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

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

Listen here

Welcome mat

Welcome mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness;” Matthew 25:14-30; November 16, 2014

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014

Listen to the audio recording of the sermon here

Slide02Have you ever looked at something so long you stop seeing it? The way a week in the mountains will make you marvel at it’s beauty, but five years makes it seem ordinary. Slide03Or a green leafed tree in your front yard, which is always more noticeable as it newly buds in spring or changes to bright yellow or orange in the Fall. Or artwork long hung in your living room that is really only seen when you really take the time to notice it.

Slide05In my experience, the same happens with scripture. Scripture that I have heard over and over again can seem, well, ordinary. It ceases to have the sort of impact intended If we allow the very first reading of scripture to be our only real hearing of scripture we miss out. We fail to see the dynamic nature of our scripture, the way it can shape and color our experience in it’s re-reading, in our interpretation throughout our lives.

Slide06This parable is one of those passages. When I began this week I thought I knew exactly what God had to say to us with this text. With so many parables that have to deal with God in the seat of power, I thought, well of course, the master is Jesus, we as Jesus’ disciples are the servants. God gives us each talents and then we in turn are responsible for being good stewards of those resources. Simple enough, right?

Peter Dunne first wrote the phrase: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, as one of roles of journalism, but it certainly fits within the role of the Biblical scholar as well. And since I was so comfortable in this interpretation, I felt that I needed to seek out something in this text that would challenge me, that would allow me to see this words anew.

So, I started to unpack the text a bit more, as well as read what some others had to say on this text, and the more I looked at these words, what is being exalted, what is being diminished the more uncomfortable I became with the parable as I had previously understood it.

Slide07With the Greek word [talenta] translated simply as “talent,” it loses the Greek connotations of a specific sum of money, measured in weight. One talent is about 73 pounds. In today’s gold prices, one talent would be worth about $1,230,083.25, two talents $2,460,166.50, and five talents $6,150,416. That is a truly incredible amount of money.

Often though, we make the quick leap to modern vernacular and view this monetary sum instead as the talents or abilities with which God has gifted us. It’s possible to view it that way, and certainly many a faithful preacher has, but I do think something is lost when we remove [talenta] from its monetary context into a more generalized context.

Slide08It’s one thing to open ourselves up to allowing God to use all that we are and all the abilities we have been given to glorify God. Doing so enables us to expand our reach for God’s kingdom and to fully live into the joy that is ours in Christ. It is quite another thing to double a crazy large amount of money to raise the profit margin of our employer.

Slide09In his article “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents,” Richard Rohrbaugh points out that at the time of this text’s writing the highest legal interest rate was around 12 percent; and so this extreme margin of profit was likely less an act of thoughtful stewardship, but rather an act of deceit and exploitation. By contrast there’s no way that that third servant could, or would even want to, keep up with that rate.

Reading this through the lens of Biblical context, rather than a modern lens, we are to be reminded that in Luke 12:13-21 the man who accumulates for accumulation’s sake is deemed a fool, and in both Mark (10:25) and Matthew (19:24) we are told, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Sitting here in our 21st century lives it seem straightforward to assume that capitalism would be the greater good of this story.

Slide 10 - man with coinsI know for many years I have seen that third servant as the least desirable role of this parable’s cast of characters. How dare he squander the investment opportunity of this amount he has been given? How could he be idle when the other two had clearly worked so hard to double their master’s resources?

What if, he in fact, he was the one we are to emulate in this story? On first glance this consideration really had me scratching my head. How could it even be possible that this man was in the right? This man, who dug a hole in the ground and simply let this tremendous sum of money sit there. Slide11But then I considered what was being done in by the other servants, how they were likely manipulating their money to profit from the misfortune of others. And I thought about how much good has been done by this very sort of intentional inaction, which we know in other contexts as civil disobedience. Sure, in the ground this money was ineffectual for any purposes, but at the same time, he was preventing it from being used for harm.

