that the lectionary passage this week just happens to be the story of the widow and her two coins. If you’ve been around Christianity for a while, it’s a story you’ve likely heard many times and if so you probably have a good idea already of what I’m going to preach on, right? Praising sacrificial giving of our money.  Right? Well, not exactly.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 3 - piggy-bankShe gave all she had. All she had to live on. I remember hearing this story while I was growing up, and thinking of how I could give everything I had too. Surely God would want me to break open my piggy bank and give all of my pennies to those in need. But those pennies were not all I had to live on. Breaking my own bank would not leave me diminished. And if I were hungry that hunger would’ve dissipated the very moment my parents called me down to lunch.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 4 - Widow in TempleShe gave all she had. Hearing this story now I can’t help but worried for her. We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 5 - James-c-christensen-the-widows-miteI really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

The truth is, for all the teachings that lift up the widow’s tremendous sacrifice as the ideal giving, Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that. Could we even wrap our minds and hearts around it if he was? After all this scripture comes to us from the very same Bible that teaches us that God, “desires mercy and not sacrifice,” and that Jesus came to give his life for us, not the other way around.

Instead, there is truth in this story that is indeed in line with our very God who desires good things for all of creation, particularly those who are disenfranchised, overextended, and desperate. In this passage Jesus teaches us about the wrong way to give and the right way to be stewards, both of our own prosperity and of the well being of all of God’s creation.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 6 - Jesus in backgroundFirst, we hear about the wrong way to give, which Jesus lays out in the verse immediately before the verses we read today. He says,. “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” These are the same scribes Jesus rebukes in Matthew because they sound the trumpet before they give their alms. But we don’t give in order to be acknowledged for our giving. The scribes shouldn’t be giving to get a seat at the head table, and we shouldn’t give to be first in line at our potluck today, or for say, naming rights to some part of our building. We give because of our reformed understanding of stewardship, that all we have is God’s and our giving is much more an act of acknowledging God’s providence than it is lauding our own generosity.

The passage continues, “They [the scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” All throughout Hebrew scripture God’s people are directly commanded to care for widows, to not was seen as tremendously unfaithful. Jesus condemns the actions of those who have put this woman in this position of desperation, it is likely that these leaders are taking advantage of the widows’ hospitality and therefore, what was left to them to live on after their husbands had died. Their long prayers do nothing to further the kingdom of God when they take advantage of those already on the margins of society.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 8 - Questioning Jesus If you have your Bibles open or if you are quite skilled at memorizing Scripture passages, note what happened only moments before Jesus notices the widow. “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one and beside him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

2015 11 8 SLIDE 9 - BillboardThe scribes simply are not—for all their piety—loving their neighbors. Their long prayers and large sums of money cannot possibly further the kingdom of God without loving actions toward others. Our giving—be it financially, through our time, or in how we use the spiritual gifts God has given us to further the kingdom—must be given in love.

Which brings us to how we can learn to indeed be good stewards of everything: monetarily, physically, relationally. Every aspect of our life and livelihood can point to God’s goodness if we let it.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 10 - Generations of LightThroughout our Capital and Annual campaign season we’ve heard many stories of what faithful living looks like. We’ve heard about the 150 years of past generations of Presbyterians that have done all they could with all they had to make this Church great, to indeed strive to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community.2015 11 8 SLIDE 11 - Bell RingingThere are members here who can point to various parts of the building and excavate layer after layer of stories of ministries lived out in this space.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 12 - Building PlansIn a similar way I’ve seen Dave Viele and others point to our space both in walking about and in architect renderings and paint the scene of the possibilities that await us in generations to come: expanded Christian Education, a food kitchen, a liturgical arts studio, so many things that we hope and pray will come to fruition.

 But there’s one generation that we cannot overlook. A generation we’re depending on for faithfulness, stewardship, and gifts given in love…. I’ll give you a hint. Look at those sitting around you. Look at those sitting behind you and in front of you. Look around you, and see your brothers and sisters who make up this church. As surely as we can look around the building and see the history and potential, we can look around this room and see God at work among us right this very moment. You are the generation called to be stewards of the many gifts we’ve been given in our history and called to be stewards of the relationships yet to be built in this place, the faith that will be formed from the foundation we help to lay.

You are tasked with serving God and God’s people in the here and now. Your faithfulness in this very day, in these next few weeks of our capital campaign, in the support of our annual campaign, shape the reality of the impact we have as a church, in the future, yes, but also in the here and now. What we give financially right now shapes how we are able to serve those God calls us into relationship.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 14 - Light of ChristOur giving to our annual campaign enables us to yes, keep the lights on, but also to shine the light of Christ into the lives of children each week with A-Team, X-team, and church school. 2015 11 8 SLIDE 15 - BlanketsWe’ll keep the building heated and we’ll also warm the hearts of those seeking hope through the Food Bank, Act Uganda, and our ministries in the Yucatan.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 16 - AAEvery day of the week we have people meeting in our church basement for Alcoholics Anonymous. Every day. This is not a future hope for service but a current vibrant relationship we have with our community. If we are able to meet or exceed our capital campaign goals we have the potential to better serve these brothers and sisters with an elevator, allowing all to access this life saving ministry.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 17 - Spiral StainglassIn taking our place in the line of faithfulness behind and before us, we are working to bring about God’s kingdom in the very here and now. How will you live into this call? Every one of us has something to contribute in this Body of Christ whether it be time, abilities, money, or gifts. And only you know for yourself the difference between a gift of faithfulness and a gift of spare change.

How will we be a Generation of Faith? What legacy will we leave? What path will we create? May God guide us all. Amen.

“It’s Alive!”; Hebrews 4:12-16; October 11, 2015; FPC Holt

“It’s Alive!”
Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2015 10 11 Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

2015 10 11 Slide02And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

2015 10 11 Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

2015 10 11 Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, 2015 10 11 Slide05 drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

2015 10 11 Slide06 The beginning words of the Gospel of John speak to the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition: “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.” [1]

The word of God is so much more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Princeton Professor John P. Burgess writes, “The Old and New Testaments offer much more than information about God. They set forth the living Christ and invite us into relationship with God. In this sense, the Bible is the word of God – not because it is correct in every historical or scientific detail, but rather because it witnesses to what God has done and continues to do in Christ.”[2]

2015 10 11 Slide08Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly allow God’s word to be alive in us and in the world around us, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture. But also we cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if we allow our devotion God’s word to stop at the reading of scripture.

