“Seeking Shalom” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, October 9, 2016, FPC Holt

“Seeking Shalom”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-9-slide-1-richmond-hillWhen 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, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. 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.

2016-10-9-slide-2-prayerEvery 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.

2016-10-9-slide-3-meal-prayerAs 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.

2016-10-9-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.

2016-10-9-slide-5-fpc-holtWhen I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:

2016-10-9-slide-6-aaOne man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.

2016-10-9-slide-7-medical-equipmentOne of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.

When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.

2016-10-9-slide-8-food-bankOther people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.

One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. 2016-10-9-slide-10-kalin The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.

2016-10-9-slide-11-walk-to-schoolThis past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.

2016-10-9-slide-12-mission-handsThis 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 sharing what you can 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.

2016-10-9-slide-13-jeremiah-29-11 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.

2016-10-9-slide-14-james-howellIn my preparation for this sermon 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. “

2016-10-9-slide-15-crosshandsThese 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.

Reinhold 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.

2016-10-9-slide-17-welfare-of-the-cityWhile 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.

“Homemaking: A Call for All”; John 14:23-29 and Acts 16:9-15; May 1, 2016, FPC Holt

“Homemaking: A Call for All”
John 14:23-29 and Acts 16:9-15
May 1, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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Welcome mat

Welcome mat

Hospitality. What do you think of when you hear this word? I think of my grandmother’s blueberry muffins, of Hawaiian pineapples as a symbol of welcome, and of meals I’ve been blessed to have with several of you in your homes.

I think of how my mother would rally us all to clean the house when company was coming over, straightening our rooms, vacuuming, mopping, dusting, all to create a sense of welcome for whoever was coming. I remember writing notes for my grandmother to place under her pillow at night. I remember my uncle coming to stay, always bringing a box of Dunkin Donuts, and being sure to say, “thank you for your hospitality,” every time he was there.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 2 - Heart LockBoth of our scripture readings today feature a very specific type of hospitality, opening our lives and our hearts as a faithful response to God’s presence. In the passage in John Jesus says to the disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In the passage in Acts Lydia says to the disciples, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Jesus identifies faithful action as the way to invite God’s presence to be at home with them and Lydia responds from her experience of newfound faith to invite the disciples to be at home with her.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 5 - LydiaWhen I read this text I wonder a bit at Lydia’s quick invitation. Though I’d like to think otherwise, I’m not so sure I’d be that fast to invite people over to stay, checking through the list in my head of vacuuming that needs to be done, sheets to be changed, and dishes to be washed. But not only was Lydia quick about it, the text also says that Lydia “prevailed upon them,” to accept her invitation. For her the priority was unquestionably the continued conversation and presence of the disciples, and she was more than willing to allow them into her house, whatever the current state, to enable that to happen.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 6 - Lauren WinnerIn the book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren F. Winner, a Christian converted from Judaism, speaks of the practice of hospitality throughout Jewish and Christian history, as well as how we may live it out now. She writes, “To be a hostess, I’m going to have to surrender my notions of Good Housekeeping domestic perfection. I will have to set down my pride and invite people over even if I haven’t dusted. This is tough: My mother set a high standard. Her house is always immaculate, most especially if she’s expecting company. But if I wait for immaculate, I will never have a guest.” She continues, writing, “The reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that…we are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, is not an imposition, because we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining into hospitality.”

2016 5 1 SLIDE 7 - More LightIn the life of our congregation, we have recently taken steps to increase the reach of our welcome, with our priority placed on forging relationships. Last summer and fall we spent some time as a congregation discerning whether or not God was calling us to be a More Light congregation, and in the fall, our session voted that we would do so. More Light is an organization within our denomination, the PCUSA, that frames it’s work in this way: “Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.”

In becoming a More Light congregation we have taken the hospitality approach that Lauren Winner advocates, not rearranging our lives in order to invite our siblings in Christ into our congregation or putting on a false front, but authentically welcoming all people with love, and honesty in our questions and our desire to better learn how to care for each other in all the particularities of experience that each of us bring to the table.

I spoke with one of our newer members, Jon James, this week on what it looks like to be welcoming to those who identify as LGBTQ, asking how we can be allies to those whom God places in our lives. His number one advice? Have humility and be willing to called out when you are in the wrong. Notice, this doesn’t mean holding off until you know all the appropriate terminology, but willingly entering into the lives of those whom God has called you to love. This goes back to the very same hesitations that can keep us from relationships, waiting until we have everything in our homes, hearts, and minds all straightened out before we’ll let anyone in. This is not the case with welcoming God into our life and ought not to be the case in welcoming in all whom God calls beloved, that is to say, everyone.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 8 - RestroomIf you turned on the news or spent any time on social media these past few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly run into posts, articles, and stories about the passing of legislation in North Carolina that requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with their assigned gender at birth. The response has been loud and polarizing, many highlighting hypothetical scenarios and remarks disparaging entire groups of people. When it all comes down to it, all of this bathroom talk is not really about bathrooms at all, but about fear and prejudice, on both sides. It’s about failing to see the presence of God in one another.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 9 - MonasteryI heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

It is important how we respond to those God places in our lives, how we extend the love of God to one another.

2016 5 1 SLIDE 10 - Matthew 25In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The listeners in this passage are confused, asking “when did we do any of those things?” But Jesus, responds ‘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.”

With the spirit of God dwelling within us, may we seek to extending God’s hospitality to all we meet. Amen.

“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

“What Should We Do?”; Luke 3:7-18; December 13, 2015; FPC Holt

“What Should We Do?
Luke 3:7-18
December 13, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - john-the-baptistJohn the Baptist was a great many things, but subtle was not one of them. From the very first account of John in action we hear of him moving about in his mother’s womb to alert her to the presence of Jesus growing within Mary. And this action is echoed throughout the rest of his life as he is always making a ruckus demanding that people pay attention to the presence of Jesus.

SLIDE 2 - John the baptist with crowd In our text today we hear him confront those who have just been baptized in a very unsubtle way. Keep in mind these are the ones already seeking Christ, who have sought out John specifically so they may be baptized into this new way of being. But John doesn’t want them to use their baptism or God’s grace as an excuse to become complacent. Now that they have this new life they are to bear fruit, they are to thoughtfully and passionately follow the life that God has set before them.

SLIDE 10 - What should we do “What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question.

SLIDE 4 - John and crowdThey were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.

But the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of everyday life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives. It required some serious discernment about what their lives would look like now that they had been so utterly transformed.

SLIDE 5 - Fork in RoadDiscernment is one of those words that we tend to use in pivotal moments in our lives. Figuring out where to go to college, what career path to take, who to marry, all of these decisions are best made with serious discernment. Which means taking the time to figure out what is best, not just financially or logistically, but spiritually. What will bring you deepest joy? How can you best glorify God?