In their article “Towering Trees and ‘Talented’ Slaves,” Eric DeBode and Ched Myers shook up my understanding of the passage, and provided a framework whereby I could see this passage anew. “This has been for many an unsettling story. It seems to promote ruthless business practices (v. 20), usury (v. 27), and the cynical view that the rich will only get richer while the poor become destitute (v. 29). Moreover, if we assume, as does the traditional reading, that the master is a figure for God, it is a severe portrait indeed: an absentee lord (v. 15) who cares only about profit maximization (v. 21), this character is hardhearted (v. 24) and ruthless (v. 30).”

Slide14We say in this church, and put on our parade float that each of us are beloved children of God loves us and that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. If we really believe this to be true, how could we give credence to this rewards system?

Slide16To quote Episcopal priest, Alexis Myers Chase, “If the master is supposed to be Jesus, then the vision of God that I hold dear – the vision of God as loving, as grace-filled, as so loving that he sent his only son to die on the cross for us and for our salvation – that God doesn’t exist. The vision of a God that invites us from week to week to confess and be forgiven of our sins and then invites us to this simple table to eat bread and wine together as a community, that God doesn’t exist. Instead I am supposed to be walking around afraid of God, afraid I am not enough, afraid that I am not doing enough, afraid…This god is a vindictive and angry god that only cares about outcomes, not about love. That only cares about accumulation, not grace. That only cares about how much I can give, not how much I worship.”

She concludes, “I don’t like that god. I don’t feel welcomed by that god. My God has set me free to love and serve wherever I find Christ in others.”

And where is it that Christ can be found? Listen to the passage following our text earlier, in Matthew 25:35-36 we read Christ’s words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

Slide19Christ doesn’t demand profit for the sake of profit, but rather Christ demands care for the least and the last and the lonely. The master in our parable may have cast this third servant into the outer darkness of this world, but might it be possible, that that was exactly where he was meant to be? That the outer darkness might not be a condemnation, but a mission field?

How we cast the characters in this parable matters. Faithfulness is only an act of faith, when it is in response to one who is worthy. Our care for God’s people and our own self worth are impacted by whether we view God as gracious or ruthless, whether we view God as absent or present. Whether we believe that we need to earn our place in Christ’s Kingdom, or whether Christ love has done more for us than we could ever do on our own.

Let us approach scripture afresh, listening for the voices of the oppressed, the diminished, the marginalized. May we not be afraid of to be in the outer darkness of this world, because it may be the very place Jesus will meet us. May our eyes be opened to what God is saying to God’s people. Amen.

“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“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, “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.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “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.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9

“Cornerstone” Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 April 13, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Cornerstone”
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
April 13, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” The crowds shouted and threw their coats at Jesus’ feet, making a way for him to come into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, hosanna!”

Slide02I remember as a kid, reading the Palm Sunday scripture and acting this out, walking up and down the aisle of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio, waving our palms. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” Not knowing the word, “hosanna,” I was taught that it was similar to shouts of “hurray” or “yay” or “welcome.”

Slide03When I later learned what all was going on in this Holiest of weeks, I was confused. In Holy week Jesus comes to Jerusalem, but it is not all a party. He is walking towards the place where he will be hurt, where he will be mocked, the place where he will die on a cross.

Slide04We’re told that the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” and we think of this as a shout of excitement and joy. It was that to be sure, but the actual word carries a bit more with it.In the Hebrew it means, “save us.” “Save us!” they cry.

Slide06They were excited that this Jesus they’d heard about was coming into their town, but it was more for their own sake than out of praise. They were excited for salvation and redemption, not knowing exactly how all of that would play out, but knowing that Jesus’ presence was for their benefit. He came to give us the final pieces of the story of a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, born in manger, who lived a rabble-rousing yet sinless life. He came to fulfill prophecy.

Slide07When we read through the Old Testament prophecies we have the 20/20 hindsight to know how the story turned out, to know that they were pointing to Jesus, to know what the “festal branches” in the scripture we read today meant. But what if we didn’t know those things, how then would we read this scripture today?

Slide08“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever!” This phrase is so important to the composer of the Psalm that it’s at both the beginning and the end of our passage. “Love enduring forever,” is quite the claim. Especially when we know how the story plays out.

“Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Slide09Reading our Psalm is a bit odd too in the way that it speaks in past tense in a scripture we’ve be taught is about Jesus. The psalmist says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The stone that the builders already rejected has already become the chief cornerstone. While we know that Jesus is that cornerstone, this Psalm was written hundreds and hundreds of years before Holy Week. But that’s the thing with prophecy: it’s outside of time. It is important to know that Jesus’ rejection was part of the plan from the beginning, that God knows what God is doing, and that God’s love is enacted even in this strange and heartbreaking plan. After all, God’s love endures forever.

Slide10Jesus came into the crowds on a donkey, preaching messages counter to what all the religious authorities deemed decent and orderly. He didn’t seem important or respectable, just another radical to be brought down. Even those who were expecting a messiah, would’ve agreed that this Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t exactly who they were looking for. We know that Jesus was perfect, but even in heavenly perfection, Jesus did not fit the earthly expectations for a King and savior.

Jesus didn’t fit into the religious authorities’ building plan for God’s kingdom, but fit precisely into God’s own plan. Jesus remains unquestionably central to the action of God, in our experience and in the future of the church. Through this God shows us that however we attempt to package and manufacture salvation, salvation is always through God’s perfect design.

This prophecy of a cornerstone is in the Psalms where we read it today as well as in Isaiah. Isaiah 28: 14-17 speaks of the promises of death and the promises of God. The scripture says, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem. Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with [hell] we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter”; therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: “One who trusts will not panic.” And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”

In the time of Isaiah the people of Jerusalem made a covenant with death, by seeking protection from what was not God. God offers the more reliable foundation of salvation through Jesus Christ, one who will come to live beyond the grave. The people can’t fathom such a salvation so they were more inclined to put their trust in that which they have seen, asking for protection from the systems of this world.

Slide12Before we judge these people too harshly let’s think a bit about our own lives. When you think about your life, where are the places where you feel insecure, and not quite whole? What do you think it would take to make you feel that wholeness? Perhaps if you were just able to lose that weight, buy that car, meet that perfect person, have that child, you might feel whole. Chasing after our perceived inadequacy and looking for the affirmations of this world is not what God wants for us.

In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 we read, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

What is your foundation? What unstable parts might need to be reinforced or replaced? What is making you stumble as you work to build your life and God’s kingdom?

 In Matthew 21:42-46 we read Jesus quoting our Psalm from today, “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”

Slide15Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom came for people who were not just looking to their own interests, and to their own salvation, but to those seeking to multiply the kingdom, a fruitful people who were looking to allow Christ to be a cornerstone in all that they are doing, relying not on their own strength, but on his.

In Ephesians 2:13, 19-22 we read, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

 Slide17Jesus was that cornerstone, that last missing piece to salvation, showing us how to live through his life, showing us life beyond our own through his death and resurrection. Jesus was God’s dwelling place on this earth, and empowered us to allow God to dwell in us as well. Jesus came so that this story would not end with his death or with ours. As we enter this Holiest of Weeks, may we look not to our own inadequacies, but to the abundant sufficiency of Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith. Amen.

“Flavorful Faith;” Matthew 5:13-20; February 9, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Flavorful Faith”
Matthew 5:13-20
February 9, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01On Thursday, there was a statement released by New York City officials, that this brutal seemingly never-ending winter had created a severe salt shortage. An emergency 2,000 tons of salt was delivered to the city, and it still wasn’t enough. Kathy Dawkins, a spokeswoman for the Sanitation Department reported that this winter, the city has used 346,112 tons of salt. That amount of salt is equal to the weight of nearly 100,000 adult elephants or 50,000 John Deere 310 tractors. That is 170,919.5 cubic feet of salt.[1]

Slide02If we look at our shoes or our cars in this season they are inevitably covered in salt. It’s impossible to keep a car clean, as they all turn grey from the salt. In winter, we use salt to melt the ice, salt to make traction for our safety as we drive. Salt is very important. However, salt in and of itself does not eliminate the ice. Rather, it is aided by sunshine, by just enough warmth that it can do it’s work.

