“Hide and Seek,” Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27, July 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hide and Seek”
Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27
July 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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“Peek a boo!” If you’ve spent any time around a young baby, this is a pretty good go-to for entertaining them. Something is there and then it’s not and then it’s there again! Like magic!

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, tells us that this is because of object permanence, which is a fancy phrase for understanding that objects exist even when we’re not experiencing them. A slightly older exploration of this is hide and seek, the joy coming from the anticipation of when you’ll be found.

Martin Luther and other theologians of his time used their own hide and seek language in relation to God. Deus absconditus, which literally translates to “hidden God.” It’s defined disparagingly to describe God as being so remote that God doesn’t seem to be able to effect any change.

Luther however, couches it in terms of the things that God tells us about God’s own hiddenness in scripture. Luther refers to Exodus 33, which we read today. Moses asks to experience God, but instead sees only God’s backside.

Luther writes, “Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei (backside of God) revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.”

While some would define this as God turning away from God’s people, Luther frames it in terms of opposites. Moses, and by extension all of God’s people, experience God in reversed expectations. God who is invisible, becomes visible in Jesus. God who is all powerful shows God’s self in the humility of the cross.

In a similar reversal, our New Testament passage speaks of God being revealed to infants, but not to the wise. While I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about the simplicity of thought in a sermon in which I quote Luther’s use of a Latin phrase, I believe our New Testament passage isn’t calling for ignorance, but for looking for God on the margins, in the unexpected places of humility and meekness.

Where do you expect to see God? God’s glory is indeed revealed in glowing sunsets and rollings hills,  but also in the small dandelion that makes its way through the concrete. God’s omnipresence is revealed in the vast twinkling sky and in the intricacies of a mosquito’s wings.

Might you come to know God better through that person in your life who has hurt you as you are moved from bitterness to empathy? Could God show up not in spite of your pain, but within it, the ways your relationships have been formed in the wake of your greatest loss or deepest suffering?

Columbia Seminary professor, Stanley Saunders wrote, “We are most likely to experience God’s presence and power in the company of the humble and vulnerable, the people who are usually found at the margins… They may be children or strangers, people who are not sure whether or how they fit. They may be poets or artists, who are trained to look at the world differently. Whoever they might be… they will always be people who see what others do not, and thus help the rest of us deal with our blinding arrogance and entitlement. They may be people whose lives challenge the ideals over which we argue and divide.

The empire of heaven, after all, is not an ideal, but a reality made known through real acts and experiences of judgment, repentance, and redemption. The church that banishes the marginal, the vulnerable, and the humiliated does not prevent itself from being subject to the judgment of God; to the contrary, it is precisely through their eyes and voices that we can most clearly discern God’s judgment and mercy, through which our ongoing repentance is made possible. Judgment is a tool God uses to open our eyes and ears, to draw us toward repentance — not to induce brokenness but to uncover and heal what is broken. “

To believe only in God’s philosophical attributes, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, without knowing God’s willingness to enter into our existence, is to know only one side of God. And I’d go so far as to say, not the most compelling aspects of God. God’s love for us as creator and spirit are deepened through God’s love for us as the person of Jesus Christ. God literally put God’s skin in the game of humanity by being born as that helpless baby in Bethlehem.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph playing peekaboo with their little boy? Even in his infant cries and giggles he was the embodiment of the divine… not very intimidating as deities go! As he grew he played his own game of hide and seek, staying behind his traveling group to remain at the temple. That was a terrifying game of hide and seek for his parents! In a role reversal of those early games of peekaboo, that time they were the ones not sure where he had gone.

But this is how God operates, showing up over and over again, in the most unexpected places. Even when we aren’t directly experiencing God’s presence, God is indeed there, waiting for us to open our eyes again.

How has your sense of God’s permanence been shaped as you’ve grown in faith? Does God disappear from your life, when you aren’t immediately experiencing God?

It’s not unfaithful to feel like God is hidden during a season of our lives. In fact, all throughout scripture God plays hide and seek. Throughout Deuteronomy God hides from the children of Israel in response to their selfish sinfulness. In the book of Job, Job has a whole series of losses and pain that would make anyone question where God had gone. In the Psalms, God’s seeming hiddenness is an undercurrent in all the laments.

It is very human to become frustrated and unsure when we don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives. Recognizing the permanence of God is part of our spiritual development.

One of the tools that helps children in their understanding of object permanence is the use of words. To this end, the accounts of God in scripture are a tremendous resource towards our understanding of God’s permanence.

In the book “Subversive Spirituality,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Words are our primary tools for getting our bearing in a world, most of which we can’t see, most of which we’ll never touch – this large, expanding, mysterious existence that is so much larger, more intricate, more real even, than we are…When I learn the word “God” I am able to deal with a person I cannot see. God uses words to train us in object permanence…. When we discover that God reveals [Godself] by word, we are back in the realm of the sensory again – a word is spoken by a mouth/lips/tongue/throat; it is heard by ears, or n the case of the written word, seen with eyes. But once the word is uttered and hear, or written and read, it enters into us in such a way that it transcends the sensory. A word is (or can be) a revelation from one interior to another. What is inside me can get inside you – the word does it. Which is why language is the major bridge from basic biology to basic spiritually.

And why Christian spirituality insists on listening.

By God’s grace, God’s Word is also written. And that makes Holy Scripture the text for Christian spirituality. Holy Scripture is the listening post for listening to God’s Word.”

As we grow in our faith we are like children learning object permanence, delighting when we sense God once again. After all, God promises never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that if we search for God, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13-14) Thanks be to God. Amen!

