“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.

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

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

Listen to the sermon here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doubting [Insert Your Name Here]”; John 20:19-31 April 27, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Doubting ______________________________”
                   [Insert Your Name Here]
New Testament Lesson: John 20:19-31
April 27, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Biblical Storyteller, Casey FitzGerald presents John 20:19-31:

SLIDE 1 - Circus BarkerCome one come all: the amazing Jesus who walks through doors, lives again (without being a zombie), and walks on water!

SLIDE 2 - Cosmic Jesus How do we wrap our minds around all the things that we’re told Jesus is capable of? How do we believe in all that Jesus was and continues to be without piecemeal-ing out what is easy to accept from what seems impossible?

SLIDE 3 – Disciples and JesusIn our scripture today we’re told that the disciples hid behind locked doors and Jesus showed up, unbound by strict physics or locked doors. Scripture tells us that the disciples were hiding in fear of the Jews, a strange thought because they themselves were Jewish, as was their Lord, Jesus. Some have even suggested that they were hiding behind that door out of fear of Jesus himself. That they were afraid of how Jesus would confront them after their Maundy Thursday and Good Friday desertions.

SLIDE 4 - PeaceJesus comes into their fear, into their mourning, and says “peace be with you.” As became a pattern throughout his ministry, Jesus was acting in an entirely unexpected way. They were anticipating confrontation, vengeance, at the very least deep sadness. But instead Jesus comes in peace. Peace is an interesting way to respond to people whose inaction caused violence against you. The disciples we certainly shocked by Jesus’ presence and perhaps even more so by his attitude. They were overcome with joy at having him among them again and spread this news to those who did not experience Jesus face to face.

SLIDE 5 - ThomasThomas was not with them. Doubting Thomas, as he’s posthumously nicknamed, heard about Jesus’ post resurrection second hand, from the rest of the disciples. And SLIDE 6 - HandsThomas responds saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

SLIDE 7 – Jesus and ThomasAnd then a week later the disciples are once again gathered and Jesus appears providing his nail pierced side for Thomas’ examination.

Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Because of this interaction, Thomas is chided throughout history for his need to see Jesus’ side.

SLIDE 9 - Lamott Quote I’d tend to side more along the lines with author Anne Lamott who wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, its certainty.”[1]

It is a strange and jarring thought, that certainty could be counter to faith. However, faith isn’t faith without the conscious decision to be leaping out into what seems impossible and yet true.

SLIDE 10 - ThomasI think Thomas should be commended for his honesty. Who of us is without any doubts? How many times have we all checked out when reciting creeds or prayers? Have you earnestly examined all it is that we say together? Do we believe what we profess?

SLIDE 11 – Kathleen and Nadia Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor from Denver that I feel blessed to have met a few times. She speaks in ways I find helpful about how it is we can all be filled with such doubt and yet still manage to come to church each week and recite the Apostles Creed without having our fingers crossed behind our backs. She says that the importance of worshipping in community is that when we’re unable to believe every bit of what we profess it’s okay, because we’re not trying to believe it on our own. While I might be struggling theologically with one thing and you might be struggling with another, we stand by each other, each reciting and believing on behalf of not only ourselves but also each other. When we find ourselves at the limits of our belief, the community believes for us.

SLIDE 12 - Thomas One of the things that really stuck out for me from the text reading it this time around was the difference between what Thomas is looking for and what the disciples are shown. The disciples are happy to know that Jesus is alive. They are relieved that he is back among them and that he comes professing peace rather than judgment. For Thomas, this is not quite what he was looking for.

Though the disciples are happy he’s alive, Thomas also needs to know that he was dead. He’s not just looking for evidence of Jesus living; he’s looking for evidence of resurrection. Like many literalists we may known in our own lives, Thomas has an intensity to experience resurrection not only with his eyes, but with his touch. Educational theorists will affirm that different people learn in different ways. According to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Thomas would be categorized as a bodily kinesthetic, visual learner.