SLIDE 3 - Salt and LightOur scripture today carries this same equation of elements to revitalize the world: salt and light.

When Matthews Gospel calls us the salt of the world it’s an interesting comparison. What does salt mean to our faith? What does our saltiness do to the world around us?

SLIDE 4 - SaltElementally, salt is about balance. It can cause harm or good.

Salt is a basic building block of life, it aids in processes of the body, directly effecting functions of the body such as blood pressure. Too much salt in the body can lead to hypertension or stroke, not enough salt can create low blood pressure. Belief in God without understanding of God’s abundant mercy, grace, and love can also cause great stress in our lives and those around us. Faith in God’s mercy, grace, and love without understanding of the breath and scope of God’s mercy, grace, and love for all around us creates a faith without flavor, a faith that just comes across as bland.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read his prayer for such a faith:

“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.” – Ephesians 3:18-19

SLIDE 6 - PreservationIn Jesus’ time and for many years before we had the conveniences of modern refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative, helping to keep something edible over long winters or periods without fresh meat or produce. Maintaining the flavor of faith requires preservation, opening ourselves to the spiritual practices that keep us fresh over time. As the salt of the world, we are to preserve and protect God’s creation, in all of its forms among all of God’s people.

Our passage in Ephesians continues on to speak of the preservation of the church through our faithfulness to God.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Paul continues, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” – Ephesians 3:20-4:3

SLIDE 8 - Salting EarthAnother application of salt is the ancient practice of “salting the earth” or “sowing with salt” as an act of sabotage or revenge. This act would prevent water filtration and drainage and make the land unusable for farming. This was used after conquering a place in war, salting the earth so that it would not produce life for many years to come.

In Deuteronomy 29:21-25 those who have knowingly defied their promises to God are faced with such a fate. The scripture says,

‘The LORD will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law. The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the LORD has afflicted it— all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD destroyed in his fierce anger—they and indeed all the nations will wonder, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?’ They will conclude, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.’” – Deuteronomy 29:21-25

SLIDE 12 - SaltSalt can be a dangerous thing if used incorrectly. Salt used out of spite can cause destruction. Unfortunately there are many who profess a faith in Christ who use the title of Christian as a weapon, wielding judgment and unbiblical messages of hate. If you’re not sure what this looks like in practice, here’s a hint, all messages of hate are unbiblical. Our God calls us to love others and to leave God alone as the judge, a judgment we are saved from by the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

1 John 4:20-21 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

SLIDE 14 - ChickensThis cartoon reflects humorously on the way some people unfortunately try to use their faith as a weapon.

Romans 5:6-13 affirms our confidence in our salvation through Jesus Christ. The scripture says,

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 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. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” –  Romans 5:6-13

Slide17In popular science fiction and folklore salt is used as a deterrent for evil spirits, ghosts, and vampires. In some stories it is even said that fairies and vampires must count every grain of salt if they come across it before moving on. Salt is cast in these stories as a purifying element, which we experience medicinally through saline used in cleaning and healing the body.

Scripture also speaks of importance of the purity of our faith, and how it may be an example. In 1 Timothy 4:12 we read:

“Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

SLIDE 19 - Spoon of SaltWhen we eat something with salt, salt can bring out the best of the flavors, aiding bread in rising, helping water to boil. While salt in all of its applications has quite a bit to do with balance and order, we also know, that salt in and of itself is not so exciting. In fact, I bet none of you want to go home and just eat a spoonful of salt. If Mary Poppins had suggested that I am certain her song would have far less fame. Salt causes thirst, a desire for something beyond that taste, something to wash it down, or at least compliment the flavor. Salt by itself will not satisfy.

SLIDE 20 - Baptism SaltIt is a Christian tradition to place salt on the tongue of a candidate for baptism saying, “Satisfy him [her] with the Bread of Heaven that he [she] may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.” The symbolic significance is that the truth of baptism will be preserved from error, that the baptized person will reflect the flavor of Christ in life, and that by tasting salt they will have a yearning for the sweetness of Bread of Life and the Living Water, that is to say, Jesus. [2]

SLIDE 21 - Salt of EarthSo how are you being this salt in the earth? Are you keeping your faith fresh? Are you preserving the Gospel of Christ? Are you demonstrating a purity of faith? Are you causing others to thirst for God?