2015 10 11 Slide09We read in Hebrews 4 today, “the word of God is living and active.” We read the words of Jesus in John 14:12, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” What are we to do with scripture than, if not to let it guide us to “live and move and have our being”[3] in response to God our creator.

Favorite preacher of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the danger of preferring time with the written page over enacting God’s lived out word. She writes, “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.  Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.”[4]

2015 10 11 Slide12Being a part of bringing about God’s living and active word in this world is certainly more complex than simply listening or reading scripture, and so it can be hard to know where to start. An overwhelmingly present example in our world today is the care and wellbeing of refugees, particularly in Syria.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed emphasis on hospitality towards refugees, with repeated reminder that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers; 36 Biblical warnings.

And yet we sit overwhelmed both by the present situation of international distress and the overwhelming Biblical mandate to do something about. What are we to do? How can we enact God’s word in this story still taking shape?

Stated clerk of our denomination, Grayde Parsons wrote this week,  “Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. … Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”[5]

Through supporting these efforts of our denomination, and joining our voices with those speaking for justice we enable God’s word to speak hope to those in need of hope.

2015 10 11 Slide15In this very church and community there are many opportunities for you to extend God’s love and welcome to those who are seeking home and sanctuary through relationship with Global Family Fellowship. I’m sure Lazara, Gary, and Trudy would be delighted to find ways to connect you with those in need of the very welcome and connection that the Bible urges us to provide.

When we open ourselves to proclaiming God’s word in our actions, relationships, and livelihoods, we can share in the confidence of the prophet Isaiah who said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” May we indeed accomplish God’s purpose. May God’s word come to life in us and through us, as we seek to speak and live God’s word into being. Amen.

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

[5] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/10/2/clerk-issues-letter-trump-refugees-immigrants/

“Immediately;” Mark 1:14-20; January 25, 2015; FPC Holt

“Immediately”
Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2015 1 25 Slide01Your pulse quickens, you feel your face flush; you are a force of kinetic energy spurred into motion. When is the last time in your life that you responded with great urgency? Was it jumping up for an awaited phone call? Running towards a stack of presents on Christmas morning?  Rushing out of the house following the news of an emergency situation with a loved one?

How’d you feel in that moment? What was it that compelled you forward?

2015 1 25 Slide06What if that phone call instead was someone asking you to do something that would genuinely inconvenience you? What if that gift was a trip with strangers to a foreign place? What if you were called instead to leave your loved ones, without reliable ways of checking in or letting them know how you are?

How would you react then? Would you be compelled with that same urgency? 2015 1 25 Slide08Or would you take a moment, pause and consider the ramifications of what you were being asked, given, and called to do?

I know I’d take some time to weigh the options, consider the situation fully, and take time to prayerfully respond. That’s the rational thing to do, right?

But this is not what we see in our Gospel today.

2015 1 25 Slide09In the first chapter of Mark, William Abraham writes, “Jesus sweeps through Galilee and takes it by storm….the underlying sense is that God is on the march in the ministry of Jesus”[1]. Jesus starts his recruitment with a proclamation, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message “Time’s up!”

2015 1 25 Slide10 But this wasn’t time in the way we usually encounter it, time marked by a clock or a calendar, this is the Greek word, kairos. Kairos is less about linear time and more about timeliness, something happening at the very moment it is meant to happen. Kairos is God’s timing, and in the beginning of our passage Jesus says that that time, that kairos has come, and there is no time to lose.

2015 1 25 Slide11 Immediately, Mark says. Immediately Simon and Andrew left their nets. Immediately James and John left their father. Immediately they were thrown into this new and uncertain role as Jesus’ disciples.

It sounds thrilling. It sounds terrifying. It also sounds freeing.

We’re not told what it was about Jesus that made that strange band of men join him. Jesus doesn’t give them an itinerary of their trip. He does provide a map or a guidebook. He doesn’t even give them packing instructions. All that we are told that he says to them is “follow me.”

2015 1 25 Slide12 In this time Rabbis were never the ones to seek out their students, rather they were approached by students, who were then interviewed and critiqued. This was not Jesus’ approach, he sought these men out and asked them to follow him. As disciples of Jesus they are called to learn and to be in a whole new way. And with so little information and so much uncertainty, this call from Jesus propels them outwards from all that they knew, towards uncertainty, and it happens immediately.

2015 1 25 Slide13Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes this of the disciple’s reaction to Jesus, “I think that ‘immediately’ can be less about marking time and more about describing action. Immediately does not only designate a when but a what. Not only a place in time, but an event that changes the meaning of life. Granted, the disciples have no clue at this point how life has been changed. But we know. And maybe immediately is all we can do, all we can manage. Because, preparation? Maybe it makes faith matters worse. Builds up anticipation, expectations. And then, when things do not go as planned? Maybe a life of faith can only happen in immediately, in the surprising, sudden, profound epiphany of God at work, God revealed in our lives. Because if we think we can adequately prepare for God’s epiphanies, that we can be fully ready for what we will see, well then, God might be less than epiphanous.”[2]

2015 1 25 Slide14Mark is a big fan of the word “immediately,” or ethous in the Greek to mean immediately, next, or suddenly. In fact Mark uses the word “ethous” no less than 40 times throughout his Gospel account. So much so that most translators, including those of our familiar New Revised Standard Version, seem to get a bit bored and switch things up using the words, “just then,” “at once,” “as soon as,” “quickly,” all getting at the heart of this incredibly sense of immediacy throughout Mark’s gospel.

The majority of those “immediately”s come up for us in Jesus’ miracles. As inclined as we are towards a reasoned weighing of options, this is not the way that Jesus operates. Jesus does not hold back, does not drag his feet, but responds immediately.

