“Anticipation of the Journey”; Luke 1:68-79; November 29, 2015; FPC Holt

 “Anticipation of the Journey”
Luke 1:68-79
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.

SLIDE 1 - ZechariahI’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.

Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.

SLIDE 2 - Zechariah and ElizabethYou see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.

SLIDE 3 - TorahAs a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.

SLIDE 4 - Zechariah and ElizabethFor years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.

SLIDE 5 - Jerusalem TempleIt seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!

For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. SLIDE 6 - AngelI looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?

This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!

SLIDE 7 - Angel touching lipsI made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. SLIDE 8 - Zechariah trying to talkStumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.

SLIDE 9 - Zechariah and ElizabethIt was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.

But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.

For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.

But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.

In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.

SLIDE 10 - John birthFinally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.

After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. SLIDE 11 - His name is JohnWhen those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

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

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

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

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

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

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

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

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

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

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly;” Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; February 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly”
Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
February 3, 2013

First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Since Valentine’s Day is coming up next week it may seem fitting that today our New Testament passage today is from the “love chapter” of First Corinthians. This passage is often read at weddings, usually preceded by the rest of the chapter, but today we will be intentionally focusing on the later part of the passage and what it may be saying to us today. This passage is a message about love, but it is more than earthly and relational love. It is about the unimaginably vast love that God has for us. A love that God desires to reveal to us, a love that “now we see in a mirror dimly.”

SLIDE 2 Ancient MirrorThe original intended audience of this text, the community of Christians in Corinth, would’ve understood what was meant by the dimness of a mirror. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors. However, their mirrors were not like ours, but rather were made of hammered copper or brass. The reflection that they showed could give some idea of shape and form, but not exactly a clear image.

SLIDE 3 - Eye Doctor EquipmentA couple of weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for an eye exam. They used that big machine that goes in front of your eyes, and the doctor clicks through on the different prescription, asking “is this one better?” “or this one?” Each prescription changing my view ever so slightly. One might be a little clearer, one might compress the vision sideways a bit. As I have to make each decision, each preference, I come a little bit closer to what is the right prescription for me, the view I’d like to keep for my next pair of glasses.

This is we’ll be doing in worship this Lent. Though our view of God is as in a dim mirror, we will be discussing various spiritual practices that will hopefully each allow us to see God a little clearer, each one allowing us to focus a little bit differently as we seek to see God through each of them.

Unlike this eye exam we are not looking for one set prescription that will give us the way to see God. Our vision of God will only be entirely clear when we leave this earth and meet God in heaven. So, these different lenses of spiritual practices, this different mirrors reflecting God are all tools that may help to reveal just a bit more about God, help us to see God from a different angle.

Slide04 So, what are spiritual practices then? Just as we refer to doctors as “practicing medicine,” practicing our faith is a similar exercise. We can dig deep into the knowledge of God by encountering God through scripture and through shared experiences of God in history and our lives today. The more we get to know God, the more questions we have, but we also grow in our familiarity and comfort in asking those questions. They also seek to prepare us for the sort of encounter with God that Jeremiah experienced in our text today, enabling the Lord to “put [God’s own] words in [our] mouth[s].”

Slide05Today the nation will watch as the 49ers and the Ravens face off in the Super Bowl. These teams have been training for this one event for months, some of them playing football for their whole entire lives. This one game is the culmination of every other NFL game that has happened this season. Fans all over the country, and even around the world will watch with intensity to see what will happen on that football field.

Can you imagine how very different this game would be today if there was no sort of preparation? If there was no work to come to this point? Perhaps if someone like me decided to walk on the field and play today? I can say with certainty it would not go well for me. Best case scenario I would confuse everyone. Worst case scenario I would get utterly crushed. Nothing in my life has been directed towards becoming a professional football player. I am utterly unsuited for such a game and trying to jump in would be a terrible situation for everyone

SLIDE 6 - Spiritually FitThis is not to say that each of us needs to have professional athlete level of understanding of God in order to “get in the game,” but that we should work to be as spiritually “in shape” as we can be in our own lives, in our own time, so that we may be equipped to do the work of God in this world. God desires to meet us just as we are, just where we are, and to change us through the ways we seek God in our world.