But discernment should not just be limited to those big decisions, rather our understanding of God’s desires for our lives should inform our every action.
SLIDE 6 - Dark and LightThe youth of this church are used to doing “highlights and lowlights,” as a way to reflect on their lives, where they experience joy, and where they experience sadness. In spiritual discipline terms this practice is called “examen.” Another way to look at this is what is life giving and what is depleting? Or what makes you feel closest to God and what makes you feel far away?
SLIDE 7 - Sleeping with BreadThere is a book I’ve read about examen, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
The authors of the book use this story as an example of how clinging to the things that give us life help us to be better equipped to serve God and others. And the way that they discern what is life giving is through the examen process, pausing to take account of what has made them feel close to God and what has made them feel distant, keeping track of these patterns throughout the weeks, months, and years, and working from that full knowledge of their relationship with God to shape what direction they should take in their lives.

In our passage today, John shares with those gathered in no uncertain terms that now that they are baptized their work as Christians is by no means finished. They must now live lives of fruitfulness. Using examen and prayerful discernment, we become attentive to God’s presence and direction, which can help us figure out what to do, as well how we may best live into our baptized lives.

SLIDE 8 - What should we doIn Luke 3, verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked [John], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

“What should we do?” This is the same question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message,  “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While John the Baptist begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.

SLIDE 9 - Bear Good fruitThrough this, John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.

Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?

Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”

So, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully?  What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?

You are tasked with paying attention to the ways God is directing your life, and responding in ways that further God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

“Now and Forever” 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 June 7, 2015, FPC Holt

“Now and Forever”
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
June 7, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here
(audio picks up on the second paragraph)

2015 6 7 Slide1Anyone who’s stopped by the office the past month or so has seen Myra, Kirk, and I looking something like this. The irony was not lost on any of us as we were working frantically so that we could plan a church wide season of rest. In any given day my calendar was open to four months at a time, planning for the life of the church all the way into October.

2015 6 7 Slide2And you know what? We’ve got a tremendous summer ahead of us, with great guest preachers, musicians, and opportunities to connect through prayer and mission. It really is going to be a memorable sabbatical season, and hopefully one that will allow each of us to refuel and connect on a deeper level with God’s plans for us as individuals and as a church.

2015 6 7 Slide3For me personally though, the tricky thing with all of this intensive planning of several months at the same time is when I would slow down, step back and try to answer a question about what day it was or even what month it was, it took me a minute. My mind was in October’s logistics, my heart was pondering our Wednesday night worship services, and my soul was in prayer for our Diving into Dreamin’ retreat. Needless to say, that all left me feeling a bit discombobulated.

2015 6 7 Slide4Our text today the Apostle Paul gives us a similarly exciting and disorienting timeline: the excitement of the growing community of Christ in Paul’s midst, an ongoing feeling of his body wasting away, and an eternal hope in the heavens. It seems Paul also has his calendar open on many pages at a time. Perhaps that’s why Paul often looks stressed out in so many depictions of him.

2015 6 7 Slide5As Christians we are by definitions followers of Christ, a lived out example of what living in this sort of scheduling tension looks like: Christ was both fully God, everlasting and eternal, and fully human, living on a linear timeline, interacting with individual people in individual ways. Christ was embodied, living in a body that way not made to last forever. Christ was also a soul, an eternal and inseparable aspect of God. As Christians we are called then to live into this tension of the world to come and the world that is becoming.

2015 6 7 Slide6Following Christ means living excitedly for the world that is to come, the kingdom of God and all of the joy and glory that will bring. But that doesn’t mean we disregard that which God has put before us today. God’s eternal Kingdom comes together from what happens in our immediacy just as the forest is both a forest all together and a collection of trees individually.

There’s an old story about a disciple and his teacher. “Where shall I find God?” a disciple once asked. “Here,” the teacher said. “Then why can’t I see God?” ”Because you do not look.” “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.“ Nothing. Just look,” the teacher said. “But at what?” “At anything your eyes alight upon,” the teacher said. “But must I look in a special kind of way?” “No, the ordinary way will do.” “But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” “No, you don’t,” the teacher said. “But why not?” the disciple pressed. “Because to look, you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the teacher said. [1]

In order to do the work of God we must be present to God’s movement in, through, and among us. We must live firmly in the tension of the big picture of God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom work close-up, which can look a lot like… nothing in particular.

2015 6 7 Slide7A frequent prayer of mine when thinking about all the day to day work that we do as a session, as deacons, and as a church all together, is that our right-here-right-now to-do lists may reflect God’s eternal purposes. What we do in the here and now can contribute towards that which is eternal, which is God’s heavenly kingdom.

The reason I pray this so often is because wrapping my own mind around the tension of working towards both now and forever is really challenging. I’d love to know in this instant all the goodness that will come out of the work that we do this summer: the inspiration drawn from the Divin’ into Dreaming Retreat, the lives impacted by our youth in Chicago, the connections we make to our community through our Vacation Bible School. It’d be great to know the sweeping impact that this congregation will have over the next 5 years or 50 or 150. But in the meantime, I’ll be here, to experience life with you, to walk beside you, and to do all that I can to make God’s priorities my priorities.

2015 6 7 Slide8As Paul exhorts us to follow him in believing in Jesus Christ, he also appeals to us to speak from that belief. Paul affirms that our bodies are not built to live forever, but our souls are. And as long as these are temporary bodies of ours hold out, we are called to work in our immediacy, pointing others towards the Kingdom of God which is eternal. May we be bold enough to do as Paul did: first believing and then speaking the good news of the Gospel. Amen.

[1] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting On the Word. 12 vols. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008-2011.

“Of One Heart and Soul”; Acts 4:32-35; April 12, 2015, FPC Holt

“Of One Heart and Soul”
Acts 4:32-35
April 12, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to audio here.

2015 4 12 Slide01Do you ever read scripture and think: “Really?!” “Really?!” was my first reaction when I read this text. I thought, whoever wrote this first line of this passage must be the type of guy who writes greeting cards and inspirational posters filled with empty platitudes. No way could any group unequivocally say that they are of “one heart and soul.” Even one of the commentaries I read this week said, “there is little doubt that our author paints a rather idyllic scene.”[1] Indeed!

But then my second thought was jealousy. I’d love to live in a society that was that incredibly united and without any needs. A culture where “great grace [is] upon [us] all.” Could it be, might it be possible?

2015 4 12 Slide02This reminds me of a sermon on the feeding of the 5,000 that I heard by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor of “House for All Sinners and Saints,” a Lutheran church in Denver, CO. She speaks about the possibilities of what happened at that tremendous miracle, and the disciples’ perceived inadequacies.