2015 1 25 Slide15Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor explains that this beachside story before us today is not the story of the disciples making a decision to follow allow with Jesus, but rather Jesus working a miracle among them. She writes “This is a story about the power of God – to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before…This is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as a people who are able to follow – able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives.”[3]

2015 1 25 Slide16In English, “immediately” refers to instantaneous timing, but it also refers to proximity. An immediate response to Jesus’ call to action enables us to be closer, more physically immediate to the way Jesus reveals God’s love for the world.

Who wouldn’t want a closer view to God’s action?

“Follow me.” It’s not just words on page, it’s a call for you and for me to expand God’s kingdom in this world through obedience to God’s call. “Follow me,” Jesus says. May we be transformed by our God who is eager to work through us and will do it, “immediately.” Amen.

[1] The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels

[2] Karoline Lewis, “The Immediately of Epiphany” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3500

[3] “Miracle on the Beach,” in “Home By Another Way,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

“Make Way”; John 1:1-8, 19-23; December 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Make Way”
John 1:1-8, 19-23
Rev. Kathleen Henrion
December 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen along by clicking here.

2014 12 14 Slide01Wilderness. It is a place where one can get lost, some intentionally, some accidently. It is a place of in between: between Exodus and Promised Land, between an inheritance and a prodigal’s return. It is the place that lies below the mountaintop and precedes the burning bush. It is a place of abandonment and provision; humility and testing. Where manna falls and rocks gush. Even when we enter into it willingly, wilderness is not a place where one intends to stay, but rather the place from which one comes.

2014 12 14 Slide02Wilderness is not restricted to the Biblical narratives. Wilderness can look like the descending cloud of depression coloring all that you experience. Wilderness can be the powerlessness felt when watching the news or reading the paper. Wilderness can look like learning to navigate life after the loss of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Wilderness can be the cold plunge into the unforgiving waters of Alzheimer’s. By nature, wilderness isn’t restricted at all, but rather it paints obscurity over that which we think we know, in either our surroundings or our very selves.

2014 12 14 Slide03Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness, both surrounding him and within his own self. We often, and rightly so, associate “wilderness” in our liturgical year with the season of Lent, as Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days proceeding his fateful week in Jerusalem that took him from parade to upper room to cross. But today, we have a different scene of one emerging from the wilderness into the public eye.

2014 12 14 Slide04He had his surprising birth announced by an angel. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. And being that we’re in church, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it seems logical to imagine that I’m talking about Jesus. And of course that biography would be fitting for Jesus, but it also belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, SLIDE 4 - John the Baptistalso known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is John’s origin in this Gospel, and his persona is notably marked by these beginnings.SLIDE 5 - Saint John the Forerunner  John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man of wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. He comes from the wilderness place of in between.

He comes with the message of Christ coming soon and still not yet.

SLIDE 6 – John Preaching to CrowdAs John stands among a gathered crowd, priests and Levites that the Jews had sent to Jerusalem confront him. They ask him, “Who are you,” and there is a series of back and forth questions and answers between John and these Pharisee representatives. Is he the Messiah? No, not the Messiah. Elijah? Nope, not Elijah. Surely he must be a prophet. No, not a prophet.

As these priests run out of possible suggestions they seem to throw their hands up in the air saying, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?” He replies not with his name or credentials, but with scripture he says, “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

John defines himself by his wilderness context and by his voice that testifies to Christ’s imminent presence among them. We read that John was sent from God and “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Who John is and what he does are as a function of his role as witness to the light of Christ, in and among the dark wilderness spaces of this world. This light shines in darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorIn his book, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Robert Fulghum tells this story: “At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, our instructor (asked), ‘Are there any questions?’ These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. So I asked. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter and said: ‘When I was a small child, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept this little mirror, and as I grew up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I am not the light or the source of light. But light is still there, and will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and help change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”[1]

SLIDE 9 - Light in DarknessJohn knew this was the meaning of his life. He was not the light, but he would do everything in his capacity to reflect that light that had touched his life.

What is the wilderness you find yourself in today? Your space of disorientation, confusion, disillusionment, or disconnect?

What could you do with in this wilderness space with just a little bit of light? The good news that John brings for you and for me and for all of us is that the light is never overcome by the darkness.

SLIDE 10 - Christmas Eve Columbia Seminary Professor, Marcia Y. Riggs writes “Like John we live as witness to the light of Christ, for the light of Christ is life. Thus, as we testify to the light, we also embody that light as believers who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world this Advent season. To embody the light and reveal the life of Christ anew means that we are to live so as to nurture our humanity – especially the capacity to love our enemies – and to act humanely, offering compassionate and restorative justice.”[2]

SLIDE 11 - Candle What does this light mean for our own wilderness? Might it be that what we now only see as wilderness is in fact Advent embodied? We, like John, await Christ’s presence in our lives with hope. Through our hope we are making a way in the wilderness for Christ to come again.

Thomas Merton, 20th century Catholic writer and mystic wrote this of our wilderness turned Advent hope, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”[3]

Might we live as Advent people, make a way for Christ’s light to shine in our wilderness. Amen.

[1] “The Meaning of Life”: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum ©1988, Ballantine Books

[2] Marcia Y. Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1

[3] Thomas Merton, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/hope-restoredrejoice-always.html

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness;” Matthew 25:14-30; November 16, 2014

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014

Listen to the audio recording of the sermon here

Slide02Have you ever looked at something so long you stop seeing it? The way a week in the mountains will make you marvel at it’s beauty, but five years makes it seem ordinary. Slide03Or a green leafed tree in your front yard, which is always more noticeable as it newly buds in spring or changes to bright yellow or orange in the Fall. Or artwork long hung in your living room that is really only seen when you really take the time to notice it.

Slide05In my experience, the same happens with scripture. Scripture that I have heard over and over again can seem, well, ordinary. It ceases to have the sort of impact intended If we allow the very first reading of scripture to be our only real hearing of scripture we miss out. We fail to see the dynamic nature of our scripture, the way it can shape and color our experience in it’s re-reading, in our interpretation throughout our lives.

Slide06This parable is one of those passages. When I began this week I thought I knew exactly what God had to say to us with this text. With so many parables that have to deal with God in the seat of power, I thought, well of course, the master is Jesus, we as Jesus’ disciples are the servants. God gives us each talents and then we in turn are responsible for being good stewards of those resources. Simple enough, right?