By putting his hand in Jesus’ side, the resurrection story becomes more than a story to Thomas, it becomes a reality. SLIDE 13 - Blessed Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

SLIDE 14 - Experiencing God Yes, we are blessed by faith without tangible evidence, but our faith gains a greater depth when we do experience Christ in our midst. We may not ever get the chance to touch Jesus in the flesh, but we all have our own experiences of God in this world: in the intensity of a newborn’s eyes blinking newly into the world, in the great expanses of oceans teeming with life seen and unseen, in the love of one another. We’re all given experiences of God’s presence among us, and our faith is strengthened for them.

SLIDE 15 - Jesus and DisciplesIt’s important to notice that though Thomas is seen as unbelieving this doesn’t make Jesus mad or frustrated. Rather, Jesus comes to him, provides his exposed side for Thomas’ inspection. Jesus isn’t trying to keep at a distance to test Thomas, but rather makes himself known completely, providing evidence of his death and resurrection. Might Jesus also be seeking to do this for us?

What evidence are you looking for in this world? Or haven’t you bothered to look? What evidence of resurrection have you experienced? How can you share your experiences with God for others to touch and hold near?

In your doubting, may you draw Jesus near, expecting God’s presence and power in this world and beyond. Amen.

Video Shown After Sermon:

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/11519-the-opposite-of-faith-is-not-doubt-it-s-certainty

“Lamb of God” John 1:29-42 January 19, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Lamb of God”
John 1:29-42
January 19, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01 “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” this bold declaration of John the Baptist names Jesus, putting Jesus future right out in front of them: Jesus had come to die for their sins.

It draws to mind a long ago promise from father to son. In Genesis 22 we read:

“God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.”

“Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, Slide04“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.  When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

And here we are, with John’s declaration, “here is the lamb of God!”

The story has turned dark from the baptismal declaration of last week, and the pictures of a rosy-cheeked baby from our scripture passages less than a month ago. In this narrative we are confronted with the reality of who this Jesus is, what his mission will be here on earth, and by extension, what our response should be to God come to earth.

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems fitting to quote another influential African American theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman. He wrote:

SLIDE 7 - HowardThurmanWhen the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.”[1]

At stores all around Christmas displays have come down and depending where you are they might already be on to Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, but here in the church you will notice by our paraments here on the pulpit, lectern, and communion table, we are still in the season after Epiphany. This is the season that celebrates the birth of Jesus, the manifestation of God come to earth. In the liturgical calendar of the church we are still being drawn into this mystery, drawn into the hope and promise of what it means for God to be in human form among us.

Slide08At Jesus’ birth there was a great gathering at the manger, all were drawn to experience Christ for themselves. This was more than just a birthday party for a baby, this was people drawn in to experience God, come to earth, come to human form, come to us.

In our scripture today, when Jesus is questioned about where he is going his answer is “come and see.” “Come and see,” is a call to have your own experience of the Christ.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks of his disciples following him. I would ask the same of you today. What are you looking for: what peace, what reconciliation, what answers? Might they be found in the pursuit of Jesus?

SLIDE 9 - Baby LambHow do we respond to Jesus come to earth? How do we respond to this beautiful baby, this grown man, this lamb of God?

Might we be a bit more like John the Baptist? John the Baptist is a rather interesting character in scripture. He is the cousin of Jesus, son of Elizabeth, and somehow he finds himself out in the wilderness, compelled to point people to Jesus. He is described as a hairy, unclean man. Many artists’ portrayals of him are far form flattering, kind of a wilderness man of sorts.SLIDE 10 - John-the-Baptist

And here this wild man comes into the scene saying, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John would see sin not as a moral category of making decisions of right from wrong,  but as a separation from relationship with God. Jesus taking away our sin then, establishes relationship between the people and God. Jesus has become real among them, real in his physicality as a man, but also real in his capacity to be the messiah, the savior, the one who came before.

We read in John 1:2-14: “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.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Slide13Biblical Commentator Richard Swanson explains the significance of the “lamb of God” in this way: “The lamb is burned as a whole burnt offering, not for sin but simply for extravagant sacrifice, which puts the one who offers the sacrifice (of the future of his flock) in the position of having to rely completely on God. The lamb is the long-awaited son, provided by God as part of a promise long-delayed, who walks with his father, the two of them together, on the way to the slaughter of the son and of the promise.”