Scripture tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Not we might be or we need to work to be, but we are. How will you use your saltiness for good? How will you create balance and create newness?

Slide22Certainly, we do not do these things by our own means but through Christ, our light and salvation, working together as salt and light for the goodness of all.

Next time you look at the saltiness on your shoes or coating your car, may you think about how salt and light work together to make this world whole again. Amen.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How may we respond to the blessings of this community?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

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

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

What is your earliest memory of church or of worship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Things Hoped For”; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; August 11, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Things Hoped For”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”[1]

These words by Emily Dickinson speak of hope as a birdlike creature in our soul, singing a song of improvisation, a song that begins without knowing where it will go, that sings wordlessly, unceasingly.

SLIDE 2 - Hebrews 11 1Our scripture today says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

To many faith can seem like a strange or elusive thing, it is, by definition, a trust in a promise without concrete evidence.

Favorite artist of mine, and Decorah native Brian Andreas is known for his “StoryPeople,” art that carries anecdotal stories with playful drawings. One such story speaks to the intangibility of faith, it says,Slide03 “Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.”

Slide04The Bible has quite a bit to say about hope. Hope appears in the Bible 167 times, 15 of which occur in Job. Job is a man who has lost everything he had and all of his immediate family. He wrestles with hope, whether or not hope his hope is warranted. His friends try and talk him out of hoping. Slide05Hope is in the Psalms 26 times, as the Psalms provide poetic accounts of interaction with God over time, in good and in bad. Proverbs 10:28 says: “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In Paul’s letters he often refers to the Gospel promise of redemption as “hope.”

SLIDE 6 - AbrahamThe story of Abraham and Sarah is held up several times throughout scripture as a model of faithfulness, a lived out hope. In our scripture today we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.””

SLIDE 7 - AbrahamIn Romans chapter 4 Paul shares this reflection on the faith of Abraham, beginning with verses 3-5: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

SLIDE 8 - AbrahamContinuing in verses 13-25 Paul writes, “For the promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world…depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  SLIDE 9 - Father AbrahamHoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Slide10It says that Abraham “hoped against hope.” Abraham had hope in that which was deemed impossible, that which seemed ungraspable. The “thing with feathers” inside of him sang a tune that he couldn’t know the words to. He hoped for the impossible.

I’ve always been a big fan of musical theatre, which is known for it’s infectious tunes. Sometimes when I’m reading scripture or working on a sermon certain songs will get stuck in my head on repeat. Slide11This week it was the song “Impossible,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The song begins by listing all the impossibilities of Cinderella’s predicament, as she’s standing distraught with no way to get to the ball. Her Godmother sings to her, “the world is full of zanies and fools, Who don’t believe in sensible rules And won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Slide12What are the impossible things that you hope for? The things that might seem foolish. The things that might even hurt to hope for? The places in our life where to ask God for a yes risks possibly receiving an unfathomable “no.” How might we trust God in these circumstances?

How might we begin to see these things as possible? How might we hope unceasingly? How might we hope beyond hope?

Slide13Our passage today says in Hebrews 11:13, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Can we really take comfort in hopes that our not answered in our own lifetimes?

Slide14

How can we be anything but disappointed by unanswered prayers? How can we continue to trust God when things don’t work out the way we want them to? The only way is by having a kingdom mindset, by having faith that God’s willing is being worked out in the way it needs to. That God’s plan for us is much larger than us, and with a much longer timeline than any we will experience firsthand. This is not an easy thing, but it is part of what faith calls us to. God is not in the business of wish fulfillment

Slide15Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

The unceasing song of hope, does not end when we are no longer the ones singing it. To have faith is to trust in the promise that just as the blessings of our lives came from that which was only promised to those before us.