2015 4 12 Slide03She writes, “I started to wonder what was going on with [the disciples] that they would see the scene in front of them as they did. I wondered why they wanted the crowds to go away and fend for themselves and why, when Jesus asked what they had, they said “nothing. Nothing but 5 loaves and a couple fish.”

And with that offering, that meager offering, which they thought was “nothing,” a whole crowd was fed.

She continues saying, “the disciples must have learned… that there was more available to them than what they themselves were bringing to the table…Maybe [Jesus] didn’t want the disciples to send the people away because Jesus knew that those people had what the disciples lacked. Maybe the disciples, like us, need to be reminded that even when we do not have what is needed, what is needed is still at hand…it’s just [going to] come from God or others, because in God’s economy, that’s how it works.”

And then she preached this line that buzzes around in my head, and I plan to cross-stitch for my office wall one of these days:

2015 4 12 Slide04“What you have is enough because it’s never all that there is.”[2]

For me that has been a tremendously profound thought.

It also takes a lot of pressure off, refocusing what my life and ministry are about, not about being all things for all people, but pointing to our God who is, and our community, which can manifest God’s goodness for each of us.

By recognizing that we on our own are not enough, and allowing God to work through the places where we are lacking, we open ourselves to receiving grace. When we try to do it all on our own, we are operating as functional atheists, ones who see no need for God’s presence and providence in our lives. When we acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, but still are willing to bring who we are and what we have, offering our lives as contributions to the work of God’s kingdom, all together we have more than enough.

2015 4 12 Slide05It is important to notice that our scripture says that the believers were all of one heart and soul… not that they were all of one mind or body. The believers in Acts experienced abundance not because they were all the same in their thoughts, physical appearance, and background, but because they were different. Through their individual experiences and gifts, they were able to contribute to a more complete community. Each bringing who they are and what they have, none of them experienced need.

2015 4 12 Slide06I would argue that one of the joys I’ve found in Christian community is that the less we have in common in body and mind, the more closely we rely on our common faith in Christ to be what unites us. Some of my most profound moments in ministry have been leading worship among a room of people with dementia, exploring what it is to be God’s beloved child with our X-team kids, or joining together with strangers from around the country to serve God in mission at workcamps during my high school summers. Those experiences are impactful because of our commonality found in Christ.

2015 4 12 Slide07If we decide to spend all of our time together because we’re all the same age, ethnicity, or gender, or because we like that same movies, music, and sports teams, our unification is not one of any depth or substance. But if we come together for worship and service to our God, because of our love of God and our belief in our resurrected Christ, we are indeed of one heart and soul, and privy to God’s abundance in our community and lives.

“What you have is enough because it is never all there is.”

The uniqueness of that community in Acts, is that they understood that. They understood that on their own there was still need; by their own merits there was still sin. The reason they were united wasn’t some common pact to live in harmony or because they liked all the same things. It was because they knew and believed utterly that Jesus was lived and died so that they may have new life, and that they might know a way forward into God’s grace.

2015 4 12 Slide09In our passage today we read, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” That great grace was not upon them because of their own merits, but because of the deference that showed to God, the way that they used their lives to point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what united them and gave them purpose as they were forming the new church follow Christ’s death and resurrection.

2015 4 12 Slide10Twentieth century theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[3]

2015 4 12 Slide11Might our community be “of one heart and soul”? As idyllic as it sounds, and as incredible as it may be to believe, this unity is possibly through our common belief in our resurrected Christ. May it be so. Amen.

[1] David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown Bartlett, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting On the Word: Year b Volume) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber “Sermon On Lembas Bread, the Feeding of the 5,000 and Why I Hated Pastoral Care Classes,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/, August 6, 2014, accessed April 9, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/08/sermon-on-lembas-bread-the-feeding-of-the-5000-and-why-i-hated-pastoral-care-classes/.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, ©1954).

“Sow What?” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; July 13, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Sow What?
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Gardening, to my mother, is not a chore. It is a passion. While some dread mowing the lawn, she sits on our back porch, iced tea in hand, plotting out some elaborate pattern she will mow in the grass.Slide02 She knows which flowers need sun, which need shade, which she needs to coach to climb along the trellis. Her gardens are fed mulch, water, and sunshine. My mother has shown me the care, nurture, and love that go into maintaining a garden.

Slide03With that in mind the image of the sower is initially a strange one. Here this man known only by his function, “the sower,” and yet he doesn’t seem very intentional about the way that he cares for his seeds. Some fall on the path, some on the rocks, and only some on the good soil. He likely wasn’t a rich man, but rather a tenant farmer working from his scarcity to make life grow. As many of you know firsthand, the role of the farmer is not a passive one, but rather requires a working of the land, intentionality in where things are planted, attention given to make sure that the plants get enough water, but not too much.

SLIDE 4 - Christ as Sower2So why then does this sower seem to scatter this seed so broadly? In this parable God is most often cast in the role of the sower as God is the source of life and the origin of the good news, but I’d say for me I see God as more likely being the seeds. God in Christ took root in the world, grew so we might receive the harvest of his grace. Slide05As we read in the first several verses of the Gospel of John: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”[1]

Slide06“The Word was with God and the Word was God,” this means that the Word that was being sown was God. The Word that was being spread was God. And God is famous for being everywhere, even the unexpected places: scorched in the heat, picked apart by the birds, in the rockiest of places. God shows up.

What from the outside looks like the sower’s wastefulness, is God’s uncontainable abundance. If what you’re spreading is an extension of God’s own self it’s bound to go everywhere.

Slide07There’s a lot of talk at this church about scarcity: not enough money, not enough volunteers, not enough time. Even when we look at the less tangible qualities like welcoming and graciousness and politeness it may seem like we need to hold some in reserve, only welcoming those who can offer something to our church in a way that will help it be the church we want it to be, or perhaps we go the other way only being gracious and polite to strangers, but not to the ones we see everyday, treating those familiar faces as only as valuable as what they can do for us. It seems we have a sense that the only way to be stewards of the goodness God has extended to us is to guard it carefully, protect it with our lives and our egos and our checkbooks.

When we are focused on the ways that our church and the people around us and even ourselves are lacking, we’re bound to be anxious and discontent. And when we’re living in that sort of space it’s hard to access the kind of imaginative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live into God’s plan for us individually, as a church, and as God’s larger church in the world.

When we seek to point out the inadequacy in our community and in one another over God’s abundance we miss out on God’s Good News for us:

SLIDE 8 - Romans 8-15-17“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”[2]

It can be both painful and convicting if we stop to consider what sort of environment it is we provide for God to grow in and among us.

Slide09Maybe we’re the path, hard packed into a set pattern of how we’ve always done things, entertaining the presence of new growth from time to time, but more interested in staying together than in being changed by something new in our midst.