May we live into the promise of our salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Savior, Messiah, and lamb of God. Amen.

“Knit Together” Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 September 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Knit Together”
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
September 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Close up of knitted pink yarn with a pair of knitting needlesAs a knitter, I can’t help but love the imagery of Psalm 139, verse 13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Eleven years ago when my family was together for Thanksgiving, my sister sat down with me and taught me how to hold the needles just right, how to wrap the yarn around the needle in a way that would make a knot that would connect to another knot, and then another. I may have had quite a bit of practice with it at this point, but I still get excited to see how these small little actions can be transformed into something much more than the yarn that composes it.

Those of you who knit and those of you who have knitters in your life will know knitting a sweater, afghan, scarf, or even a hat can take a long time. I’ve had friends of mine try to argue the logic of knitting. Why knit something when you can go out and buy it in the store? Buying something in the store can often cost less than knitting it, and will surely involve less time, but these days anyone knitting simply for an efficient way to have clothes probably won’t be knitting for very long. Rather, knitting is about intentionality of a design; customization through color, pattern, and texture; the joy of breathing life into a bundle of string, or skein of yarn for you knitters out there.

Slide 2 - Knitting SweaterKnitter, author, and spiritualist Deborah Bergman writes about this. She says, “Fact: it is going to take you longer to knit a sweater than it would take you to open a tasteful mail-order catalogue and order one right now. It is probably going to take you longer to knit a sweater than to go to the store and by one, even if you have to try five different stores on three different weekends. It takes a wild kind of patience to be a knitter. Not that it’s so difficult or challenging to be this wildly patient. When we knit, we become patient almost by accident. Almost despite ourselves, because we also want to finish and wear whatever we are making in the next five minutes, and this is part of what keeps us going, we notice that even as we hasten towards the next stitch, the next row, the next decrease, the end of the collar, we are also entering the deep warm sea called slowing down. We are surrendering to this obvious but odd sort of alternate universe where waiting is not only acceptable, but pleasurable.”

Thinking then of God as a knitter knitting us together in our mother’s womb, I can sense that energy: the frenetic joy to have creation come to its fullness paired with a deep patience.

Slide 3 - Creation of WorldThe first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days through a series of commands and affirmations; the work of a creator excited to see what has been created. Genesis chapter two slows things down a bit. God enters into relationship with Adam, taking care not just for his physical needs, but also his relational needs. God forms Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, crafting them into being.

From what we’ve learned of creation scientifically and through the Genesis narratives, God’s act of creation is very similar to how we know God as a knitter, eager for fullness, but filled with patience.

Slide 4 - Big BangEven the big bang theory speaks of this frenetic energy bursting into being and then slowly putting piece after piece together until the circumstances were precisely right for life to exist. Creation was and continues to be an unfolding of God’s hope and purpose.

Moyra Caldecott writes of this saying, “Our being is the expression of God’s thought. We contain the love of God and God contains us and as we unfold on the earth through shell-creature, fish-form, reptile, bird, and mammal – through ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, and ape – we are learning step by step what containment means. The circles are still widening – still evolving the mighty concept – the magnificent Idea. Six days, Seven, a million years, a thousand million. The count is nothing, the Being – All.” We are a part of a magnificent idea, creation.

Genesis 1:27 also tells us that we are created in God’s image. God is a creator God, therefore we are created as creative people. As such, we also possess this energy and desire to create. The act of creating itself can be a way of connecting to God, a spiritual practice.

SLIDE 7 - AnskarIn the ninth century there was a monk named Anskar who became Archbishop of Hamburg and then later was sainted. He was an ascetic, who placed great importance on prayer and fasting, but not at the expense of useful activity, and so he was often seen knitting while be prayed. The phrase “ora et labora,” “pray and work” refers to the monastic practice of striking a balance between prayer and work and is often associated with the Benedictine order.

By working while he prayed, Anskar served as an example of how these things needn’t be separate, that prayer and work can happen simultaneously. In his knitting, Anskar was offering a creative response to our creator God.

