“Made for This;” Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14; July 30, 2017; FPC Holt

“Made for This”
Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14
July 30, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I was little, I always struggled with this question because I’ve always been interested in so many things. If I could’ve been a professional horseback riding, opera singing, francophone playwright, I might’ve ended up somewhere else entirely!

In eighth grade in the midst of confirmation and career research paper, God pointed me to a way that I could live a life of being totally and utterly myself, by becoming a pastor. It’s as though God was pointing to each part of my personality and character and saying, “I can use that.” My listening ear became pastoral care, my singing became praise, and my storytelling became preaching.

Our Psalm today tells us God’s knitting us together and I imagine each of these passions and traits being woven into a complex design. It’s incredible to think the level to which God knows us and the intricacies God has placed within each of us. Thinking of God as a knitter I think of how the act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit. Each part of the journey impacts how the item turns out, reflecting the quality of the grass, the life of the sheep, the expertise of the spinner, and the temperament of the knitter.

There are items that I have knit in Bible studies, on planes, with friends, by myself. When I see the knitted garment I know where the yarn came from, the pattern that was selected or designed, where I was at each part of the item’s creation, and how much work went into all of it. Because of this, I am connected to that item. This connectivity means that I care about what happens to it.

There have been a few times with this connectivity has been hard: a hat made with specialty yarn, knit from a new pattern with a complicated technique was lost in the mail as I tried to send it to a friend; a backpack that I designed the pattern for, and learned how to crochet so that I could make drawstring straps turned out not to be sturdy enough to hold much of anything; and a hat made from five different beautiful yarns all cabled together turned out to be much too small. In each of these instances, it was hard to know that this item that I had spent so much energy on, were not able to be utilized in the way I had intended.

Our creator, who knows us so intimately, desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives.  With a knitter’s energy, God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, but God also waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.

One of the greatest joys of ministry is discovering over and over again how God takes whoever we are and whatever gifts we bring and transforms it all to God’s glory. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in this congregation: You’ve got skills in construction? God has a call for you to maintain the building where God’s people meet. You’re able to create stained glass pieces? God can use those talents to teach others about the depth and breadth of God’s teaching over time. You know how to organize people, food, or equipment? You can serve God through helping others with the Food Bank and medical lending closet. You feel most alive when your hands are creating art? Your art can be a worshipful practice for you and inspire others.

What’s hard however, is when you feel like the multiple calls God has placed on your life are pulling you in different directions at once. Sometimes we want to say, come on God, can you be a bit more clear in your “searching out our path?”

One of the most profound and annoying things I have ever heard about discernment came from a professor at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was there for a prospective student visit and we were in a session talking about the ordination process. I don’t remember quite who it was that was meeting with us, but I remember distinctly that he said that when we are discerning where to go or what to do, God sometimes just says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to go to Pittsburgh or Louisville or Richmond for seminary and God says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to be a pastor or a playwright and God says, “yes.” Not that God doesn’t care what happens to us, but God will work through whichever choice that we make, and so sometimes there really isn’t a wrong choice to be made.

Recently in my own life, I have found myself pulled in several directions at once. Those who have been involved in the life of this church during my three years serving here will not be surprised to hear me describe this past year as challenging. From the myriad health concerns to the loss of both of my grandmothers, and all the typical stressors that come with being a new parent, I have said over and again, “I don’t know that I can take anything else,” and then something else came along. I remember I was talking to someone at my sister’s baby shower and she said, “remember, your car was also in that accident?” I figure life’s gotten pretty crazy if I couldn’t remember a car accident.

And so I found myself asking: do I serve the congregation? address my own health? care for my family? I heard God saying, “yes.” Over and over again, the answer was, “yes.”

Many of you have described my news of me leaving as bittersweet and I need you to know that that is absolutely the reality for me as well. In my time here I have loved you all, deeply and truly. My life is so much richer for having known you.

It is possible that one could look at a three-year pastorate as but a small dot on the 152-year timeline of this congregation, but to do so would be to disregard the incredible ways that God has been moving in our midst while I have been blessed to serve alongside you:

God’s newness among us, through baptisms, new life, Christmases, and Easters. God’s grace filled grief among us, through the valleys of death and loss, through Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays, through the meals of bread and juice. I will not forget God’s presence in the baptismal water dripping from my fingers or the crumbs of the bread broken in remembrance. This life we have lived together was God’s great, “yes,” to this season for each of us.