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“#Blessed” Acts 20:32-35, October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“#Blessed”
Acts 20:32-35
October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-23-slide-1-ethete-high-schoolSeveral years ago I worked with “Group Workcamps,” an organization that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth and their leaders going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

2016-10-23-slide-2-workcampIt made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed.

Thinking of this from the perspective of that girl from this neighborhood, it’s very possible that she can’t even imagine having enough money and free time to be able to give it away like that. When you are barely scraping by, mission work and financial giving is an uncomfortable and risky stretch.

All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving what we had to give. Allowing youth to experience firsthand the joy and benefits of putting others before yourself, encouraging lifelong patterns of selflessness and generosity.

On the surface it seems like giving of our time and money is indeed quite weird. Why should others receive what we have worked for? Our money, our energy, our free time. Ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine. 2016-10-23-slide-3-seagullsI’m reminded of the seagulls in Finding Nemo, “mine, mine, mine,” swooping and diving with crazed desire to be the one to eat that particular fish. They all want to claim it as theirs, devour it on their own.

We, however have a different understanding of “mine.”2016-10-23-slide-4-brief-statement-stained-glassThe money, energy, and even free time that we have are not ours to claim, but they are gifts given by God. We are stewards of what God has given us. Extending those gifts to others expands the reaches of God’s work here on earth, and enables those in need to see Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world. When we give as we can we are reflecting the image of God within us, our God of abundant love and generosity.

But it is not just those in need that experience the joy of this generosity, Matthew 25:37-46 tells us of how our giving honors and delights God’s own self. This passage reads: “the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2016-10-23-slide-8-heaven-or-hell This passage is rather explicit about the the benefits of caring for those in need, eternal life with God, as well as the penalty for ignoring those whom God has called you to care for, which is is eternal punishment. Read that to someone unfamiliar with church and they will really think you’re weird! Thankfully we don’t need to wait until our afterlife to experience the benefits of generosity.

2016-10-23-slide-9-paradox-of-generosityProfessor Christian Smith and Doctoral Candidate Hilary Davidson, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a book reflecting on these benefits, called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” It seems so nonsensical, giving what we have would seem to produce a deficit, but that seems to not be the case. In this book, Smith and Davidson wrote, “the results of generosity are often… unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win. Rather than generosity producing net losses, in general, the more generously people give of themselves, the more of many goods they receive in turn. Sometimes they receive more of the same kind of thing that they gave – money, time, attention, and so forth. But, more often and importantly, generous people tend to receive back goods that are often more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose, and personal growth.” This discovery came about through quite a bit of statistical analysis, proving empirically that increased generosity increases our likelihood of happiness, health, contentment, fulfillment, and feeling close to God.

“By grasping onto what we currently have,” Smith writes, “we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’” It may seem then that generosity is the cure not the cause for financial anxiety and protective hoarding.

2016-10-23-slide-10-blessedIf you spend any time on Twitter you will have likely seen the hashtag blessed. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, hashtags are a word or phrase begun with the pound sign and function as way to provide a topic or category. The hashtag blessed is often filled with pictures celebrating material wealth or personal achievements. If we only used secular media as our guide for showing us the blessed life, we would think that the end game to life was to accumulate as much money, things, and accolades as we can.

2016-10-23-slide-11-makariosIn this last phrase of our passage today, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” the word “blessed” in the original Greek is makarios. It doesn’t really translate fully but using the word blessed. Makar is the basic word for blessed, but makarios is more expansive, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, or well off.

This type of “well off” is very different from that of Twitter’s #blessed, the blessedness coming from generosity is rooted in love, spurring a wealth of joy, compassion, hope, contentment, and interconnectivity.

2016-10-23-slide-12-sanctuaryWhen I look around this room I see a people who seek God’s blessedness. I’m not referring to any one’s bank account, but when I see all of you I see a supremely blessed, fortunate, and well-off crowd. 2016-10-23-slide-13-prayer-shawlI’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. 2016-10-23-slide-14-pumpkins I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. 2016-10-23-slide-15-fpc-holt I’ve seen you step up and speak to one another about the joy of giving what you can in the capital campaign, planned giving, and annual stewardship campaigns. Your generosity in the tangible things in life have in turn made you wealthy in intangible ways.

Proverbs 11:24-28 says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”

If we live our lives to give to others, will it be considered weird? Yep. Will it be difficult? Probably. Will it be fulfilling? Without a doubt. Alleluia. Amen.

 

“Light and Salvation”; Psalm 27; February 21, 2016, FPC Holt

“Light and Salvation”
Psalm 27
February 21, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 21 SLIDE 1 - FPC Holt SanctuarySanctuary, it’s a word that sometimes is functional, the way we point to the room we are sitting in right at this very moment; sometimes historical, as the word was used to identify a place of refuge in which people could have protection; sometimes referring to spaces that enable us to feel a sense of peace and connection with God; and sometimes this sense of sanctuary comes not from the feeling of the space itself, but rather the particular intention of the people gathered together in that time and place.