God has indeed gifted us with a purpose, knitted us together. God knows each stitch of how we are put together and calls it good. John Calvin wrote, “When we examine the human body, even to the nails of our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered without felt inconveniency… Where is the embroiderer who, with all industry and ingenuity, could execute the hundredth part of this complicated and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed humankind so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of us after we are ushered into the world. “[1]

SLIDE 9 - EarWhittaker Chambers, who initially an avowed atheist started towards conversion in a creator God when when he had his own experience of the divine in examining his daughter’s ear as she was sitting in her high chair eating. He writes, “She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life…My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by an immense design’.”

Our existence, our intricate design provides a witness to the care of the creator who made us. Thinking of God as a knitter we can 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.

SLIDE 10 - Sheep and knittingEach 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 items 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.

SLIDE 11 - CreationOur 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.

SLIDE 12 - PredestinationOne way we can talk about this theologically is through the doctrine of predestination. This is one of the big theological words associated with Presbyterianism, but I’d hazard a guess that not many Presbyterians really get what it means.  Fundamentally, Presbyterians get their association with predestination from Calvin whose theology established the Presbyterian denomination.

Donald McKim explains the doctrine of predestination and its association with Presbyterianism in his book, “Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers”: “Calvin came to the doctrine from a very pastoral concern: Why is it some people respond to the Christian gospel and others do not? His answer, as he studied Scripture, was the God had elected or chosen (‘predestined,’ as Romans 8:28-30) those who believe. This is a gift of God’s grace, because humans are sinners and do not deserve the salvation God gives as a free gift in Jesus Christ. For Calvin, predestination should lead to gratitude and joy! It means that when we believe the gospel, we believe because of God’s powerful Spirit in our lives, and that God has elected us out of God’s free grace. When Presbyterians talk about predestination, we are talking about the actions of the God of the Bible. God is not the blind laws of nature or an impersonal force (like ‘fate’). God here chooses to enter into relationships with sinful people (covenants) and to provide the gift of salvation by sending Jesus Christ into the world (John 3:16-21). This is a God who cares and loves and gives grace to undeserving people like us. So predestination is a comforting doctrine, since it assures us that our salvation rests in God’s work, not our own.”[2]

SLIDE 13 - PredestinationUnderstanding God’s give of predestination should bring gratitude because it allows us to experience the loving power of God. As it says in Romans 5:8-11: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

God formed you and called you good. God claims your life in baptism, dying for your sins before you even asked, loving you beyond your own limitations of love. God has placed worth on your life and is eager to see how it will unfold. You are a treasured creation of God. May you live with gratitude for God’s great love of you. Amen.


[1] Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V: Psalm 139

[2] Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers: Exploring Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2004), 9.

“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.

“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts;” Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14; May 12, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Broken Bibles, Mended Hearts”
Psalm 119:9-16, 103-105 and John 1:1-14
May 12, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. Slide13I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.Slide05

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

 Over the years, I became less concerned with one individual Bible, and more concerned with my own ability to engage with scripture as a whole. As one translation became not quite as compelling to me, I would get other translations to shake things up in my scripture reading life. I have bought or received different Bibles in different seasons of my life. Slide07 I have a Message Translation that I got in high school when scripture seemed too old to be relevant. Slide08 I have several Hebrew and Greek Bibles that I used throughout seminary when English translations seemed too new to be accurate. I have study Bibles that I’ve used at different times to help me connect with what different theologians have said about scripture throughout time.

Though each of these versions helped me to read scripture in a new way, they were still pointing to the same God, the same truths, and the same Gospel grace.

Slide09Our New Testament lesson today speaks about the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition. It says, “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]

The word of God is more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Frederick Buechner, a prominent contemporary Presbyterian minister writes about the lasting messiness and importance of scripture in his book, “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,” “One way to describe the Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years and more, would be to say that it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, which superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism….Slide11And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us. And it is also a book about God…One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.”[2]

 Our Psalm today, Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly get into God’s word, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture.

If I let myself get caught up in that torn page, I would have never actually gotten to the truth of God’s scripture, God’s own message for my life. In a way, it helped me that that page was torn, because once it was already broken into I didn’t feel like anything I could do to it would be ruining it.