Peter Dunne first wrote the phrase: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, as one of roles of journalism, but it certainly fits within the role of the Biblical scholar as well. And since I was so comfortable in this interpretation, I felt that I needed to seek out something in this text that would challenge me, that would allow me to see this words anew.

So, I started to unpack the text a bit more, as well as read what some others had to say on this text, and the more I looked at these words, what is being exalted, what is being diminished the more uncomfortable I became with the parable as I had previously understood it.

Slide07With the Greek word [talenta] translated simply as “talent,” it loses the Greek connotations of a specific sum of money, measured in weight. One talent is about 73 pounds. In today’s gold prices, one talent would be worth about $1,230,083.25, two talents $2,460,166.50, and five talents $6,150,416. That is a truly incredible amount of money.

Often though, we make the quick leap to modern vernacular and view this monetary sum instead as the talents or abilities with which God has gifted us. It’s possible to view it that way, and certainly many a faithful preacher has, but I do think something is lost when we remove [talenta] from its monetary context into a more generalized context.

Slide08It’s one thing to open ourselves up to allowing God to use all that we are and all the abilities we have been given to glorify God. Doing so enables us to expand our reach for God’s kingdom and to fully live into the joy that is ours in Christ. It is quite another thing to double a crazy large amount of money to raise the profit margin of our employer.

Slide09In his article “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents,” Richard Rohrbaugh points out that at the time of this text’s writing the highest legal interest rate was around 12 percent; and so this extreme margin of profit was likely less an act of thoughtful stewardship, but rather an act of deceit and exploitation. By contrast there’s no way that that third servant could, or would even want to, keep up with that rate.

Reading this through the lens of Biblical context, rather than a modern lens, we are to be reminded that in Luke 12:13-21 the man who accumulates for accumulation’s sake is deemed a fool, and in both Mark (10:25) and Matthew (19:24) we are told, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Sitting here in our 21st century lives it seem straightforward to assume that capitalism would be the greater good of this story.

Slide 10 - man with coinsI know for many years I have seen that third servant as the least desirable role of this parable’s cast of characters. How dare he squander the investment opportunity of this amount he has been given? How could he be idle when the other two had clearly worked so hard to double their master’s resources?

What if, he in fact, he was the one we are to emulate in this story? On first glance this consideration really had me scratching my head. How could it even be possible that this man was in the right? This man, who dug a hole in the ground and simply let this tremendous sum of money sit there. Slide11But then I considered what was being done in by the other servants, how they were likely manipulating their money to profit from the misfortune of others. And I thought about how much good has been done by this very sort of intentional inaction, which we know in other contexts as civil disobedience. Sure, in the ground this money was ineffectual for any purposes, but at the same time, he was preventing it from being used for harm.

In their article “Towering Trees and ‘Talented’ Slaves,” Eric DeBode and Ched Myers shook up my understanding of the passage, and provided a framework whereby I could see this passage anew. “This has been for many an unsettling story. It seems to promote ruthless business practices (v. 20), usury (v. 27), and the cynical view that the rich will only get richer while the poor become destitute (v. 29). Moreover, if we assume, as does the traditional reading, that the master is a figure for God, it is a severe portrait indeed: an absentee lord (v. 15) who cares only about profit maximization (v. 21), this character is hardhearted (v. 24) and ruthless (v. 30).”

Slide14We say in this church, and put on our parade float that each of us are beloved children of God loves us and that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. If we really believe this to be true, how could we give credence to this rewards system?

Slide16To quote Episcopal priest, Alexis Myers Chase, “If the master is supposed to be Jesus, then the vision of God that I hold dear – the vision of God as loving, as grace-filled, as so loving that he sent his only son to die on the cross for us and for our salvation – that God doesn’t exist. The vision of a God that invites us from week to week to confess and be forgiven of our sins and then invites us to this simple table to eat bread and wine together as a community, that God doesn’t exist. Instead I am supposed to be walking around afraid of God, afraid I am not enough, afraid that I am not doing enough, afraid…This god is a vindictive and angry god that only cares about outcomes, not about love. That only cares about accumulation, not grace. That only cares about how much I can give, not how much I worship.”

She concludes, “I don’t like that god. I don’t feel welcomed by that god. My God has set me free to love and serve wherever I find Christ in others.”

And where is it that Christ can be found? Listen to the passage following our text earlier, in Matthew 25:35-36 we read Christ’s words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

Slide19Christ doesn’t demand profit for the sake of profit, but rather Christ demands care for the least and the last and the lonely. The master in our parable may have cast this third servant into the outer darkness of this world, but might it be possible, that that was exactly where he was meant to be? That the outer darkness might not be a condemnation, but a mission field?

How we cast the characters in this parable matters. Faithfulness is only an act of faith, when it is in response to one who is worthy. Our care for God’s people and our own self worth are impacted by whether we view God as gracious or ruthless, whether we view God as absent or present. Whether we believe that we need to earn our place in Christ’s Kingdom, or whether Christ love has done more for us than we could ever do on our own.

Let us approach scripture afresh, listening for the voices of the oppressed, the diminished, the marginalized. May we not be afraid of to be in the outer darkness of this world, because it may be the very place Jesus will meet us. May our eyes be opened to what God is saying to God’s people. Amen.

“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.

“He’s Coming…” Isaiah 11:1-10 December 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

 “He’s Coming…”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - MailboxOn a usual week going to the mailbox you’ll find a mixed collection of bills, newspapers, advertisements, but during December, things are different. Going to the mailbox there’s always the possibility of a Christmas card. SLIDE 2 - Christmas CardsChristmas cards are different than cards throughout the year. They speak of the hope of Christ coming 2000 years ago, and being born again into our reality each year. They wish us happiness, peace, joy, hope, for the whole year, asking God’s blessing on all that will come to pass. And often times you’ll have a Christmas letter that accompanies the card.