As Protestants we affirm the adage “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” but change can be hard, especially when we feel like we have everything all figured out. A path is by definition a comfortable route, worn down over time by person after person deciding that that is the way to go. While it can be a comfort for those who travel have helped to travel that path, new growth in that space would require a rerouting, a disruption of what is known for the sake of the unknown. A new seed has no chance on a hard packed path unless one will make a space for it to take root, and will water the dirt that has become dusty from it’s barrenness. And as we see in the parable, an exposed seed is vulnerable and easily snatched away by the bird that will consume it.

Slide10 Perhaps we’re the rocky soil, binding ourselves to those we are comfortable with and in doing so creating an impenetrable rocky border between ourselves and all that are on the outside. We leave room for others to come near, but like the rocky soil we don’t allow for roots to form among us, and those who are not of us are unable to stay long enough for any stability or lasting growth.

SLIDE 11 – ThornsI would hope that we would not be the thorny patch! Lack of growth on the part of the thorns is not the issue here, they themselves are growing, but their growth serves to keep others out, and chokes the other plants that grow there. Thorns are focused only on their own agenda and growth, but do not seek to serve others, rather they curl in on themselves in a tangled mess.

Slide12Ideally, of course, we would be the good soil, the most hospitable of the parable’s environments. The good soil provides nourishment and support. When the seeds fall on it they help each other to grow abundantly, providing stability to the soil, shade in turn for one another. By growing together these seeds each only bear a little bit of the burden of the outside environment. And as our parable illustrates, these seeds multiply in their growth yielding abundance!

Slide13Why does God waste God’s time being out among the rocks and the path and laid out as food for the birds? Because there is an abundance that springs forth wherever God takes root. This is the promise of our text and the prophesy of Isaiah:

Slide14“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”[3]

Slide15When the seed we are sowing is God’s own self, we can be secure in the knowledge that it will grow beyond our wildest expectations. God seeks to bless us richly, to take root in our church, in our homes, in our lives, and in our very hearts. By commissioning all who follow Christ as God’s disciples, as “joint heirs with Christ,” each of us are entrusted with that which is most precious, God’s own self. But unlike many precious resources, God’s goodness is multiplied when shared, the hope of Christ expands in the hearts of those who receive it. God’s word can only bear fruit when we scatter it broadly in all places, even and perhaps especially those who do not seem deserving.

SLIDE 16 - Christ as SowerWhile we should treat the love and care of Christ as precious, it is not scarce, but limitless. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”[4] Christ died for all to extend grace to all. Might we share this grace so that others may grow in this truth. Amen.

 

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Romans 8:15-17

[3] Isaiah 55:10-13

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Beginnings and Endings,” Acts 2:1-21; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Beginnings and Endings”
Acts 2:1-21
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I love home makeover shows. I love seeing the before and after, I love seeing how things come together, but my favorite part? The moment the family finds out that they are getting a home makeover.

In my favorite home makeover show, Slide02 Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, we saw Ty Pennington and crew come running into the family’s life, bullhorn in hand. I loved watching how the family reacts, knowing that their lives are going to be changed. In several episodes, people have explained their reaction as a “weight being lifted.” Most people just screamed and jumped up and down.

This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. Slide03The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly. This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.

Slide04When watching these makeover shows, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the stories. The way we come to care about these people and their reactions is that these TV shows don’t just start out with showing up at someone’s door. We hear their story, many of all varieties of heartbreak and hardship. We hear specifically how getting a new home, one built to their needs, will make their lives better. We learn how a new home like this is not something they can build on their own.

Slide05The disciples too have had their own heartbreaks and hardships. These people have been following a man that they knew to be the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave them guidance, instruction, and purpose. When he died, they knew why, he died to save humankind from sin. However, this knowledge surely did not protect them from sadness at missing day to day breathing contact with this man.

Back even farther into the Judeo-Christian community’s history, was another heartbreak: Babel. SLIDE 7 - Tower of Babel In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of this story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Slide06The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.

SLIDE 8 - TrinityThroughout the Biblical narratives, we discover that when the Trinity enters into the human narrative, it’s to restore balance. In Babel, what the people needed was humility and diversifying their language created that. It made them reevaluate, reconsider, regroup. It forced them to work more on their relationships than their conquests.

SLIDE 9 - Pentecost PeopleBy the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel. As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.

Slide10Pope John Paul II explained this well saying, “According to the text of Genesis 11, the builders of Babel had decided to build a city with a great tower whose top would reach the heavens. The sacred author sees in this project a foolish pride, which flows into division, disorder and lack of communication. On the day of Pentecost, on the other hand Jesus’ disciples do not want to climb arrogantly to the heavens but are humbly open to the gift that comes down from above. While in Babel the same language is spoken by all but they end up not understanding each other, on the day of Pentecost different languages are spoken, yet they are very clearly understood. This is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.”

Slide11There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way.

A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.

In the Pentecost story in Acts, the Breath of all breath breathes into these disciples. The church is made alive by Pentecost fire. The people are linguistically reconnected to brothers and sisters separated by thousands of years of division. And now, 2000 years later, where are they now? By the grace of God and the work of millions of missionaries, the Gospel has been spread to nearly every country, and continues to be spread throughout communities around the world. Within the tradition of the Church we are the inheritors of hundreds of years of teachings and liturgy. A cloud of witnesses who have come before us surrounds us. But, with such gifts, also comes a history of deep division. Wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. Lines have been drawn for the sake of polity. The unity achieved by the Holy Spirit in Pentecost seems to have faded away. We are Pentecost people, but we are living like we are still suffering the consequences of Babel.

Slide12Galatians 3:26-29 tells us: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus came to this world to end division, give us hope, and like those home makeover recipients, lift our burdens. On this Pentecost day, know that the Holy Spirit is still breathing in and through this community. God is still yearning to be present in all that we say and do. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worthy of the Call;” 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; November 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Worthy of the Call”
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
November 3, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When was a time someone told you they were proud of you? What was it for? What did it feel like for them to tell you?

In our scripture today we read in verse 4 that Paul and his coworkers in mission, Silvanus and Timothy, write to the community of Thessalonica saying, “we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”

They boasted of the community of Thessalonica and the way it has maintained faith and increased in love.

Slide03How do you speak of this church and the community formed here?

A few weeks ago when Hospice hosted a Memorial Service at our church I was quite proud of the praise that our church received. One of the women who worked with Hospice told me that even before people were in the building it felt comfortable and it felt like home. What an incredible thing, that our building would feel like home to someone who had never been here before!

When people ask me about this congregation, I say that you are a loving church, a family church that loves to hug one another. I’m proud of how you have worked to tithe 10 percent of the church budget to missions. I lift up the WOW program and how it has now created a legacy in this community of kids who have come to experience the love of Christ. In short, I’m proud of you.