Slide14 This was also liberating for my own understanding of the condition I needed to be in in order to receive God’s grace. God wants us just as we are, and no tears in our conditions or messes in our lives can keep us from God’s plan for us. God used a messed up Bible to speak healing to my own messy heart.

It is my hope and prayer that these Bibles that our third graders received will not stay in such great condition as they are today. If you really use these Bibles you might take a highlighter or pen to the page to write some of your own thoughts about scripture, these Bibles might get ripped, and eventually the covers might fall off. But as these Bibles disintegrate, you will be strengthened to love as God would have you love, serve as God would have you serve, and to hope in the great good promises of salvation by Jesus Christ; and that is worth so much more than pristine pages and a binding that’s never been broken.Slide15

There is a great beauty in the Bibles of people who read scripture from them every single day. They will likely look more run down than anything you’ll find in a bookstore, but in all of their writings, bookmarks, and tears they become a living witness to the faith life of that Christian. Here’s a truth, the worse shape your Bible is in, the better shape your heart is in. (Now of course my lack of focus on any one particular Bible keeps me from showing this in my own life, but I still believe it to be true.)

SLIDE 15 - Plan BPresbyterian author, Anne Lamott, writes in her book, “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” about how to absorb scripture. She writes: “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”[3]

Immersing ourselves in scripture, showing up at church each Sunday to hear God’s word read and preached, reading God’s word before we go to sleep, all of these things may run-down our Bibles, but will help to heal our hearts. May we open our hearts to receive this message of wholeness that God has for us. Amen


[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s Abc, Rev. and expanded [ed.]. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993), p. 9.

[3] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith (New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006)

“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography; Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; February 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography
Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
February 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message

For the children’s message I printed Exodus 34:29b (“The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God”) on glow-in-the-dark paper. I used a flashlight to show how the paper shone much more brightly when it was near to the light. We talked about how Moses shone from being in God’s presence and prayed that God might use us to share God’s light with other people.

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography

Slide04Today we are starting our Lenten sermon series on Spiritual Practices, which I previewed a bit last week in our sermon on Spiritual Practices as a way to experience God and a way to practice our faith. Lent actually begins this upcoming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, but since the idea of learning these spiritual practices is to give us new ways to encounter God during Lent, I wanted to make sure you were equipped with some spiritual tools before Lent actually begins.

Today we’ll be discussing “iconography.” What do you think of when you hear the word “iconography?

Slide02Historic Christian icons are images of the divine, largely coming from Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikon meaning “likeness, image, or portrait,” and graphia “write, express by written characters or description of.” So iconography is the process of exploring or describing an image. Christian icons ask the iconographer to explore the divine aspects of the image, looking at the artwork in order to experience God.

I know when I first heard it I thought it sounded like idolatry. To me, it seemed like it was asking someone to worship an image of God, which seems like worshiping something other than God, which is against the commandment God gave saying, “have no other Gods before me.” At the very least it seemed like a rather stale Christian practice. Staring at a picture doesn’t seem to be very interactive as prayer goes.

Slide03But iconography is not a practice of idolatry. Even in the Greek roots the essence of the meaning of iconography is to explore something that is pointing to something else, in the case of iconography, that something else is the divine. Icons are not meant to be divine in and of themselves, but rather they are “windows” to the divine, ways through which we may experience God’s presence.

Slide04Our Old Testament passage today speaks of Moses and the Israelite’s experience with God’s presence. Moses interacted with God directly and as it says in verse 29, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”[1] The passage goes on to say how Moses would veil his face when he was not interacting directly with God or transmitting God’s message. Moses’ face radiated God’s presence. For the Israelites, Moses transmitted God’s commands and reflected God’s will for them. Moses was a window through which they could experience God’s power. This proved to be too intense for them, which is why Moses wore the veil when he was not actively transmitting God’s message. They couldn’t handle always being confronted with the brightness of such truth.

Slide05Our New Testament reading is written as a direct response to this story and a reflection as to why this would be. In verse 13 it says that we are called to live a life of boldness, “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” Paul continues saying that the this veil is only removed when one turns to Christ, that through Christ we are able to fully experience God’s presence.