Throughout history, religious people of all beliefs have gone to great lengths to experience this sense sanctuary, an experience of God’s presence. Like the Psalmist, there is an intrinsic desire in us to “live in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] lives.” Some seeking this experience using their life savings to travel thousands of miles on pilgrimages to places that their tradition have identified as holy,  from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Stonehenge in England, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There are also personal pilgrimage destinations, where others you’ve known have experienced God at work in their lives:  perhaps the church in which your grandparents were married, the place your church family goes on mission trips, or the camp that your youth group has gone to year after year. There is something in these places that draws us near, beyond what the place itself could offer us, a sense to experience what others have before us, that is, sanctuary.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 12 - Church SignFor many of us, this church is one of those places, a place where we have experienced the presence of God, sensed God’s light and been awashed with God’s salvation, where we have engaged in worshipping God, and where we have sensed God at work in others.  If you have been around here for a while, and I know some have 50 years on some of the rest of us, this space is more than just this space in this moment, it is also where you and your children were baptized, the place you held Christmas Eve candles alongside your family and church family, where you married your beloved, where you were anointed with oil and ash year after year, and the place where you mourned and celebrated the life of loved ones. Some of you even helped to build this very building, deciding what sanctuary would look like to all of us these many years later. But this space is so much more than this roof and these walls, it’s a summation of the experiences had here, and the enduring sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 17 - GalaIn “The Power of Place,” historian Thomas Bender writes, “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 19 - Holy SpiritIn other words, this sense of sanctuary comes not from without but within, the sense invoked in us, the hope stirred, the wholeness felt. For us, the strongest of these  “inner resources” is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the places in this world that from an objective perspective might seem ordinary into the extraordinary, opening our hearts and mind to God’s presence in and among us wherever we may be.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 20 - Isabella in AisleWhen you sense this sort of peace and healing in a space it’s tempting to want to somehow bottle it up, keep it safe and protected from any who might somehow alter this experience. But if our intention is to follow the Gospel, to welcome all into an experience of Christ, this sense of sanctuary is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. Sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the world, but it is not a place we should set at a distance from any of those who are seeking that same sense of God’s presence.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 21 - Body of ChristIf we truly believe that we as followers of Christ are the body of Christ, welcoming more into our midst won’t diminish God’s presence, but increase it, as each individual with all of their unique gifts, challenges, joys, and struggles enable us all together to better be the full body of Christ.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 22 - Layton WilliamsLayton Williams, Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago speaks of what this greater inclusion looks and feels like from her perspective as a woman who is bisexual. She writes, “Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. ‘Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,’ the thinking goes, ‘but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.’”

She continues, “ Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 23 - HandsBy being fully inclusive of the entirety of the body of Christ we give greater credence to the safety and wholeness that we have experienced, for what is safety that is unsafe to some, and how are we to have wholeness as the body of Christ if we choose to sever or ignore any part of ourself?

Like the Psalmist, we can see “the goodness of the Lord” revealed “in the land of the living.” Christ’s hands and feet at work through all people who seek God’s will. The greater the diversity there is among us, the better we are able to know the fullness of God, who created each and every single one of us in God’s image.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 24 - 1 Corinthians 3 16In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read of God’s presence in and among us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

When we embrace our own ability, as the body of Christ, to be a living sanctuary for God’s presence to be known and felt, we expand the reaches of God’s kingdom here on earth: God at work in and through each of us.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 25 - Acts 17 24-25In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 26 - PrayerGod does not need human made shrines, temples, altars, or even churches to be felt in this world, but will meet us in the spaces where we seek God’s presence. It’s important for us to realize this distinction: God is here among us because of the intentions of our hearts and our own receptiveness to God’s Word, witness, and work in our midst. That is what makes this space we inhabit into sanctuary, rather than just another room in just another building.

Building these buildings and calling them churches can serve an important function.  Our human designations of sacred space point people to places where presence of God is sought and the body of Christ is alive. In that way our human made sanctuaries are signposts in our journeys, postcards saying “wish you were here” sent out to those who are searching.

As those who have experienced God in our midst, we are the ones tasked with making sure all who seek God may receive their own invitation into the light and salvation of God’s sanctuary. May we ever endeavor to welcome all into the sanctuary we have experienced. Amen.

“Dwell”; Psalm 84:1-12; August 23, 2015, FPC Holt

“Dwell”
Psalm 84:1-12
August 23, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here

2015 8 23 Slide01Have you ever received a postcard like this? One that has “Wish You Were Here” written across the front? Being that it’s summertime I know that many of you have had the chance to go on vacation, to experience a change of view, something beyond what you see in your every day life. Perhaps on your trip you sent a post card like this one. Or perhaps you posted a “wish you were here,” type of status or picture on some variety of social media.

When we experience something extraordinary in our lives, something that brings us peace, clarity, or beauty, we often feel compelled to bring others into the experience, to try to make them understand a bit of what we’ve been through and why it matters.

2015 8 23 Slide02 If you talk to anyone right after a life-changing mission trip, perhaps in Muko, Uganda or the Yucatan, and ask them what it was like, often the first answer is something along the lines of: you’ve just got to experience it for yourself. There’s something that can’t quite be put into words, when we experience God’s tremendous presence for ourselves, particularly in ways that are new to us.

With this same indefinable joy, we hear the voice of the Psalmist: “How lovely is your dwelling place…” The words of this Psalm invite us into God’s presence, draws us into an experience of God that is beyond anything we could attempt to capture in a snapshot or write down on a postcard.

Many scholars agree that these verses were originally written to speak of a pilgrim’s journey towards the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival. You can hear the excitement mounting throughout these verses, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!”

2015 8 23 Slide04The Psalm as a whole seems penned as a “wish you were here,” to all those who have not yet encountered the presence of God. The scripture serves as directions for the physical journey towards Jerusalem: through Baca, taking the highways to Zion. For thousands of years, continuing to present day, Jewish pilgrims have made their way to this holy city, drawing close to the temple that was built per God’s own instruction. Though two temples have come and gone in the place, the foundation remains, and serves as a touchstone to that ancient faith community.

There’s something tangibly felt in a place where people have worshiped for a long period of time, the presence of God breathing through so many millions of prayers. Throughout much of the Old Testament the presence of God was seen as something that could be contained, walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” in tents made for worship, or in the temple, where God’s presence dwelled.