What does it feel like to hear that? I hope it’s not too big of a surprise. But I also hope that this encouragement doesn’t just remain in this room, in this hour, but that it motivates the mission and work of this church.

How may we respond to the blessings of this community?

First, and foremost, we can echo the prayers of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy who write, “we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Slide05How often do you pray for this church? I know some in this congregation are prayer warriors with a steady habit of praying for those around them and I commend you for that. For others of us, myself included, we need a good deal of direction in our prayer. We need prayer lists and reminders.

I would encourage you to take home your order of worship each week and post that prayer concern list on your refrigerator. Pray the names listed there not just on Sunday mornings when that insert falls out of the bulletin, but all throughout the week. Pray for this congregation, for the work of the session, that they may make sound decisions for our church and for the deacons, that they may be strengthened in their ministries of helping this community. Pray for Sunday School leaders and WOW volunteers. And please, please pray for your minister, that I may live healthfully in ways that allow me to be strengthened to preach, pray, and care for this church and community.

In praying these prayers our awareness of God’s hand in the work of our church and community increases and we are open to what God has yet to reveal. Our deacons are reviving a way for us to be in prayer for one another, by participating in our church prayer chain calls and e-mails. I hope that you will consider adding this to your practice of prayer.

Slide06The second way we can respond to the blessings of this community is to contribute to the future of the church. In a few weeks, on November 24th, we will be having a congregational meeting following worship. In this meeting our elders on session will be presenting several needs in our church building.

If you are not excited by the prospect of spending money on a new roof, I’d ask you to think about all the things that will be happening underneath that roof. All the lives that are touched in worship, all the children who will be ministered to by WOW, all the baptisms, weddings and funerals that will take place beneath it. By keeping up this building, we continue to make a home for all who will come in the future.

Beyond financial contributions, we can also contribute our time, through participating in Bible studies, providing music for worship services, leading children’s Sunday school or WOW. Taking the initiative to welcome a new visitor, or welcome someone who may has been in worship for a while to spend some time together outside of the church, extending our community beyond these walls.

Third, we can strive to respond to this prayer, by working to live lived worthy of the call we have received in Matthew 28:19-20. “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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are disciples tasked with allowing God to work in a through our lives to glorify Jesus Christ. Are you living a life worthy of that call? It’s a strange thing to think about, the worthiness of our lives as followers of Christ.

Slide08It is important to understand that God does not demand us to be worthy of God’s love, in fact the gospel message tells us that as sinful people we are not capable of perfection, but are able to attain it through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. However, when we receive this gift of God’s grace we are compelled to respond.

Working towards worthiness is also how we, as followers of Christ, might reflect Christ’s light into the world; how we might respond to grace with gratitude. When we proclaim ourselves to be Christians we are proclaim that we are Christ’s disciples. That is a bold claim and one that we are to take seriously through living lives of love and grace.

So, how will you uplift this church? How will you enable this community to grow in love and faith?

I echo the words of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus, “[I] always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” May it be so. 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

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Who is My Neighbor?” Luke 10:25-37; July 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Who is My Neighbor?”
Luke 10:25-37
July 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Mr RogersThis song sung by Mister Rogers at the beginning of each episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood welcomes us into a familiar, comfortable and slow moving world of love, understanding, and community. Mister Rogers asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” as an invitation, a desire for relationship and connection.

SLIDE 2 - who-is-my-neighborIn our scripture today we hear another question about neighborliness, coming from a very different place. “Who is my neighbor?” This is the question of the lawyer in our story today, trying to figure out what exactly is required of him to attain eternal life. “Who is my neighbor?” This is a question that seeks boundaries: If you can tell me who my neighbors are, then I can also know who my neighbors aren’t. The lawyer desires to place limitations on whom he should love. The lawyer invites Jesus’ help in identifying his neighbor. This means that there is a category of “nonneighbor.” The lawyer wants to draw a line.

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborAs your pastor tasked with bringing God’s word to you each week I carry the blessed duty of letting the Sunday’s scripture color the rest of my going about as I think of what God has to say to us all in worship. This week was a particularly interesting one putting the text and life side by side. All week I’ve had this question of “who is my neighbor?” buzzing about in my brain.

SLIDE 4 - who-is-my-neighbor“Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I encountered others in travel plazas as I traveled back from Massachusetts last weekend. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I had dinner with Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity on Monday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked when I learned that my favorite knitting store in Cedar Falls was closing. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked at our Community Celebration Service on Wednesday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as rides and food stands were set up for Farmers Day. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as the streets became filled with people walking about to enjoy the festivities. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I read the news of the George Zimmerman trial. All of these experiences have made me examine who my neighbors are and think about how I can be a neighbor.

SLIDE 5 - Passing ByJesus shares his own such story, a familiar one: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

SLIDE 6 - Samaritan33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

SLIDE 7 - ThreesIn the storytelling of Jesus’ time and in the Goldilocks storytelling formula we are used to, audiences expect that series of three will create a pattern in the first two actions of characters that is broken by the third. In Jesus’ time the expected sequence would be a priest, a Levite, and then an Israelite. Jesus often brought into question the relevance of the law in the scope of God’s greater kingdom and so such a sequence would uplift the common person rather than the leaders of the temple pointing out that an ordinary Israelite would do what the priest and Levite would not.

However, our story shows us that it is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan that comes to the aid of the injured man. Jesus makes an unfamiliar and uncomfortable comparison, placing the two Jewish characters as inferior to the Samaritan. In Jewish culture of this time, Samaritans were seen as not only unclean but antagonistic. In this story they would be more assumed to be the robbers than any other character, and certainly not the hero. The neighborliness of the Samaritan therefore, would not be attributed to his being a Samaritan, but rather because someone was in need of a neighbor.

SLIDE 9 - ManInterestingly, in a story where we are provided with the nationality of the majority of the characters, the lead character is not given any identifying characteristic. He enters the story as a “particular man,” is abused, and then identified only by his need. He became a neighbor because he is in need of a neighbor to help him. Through these two characters in this story Jesus shows us that it is not class, social status, nationality, or ethnic identity that defines us, but rather we are defined by our actions. Someone’s need makes them our neighbor and our acts of love make us a neighbor in return.

Biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes this in his Luke Commentary: “Jesus has turned the issue from the boundaries of required neighborliness to the essential nature of neighborliness. Neighbors are defined actively, not passively…Neighbors do not recognize social class. Neither is mercy the conduct of a calculating heart, nor eternal life the reward for doing prescribed duties. Eternal life – the life of the age to come – is that quality of life characterized by showing mercy for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or region – and with no thought of reward. Mercy sees only need and responds with compassion.”[1]

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborBy simultaneously identifying the Samaritan and defying the cultural expectations by showing a compassionate Samaritan, Jesus forces us to look beyond outward identity and towards outward action.  True neighborliness is about the joy and inconveniences of being confronted with one another’s reality. It’s about realizing that there is someone in a ditch and not pretending we haven’t seen them. Being a neighbor in the way Jesus calls us to is the difficult commission to allow our own lives and plans to be inconvenienced for the sake of another.

Slide12 Perhaps you experienced some of this inconvenience this week: waiting behind others in line at Farmers Day, having to drive the long way around town in order to avoid construction designed to make things easier for those traveling through town with farm equipment, driving around the parade route. When streets are torn up or Farmers Day reroutes us, we interact differently, we see different things, and in a way, we have a different set of neighbors. And when we do try to go about in our regular ways we are forced to think differently.

We have to think about whether the person we’re visiting lives on the west or east side of 6th street. We have to think of where there are breaks in Young Street. In our detours we learn new ways of traveling. We change perspective. We change routine. We are caused to notice. We have a different set of neighbors. What seems a mere inconvenience is actually an opportunity to follow God’s call to love our neighbor, we just might not have seen them as neighbors before.

SLIDE 13 - ThreeUltimately, Jesus does not directly answer the question of “who is my neighbor?” Jesus instead asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” This reversal asks us to be more concerned with acting neighborly towards the other, than with deciding who is our neighbor. Acts of mercy are not to be done based on our neighbors worth but rather on their need.

SLIDE 14 - QuestionJesus responds to the lawyers questioning with questions of His own. That was one of Jesus’ teaching methods, not giving the answers, but asking questions that cause others to think through things on their own. This can be uncomfortable, annoying even when you are trying to get a straight answer or receive teaching.

Slide15Maybe some of you felt a bit of this a few weeks back when I asked you to respond to the sermon in groups during the sermon, and then went around for responses. You can rest easy, I’m not planning on doing that this week, but think about that moment. I know when I have been asked to respond to sermons within worship my response in the past has been, “wait, you’re the preacher, you want me to work on this too?”

Jesus wants us involved in reflecting, active in the process of understanding who we are called to be. The lawyer wanted to know “what must I do?” He didn’t want something to contemplate he wanted something to do.

SLIDE 16 - StepsThis is the appeal of so many self-help books: the promise of concrete ways forward, tangible steps to take, solid ways to measure progress. Jesus promises no such thing. What Jesus’ stories do, however, is give life to the question. While the lawyer was worried about steps, Jesus was worried about individuals. SLIDE 17 - ManStories make it real. Walking by individuals in our day to life make things real. Learning to know our brothers and sisters in this community gives flesh and blood to the word “neighbor.”

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. He seeks to limit, to check something off his to do list on the way to salvation. Jesus calls us to a much broader definition of neighbor. In fact he calls us to seek to expand our circle of neighbors, to widen the kingdom of God. Slide18So rather than asking “who is our neighbor?” the best question we could as is the one that Mr. Rogers asks? “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.


[1] Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.”p. 230

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession; Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; March 10, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession
Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04As we continue our way through Lent experiencing different spiritual practices, today we have another practice that is very familiar to us; one that we participate in every Sunday in worship: prayers of confession.

Slide02

 

A prayer of confession is a prayer in which we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to follow God. When we pray our prayers of confession in worship we pray first for our own individual sins and then for our sins as a community.

Slide03

Historically confessions of sin have taken place throughout one’s community and personal life. Puritans wrote extensively detailed private diaries to allow them to confess their sins to God. These diaries were so thorough and so personal that they were most often burned at the time of the person’s death. Before there was a professional priesthood, Christians would gather together and confess their sins to one another to pray for each other’s healing. Slide05In the Catholic tradition priests use confessional booths to hear the confessions of their parishioners.

 

It seems our society these days is filled with opportunities for confession.Slide06 One-camera “confessionals” are part of nearly every reality show misconstruing the term “confession” as a venting of frustrations with another or rare moments of self-reflection. The boom of social media allows for quick opportunities to reveal our thoughts to whoever will listen. Many we interact with day to day receive our confessions: hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers in lines.Slide07

While there is nothing inherently wrong in this self-reflection, we should be aware of our motivation for these confessions. Are we simply trying to clear our minds? Gain accountability or advice from someone we trust? OR are we seeking forgiveness from God and other’s we have hurt out of a repentant heart?

Slide09It’s often a blessedly strange moment when I’m out in public and people find out I’m a pastor. I have been privy to many a confessional: on airplanes, in coffee shops, grocery stores, and just about everywhere else, just by someone learning my title. People often tell me of their church attendance, or lack thereof, confess their desire to strive to be a “good person,” some might tell me of their works in mission.

Often I want to ask, “Why are you telling me?” But then I remember who this position calls me to be.  Over the centuries the role of clergy has been as a medium to God’s grace. In the Presbyterian Church we uphold a “priesthood of all believers,” which means that each of us can ask for God’s forgiveness directly. However, it can be a daunting thing to approach God in confession, and so pastors and other clergy become a proxy.

Though these unsolicited confessions can lead to very interesting and insightful conversations, they most often seem like a defensive response, sort of a “making this right,” rather than the thought out contrition of a penitent heart. On the occasion that these conversations become a bit deeper they can lead to some pretty profound views of how those outside a church home view the church and their relationship to God. Many tell me that they don’t go to church because they’re just to busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.Slide10

One of the more reflective confessions I’ve been privy to listen to was a young woman who told me that she didn’t like going to church because it makes her feel too vulnerable. This made me both hopeful and sad. Hopeful that she understands the depth that can be found in a church community and sad that she didn’t want to be a part of it, at least for now.

Slide11Confession has long been one of my favorite parts about being a part of a worshipping community. I love the beautiful vulnerability of standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another.

Imagine what would happen if we went out to other places and relationships in our lives and confessed this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship. What a strange and wonderful world that would be.

Slide12So what is it that we’re even doing when we confess our sin? Do we think that our confessions will surprise God? Do we think that our words undo the hurt that we’ve caused to ourselves or to others? Why do so many of us have such an urgent desire to confess our sinfulness? Why is “making things right with God” such a priority?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s something I say in worship every Sunday before our confession. Can anyone sum up what I say before we pray together?

“Though God knows our every action, God desires us to confess our sinfulness so that we may be open to Christ’s redemptive action in our lives.”

This is not a traditional liturgy and you won’t find it in any book, but I wrote it to for our community to sum up the Biblical witness as to why we confess our sins together.

Psalm 139:1-3 says:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”

God knows us intimately; there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. God surrounds our action and knows our hearts. God is well aware of each and every sin we have committed. God knows when we have willingly chosen other paths.