To look at each of us individually you might not see the connective threads between us, but they are there, knitting us, one to the other.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince of the story describes his relationship with the rose he has cared for to a garden of other roses:

“An ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe… because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

Then a fox says to the Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

The reality being, all that work was no waste whatsoever, but a cultivation of love.

You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have been my rose, and I have loved you all the deeper through our work together. I have been honored to care for you in times of vulnerability, to listen to you in times of joy and struggle. My life is blessed through the ways we have sheltered and cared for one another these past three years. Not one moment of this ministry has been a waste and you have been deeply important to me.

I have been honored by this invisible bond between us, the unity we find in our love of God. For we read in 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”

May your heart know the truth that God has formed each one of us and called us good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

Listen here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

StoryPeople Theology

I realized the other day that I’ve been a fan of Brian Andreas work for ten years now. I first came across his art in a book of his when I was on a family vacation to Mackinaw Island, MI. I picked up the book in a shop and just kept laughing and nodding at all of the stories. They seemed to give context to a lot of emotions that I couldn’t quite figure out how to put into words on my own. Over the years these stories have colored my life with their cleverness, wit, and honesty. While I could share meaningful Story People stories all day long, I figured a good tribute to Brian Andreas would be to share a handful of stories that portray parts of my own theology, that is how I understand God and God’s relationship with us.  Four out of the six of these decorate the walls of my church office. Rather than explain my own understanding of each of these, I welcome you to read them yourself, to let them sit with you for a while and soak in. I pray they will bless you as they have blessed me.

TheWayHome

“The Way Home,” by Brian Andreas

"Remember," by Brian Andreas

“Remember,” by Brian Andreas

"Place to Fly," by Brian Andreas

“Place to Fly,” by Brian Andreas

Beautiful Things

“Beautiful Things,” by Brian Andreas

"Different Plans," by Brian Andreas

“Different Plans,” by Brian Andreas

 

"Connection," by Brian Andreas

“Connection,” by Brian Andreas

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

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

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

Slide01There is a distinct scent to older churches. Some combination of wax from years of flickering candlelit Christmas Eve services, hymns and Bibles that have been opened and closed by a great many people over a great many years. Slide02Even in Berean Hall, which was built only 18 years ago, there’s a feel of history: the meals that were served there, the community that has grown from that space. When I imagine the cloud of witnesses, this is what comes to mind: that very apparent lived-in feel of a church that has had a great many witnesses.

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

Slide04Many religious traditions have their own built in routine of showing respect for their foundations. I am reminded of Chinese culture portrayed in Disney’s Mulan and the relationship that she has with her ancestors, praying for them to intercede on her behalf. The Catholic faith lifts up people from throughout Christian tradition as Saints, praying for them to intercede on their behalf, one Saint encyclopedia website I saw even referred to Saints as “extended family in heaven.”

Slide05Though in Presbyterian tradition we do not pray to saints or ancestors to intercede on our behalf, we do affirm the “communion of saints.” This can be rather confusing. Though we call them “saints,” we are not referring to the Catholic canon of saints, but rather, the collection of everyone who has, is, and will be faithful to Jesus Christ. In this larger communion of saints we affirm a fellowship united through Christ. We see this greater fellowship with all Christians in our passage today, in the phrase, “cloud of witnesses.” Before the familiar, conclusive, mission focused part of this passage that beings with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we hear several rather troubling accounts of our faith ancestors over time.

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

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

In our passage today we read: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This word that is most often translated as surrounded, perikaimennon in the Greek, also carries the meaning “bound.” This affirms that we are bound to those who share our faith in history, in the present, and in the future.

There’s this book I’ve read called, “Spiritual Care for Persons with Dementia.” I started reading this book primarily to be able to have a bit more insight in how to show specific care towards people with dementia. Though this book does have concrete practical examples of ideas on how to care for people with dementia, it also has many great theological statements on the temporal nature of health and how the Bible frames the worth of all people.

Slide 7 - ConnectionIn one particular essay in this book, “To See Things as God Sees Them,” Stephen Sapp writes, “In contrast to the radically individualistic attitude espoused by contemporary American society, Christianity strongly affirms that human beings are more than merely autonomous beings who exist as separate atoms in discrete moments of time, able to do exactly as they please whenever they please…. God sees humans not as such radically disconnected individuals but as social-historical beings who are undeniably linked with others, living in community and changing over time in ways over which they do not always have control.”