But this Psalm also lays the framework for welcoming God’s presence into your own life, allowing God to dwell fully within you, your heart ever pointing towards God’s goodness, an understanding that is more fully fleshed out in the New Testament.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 we read Paul’s exhortation, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

After God’s incarnation in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes among the people at Pentecost and rests within them.

In Ephesians 3:16-19, the apostle Paul expresses the desire for us to fully comprehend God’s desire to dwell within us. He writes, “I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory…you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Being “filled with the fullness of God” seems like an abstract concept. We want a to-do list, a distinct map, a fail-proof tutorial showing us how we too can encounter God, how we can have God dwell in our hearts.

2015 8 23 Slide08I’m reminded of the Lego Movie, where the main character Emmett takes a tremendous amount of comfort in having “instructions” for everything, not only in creating buildings but also in living his life. In the beginning of the movie we see him pick up instructions on how to “fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy,” involving tasks like “breathe.” It even says at the bottom of these instructions, “Failure to follow instructions may result in a sad and unfulfilling life.”

Encountering God’s presence is abstract, because we worship a God who is beyond containment, who cannot be captured in words or contained in boundaries.

2015 8 23 Slide09In her book “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a great many places and a great many ways we may encounter God. She writes, “I worry about what happens when we build a house for God… Do we build a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts and the trees? What happens to be people who never show up in our houses of God?”

2015 8 23 Slide10We do indeed experience God’s presence in the sacred spaces we’ve designated as such, but if we do not open our eyes and our hearts to God’s presence beyond our four walls we are not opening ourselves to God’s presence dwelling within us, and within those we encounter. To allow God’s fullness to dwell within us we must first experience God and then live a life that points to that presence.

Some of you encounter and share God’s presence through mission work around the world, some by saying nighttime prayers with your children, some by holding the hand of your spouse and affirming God’s covenant between you, some through drawing close to those who are seeking healing and breathing a word of hope whether in this life or life eternal.

Allowing God to dwell within you does not mean you will live without sin or without mistake, because we are human after all, but it does mean that you will strive to keep the bigger picture of God’s will in mind, that you will seek to have your life arc towards worship of God in and through all things.

2015 8 23 Slide11In Hebrew, which the Psalmist used to write our scripture today, the word we know as “dwell,” is “shakhen.” While in English “dwell” can mean resting for a short time, in the Hebrew and in the Greek, “kat-oy-keh´-o,” this word does not carry our transitory understanding. It means to settle down, permanently, to be established.

God desires to remain fully and permanently in our lives, inhabiting all of us. God May we open ourselves fully to God’s presence in our worship and in our world, so God may dwell within us. Amen.

“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.

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right;” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; November 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today we have the incredible blessing of being able to celebrate the two sacraments of the reformed church in one service: baptism and communion. It is an exciting thing to be united in the sacraments, coming to table and font together as the community of Christ.

The Directory for Worship the Presbyterian Church USA’s affirms that we celebrate both baptism and communion as sacraments because they were “instituted by God and commended by Christ.” and it says that “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” We affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service.

How does that impact you? Are you daunted by such a lofty connection and responsibility? Are you overwhelmed by the incredible scope of God’s goodness? Or once you’re brought into these sacraments do you feel like you’re off the hook? If your sins are forgiven and your life is redeemed through Christ, what do you have left to worry about in your own living?

The Thessalonians in our passage today were just beginning to learn how Christ’s promises played out in their lives, and what their response to God’s redemptive action should be.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Slide3Our scripture today can be a controversial one, it’s message having been distorted throughout time in political arenas. This passage has been misconstrued to lift up a puritanical work ethic and to question social services such as welfare. But in the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonian community, that was not at all the case. Paul was not confronting people crushed by their socio-economic situation or those unable to find a job.

He was confronting people who, in response to God’s message of Christ’s second coming decided to stop working all together, and simply wait for Christ’s coming. They thought if Jesus is coming soon, any work that they were doing was pointless.

Paul is quick to correct them, pointing to work as a way to lessen the burdens of the community, a way that they can be fed to do the kingdom work they have been called to do.

Slide4Victor Pentz, a Presbyterian Pastor in Georgia related a story about a woman who was joining a church. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” she said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ secretly disguised as a legal secretary.” [2]

We are all called to await the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime, we are called to work. Working towards God’s kingdom in whatever way we make our living. Our calling in our baptism and through the communion feast is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job provides a mission field and a way to be fed on earth even as we await the heavenly feast.

In verse thirteen we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Living with faithfulness even in the mundane aspects of our lives can be tiring, but it is part of our call as followers of Christ. Our day-to-day work can glorify God if we approach it with a right spirit.

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer who once wrote,

“And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”[3]

Through prayerful attention to the work of our lives, we demonstrate our love for God and the blessings of God’s work and provision. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and then work alongside God to make that happen.

Slide7Today we will witness the baptism of Aria, Karsidee, and Amanda. They will take vows as followers of Christ, but this call is not for them alone. We are not to stand idly by, but we will also be called to make vows, “to help them know all that Christ commands, and by [our] fellowship, to strengthen their family ties with the household of God.” There is work for us to do in their lives as this community, as children of God. You are called to uplift these newly baptized as they navigate Christ’s plan for them. You are called to support and uplift them whether they be your family by blood or by being fellow members of the household of God.

May we embrace the call and the promises of our sacraments, being strengthened by this renewal and recommissioned to do the work to which you have been called. Amen.