In 1 John 1:9 we hear:

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James 5:16 says:

“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

When we confess our sins it is not God who discovers our sinfulness, but rather it is our eyes that are opened to the presence of those sins and we begin the journey beyond our sinfulness.

Episcopal Bishop, Michael B. Curry writes of the young and rebellious son in our New Testament passage today:

“Jesus uses a marvelous turn of a phrase. Wallowing among pigs, the prodigal ‘came to himself.’ He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, ‘You were not meant for this.’”[1]

Slide19We were created to be creatures of Eden. We were created for paradise. The ultimate goal of confession is reconciliation. With the taste of the first sin in their mouths Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. The paradise was filled with many beautiful creations of plants and animals, but most importantly it was filled with God’s presence. When Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God, God walked with them in the garden. God was tangible and present in relationship with them. Through their sinfulness they willingly sought out a different future, a different path, a life that was apart from the paradise of full relationship with God.

Ever since that moment God has been creating opportunity for us to touch paradise. God became present on this earth once again, walking among us as Jesus Christ. Jesus served as an example to us of how we could live, how we can demonstrate God’s grace and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says:

“God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. “

Confession is necessary for our life together. Only through the authentic confession of a repentant heart can we begin the work towards reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” It is saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Reconciliation can be the outcome of confession, but it requires action on both parts.

In our prodigal son story we hear in verse 30 that:

“While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Once the son even headed in the right direction the father was there to greet him. God’s forgiveness is already there; God is simply waiting for us to come home to grace.

When we are aware of the abundance of grace awaiting us, what keeps us from confessing? What keeps us from seeking God?

Slide23The prodigal son did not feel himself worthy of forgiveness, worthy of coming home. He had struck out on his own, squandered his inheritance, brought shame to his family name. He was caught up in all the wrong that he had done. He did not know what his father’s reaction would be, but he had run out of options in the world outside of his family. He had run out of options in the life of dishonesty, and was forced to seek reconciliation. He did not expect to be restored to his former life, he just hoped to live as a servant.

SLIDE 24 – Perks of Being a WallflowerA favorite book of mine, now turned into a movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” encompasses this in a way that has stayed with me since I first read it as a high school freshman: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”[2]

The prodigal son did not feel that he deserved forgiveness, or deserved the love of his family, and so he stayed in a life of sin until this life had left him starving.

Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 32 speaks of this feeling in verses 3 and 4:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

But then the Psalmist is turned in verse 5:

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Slide27We are called to confess not because we are worthless sinners, but because we are worth so much in God’s eyes that God wants to bring us out of our sorrow and out of our isolation. God wants us to value our lives enough to ask for God to redeem them. To be unrepentant is to be expelled from Eden, purposefully separated from God’s love. To be unrepentant is to be lonely.

Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay P. Armstrong wrote, “Focusing on fault and magnifying its importance is not confession but megalomania, as if we know better than God does that we are undeserving of forgiveness. Such a posture narcissistically keeps the focus on our actions, when what God has done and continues to do is far more important. It involves refusing forgiveness and features failure to follow God’s lead into fresh ways of living.”[3]

Slide29Confession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It is about being drawn to reconciliation, it is about responding to God’s great love and God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Confession is about moving past what we’ve done so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us. Confession is about God.

Through confession we are restored to right relationship, we are restored to paradise. May we strive for this life giving authentic confession. Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[2] Perks of Being a Wallflower. p.27

[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 106.

Photo a Day Lent – Day 5: Settle

“Settle”

2 17 Settle

This picture is from the Harambee Center in Pasadena, CA. I was blessed to visit there in 2005 as a friend introduced me to many of the urban ministries of the Los Angeles area. This is from the center’s website:

“‘Harambee’ means ‘Let’s get together and push’ in Swahili. We seek to nurture and equip leadership that will holistically minister to the community by sharing Biblical truths, in order to achieve the re-building of urban neighborhoods through relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.”

As we toured the center, the woman who was showing us the school simultaneously described what had been in those spaces where children now played and learned. She pointed to the street corner where drugs were sold, the area where prostitutes were found. The people of this community came together and decided that that was an unacceptable future for their community and reclaimed this space. Though this community is so much in action that “settle,” doesn’t seem to quite describe it, I think in changing this space so greatly for so much good they have “settled” the land for a new future.

“May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.” 2 Peter 1:2-11

Photo a Day Lent – Day 3: See

“See”

SONY DSC

This photo is of a woman I saw in Rome. She was in an alley, sort of off by herself and playing a slow and mournful song on the accordion. The sort of person that might go unnoticed if one was moving quickly about their day. I didn’t talk with her, and we probably could’ve understood each other even if I tried, but I enjoyed her presence, and the way she played.  The first step towards being in community with the world, is recognizing who is our community, seeing God’s people everywhere. This woman reminded me of God’s claim on all of us.

“What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way.The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’” – Isaiah 58:7-9

Remember Your Baptism

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing my first baptism. I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. I’m grateful to this dear boy for not crying or fussing. I’m grateful I didn’t mess up the words or drop my Kindle in the font or trip down the aisle. I’m grateful for his dear family and the joy and pride in their faces for their sweet son. But most of all, I am grateful for the way he looked at the water as I said the words and the water washed over his forehead. It was a look of innocence and of inquisitiveness. He was fully engaged. We walked down the aisle together and I told him how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for him. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

We say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and this sweet boy included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”

“Remember your baptism.”

The echo of those words across the years and from my lips yesterday are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of your baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.

“Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.

Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.

Watching the news reports on Friday of a man in Chengpeng, China stabbing 22 children and one adult and then a man in Sandy Hook, CT, shooting 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life, it was hard to remember what grace felt like. The stark contrast of such innocence with such violence seems unfathomable. These are children.To the stabber and the shooter they were nameless. Now these communities and parents cry our their names in prayers, petitions, and eulogies. We know them as children created and loved by God. God’s grace was manifest in Christ for them. As so many parents, relatives, and communities members morn, we draw our families in closer to us, say more “I love you”s, and pray for protection for this hurting world of ours.

“Remember your baptism.”

As hard as it is to recognize, God’s grace also came for these two men. Christ came for the redemption of the evil that took root in the actions they committed. The darkness of mental illness leaves us with so many unanswerable questions as to the “why” to these events. I urge you to read this article on mental illness from a mother’s perspective: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We live in a complicated world with much pain, but if we are to truly remember our baptism, the grace of our own atonement compels us share the grace that we have received. We can and should be angry when there is violence and injustice in this world, but we must also live into the hope that evil never has the final word.

 

The video below is one I created in collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Preaching and Worship Professor, Beverly Zink-Sawyer. The images were collected from various online sources. The song is “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by fellow UPSem students, Laura and Jamie Thompson. We showed this in worship this Sunday before the baptism.