SLIDE 3 - Christmas LetterMy family has always had a Christmas letter. When we were younger my mom would write our Christmas letter, but as my sister and I were able to do some writing for ourselves, each member of the family was tasked with writing their own paragraph. This was a fun but daunting task, summing up all of the past years experiences into about 5 or 6 sentences. This sort of letter marks time, tells of the recent past, what is important to us at that time, what has shaped us, what are hopes are for the future. These many years of letters lined up side by side would tell you the story of our family, the twists and turns that have led us to exactly where we are today.

SLIDE 4 - Tree of JesseOur scripture today speaks to the Jesus’ own family timeline, the “tree of Jesse.” Jesus is referred to the root of the tree of Jesse. When we think of trees at Christmas we usually think of evergreens, or artificial trees, or maybe even a Charlie Brown tree. Rarely do we think about family trees, the genealogy of how we came to be. This is the type of tree that the Jesse tree is. It is a tree of the genealogy of Jesus. The New Testament starts in Matthew with this family tree, the history of the family of Jesus.

SLIDE 5 - Advent CalendarIf you’ve picked up our advent calendar you will have seen this tree. There are many familiar names on the tree but also some not so familiar. I hope that you will use this calendar as a resource in helping you grow deeper in your faith with Christ as well as allow you to widen your understanding of what history brought Jesus to us.

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SongsIn 1 Samuel the first king in Jesus’ line of ancestors is identified. When tasked with appointing a king for Israel Samuel initially goes along with the usual expectations for a leader, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SonsSamuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

In Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

SLIDE 8 - DavidWhen the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” This is the one, the one who God has chosen to fulfill God’s promises. The unexpected, the imperfect, the chosen.

Two centuries after King David’s death God spoke through the prophet Isaiah as we read in our scripture lesson today: “1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 1:1-2)

SLIDE 9 - StumpThe tree of Jesse is described as a stump. Over the years since King David’s promising beginning, the Davidic line grew weaker, more corrupt. It seemed that it would nearly die out. But even when it seemed cut off, there was life in it yet. When many had thought the lineage of David wouldn’t lead to anything, God made a way, drawing humanity once again out of chaos through Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Book of Isaiah we read many other references to the promised King in David’s line, the king who will be messiah and savior. The other prophets make the same promise: God is drawing near, a savior is coming.

SLIDE 10 - God is nearOur entire story of faith speaks of this arch from a people lost in sin, to a people redeemed. This is the great story of God that unfolds throughout the narratives of the Old and New Testament. In the very first paragraph God pushes reality out of formless chaos into light and darkness, water and sky, sky and land. What will be come our own existence is spiraled into motion. God can certainly do a lot more with a paragraph than I can!

SLIDE 11 - God and ManIn the first pages of our Bible Adam and Eve disobey God and the need for salvation is established. In the story of Noah we see the need for newness and redemption. In Moses’ mountaintop conversation in the wilderness, God provides commandments to try to set people about the business of living right. Throughout every story is the promise, God is drawing near, salvation is coming.

SLIDE 12 - Foot of CrossAt Advent we celebrate the coming of a savior, the fulfillment of a promise. The big and small ways God’s plan is unveiled, person by person, story by story, year by year: God continues to draw near.

Maybe your family will write a Christmas letter this year, maybe not, but either way I’d like you to reflect on your own location in time and space this year. What has happened to shape you? How might you be a part of this greater story of God’s amazing love? How might you share the incredible news we anticipate and celebrate at Advent: God is ever drawing near in God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“So Great a Cloud of Witnesses;” Hebrews 11:29-12:3; August 18, 2013, FPC Jesup

“So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”
Hebrews 11:29-12:3
August 18, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There 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. Slide02Even in Berean Hall, which was built only 18 years ago, there’s a feel of history: the meals that were served there, the community that has grown from that 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.

Slide03There’s a similar sort of feeling that I get from time to time around Jesup. This is a place that has respect for the traditions that have come before it in the past 153 years. People speak with pride of the sesquicentennial celebration just a few years ago. Many have followed in family footsteps to farm the same land or to work at John Deere as your parents had before you. Walking around Young Street you can feel the cloud of witnesses that have decided to live life together in Jesup over a great many years.

Slide04Many religious traditions have their own built in routine of showing respect 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.”

Slide05Though 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.” Before the familiar, conclusive, mission focused part of this passage that beings with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we hear several rather troubling accounts of our faith ancestors over time.

Slide06It a quite gory twelve verses we hear of all the opposition these “witnesses” have encountered, including: war, drowning, lions, torture, and desert wanderings. We are told, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

Sort of strange thing to think of, “they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” The author of Heberws acknowledges the interconnectivity of the experiences of both the historic martyrs and those currently living out the faith. Not only is their witness important to our lives, and our understanding of how to run this race of faith, our experience is important to those who have come before us. Our experience gives purpose to the work and suffering of those who have come before us.

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, perikaimennon in the Greek, also carries the meaning “bound.” This affirms that we are bound to those who share our faith in history, in the present, and in the future.

There’s this book I’ve read 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.

Slide 7 - ConnectionIn 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.

Young People Walking in Meadow“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.”

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.”

Slide10When 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.

Slide11This 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.

Slide12As a church family we are also a cloud of witnesses unto ourselves. We are tasked with living into our baptismal promises of uplifting one another, of bringing God close in this space and in our relationships. Who are the people in this church who have been that cloud of witnesses for you? Those who have supported you in a way that has allowed you to go forward in your faith journey OR those who are growing up in the church and giving you hope for the future of the church. Hebrews tells us that we need both those who come before and those who come after in order to fully be perfected in faith. May we acknowledge these “witnesses” in some way this week, whether a note or a prayer or a call, may we affirm those who run this race with us.

Slide131 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 WOW or with Sunday School. 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. 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.  It is my prayer that this week you may pay attention to who needs support and to find ways to run alongside them. Amen.

“Things Hoped For”; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; August 11, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Things Hoped For”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”[1]

These words by Emily Dickinson speak of hope as a birdlike creature in our soul, singing a song of improvisation, a song that begins without knowing where it will go, that sings wordlessly, unceasingly.

SLIDE 2 - Hebrews 11 1Our scripture today says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

To many faith can seem like a strange or elusive thing, it is, by definition, a trust in a promise without concrete evidence.