“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

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

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

What is your earliest memory of church or of worship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“Praise for the Singing” and “Everything That Has Breath” Psalm 150; June 9, 2013, FPC Jesup

Sunday June 9th was a special Sunday in the life of our church with a Hymn Sing in the morning service and a special 6 pm Worship in the Park (that ended up being inside because of a forecasted thunderstorm).

Here are some of the resources I found helpful for these services:

Call to Worship on Psalm 92 and 92

Prayer of Confession for a Music Sunday

I adopted this music based communion liturgy into an Affirmation of Faith utilizing the form of the Apostle’s Creed:

Affirmation of Faith

One: Together let us confess our faith. Do you believe in God, our creator?

All: I believe in God, creator of all things, whose heavenly song sent the planets into motion. Even when we go astray, God calls us back, showing us the fullness of life and giving us new songs of praise for each and every day.

One: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

All: I believe in Jesus Christ who lived for us and among us, healing the sick, easing the burdens of all people, and teaching us the new song of God’s kingdom. He showed His love for all God’s children in His death and the hope for eternal life in His resurrection.

One: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

All: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of life who sings God’s grace through all time and space. I listen for the Holy Spirit through the history of songs sung by all the communion of saints and through the unwritten songs of all who are to come in the future. I believe that God has a song for my life as well. Amen.

Here are the short reflections on Psalm 150 that I shared in each service:

“Praise for the Singing”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 10 am, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1What a joy it is to sing with you this morning in worship. Singing has been a part of the history of our faith from the very beginning, with the Psalms as the original hymnbook. Our faith is a faith of stories, often sung as a way to pass them on to the next generation.

Slide2There’s a great beauty in the comfort of old hymns, the songs that don’t really require the use of a hymnal. About once a month I lead a service at the Nursing Care centers in Independence and I love seeing how so many of the residents know all of those songs by heart. The hymns of our faith sink into us in a way that even the scriptures do not, reminding us of the larger community faith, over many many years.

SLIDE 3 - Morning Has BrokenOur opening song “Morning has Broken” has been one of my favorite hymns for a long time. When my sister was little, and I was even littler, she danced to it in a ballet recital. I remember her costume red and white with a red tutu.

Slide4One of my favorite parts is the line “Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.” I love how the very ground itself becomes complete through it’s interaction with Jesus’ feet. I can picture the dew. I can picture the flowers coming into bloom opening to the light of God’s own Son. It makes me think of the ways we become sprung in completeness by living a life of interaction with Jesus.

Slide5Mainline Protestant traditions have a bad reputation as being the “frozen chosen” for our love of tradition, our desire for everything to be “decent and in order,” and the value we place on everyone being an informed participant in the “priesthood of all believers.” Somehow in the midst of this we have forgotten the call of Slide6Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Loving God with our heart, soul, and might is allowing ourselves to be enveloped in God’s goodness, to be bathed in the light of God’s joy. How might we become complete in sharing in God’s presence? How might we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might? How might our lives spring into completeness?

Slide7One of the ways is through revealing the joy God brings us, through our own sort of blooming, our own sort of springing into completeness. One way to discover the potential for blooming is to think about the places you feel incomplete. Are there relationships that need mending? Forgiveness that needs to be offered or received? When others are telling the stories of faith, do you stay silent? Is there a family member or neighbor you could share God’s love with?

Slide8For me, I feel like I bloom best when I am able to share the stories of our faith, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through singing, sometimes simply by being in relationship. As we continue to sing together today and go out into the world singing our faith, may each of us prayerfully consider how God is calling us to spring in completeness. Amen.

“Everything That Has Breath”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 6 pm, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When I was in seminary I led a children’s choir called the “Joyful Noise” choir. Each week I would get together with this group of 10 to 15 elementary age kids and we would sing songs, play instruments, do dances, and hand motions. We had a blast and it was a wonderfully exhausting worship filled time. While I can’t always say that we made music per say, we always made very joyful noise.

At some point in our life we stop being willing to make these joyful noises. Our noises get squelched out by others. Self-doubt creeps in about our abilities. Desire to blend in makes us quiet our voices. This is not what God call us to. God calls us to praise, to make loud noises, to lift a joyful noise.

Our Psalm today tells us that everything that has breath, all created beings are called to worship. It also lists many different ways to offer praise, through trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance; strings and pipe, clanging and clashing cymbals.

When I look at that list I see that each instrument requires a different sort of skill. Though I can goofily make fake harp noises with my mouth I’d have a tricky time of trying to play a harp. And I’ve tried to play a bagpipe before and could only get it to squawk. We are not all called to play each of these instruments, but we are called to praise God.

When we join in with the heavenly chorus you will likely be picking up a different instrument than the one I pick up, but each of us can use whatever instrument we have to worship God. When we use these instruments in the spirit of love of God we are making a very joyful noise indeed

In the Hebrew Bible the Spirit of God is called Ruach. It can also mean breath or a rushing wind. This breath of God swept over the chaotic waters at the very beginning of creation. This breath was breathed into our lungs and pumps through our veins. We are filled with the very breath of God, that powerful, awe-inspiring, amazing breath. And as long as we have air in our lungs, we are called to breathe it out in praise.

So what is your instrument? How does God harness your breath into a joyful noise?

The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of worship. Perhaps your instrument is an ability to create a legal brief, which allows justice and care to be shown towards someone in a complicated legal situation. Your instrument may be plumbing for a house: whereby you allow a family to live comfortably. Your instrument may be your ability to teach, managing a classroom, creating curriculum. When we are able to use the instruments God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

You, in your life, in your abilities are called to make a joyful noise. To breathe God’s breath into this world. May we do so with great joy! Amen.