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou speaks of this slow to come hope in her poem, “I Rise.” This comes from the conclusion of the poem:

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”[2]

That line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” haunts me. Though I do not have ancestral roots in 19th century American slavery, we as children of God, come from a people enslaved. Our faith’s origins are found among those slaves in Egypt, those aching for freedom, aching for the Promised Land they would never live to see. We are their dream and their hope. We are the harvest of that deep grief, of that desert wandering.

Slide17After the familiar narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the continuation of kingdom through the harvest of believers that they themselves did not cultivate:

In John 4:34-38 we read, “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.””

Slide19The hopes of our hearts may not always come into fruition before us, but as heirs of salvation, workers in God’s kingdom harvest, our acts done in faith bring life to the hopes of those who come before us. We reap a harvest for which we did not labor, and we hope for a promise that we may not witness.

Romans 8:24-25 says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 2 Corinthians 3:12 after speaking of confidence in the promises of Christ says, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.”

How may your hope spur you to action? When something seems impossible, our fear can paralyze us. May we be bold in our hope, allowing ourselves to hope for what seems impossible, to invest in the promises of God’s goodness. May we be bold to invest in the future we may not see.

Slide22One of the hardest prayers to pray is one we echo week after week in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” This short and simple phrase can seem an easy one to pray when we are thinking of the circumstances of another, but in our own circumstances it can seem callous or like an act of retreat. Though “thy will be done” is a prayer of surrender, it is not one of retreat. It is faith in allowing our hopes to rest in God’s hands.

May we have faith in the promises of God’s kingdom. May we sing the tune of hope even while God is still revealing the words. Amen.


[1] ““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619

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

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

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

Call to Worship on Psalm 92 and 92

Prayer of Confession for a Music Sunday

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

Affirmation of Faith

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

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

One: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

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

One: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”[1]

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”[5]

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[6]

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. After our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4

Doubting Thomas

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
– John 20:24-29

As we continue to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on this day after Easter, I am reminded of the stories that follow Christ’s resurrection: the empty tomb, Christ’s appearance in the garden, and one that is particularly on my mind tonight, Thomas’ doubt of Jesus’ resurrection.

I get why Thomas wanted to see Jesus and touch his wounds: he wanted to know that Jesus’ resurrection was real. He wanted to know that this Jesus to whom he had devoted himself was truly much more than simply human or a apparition or a hoax. 

Jesus obliges, offering his hands and side to Thomas for inspection. Jesus, the resurrected, incarnate, God allows himself to be poked and prodded for Thomas’ doubt to be satisfied.

Jesus doesn’t leave it at that though, but questions Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He admonishes him saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Belief in something you can see and feel is simply an understanding of the tangible, unquestionable, entirely fathomable facts. However, God is so much greater and more complex than anything that can be explained by reason. Only through faith can we fully welcome all of God. Thomas understood the basic facts about Jesus’ resurrection, but without mystery-welcoming faith, he could not fully embrace what that resurrection truly meant for our salvation and the Kingdom of God.

Nickel Creek’s song, “Doubting Thomas,” speaks with great vulnerability to this text.The lines, “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie,” speak directly to the fear of any of us seeking to teach other’s about God. But that’s exactly where faith comes in. Trusting in God means being open to even the confusing, scary, or complicated parts about God. The very nature of Divinity is the beauty of inexplicability. Accompanying inexplicability with trust in it’s dependability is a frightening thing to do, but in doing so we free ourselves from self-sufficiency and are able to embrace grace.

A favorite StoryPeople story says:

“Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.” – “Belief,” Brian Andreas

Here is a beautiful cover of Nickel Creek’s, “Doubting Thomas.”

“Doubting Thomas,” Nickel Creek

What will be left when I’ve drawn my last breath
Besides the folks I’ve met and the folks who’ve known me
Will I discover a soul-saving love
Or just the dirt above and below me
I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
Oh me of little faith

Sometimes I pray for a slap in the face
Then I beg to be spared cause I’m a coward
If there’s a master of death
I bet he’s holding his breath
As I show the blind and tell the deaf about his power

I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
Oh me of little faith

Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die

Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted

I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothin’s safe
Oh me of little faith