Favorite artist of mine, and Decorah native Brian Andreas is known for his “StoryPeople,” art that carries anecdotal stories with playful drawings. One such story speaks to the intangibility of faith, it says,Slide03 “Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.”

Slide04The Bible has quite a bit to say about hope. Hope appears in the Bible 167 times, 15 of which occur in Job. Job is a man who has lost everything he had and all of his immediate family. He wrestles with hope, whether or not hope his hope is warranted. His friends try and talk him out of hoping. Slide05Hope is in the Psalms 26 times, as the Psalms provide poetic accounts of interaction with God over time, in good and in bad. Proverbs 10:28 says: “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In Paul’s letters he often refers to the Gospel promise of redemption as “hope.”

SLIDE 6 - AbrahamThe story of Abraham and Sarah is held up several times throughout scripture as a model of faithfulness, a lived out hope. In our scripture today we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.””

SLIDE 7 - AbrahamIn Romans chapter 4 Paul shares this reflection on the faith of Abraham, beginning with verses 3-5: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

SLIDE 8 - AbrahamContinuing in verses 13-25 Paul writes, “For the promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world…depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  SLIDE 9 - Father AbrahamHoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Slide10It says that Abraham “hoped against hope.” Abraham had hope in that which was deemed impossible, that which seemed ungraspable. The “thing with feathers” inside of him sang a tune that he couldn’t know the words to. He hoped for the impossible.

I’ve always been a big fan of musical theatre, which is known for it’s infectious tunes. Sometimes when I’m reading scripture or working on a sermon certain songs will get stuck in my head on repeat. Slide11This week it was the song “Impossible,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The song begins by listing all the impossibilities of Cinderella’s predicament, as she’s standing distraught with no way to get to the ball. Her Godmother sings to her, “the world is full of zanies and fools, Who don’t believe in sensible rules And won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Slide12What are the impossible things that you hope for? The things that might seem foolish. The things that might even hurt to hope for? The places in our life where to ask God for a yes risks possibly receiving an unfathomable “no.” How might we trust God in these circumstances?

How might we begin to see these things as possible? How might we hope unceasingly? How might we hope beyond hope?

Slide13Our passage today says in Hebrews 11:13, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Can we really take comfort in hopes that our not answered in our own lifetimes?

Slide14

How can we be anything but disappointed by unanswered prayers? How can we continue to trust God when things don’t work out the way we want them to? The only way is by having a kingdom mindset, by having faith that God’s willing is being worked out in the way it needs to. That God’s plan for us is much larger than us, and with a much longer timeline than any we will experience firsthand. This is not an easy thing, but it is part of what faith calls us to. God is not in the business of wish fulfillment

Slide15Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

The unceasing song of hope, does not end when we are no longer the ones singing it. To have faith is to trust in the promise that just as the blessings of our lives came from that which was only promised to those before us.

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou speaks of this slow to come hope in her poem, “I Rise.” This comes from the conclusion of the poem:

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”[2]

That line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” haunts me. Though I do not have ancestral roots in 19th century American slavery, we as children of God, come from a people enslaved. Our faith’s origins are found among those slaves in Egypt, those aching for freedom, aching for the Promised Land they would never live to see. We are their dream and their hope. We are the harvest of that deep grief, of that desert wandering.

Slide17After the familiar narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the continuation of kingdom through the harvest of believers that they themselves did not cultivate:

In John 4:34-38 we read, “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.””

Slide19The hopes of our hearts may not always come into fruition before us, but as heirs of salvation, workers in God’s kingdom harvest, our acts done in faith bring life to the hopes of those who come before us. We reap a harvest for which we did not labor, and we hope for a promise that we may not witness.

Romans 8:24-25 says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 2 Corinthians 3:12 after speaking of confidence in the promises of Christ says, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.”

How may your hope spur you to action? When something seems impossible, our fear can paralyze us. May we be bold in our hope, allowing ourselves to hope for what seems impossible, to invest in the promises of God’s goodness. May we be bold to invest in the future we may not see.

Slide22One of the hardest prayers to pray is one we echo week after week in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” This short and simple phrase can seem an easy one to pray when we are thinking of the circumstances of another, but in our own circumstances it can seem callous or like an act of retreat. Though “thy will be done” is a prayer of surrender, it is not one of retreat. It is faith in allowing our hopes to rest in God’s hands.

May we have faith in the promises of God’s kingdom. May we sing the tune of hope even while God is still revealing the words. Amen.


[1] ““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619

Festival of Homiletics Tweets

I just returned from a wonderful week in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was such an incredible time I’m having trouble summarizing all of it, so I have decided to share some of the highlights from my tweets from the week. Please feel free to read more of them on my twitter page.

Festival of Homiletics Tweets 1Festival of Homiletics Tweets 2Festival of Homiletics Tweets 3 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 4 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 5 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 6 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 7 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 8

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts;” Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14; May 12, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts”
Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14
May 12, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. Slide13I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.Slide05

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

 Over the years, I became less concerned with one individual Bible, and more concerned with my own ability to engage with scripture as a whole. As one translation became not quite as compelling to me, I would get other translations to shake things up in my scripture reading life. I have bought or received different Bibles in different seasons of my life. Slide07 I have a Message Translation that I got in high school when scripture seemed too old to be relevant. Slide08 I have several Hebrew and Greek Bibles that I used throughout seminary when English translations seemed too new to be accurate. I have study Bibles that I’ve used at different times to help me connect with what different theologians have said about scripture throughout time.

Though each of these versions helped me to read scripture in a new way, they were still pointing to the same God, the same truths, and the same Gospel grace.

Slide09Our New Testament lesson today speaks about the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition. It says, “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.” [1]

The word of God is more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Frederick Buechner, a prominent contemporary Presbyterian minister writes about the lasting messiness and importance of scripture in his book, “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,” “One way to describe the Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years and more, would be to say that it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, which superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism….Slide11And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us. And it is also a book about God…One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.”[2]

 Our Psalm today, Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly get into God’s word, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture.

If I let myself get caught up in that torn page, I would have never actually gotten to the truth of God’s scripture, God’s own message for my life. In a way, it helped me that that page was torn, because once it was already broken into I didn’t feel like anything I could do to it would be ruining it.