“Follow Me”: Fishing with Jesus; Psalm 30 and John 21:1-19; April 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Fishing with Jesus
Psalm 30 and John 21:1-19
April 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Last week I was in my hometown of Maumee, Ohio. A river, the Maumee River, borders the city of Maumee. Maumee was formed in the early 1800s and it grew as the Erie Canal was built up in the middle of the town. Water as a means for commerce and fishing made Maumee into the city it is.Slide02Last week as I traveled about town, I saw hundreds of fisherman lining the banks of the Maumee river. It was quite a sight to see, especially from a distance: all the people gathered along that river.

Fisherman will tell you that there are ways to fish, and ways not to fish. There certain types of baits and lures that will attract different types of fish.

The fishermen on the river were all hoping to catch walleye. Walleye have become somewhat of a mascot for the area.Slide03 The local hockey team is the Toledo Walleye.  Maumee has giant statues of walleye around town painted by different artists and groups.Slide04

Fishing could also be said to be a mascot for Jesus’ ministry. In fact, in the early church when Christians wanted to connect with each other they would draw out the symbol of a fish on the ground to identify themselves.

Slide05Jesus’ ministry was surrounded with fishing. Jesus’ discipleship recruitment began by the sea, in the well known story in  Matthew 4:18-23:

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”SLIDE 12 - Jesus on Shore

Luke’s version of this story in 5:1-11 foreshadows our New Testament story with an overabundance of fish that nearly sinks their boat.

SLIDE 9 - Loaves and FishesEach of the gospels (John 6:1-15; Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17) tells the story of Jesus and his disciples feeding thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread.

SLIDE 10 - Jesus on BoatJesus preaches from fishing boats, sails on fishing boats, travels with fisherman disciples and chooses fisherman for the important job of spreading God’s kingdom and building the church.

Slide11 Our New Testament lesson today gives us another fishing story. Jesus had died, and his disciples were still traveling about together, likely bonded in their shared grief and distress. And so, in their grief they returned to what was comfortable and familiar to them: they went fishing.

This was not line fishing, but net fishing. Line fishing is about the single fish, the flick of the wrist, the pull of the fish, the design of the lure, the technique. Net fishing is a different story. It isn’t about enjoying a drink out on a boat with your friends with a line in the water. It is labor intensive. It is about hauling and pulling. It is strenuous and persistent action. There’s a comforting rhythm to that sort of work.

The disciples could’ve been drowning their sorrows in busying their hands, but as they worked at this business of fishing long through the night, they weren’t having and luck. Then, all of a sudden they hear this voice from the shore saying: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (John 21:6a).”

I don’t know what Peter thought but I think I would probably be thinking things like:
“Aren’t I the fisherman here? I know what to do.”
“I’ve already tried that side. It didn’t work.”
“I’ve always thrown my net on the left side of the boat.”

SLIDE 13 - CastanetsI love this cartoon representation of one of the disciples mishearing what Jesus’ shouted from the shore.

Even if they may have been confused or doubtful, they were willing to give it a shot. They threw their nets onto the other side of the boat and were overwhelmed by the amount of fish they took in, verse 11 says that their nets were “full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”SLIDE 14 - Net

There’s been some debate over the significance of this number 153. Some says it is indicative of the 153 known species of fish at that time or of the 153 known and recognized nations at the time. All throughout scripture representative numbers like this are used as a way to indicate a whole. So these fish signify that the disciples brought in a metaphorical amount of all the fish or all the people.

These were the same disciples who had been asked to set aside their nets and follow God, but when things had gotten complicated, they picked them up once again. And in that moment, Jesus calls them out of their complacency into an act of faith. Being told to throw their nets on the other side reminds them what sort of fisherman Jesus had called them to be: of people, not of fish.

Slide15After this enormous catch of fish Jesus gathers the disciples around a fire and they cook their fish together. In this community they were reminded of all Christ had taught, multiplying loaves and fish, breaking bread, they are re-commissioned to go out into the world fed and nourished.

This is the beginning of the church, a group of people, getting together, being reminded of whose they are called to be and reminded how they are called to serve.

This is what we strive to do here in worship each week: gathering together in the presence of Christ to be nourished and to be sent.

Matthew 18:20 says:

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

SONY DSCThat means, when we gather together as a worshipping community, when we gather in Bible studies or Sunday School we are in the presence of Jesus Christ! We are gathering ourselves around the same sort of warmth the disciples felt at on that beachside bonfire. What does it mean for us to be in the presence of Christ?

In our time together are you reminded of your great God who loves you and reminded how you are called to serve. Are you listening to the call to throw your nets to the other side? Or are you stuck in the comfortable, in the familiar, in the “we’ve always done it this way”?

Our Psalm today talks of how easy it was for the Psalmist to praise God when things were easy, writing:

“I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” (Psalm 30:6)

It was easy for the disciples to talk about fishing for people when they had Jesus standing right there beside them, guiding them in their ministry, answering their questions.

But when testing comes, things aren’t quite so easy. When the Psalmist was tested he was full of frustration, writing:

8To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication: What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!’” (Psalm 30:8-10)

We see this with the disciples. When Jesus was arrested even Peter, nicknamed, “the rock,” denied Jesus three times. When Jesus was crucified the disciples were thrown into despair.

Our Psalmist gives us our happy ending in verses 11 and 12:

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” (Psalm 30:11-12)

Jesus at the shore side reminded them that his death was not an act of abandonment. Jesus is not stuck in the horror of death; he is resurrected! He walks around breathing grace and emboldening the disciples in all of those teachings he had laid out for him throughout his ministry.

Christ is resurrected; the world has changed! Are we changing too? Is our mourning turned to dancing? Are we clothed in joy?