In our baptismal vows we affirm our participation in a greater body of faith. This understanding of each other as Christian family binds us to one another. When we stop seeing one another as competition or a burden, and instead wield to the fluidity of our interconnectedness, we are able to more fully participate in the greater cloud of witnesses. This is affirmed in scripture by another familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

Young People Walking in Meadow“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

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

Slide10When we look back at Hebrews 12:1 and read, “let us run with perseverance this race,” it can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.

Slide11This is one of the reasons I enjoy being a part of a denomination. While some say it is divisive to have denominational affiliations, I see it rather that our denominational group is the equivalent of a running group. These are people who take time out to be together with one another. They set goals together and work our plans of how they may go about achieving them. They support one another through injuries and work together in relays. Most importantly, they run alongside each other. This is how I see our denomination: people who have decided to stick things out together, and run this race alongside one another, surrounded by the larger and greater cloud of witnesses.

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

Slide131 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” This causes us to look to the greater body of faith. Who is it that needs help running this race? How can you strengthen them? Perhaps you could help with WOW or with Sunday School. Maybe God is calling you to be more intentional about reaching out to a friend or family member who has not yet formed a relationship with Christ.

We are called to a part of the great cloud of witnesses. We are called to run with one another, supporting one another in faith. God calls us to honor the cloud of witnesses from our past, support the cloud among us, and cultivate a future for the witnesses to come.  It is my prayer that this week you may pay attention to who needs support and to find ways to run alongside them. Amen.

Presentation of Bibles

Here’s is a rather belated posting. I have been working on getting past sermon audio recordings onto YouTube and when I was working on the sermon from May 12th I realized I hadn’t posted this part of that service yet. I hope that it will be a helpful resource for others who are putting together presentations of Bibles.

We gave our students the Spark Bible by Augsburg Press. It is a phenomenal Bible for children with accessible explanations of the text and elements for interaction (including stickers…the third graders were excited about that!). Most importantly, it is a full NRSV version, so it can be used throughout their lives. So great!

Below is the script of what was said and done. We did this in the service during the Time for Children.

Presentation of Bibles

BibleToday we have a very special present for our third graders, and I bet you already know what it is. Bibles. Bibles are an extra special present because they are so many things. As we talk about the different parts, I’d like to peel away one layer of paper at a time.

vineOur first layer of paper is this green paper with the vines. John 15:4 says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” God wants us to be rooted in scripture, to go back to it when we’re searching for answers, to grow from learning more about God’s great love for us. Vines also show how we are all connected to one another. Though we can read the Bible by ourselves, it is important to have other people around who can help you to understand it. As a church we are all connected through Christ’s vine, and as you have questions as you read, we hope that you’ll come and ask about it. Alright, let’s pull of that layer of paper.

construction Next we have paper with all sorts of construction machinery and symbols on it. Scripture tells us in Jeremiah 23:29 that the Word is: “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” separating good from bad; like our construction symbols the Bible cautions against the harm that can come from not following God. As the Bible teaches us right from wrong we are built up in our faith and strengthened. Okay, now you can rip off that layer

CupcakesNext we have one of my favorite layers, it is a paper with cupcakes on it. In Jeremiah 15:16 scripture tells us that God’s Word is food for the soul, a “joy and delight.” In Psalm 19:10 scripture is described as “sweeter than honey.” Scripture can be sweet because it carries a message of God’s love for us. Reading it is a celebration of the many ways that God has taken care of God’s people throughout history. Okay, let’s rip off one more layer.

Hologram circle (3)Our next layer is this sparkly gold paper. It stands for the light of scripture. Psalm 119 says in verse 105 that “[God’s] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In Proverbs 6:23 it says, “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light” In John 1, God is described as the Word, which is a light for all people.  When we feel like we are in darkness, God’s message of hope and love can light up our lives with joy and grace. This is not a light we’re supposed to keep to ourselves, but to share with others. As you read these Bibles and learn more about God, that is something that God calls you to share with others.

Please pray with me by repeating after me: Thank you God for your Holy Word. With these Bibles help us to be connected to the vine of your loving church and be built up in our faith. May we enjoy the sweetness of your joy and share the light of your Word with others. 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