Slide14 This was also liberating for my own understanding of the condition I needed to be in in order to receive God’s grace. God wants us just as we are, and no tears in our conditions or messes in our lives can keep us from God’s plan for us. God used a messed up Bible to speak healing to my own messy heart.

It is my hope and prayer that these Bibles that our third graders received will not stay in such great condition as they are today. If you really use these Bibles you might take a highlighter or pen to the page to write some of your own thoughts about scripture, these Bibles might get ripped, and eventually the covers might fall off. But as these Bibles disintegrate, you will be strengthened to love as God would have you love, serve as God would have you serve, and to hope in the great good promises of salvation by Jesus Christ; and that is worth so much more than pristine pages and a binding that’s never been broken.Slide15

There is a great beauty in the Bibles of people who read scripture from them every single day. They will likely look more run down than anything you’ll find in a bookstore, but in all of their writings, bookmarks, and tears they become a living witness to the faith life of that Christian. Here’s a truth, the worse shape your Bible is in, the better shape your heart is in. (Now of course my lack of focus on any one particular Bible keeps me from showing this in my own life, but I still believe it to be true.)

SLIDE 15 - Plan BPresbyterian author, Anne Lamott, writes in her book, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” about how to absorb scripture. She writes: “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”[3]

Immersing ourselves in scripture, showing up at church each Sunday to hear God’s word read and preached, reading God’s word before we go to sleep, all of these things may run-down our Bibles, but will help to heal our hearts. May we open our hearts to receive this message of wholeness that God has for us. Amen


[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s Abc, Rev. and expanded [ed.]. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993), p. 9.

[3] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith (New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006)

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition; Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1; February 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition
Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today we are continuing our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices with a practice that we engage in together every Sunday. “Prayers of Petition.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Prayers of Petition”?

In our worship service “prayers of petition” are part of our “Prayers of the People.” Simply put, prayers of petition are when we ask God to do something for us or for someone we care about. These prayers are also called “prayers of intercession,” as we are asking for God to intercess, or intervene, to change the outcome of our situation.

SLIDE 3 - Test PrayerThese are also the sorts of prayers that are quite common surrounding big tests at school or pleading for that green light to hold when you’re running late to a meeting. We pray to win the lottery. We pray that our chores would do themselves. We might intercess on behalf of our GPS and pray for help with directions.

In worship on Sundays we ask for God’s intercession in our community and world. We pray for the comfort of those who are lonely, for the healing of those who are sick. We pray for wisdom of leaders, for guidance of the Holy Spirit in important life decisions. Sometimes we’re not sure what to pray. We have the anxiety, stress, and grief, but not the words to make any sense of them.

Slide05There are times when we are sitting in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a phone call from a loved one in times of war or natural disaster and we feel utterly helpless. Prayers of petition are the prayers of someone waiting, waiting for a change, waiting for resolution, waiting for comfort. Waiting on God to reveal whatever is going to happen so that we can wrap our minds and hearts around whatever may be. Sometimes these prayers are not quite as polite as our communal prayers on a Sunday morning. These prayers might be loud shouting at God. They might be an angry litany of muttered frustrations.

Romans 8:26 says:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I have always liked that phrase in Romans 8:26, “sighs too deep for words.” I have uttered those sighs and I imagine you have too. It gives me comfort knowing that the Spirit comes beside us even when we can’t form our concerns in words. Prayers of petition are prayers in which we offer up the concerns of our hearts and minds in one big sigh. We admit that we don’t have control, and we give it up to God. That’s the important part of a prayer of petition that is often missed in frustrations or anxieties of our lives: surrendering our concerns, admitting our powerlessness, and trusting that God will work things our however they are to be.

 Romans 8:27-28 continues saying:

“God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I love that verse. It gives me peace in God’s greater plan, comfort that God will work through my circumstance, and hope for a happy ending.

Sometimes, I hate that verse. I want to tell God, “if this circumstance is things working together for good,” I don’t want any part of it. Sometimes I blame myself for the outcome, thinking, “Well if God works good for those who love God, I guess my love for God is just not strong enough.”

SLIDE 8 - Soul FeastAnnoyingly and fortunately, God’s plan is beyond human comprehension. I do not believe that God causes pain, suffering, or death, but I do believe in the midst of all of the minor disappointments and larger horrors of this life, God comes alongside us and holds us in our distress. God’s goodness ultimately wins over any evil the world may offer.

If things seem so out of our control, why do we bother to pray? What is the point of all this praying? The Bible gives us many possible explanations. In the book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,” Author Marjorie Thompson offers seven scriptural perspectives:

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Writer and spiritual director, Teresa Blythe writes: “It’s popular in Christian circles to say that prayer works. Yet no one knows how prayer works or what exactly constitutes and answer to the many requests we make of God on behalf of our families, friends, and loved ones. It’s a matter of faith. We pray because we trust that God precedes us in caring about all aspects of human life. We pray because we know prayer changes how we think, feel, and act. And sometimes we pray because we don’t know what else to do – we’ve exhausted all human action on behalf of the one we are praying for. We have no choice but to leave the concern in God’s hands.” [2]

Prayers of petition require a certain amount of helplessness: admitting that what can be done by our own will, by our own hands, in our own human capacity will not be enough. Placing our helplessness in God’s hands, seeking God’s response and action and trusting that regardless of what we would like the outcome to be, God’s will will be done.

Our New Testament passage today calls us to take confidence in the promises of Christ, calling us out of our present distress through an eternal perspective:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

When I am stuck in a wordless state with my personal prayers of petition, I enjoy looking to the Psalms. Our Psalm today offers up a prayer that is simultaneously hopeful and helpless, spanning from “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) to “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:10c) And in the last few lines of the Psalm we hear echoed throughout the millennia the prayer of exhaustion and confidence of one waiting for God’s long sought answer, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

That is my prayer for you today as well, in whatever circumstances are filling you with sighs too deep for words: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Amen


[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: an Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 38.

[2] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 121.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Water Into Wine;” Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34; January 13, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Water Into Wine”
Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34
January 13, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Have you ever read the Bible and felt like this? Like you’re being pointed in all sorts of directions and you’re not sure where to go? Or maybe you felt that it might mean something for your life, but your not sure which? And when you read more about scripture it you might hear even more of a confusing message?