Jesus is forever giving opportunity for us to seek joy over despair and action over inaction. This is worked out in his conversation with Peter, as Peter’s three denials of Jesus are redeemed in three calls to love, three calls to action:SLIDE 20 - Jesus and Peter

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. After this he said to him, “Follow me.”” (15-17,19)SLIDE 24 - Follow Me

When big changes in our lives happen we need to learn to reframe our challenges to assets. If we get stuck in the hurt that has happened to us or the hurt that we have caused others we are unable to serve in the way God calls us to. Each week we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This means that we need to seek forgiveness, and we need to give forgiveness so that we can move forward to serve.

As lose sight and gain hearing, when we suffer personal loses we are more attune to the grief of others. Job loss can create opportunity to reexamine our lives and seek something more life fueling. Age or illness might limit some of the things you might have done previously, but it can also provide a new way of serving others that you were unable to do before.

Bozo fisherman using a net on the River Niger, Mopti, MaliIn our time of offering today we will be doing something new, throwing out our own metaphorical and literal nets to think about ways that each of us can minister in this church. Sara McInerny will be providing instructions of some very specific ways that each of us can serve the congregation and community. I encourage you to prayerfully consider where God is calling you. Note that I did not say “if,” but “where.” There is a call for each of us, but it might require you to shift your thinking, shift your expectations, and throw your nets on the other side.

The disciple’s act of faith, throwing their nets on the other side of the boat, brought enormous results. When we are obedient to God’s will for our lives the results are greater than we can imagine. Sometimes that means doing something different and sometimes it means doing it again.

Know that Jesus is standing on the shore side of your life pointing you to the great catch He has in store for your ministry. Amen.

Letter for Annual Report

Grace and Peace to you!

What a year this has been in the life of this church! There have been many transitions: from saying goodbye to Pastor Kristy, to ministering with Pastor Christine, to welcoming me as your pastor there has been quite a lot to adapt to as the year has gone on. While my involvement with this church only began in September, I cannot say enough about how blessed I have been to serve God with you these past few months. A year ago at this time, none of us could’ve predicted that Pastor Kristy would be leaving, or that I would be coming to this church, but through God’s grace we find ourselves together now.

As I reflect back on this year in the life of this church, I immediately think of the hard work this spring and summer of your Pastor Nominating Committee. They are a devoted bunch of people who love this congregation and love God. They were tremendously welcoming and allowed me to envision that this was a congregation and community that I should be a part of. I truly believe that God worked through them to bring us together.

When I started in September I was greatly impressed by the many ways that this church was already in motion, with planning for WOW in place, Sunday school already going, and all of the ongoing groups continuing to meet. I have been so pleased to see the many ways that everyone has kept up the momentum of this church; all while the leadership of the church was changing.

With all of the change that has happened here over the past year, there are many things that haven’t changed: the great number of people devoted to ministering to the children of this community through WOW and Sunday School, the warmth of fellowship at Bible studies and Mission Sewing groups, and the willingness of this congregation to show up each week to worship God in community. In these past few months I have witnessed a wealth of fellowship, a generosity of time and contributions towards mission, and a congregation willing to see the many new ways God is moving in our midst.

This congregation is also blessed with strong leadership. The elders and deacons show great care towards this church and community. They genuinely enjoy serving God together and work well with one another in decision-making. But they are not the only leaders, each member of this church leads in their own way: by offering a hug or handshake of friendship, by seeking opportunities to provide comfort to someone hurting, and by stepping up and helping out when needs arise. The Body of Christ is certainly moving through each of your actions.

I am excited to see how God will continue to use this church to speak hope, love, and joy into this community in the years to come. I am ever blessed to be here with you!

 

In Christ,

Pastor Kathleen

Officially the new pastor of Jesup, IA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom,” 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22; July 22, 2012

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22
July 22, 2012

Children’s Message: “God In Between,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”

Humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I faithfully fill out my schedule and try not to miss appointments. Even when planning family vacations I like to research ahead of time to know what events will be going on, making a calendar of all the things we could do. I have definite ideas about how to plan my grocery shopping. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God.

In our Old Testament passage today I sense this same sort of attitude from David. I imagine David in his palace. Comfortably sitting on cushions, perhaps being cooled by a servant fanning him with a palm branch. Things are going pretty well for David at this point in our account. There is relative peace in the Kingdom, as scripture says, “the LORD had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him.” I imagine him glancing out the window and seeing the tent containing the Ark of the Covenant. David wonders while he is living in a house of cedar, why the ark, the revered commandments from the Lord, a reflection of God’s own self, would be carried about in a tent. He thinks, “Surely God should have a house.”

He tells Nathan and immediately Nathan agrees saying, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” Though our text does not give us any more of this conversation between them, I can imagine David explaining this to Nathan, perhaps getting excited planning architectural ideas and maybe even discussing a site where they could create this great space to house their great God. Surely David fell asleep that night with ideas buzzing about of this great thing he would do, excited to serve God in this way. David had a plan.

But that was not the sort of plan God had in mind. Nathan’s sleep was interrupted that night, with the word of the Lord coming to him. While David had said he wanted to build a house for the Lord, the Lord says no, I want to build you a house.

But wait, we just heard that David had a house. A rather nice house in fact, built of cedar, one of the more expensive building materials of his day. So, why does the Lord want to build him a house?

It’s a rather confusing passage on an initial read through because it seems like the Lord and David have similar ideas. David would like to build a house. The Lord would like to build a house. Okay, so let’s go ahead and build a house. What’s the issue?