SLIDE 7 - Encountering GodSome of the pieces of this spiritual equipment that we will encounter this Lenten season are: iconography, seeking God’s image in this world; fasting, hungering for God; prayers of petition, crying out to God when we feel hopeless; traveling a labyrinth, encountering God on our journey; prayers of confession, admitting our need for forgiveness; foot washing, encountering others with a servant’s heart; and prayers of praise. Each week we will discuss a different spiritual discipline and each week we will add another lens through which we may seek God.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorEncountering our 1 Corinthians passage with today’s mirrors in mind provides another level of understanding what was intended here. Though our mirrors are much clearer than that of ancient Corinth, mirrors only show us one side of things. Even when we use another mirror to reflect an image behind us, we are still only seeing the surface of things. Mirrors only allow us to see what is tangible, not what is intangible. Trying to encounter an uncontainable God in a two-dimensional way will always lead to disappointment.

Richard Foster, theologian and author of “Celebration of Discipline,” writes this of our need for spiritual practices: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to answer to a hollow world.”

Slide10During Lent, many Christians around the world temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in these various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In our passage in Corinthians, Paul says we will know God even as we are known. That is an exciting thing to think about: that one day we will fully know God, and that right here and now God fully knows us. This knowing of God requires us to “grow up” in our faith, as it says in verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

What does it mean to understand God as an adult? Episcopal pastor, Rev. Robert Wright explains that it has much more to do with an attitude of selflessness than with our age. He writes, “The beginning of understanding comes with listening. A grownup love listens.  It listens to God and it listens to the world.  It hears what is said and what is not said.  It hears with the heart.”SLIDE 13 - Lent Child

This message of calling us into adulthood seems contradictory to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10: 14-15: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We are called to live in this tension: to have the faith of children but seek to understand God as an adult. The faith of a child is one of trust but also one of questions. As we study the different spiritual disciplines throughout this season of Lent, I would encourage you to ask these questions, but also to live firmly in the faith that God is seeking to be present in your life.

May we discover new ways to connect with God, so that we may be spiritually fit to bring others into God’s kingdom. Amen.

“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

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

“First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the 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 Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til 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!

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22, September 16, 2012, FPC Jesup

“What’s in a Name?”
Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22
September 16, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you say to them? More often than not you likely say something along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Kathleen. What’s your name?” Names are often the very first thing we tell one another about ourselves, and the very first thing we ask to know about someone else. We want our names known and we want to know the names of others.

Many of you are probably familiar with the TV show, “Cheers,” that was on in eighties and early nineties. Even if you aren’t too familiar with the characters you could probably sing the chorus to the theme song with me, “Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.”

As a brand new resident of Jesup, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of naming in this town. When you hear the name of someone who has lived here for most of their lives, you can likely tell me a bit of history about that person, who their relatives are, perhaps where they worked and who else they worked with.

Naming is an important part of how we relate to one another. We want to be known, to be recognized, and have people remember our names. Our names are important to us, for to be named is to be known, and in this knowing there is story and relationship.

This is not a modern idea, but rather stems from the very beginning of human history. In Genesis we read of God creating a creature in God’s own image. This creature is called “Adam,” also the word for “humankind.” Adam calls his wife, “Eve,” which is the word for “living,” stating that she is so named because she will be the mother of all the living.

God separates sky from land and land from water and creates living things to populate each place. Once everything has been created God turns it over to Adam for him to name. Genesis 2:19 tells us, “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. “

In our Old Testament passage today we read another important story of naming. Exodus 3 tells us that Moses was out beyond the wilderness taking care of his father in law’s sheep. If you’re familiar with the Exodus narrative, or have seen the cartoon film, “Prince of Egypt” a couple of times, you’ll know that this story comes to us shortly after Moses had killed an Egyptian. The Egyptian was beating a Hebrew man, and Moses could not stand idly by, so he killed the Egyptian. The man that Moses killed had been working on behalf of the Pharaoh, so when Moses killed him, the Pharaoh was quite upset. Now in our story we read of Moses out alone, out beyond the wilderness, trying to escape the place where everybody knew his name. He didn’t want to own up to the responsibilities that came with being found out.