Since our intangibly great God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, by taking on a human form Jesus made it possible for us to look directly at divinity incarnate. Icons of Christ attempt to make God’s presence known to us through showing the only living breathing true incarnation of God.Slide06

Author Simon Jenkins wrote:

“The point about icons is that they affirm he teaching, to quote the language of the Creed, that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God’ who ‘was made man.’ Simply to paint an image of Christ is to confess that Jesus, the Son of God, truly appeared on earth as a human being – ‘sprung from Mary as well as from God,’ in the words of St. Ignatius. It is to confess that ‘the Word made flesh’ could be seen with the eyes. An conversely, to oppose the making of icons is to deny that confession…[I]cons stand on the front line of the faith: they stand or fall on the truth of Christianity itself.”

Slide09Legend says that Jesus himself made the first icon, asking Ananias, who we see pictured here, (to the left) to paint a picture of Jesus to go to heal a man with leprosy when Jesus couldn’t go in person. Seeing Ananias struggling to paint a picture in the crowd Jesus pitied him. Jesus washed his face, drying it with a square of linen and leaving an imprint of his image on the cloth. Ananias took this image and it brought to the man with leprosy who was immediately healed.[2]

Slide10Throughout early Christianity, much importance was given to the particular history of each icon, each trying to trace the accuracy of these depictions back to someone’s firsthand interaction with Jesus Christ. The idea being, like a big game of historical telephone, the best and most accurate images of Christ would be the ones closest to firsthand experience with Jesus. Since that original icon was able to create healing as an extension of Christ’s power, images that were created the closest to an experience of Christ would be the most powerful.

Slide11Contemporary iconography approaches this practice with a much broader view of what can be deemed an “icon.” Since icons are images that provide a window to the divine, give us a glimpse of God’s presence, icons can be anything that makes us think of God. In a few minutes we will watch a video I put together of different images that in my experience, point to God. Some of these images will look quite familiar, some of them will be unfamiliar, but each has been put together with the idea of allowing us to glimpse God in our midst.

As we watch this video, you might see your own image. Our passage today in 2 Corinthians suggests something truly shocking, that we can be bearers of God’s presence. It says in verse 17 and 18

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Slide13There are dangers with iconography. There’s the danger of this practice becoming self-worship or devoting our attention to something man-made, but the idea is not to focus on the image itself or the created thing or person themselves, but rather that through that image, through that creation you seek to witness God’s creative brilliance, God’s gifts of love and grace, God’s overwhelming goodness. This is the difference between “adoration” and “veneration.” Adoration is an act of submission and worship that should only be offered to Almighty God.

Veneration is something very different. Tony Jones writes, “Veneration…is how one uses an icon in prayer – not unlike the Bible, which we venerate and respect, but don’t worship. The Bible brings us closer to God, guides us in prayer, and is considered a gift from God, even though it was written and translated by human hands. Similarly, an icon, painted by human hands, leads us into God’s presence…The bottom line is that we use icons to pray, but we pray through them, not to them.”

Slide15In order incorporate praying through iconography into your own devotional life, the first thing to do is to get an icon that you might use to focus your prayers. This image might change from time to time, but choosing one icon for your devotional time will keep your mind from wandering too far. Once you have this icon in hand, find a quiet place where you can be alone. Then, when you are ready, gaze upon the image and look for how God is looking to reveal God’s divinity in this image. What does this image tell you about God? What are the sounds, smells, or senses that this image evokes? How does it make you feel? You can think about all of these things, or if your head will allow you comfort in the stillness, feel free to simply gaze at this image, simply taking it in for however God will have you see it.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Icons… have imprinted themselves so deeply on my inner life that they appear every time I need comfort and consolation. There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.”

It is my hope, that sometime during this week, or at least during Lent, that you would take the time to try this practice. And it is my prayer that God would be revealed in your experience. Amen.

Below is the video shown in worship following the sermon


[1] Exodus 34:29

[2] “The Sacred Way” by Tony Jones, page 99

“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.