To truly understand this conversation we need to go back to the original Hebrew text. The word that both the Lord and David are using for “house” is “bayit.” Though this word can be translated as “house,” it can also mean “palace,” or “temple,” OR “household,” “tribal group,” “nation,” or “royal dynasty.” David was concerned with God’s need for a house in the physical sense, a place for containment and comfort; a place that will honor God and provide a place for people to encounter God’s presence.

The Lord does not seem to care for this though saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not seeking to be contained to a house or building. The Lord says, “wherever I have moved about among all the people.” God is very clear to point out that God was the one doing the moving. God was the one to decide where God’s presence would be.

While David is all excited about his plans, God has a different vision for the future of God’s people. Reminding David of God’s providence for David’s life, the Lord speaks of the ways that God has accompanied David from pasture to royal throne. This is the very same David whom the Lord picked over his seven brothers though David was the youngest, a shepherd, and not thought to be of consequence. This is the same David of the story of David and Goliath. Now the Lord will be the one to make a “bayit,” for David. This “bayit” is not the house of comfort and containment that David was proposing, but rather it is a “bayit” in the sense of a nation or a royal dynasty. A nation that will grow beyond what is comfortable and containable. A nation that is to be the very Kingdom of God.

There is an account of the lineage of David at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I know sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, lineage accounts are the very sort of thing that I might skip over. If I’m reading an older version I tend to get caught up in all the “begats,” and decide to skip to the end of list and see what happens next. Perhaps you may have had a similar experience of these sorts of lists in scripture. However, in ancient Christian tradition, this was the sort of thing that made people sit up in their seats and listen more attentively. These lists were about legacy, about connection, and in reading them an ancient game of connect the dots was played, revealing an amazing picture of how God’s plan is worked out in God’s own cosmic time and order. So, let us try to listen to this list with this sort of attentiveness. Listen for the names that you know, and those that you don’t know. Try to picture the familiar narratives that pop into your head, and take in the great picture that is God’s plan.

This passage comes to us from Matthew 1:2-5 Listen for the word of our Lord:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

When we see David, we can see his lineage trailing back to Abraham. Abraham who had grown old and did not believe that a child would be in God’s plan for him. And to Ruth who had lost her husband and so by society’s standards did not seem to have a future. Yes, God had provided for David by elevating his personal social standing from pasture to palace, but he also comes from a long history of people uncertain of how the story would turn out for them.

Abraham had grown impatient in his wait to have a child and so had one with his wife’s servant. At the age of ninety-nine God came to Abraham to establish a covenant with him, a covenant that would make Abraham a father of many nations, nations borne by his wife, Sarah. God had a plan for Abraham.

Ruth’s father in law and husband had both died, so all societal obligations she could have rightfully returned home to her own family, but instead stayed with her mother in law, Naomi. Ruth sought out Boaz who helped her to reestablish the family line. God had a plan for Ruth.

And God’s story certainly does not end with David. Those who are to follow after have an even greater story to tell. This lineage leads directly to Jesus.

While David wanted to contain God’s presence in a temple, God was the one who would work out a great plan for being present in the world. God worked through the “bayit,” the royal lineage of David to lead to the man who would serve as earthly father to God’s own son, Jesus Christ. God’s plan was indeed greater.

God’s Kingdom would come to life not through the establishment of a temple that people could visit and experience God’s presence, but through the living, breathing legacy of the ministry of God’s son, Jesus Christ. God’s presence is not something we visit, but something that lives among us and is enacted through the ways our lives reflect the will of God.

Our New Testament passage today gives us a blueprint of this plan. From Ephesians 2:19-22 we read:

You 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. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

This beautiful “bayit” household of the Kingdom of God is constructed not with cedar, but by those who seek to follow God. Our New Testament passage speaks also of the different people who Christ has come to reconcile, the Jews and the Gentiles. Both groups were “far off” in their own ways. Though the Jews were God’s chosen people from the very beginning, their desire to follow God through adherence to the law had gradually become more about legalism than relationship with God. When they were unable to fulfill all that the law required they felt far off from God. Those who were not Jewish, the Gentiles, were unaccustomed Jewish religious tradition. Though the disciples, particularly Paul, were working to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, they were still unsure of their place in this new community, feeling far off from God. Our passage speaks of Christ reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one “bayit,” household of God. Listen now to Ephesians 2:13-18:

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection pieced together apostles, prophets, Jews, and Gentiles into a spiritual “bayit,” with Christ as the cornerstone. We are God’s dwelling place. God dwells in and among us.

In the book we read earlier, “God in Between,” we hear of a community searching for God after hearing that God could fix their problems. They searched through mountains, over the oceans, in the desert, and in a cave trying to find God, but did not find God in any of those places. Only when they stopped searching and started helping one another they were finally able to discover how God was present in their care and attentiveness for each other.

In Matthew 18:20 we hear a familiar verse. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Notice that unlike God’s plans for the tabernacle in Exodus or David’s ideas for a temple, this plan for encountering God’s presence has nothing to do with physical space, and everything to do with relationship and intentionality. This is the plan for Christ’s Church, a fellowship not determined by physical space but by relationship.

Which brings up an important question: when someone asks you about your church, what do you tell them? Do you tell them about a building or about a people? What sort of “bayit” are you interested in being a part of? What sort of “bayit” are you seeking to build in this world?

It is my prayer that we will all seek to be builders of God’s Kingdom, building a fellowship of believers and a lineage of reconciliation. Unlike the building that David was proposing, this building of the Kingdom of God is not a building that is built just once, it is constantly being remodeled, forever under construction. We build God’s Kingdom through each act of care for one another, each admission of our need for God’s plan. Let us work together to build the Kingdom of God. Amen.