How strange it was then, out here, out beyond even the wilderness, that he should hear his name shouted, “Moses.” And his name didn’t come from a fellow wanderer or fugitive, it came from a bush that was on fire but somehow, was not burning up. I can imagine him staring at this bush, head to the side, wondering if he were imagining things. But he hears his name a second time, “Moses!”

This strange bush-on-fire was calling out his name. The voice tells him not to come any closer, but to take his shoes off for he is on holy ground. The voice identifies itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God does not identify God’s self by a name, but rather by a relationship.

God continues, saying that God has seen the misery of God’s people and has come to deliver them. And God has plans to do these things through, of all people, Moses, the fugitive.

It is not quite enough for Moses that this voice knows Moses’ name, or that the voice has identified the relationships of being God to all of these great men, Moses wants to know God’s name.
In Exodus 3:14-15 we read: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

God cannot be contained to a simple one-word name, even in naming God is a God of relationship. God is “I am.” God is eternal. God is forever the God of people. God has no desire to exist outside of relationship.
Jewish practice encompasses some of the weight of the significance of this in the way that they treat God’s name.

The Hebrew alphabet is made up of consonants, but give it’s pronunciation by vowel markers. Some texts are written without the vowel markers, and people are usually able to infer the pronunciation based on context.

But one word that is never given vowel markers is the word for God. God’s name is purposefully unpronounceable. When reading scripture, Jewish readers will instead say Lord, or Adonai, instead of trying to pronounce the unpronounceable. However, in Christian reading of Jewish scripture we have taken the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vav Hey and translated them to Yahweh.

Also in the Jewish tradition, the name of God written out becomes holy. This stems from the commandment not to take God’s name in vain.  If God’s name is written on even a scrap of paper, it is not to be erased, defaced, put on the ground, ripped up, or destroyed in any way. Anything containing God’s name is to be respected, and if need be, ceremoniously buried by a rabbi.

However, it’s good to note that this slide up here would not be in violation. Orthodox rabbis have ruled that since writing on a computer is not a permanent form, typing God’s Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God’s Name in them does not violate the name of God.
All of this is the way that Jewish tradition recognizes God as one who cannot be contained by human conventions, but who is inextricably a part of human experience. God is a God of the people. God is a God of relationship.

Though we most often introduce ourselves by our given names, there are other names we answer to as well. These names are not given at birth, but acquired along the way. Some of you are called mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, or son. These names do not exist in isolation, but tie us together, framing our relationships.

These names indicate a way we are supposed to treat each other. In some cases they indicate a vow, as between spouses, or household rules established by our parents. Relationship carries expectation. Being known requires a response.

I received a new name this week, the name of “pastor.” I am excited by this name and motivated by what such a name means, but upon reading some definitions perhaps also a bit daunted. Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop, described a pastor’s job: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”

Wow. What a list of expectations that is! I will try, as much as any one person can, to do those things, but it will help us all to recognize, that none of those things can or should be done in isolation. A pastor exists only in relationship. That is why I am not quite yet ordained, one can only be ordained when there are people that will be served by that title. At my ordination and installation services next month we will both make promises to one another about what that relationship is to look like, and how we will serve God together.

God desires to name us as well. Though we do have the names our parents have given us, God also gives us the name of child. In our New Testament passage today, we read of the relationship granted to us by God coming to earth and living among us as Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:19-20, we read, “[we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone”

To be called stranger or alien is to be unknown, to be isolated, to be disconnected. Through Jesus Christ we are all joined together and claimed as Christ’s family members. We are members of the household of God.
We too have responsibilities in this household of God. First and foremost we are commanded in the last couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We are tasked by Jesus over and over again to build up the Kingdom of God, by putting God first and foremost in our lives, showing special care to those who feel disconnected. We are responsible to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, let us know each other by name, but let us also know each other as family. And as I am learning my way in time of new beginnings and new relationships, you may need to remind me several times over of your given names, but I promise to always strive to know you first and foremost as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Amen.