“Who’s Invited?” Matthew 22:1-14; October 12, 2014; FPC Holt

“Who’s Invited?”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon by clicking here.

2014 10 12 Slide01Imagine this, one day you go out and open your mailbox. Inside is a beautiful, thick envelope. Upon opening it you are astonished to see that you have been invited to George Clooney’s wedding, or for those of who that would not be so exciting perhaps imagine it were William and Kate’s royal wedding, or your favorite athlete, actor, or politician. What would you do with such an invitation? I know if it were my mom she would likely gasp, yell, dance around the living room, and then proceed to call everyone she knows and tell them the exciting news. 2014 10 12 Slide02Given that I have not yet received such a call from her, I don’t think she was in Italy with the Clooneys, though she certainly would’ve been there if the invitation had shown up.

SLIDE 3 - InvitationHowever, our scripture today presents a very different picture. When the king sent out his wedding invitation everyone who received it simply went about business as usual. They certainly did not jump up and down with glee. Then the king sent out his servants again, and the messengers of this exciting news were thrown out, abused, and in some cases, even killed.

The king reacted even more strongly, sending troops to avenge the death of his slaves who were killed and to burn their city, which is presumably also the king’s city. Upon reading this text my first reaction was, “huh, that escalated quickly.” Such a horrific way to react to a party invitation.

2014 10 12 Slide04With the remains of his city still smoldering in the background, the king insists there was still a party to be had. His oxen and fat calves had been killed and there was his son’s marriage to celebrate. And so he tries again, reprioritizing who it is that will be invited. The king says to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

2014 10 12 Slide05This time around, everyone is invited. The doors are flung open and what could mostly certainly be described as a motley crew is assembled. And so our story ends, right? Not quite.

2014 10 12 Slide06One of the guests, who we don’t need reminding had just dropped everything and came into this gathering right off of the street, is fiercely reprimanded for not wearing a wedding robe. Which had me thinking, perhaps the first guests were justified in not showing up if this was the sort of reception awaiting them?

2014 10 12 Slide07This mess of a party is compared to the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly a comforting thought. People are being thrown out for dress code violations and having their houses burned down for refusing an invitation.

It’s fair to say that even for a parable, the logic of this one is tricky to follow from a literal view, so let’s unpack it a bit before we like the original guest list, disregard this event as something to be avoided.

2014 10 12 Slide08More than the tale of a strange party, this story provides a framework for how we are to respond to the urgency of our own invitation into the kingdom of God. It ‘s not so much about this particular wedding feast, but about the party to come, that is eternal life with God.

Some parties are made more significant by the exclusivity of the list, those whom you are put in a class with simply by being invited. The kingdom of God is not that kind of party. We are told in verse 10, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Both good and bad.

2014 10 12 Slide09Those who you were just sure would be there are no where to be seen, and those who you cannot imagine sharing a bus seat with, much less the kingdom of God, are at that banquet table right beside you.

Ultimately, our own worldly calculations of worth and value, our naming and classifying are ours, not God’s. Our job is to help extend the invitation. With the parable in mind, that does not seem like the best thing we could be doing either, as puts us in the role of the slave who faced rejection, persecution, or at the very least, being ignored.

But that is the call that we are given, passed down through the disciple’s commission just 6 chapters later as Jesus says, “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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Instead of receiving an invitation to George Clooney’s wedding imagine this much more likely situation: You’re sitting at your desk at work or in a classroom and a friend of yours comes up. They say, hey I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve just got to tell you about my church. I’ve been going for a while now and being among all these people who are living their life for God, well, it’s really changed me. I’ve been noticing more of God’s goodness in the world and I have a great deal of peace with what I’m going through. It would really mean so much if you’d be willing to join me this Sunday for worship.

How would you respond to that person? Would you scoff in their face and go about your business? Would you react aggressively or even violently? Or would you see the passion and joy in their face and take them up on their offer?

SLIDE 10 - Each One Bring OneWhat would it take for you to be that person extending that invitation? What would it take for you to share what you’ve experienced here with someone in your life? Today is the first Invite a Friend Sunday and since you are here today and not sleeping in or off at brunch somewhere, clearly you believe it is worth your time to be here. Hopefully you have taken that opportunity already and there’s a friend sitting beside you right now, but if not, the good news is today is the first of seven Invite of a Friend Sundays all leading up to Easter Sunday and our 150th anniversary celebration. Though of course you are welcome to invite a friend any time we are together, we hope that you will use the intentionality of these special Sundays for your own opportunity to extend this invitation.

As great as our own experience of God is, there are some who have yet to have received their invitation to the feast. There are those out there who still don’t understand how much God loves them, or what sort of church family is available to them. We are urged, tasked, called, and commissioned by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to invite others to this feast and to this place of worship.

Perhaps you’re just sitting there, arms crossed, scoffing at the idea. Why should we invite people? Aren’t things fine enough how there are? I like these people, why would I want to invite others? Why should I take that awkward step of asking someone to come to this church?

2014 10 12 Slide11The question I would ask you to think about is why are you coming to this church? What makes you keep coming? I would hope it’s because you find something of value in our life together. I pray it’s because someone has made you feel welcome in this space.

I heartily believe that what we do here together each Sunday is worthwhile. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have spent the past 12 years of my life working towards this job, this life, and this specific church. I feel called to serve this community and I feel that what we do here each week makes a difference to this community, to the furthering of the Gospel of Christ, and to the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Do you?

I’d like you to honestly consider that over these next several months. And if you do truly believe that none of us are wasting our time here, I would invite you to count the blessings that you have received from this church, from worshiping together, from living life among these Christians. And out of that gratitude, I ask that you open your heart and your mind and your arms to invite someone else to experience this church.

So who is invited to this party of eternal life with God? The good, the bad, and everyone in between. May we ever strive to extend the invitation to all we know. Amen.

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through 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.