“Living Bread;” John 6:51-58; October 7, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Living Bread”
John 6:51-58
October 7, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you think of “living bread,” what comes to mind? If you’ve been in the church for a while it likely conjures up images of communion and Jesus and scripture and everything you think you should be thinking about right now. But let’s try to press reset on our minds and reimagine these words as if we’ve never heard them put together before. Living bread. Sort of strange isn’t it? Bread come to life. I imagine it might be friends, or perhaps enemies with “The Brave Little Toaster,” of the Disney 1987 cartoon film.

Bread, with eyes and a smile, maybe some arms and legs. It might look something like this.

This puts a new spin on things when we hear living bread. It’s perhaps even a bit creepy. Our Gospel lesson today doesn’t make it any less creepy: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

It is sayings like this that scared some people away from Christianity in the time of the early church. These people were clearly cannibals! Why would anyone want to be a part of this? If we joined them that’d mean we’d need to eat flesh and drink blood too. That’s just wrong! In a culture currently fascinated with teenage vampires, perhaps it’d be easier to get people to go along with things these days, but still, it sounds creepy.

Setting aside these rather frightening images of living bread, we can consider another dimension of these words. When you look closely at a piece of bread there are all sorts of tiny holes; the places for our peanut butter and jelly to settle in on your sandwich. These hole-y spaces are made by tiny organisms called yeast. Yeast is activated by the warm water and flour of bread making. Once activated they make the dough grow by creating little pockets of carbon dioxide.[1]

Yeast is airborne and can be cultivated by literally pulling it from the air. When I was living in North Adams, Massachusetts this summer I was able to witness a project of Canadian artist, Eryn Foster where she did just that at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA. Eryn Foster’s projects are most often very interactive and have to do with a sense of place, including a video tour of Canada that can be viewed by walking on a treadmill. This summer I saw Eryn walking around with this wooden cart with a bowl in it and I wasn’t quite sure what on earth she could be doing until I saw a video about it.[2] Together let’s watch this video and it will tell us a bit more about her project.

[We watched the first 2:30 of the video]

I found this project pretty fascinating. At first it’s kind of strange to think about the sort of airborne cultures that are surrounding us day-to-day.  Sure we hear about germs in the air and take precautions with hand washing and cleaning products to try to get rid of them, but there are also other things that surround us that can be life giving, such as the yeast.

This got me to thinking about how are we affected by what is around us. What are the external sources that feed into our composition? What are the things in our environment that cause us to rise, or not? In the video Eryn Foster says, “There are certain areas where you’re going to find wild yeast more plentiful.”

The same could be said for these rising forces in our lives. When we surround ourselves with people living lives fueled by Christ, we in turn are fueled by their good “yeast.”

This weekend I had this sort of fueling, rising experience. I attended Women of Faith with a busload of 52 women from Jesup and Independence and about 3,000 other sisters in Christ. There was a palpable energy in the place, of stories shared, sung, painted, and danced. Three thousand-some women all fueled by the love of Christ, whose joy in worship spilled over to those around them. This was certainly a place where the “yeast” of faith was plentiful.

Particularly on this World Communion Sunday, we are made aware that that there are places in this world where this “yeast” of faith is not as plentiful. We’ve heard about “at risk” communities, the despair of war torn countries, and pain of impoverished nations.  These are places yearning for those external ingredients to help them to rise up.

In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.” [3] In our world today there are indeed famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, our living bread, Jesus Christ.

John Calvin wrote of the seed of faith. He said that this seed exists within all of us, this kernel of desire for experience with God. Like the living yeast that surrounds us and is present in our bread, this kernel is only activated when we feed it the nutrients of Biblical truths and allow for it to grow through times of contemplation and prayer.

Another line that caught me in the video was when Eryn says, “It’s this kind of funny idea of looking for something that we can’t actually see.” How often have we heard, or perhaps thought ourselves, of this a criticism of God. How can we be fueled by a God we can’t see?

Once when Billy Graham was asked to explain the existence of God he likened it to the wind saying, “I can’t see the wind, but I can see the effects of the wind.” When we look at bread that has been directly affected by yeast, the effect is holes. The effect is to create space for flavor to flourish. This hole-y place is life giving.

And how do we even know when yeast has been found? We know the yeast has been found by the bread it produces. By the same token, we know lives fueled by the seed of faith by the grace filled lives they produce.

In Luke 6:44 we read, “Each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” When we are rooted in faith, we live faith-filled lives.

On this world communion Sunday it’s also intriguing to think about Eryn Foster’s discussion about the flavor of a place.

For me I think of the description of India by Frances Hodgson Burnett in “A Little Princess.” She talks about how you can taste the perfumes of the spices in the air. Certainly our lives carry their own flavors as well. Think about it. What are the smells, sounds, and tastes of home? As this airborne yeast contributes to dough that is distinctly drawn from this community, so are we flavored by the culture that surrounds us.

What would we want the flavor of this community to be? What sort of bread are we making with our lives? Are we a complex multigrain? Are we a tough but flavorful sourdough? Are we a mixed up marble rye? And what sort of flavors do we carry out into the world with us? How do our lives flavor those with whom we interact each day?

As we come to communion today our bread is living bread both literally through the yeast culture, and sacramentally through the presence of the Holy Spirit among us as we eat this bread in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let us allow this living bread to flavor our lives so that we may in turn flavor the lives of one another. Amen.

“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.

“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.

Agape

Tonight at FPC Maumee we had our Agape Meal, a meal designed to reflect some elements of the passover meal, ancient Christian worship, and the way Jesus modeled selfless service in washing his disciples’ feet. This has become a tradition in our church and is one of my favorite things that we do as a church.

Here’s what I like about the Agape Meal:

It’s authentic. In a world with many things competing for everyone’s time it’s tempting, particularly as a church, to try to portray ourselves as different than we are in actuality. This event is not about being catchy or gimicky, it’s about being community. The dinner is surrounded by elements of worship and we sing simple congregation favorite type of songs. Food is passed around the room in a way that feels like great big family dinner.

Everyone has the opportunity to live into their call in the church community. Deacons, called to be the hands and feet of the church, serve the meal. They work with kind diligence to see that everyone is served and cared for. Elders, called to lead and equip the church in worship and service of God, distribute the elements of communion as well as lead the tables around the room in rites of hand washing and eating of bitter herbs. The pastor, called to preach and teach the congregation how to live in service of God, leads worship throughout the evening and explains the rites in which we are all taking part.

As we seek to bring others into our community and connect people with Christ, I hope events such as this annual meal can serve as a touchstone, reminding us how we are called to love one another as Christ loved the world: with agape love.