Signs are really only helpful if we’re able to read them, and able to understand what the mean, and what we’re supposed to do in response.

This is also true when it comes to Jesus’ actions in the gospels. His miracles, including this one in Cana, are called “signs.” A sign points to something beyond itself. There needs to be a certain sort of understanding to be able to interpret a sign.SLIDE 4 - Arrow right

The thing about a sign is that it points to something beyond itself.  If you’re driving along and you see this sign you know that this line with the triangle at the end means that the road is curving right.

SLIDE 5 - ConstructionIf you see this one, you know there’s construction up ahead and you know to watch out for workers in the road.

 When Jesus does a miracle, more is going on that just what we can take in at first glance. Which is important to know, especially when we see a sign like his miracle in Cana. In a first read through it seems like all Jesus is doing is making some people happy at a party. The signs of Jesus tell us about who Jesus is, His mission on earth, and the new age He brings about by his coming. Slide06The signs of Jesus are truly “significant.” They point to who Jesus is and what he came to do. So, let’s unpack this story a bit and figure out what making wine at a party has to do with the mission of Jesus Christ and what it has to do with us.

Slide07When we first start out this story it’s a bit strange: when told by his mother, Mary, that there was no wine his initial response is “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Any parent or teacher who has asked a child to do a chore, go to sleep at bedtime, or learn a math problem might hear a familiar voice here: “Why me?” “Why should I care about this?” “Can’t I do it later?” “Ten more minutes?” When we know that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, it’s a strange thing to hear that he seemed reluctant, and even a bit petulant at his mother’s request.

Mary’s appeal brings images of a proud mother. She had confidence that in this situation Jesus could do something to turn it around. But really, making wine at a party? This is Jesus’s first act of ministry? This is what gets the ball rolling on a career as savior of the world? Winemaking?

SLIDE 8 - Water Into WineHowever, when we look at this one strange seeming inconsequential act in the scope of Jesus’ entire ministry, it makes a great deal of sense. Jesus is the bringer of living water and that water is transformed by His death, which we remember by sharing in the wine of communion. This one act, at the beginning of His ministry provides bookends to his life’s ministry. Christ gives living water and is transformed into wine.

Slide09Scripture is filled with imagery of water as challenging, saving, confronting, and life giving. As our students learned in WOW this past Fall, water is woven throughout the Moses narrative: carrying Moses to a new life, saving the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and flowing from a rock as a sign of God’s provision to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Old Testament passage today we hear the claim God places on us, which we commemorate in baptism: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

Slide11In John 1:29-34 we hear of Jesus’ baptism:  “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

SLIDE 12 - Jesus BaptismThis passage of Christ’s baptism comes right before the story of his first miracle. This is no accident. When Christ is turning water into wine, He Himself has already taken his place as the living water. In His baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism it says that, God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[1] Though always connected, the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all cited a specifically present during Christ’s baptism. Though Jesus was claiming God as father as early as when he was twelve in the temple, this claim by God that Jesus is God’s own son was the first public action by God that set Jesus apart as God’s son. And in this ministry Jesus does not go it alone, but goes in the company of the Holy Spirit, who is in and through all things.

On Christmas we celebrated Jesus’ birth, last week on Epiphany Sunday we celebrated Christ’s manifestation. These two scriptures Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ miracle at Cana, bring us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A time when the living water came to life, living a ministry that would give live to all people.

SLIDE 14 - Water to WineThough this first miracle happens in the context of a party, this transformation from water into wine points to a future much more bitter than that of living water. Christ did not come simply to wash the world clean, but to transform the world through His life.

Though we use grape juice in our communion as we remember Jesus, there are reasons why Jesus’s death is remembered through wine and not grape juice. Sure there’s the cultural context of a community of disciples that would’ve been more likely to dine with wine than with water, but there are also chemical reasons. While both are bitter and sweet, wine can be abused. Wine can lift the spirits, but too much can cause personal harm and ruin relationships. Wine is in remembrance of Jesus’ death, in remembrance of the pain of crucifixion, and the horrors of Christ’s descent into Hell. We sample just a taste of this bitterness in communion, but we are not meant to intoxicate ourselves with the grief of Christ’s death.

Slide16This is not to say that we are powerless in this transformation as Christ moves the world from living water to eternal life giving wine. We have a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, a role demonstrated by Mary in this story. Jesus is reluctant, but Mary prods Jesus towards this new ministry. Divine action and human initiative are linked. God does not need us to point to what is wrong with the world, but when we pray we are lifting up the concerns of God, making them manifest in our own lives, and we await an answer. We open ourselves to God’s action in the world. When we hear “my time has not yet come,” we are frustrated, we are annoyed, but we are also attentive to what will come next Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us an example of her own prodding at God, but also an example of how God’s will is to be enacted. “They have no wine,” Mary says. Jesus replies, “my time has not yet come.” She does not say, “ oh yes it does!” She does not rail against her literally holier than thou son,  but she leaves space for divinity to be enacted, instructing the servants of the house, “do whatever He asks of you.”

Slide18Here is the blueprint to divine transformation: When God’s concerns become our own, and we lift them up to God, faithful obedience leads to the transformation of our hearts and the world. God’s will can be enacted through us, but only if we are open to be changed by asking for that change, and discovering our role in transforming God’s Kingdom.

In our baptism Christ claims us as His own, as children of the Kingdom of God. We drink of the living water. We are cleansed of our sins and given new life. In Christ’s death Christ claims our sins as His own, giving us the ability to live eternally in God’s Kingdom and God’s grace. The good news is as Jesus transforms water into wine, Christ also transforms our lives through claiming us in baptism and redeeming us through his crucifixion.

 Raised arms womanThis is a message of hope that poet, Tom Lane writes of this in his poem, “If Jesus Could”: If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine spit and dirt into new sight troubled sea into a pathway well water into living water Could Christ transform the waters of my life? shallow murky polluted stagnant sour into a shower of blessing?

May we be open to Christ’s transforming power in our lives and in this world, and open to how God is calling us to help transform the world for His kingdom. Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:17

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.