“Ibega ha Ibega: Shoulder to Shoulder”; Philippians 1:2-6; April 16, 2016, FPC Holt; Presbytery of Lake Michigan Presbyterian Women Spring Gathering

“Ibega ha Ibega: Shoulder to Shoulder”
Philippians 1:2-6
April 16, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Presbytery of Lake Michigan Presbyterian Women Spring Gathering

2016 4 16 SLIDE 1 - MissionsWhen you think of missions what do you think of? Working to help the “less fortunate” of your community? Providing aid to someone in desperate need, who needs your particular help to make it through the day? Far too often when when we think of missions we think of being help to those people who are over there, casting our self in the role of helper, and the other in the role of helpless.

2016 4 16 SLIDE 2 - MEP Baskets The goal of Agape Community Transformation (ACT) Uganda is not this top down type of support, but rather stands by their goal of: “Working shoulder-to-shoulder supporting self-development of villagers in Muko Sub-County, Uganda.”

Shoulder-to-Shoulder, or in Rukiga, Ibega ha Ibega, means that ACT is about relationship, being resources to one another, strengthening each other. It means that we don’t assume that we are the only ones offering something in this relationship, but rather it is an exchange of ideas, experiences, and hope.

2016 4 16 SLIDE 3 - PaulThough he was instrumental in founding that church community, he places credit where it is due, acknowledging that God, not Paul is the one who enables good work among them. Paul is not their savior, but a co-laborer in building the kingdom of God. Paul prays for the people of Philippi with joy because of their “sharing in the gospel.”

2016 4 16 SLIDE 4 - KoinoniaIn Greek, this word that we have translated as “sharing in” is “koinonia.” Koinonia has a rich depth of meanings including: partnership, participation, communication, communion, contribution, fellowship. It is in its very essence about mutuality, not being above or below, leading or following, but being shoulder-to-shoulder, ibega ha ibega. This koinania type of relationship is the way we are called to serve in missions, acknowledging one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

2016 4 16 SLIDE 5 - PCUSA Mission AgencyJust this past week I read a quote in the PCUSA Mission Yearbook that I think typifies this well. In speaking of mission partnership a volunteer wrote, “We thought you came to give us something. Now we understand that you came to help us see what we already have and use what we have to find solutions to our problems”

2016 4 16 SLIDE 6 - PlantingThis is the work that we are called to do, provide what we have to provide, but also fully understand that God is already at work in and among the people we are called to help. By acknowledging the many gifts of our partners in mission and “praying with joy,” as Paul did, we are better able to be full partners in serving God’s kingdom together. May we indeed ever strive to live Ibega ha Ibega with our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. Amen.

“It’s Alive!”; Hebrews 4:12-16; October 11, 2015; FPC Holt

“It’s Alive!”
Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2015 10 11 Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

2015 10 11 Slide02And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

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

2015 10 11 Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

2015 10 11 Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, 2015 10 11 Slide05 drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.

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

2015 10 11 Slide06 The beginning words of the Gospel of John speak to the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [1]

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

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

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

Princeton Professor John P. Burgess writes, “The Old and New Testaments offer much more than information about God. They set forth the living Christ and invite us into relationship with God. In this sense, the Bible is the word of God – not because it is correct in every historical or scientific detail, but rather because it witnesses to what God has done and continues to do in Christ.”[2]

2015 10 11 Slide08Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly allow God’s word to be alive in us and in the world around us, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture. But also we cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if we allow our devotion God’s word to stop at the reading of scripture.

2015 10 11 Slide09We read in Hebrews 4 today, “the word of God is living and active.” We read the words of Jesus in John 14:12, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” What are we to do with scripture than, if not to let it guide us to “live and move and have our being”[3] in response to God our creator.

Favorite preacher of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the danger of preferring time with the written page over enacting God’s lived out word. She writes, “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.  Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.”[4]

2015 10 11 Slide12Being a part of bringing about God’s living and active word in this world is certainly more complex than simply listening or reading scripture, and so it can be hard to know where to start. An overwhelmingly present example in our world today is the care and wellbeing of refugees, particularly in Syria.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed emphasis on hospitality towards refugees, with repeated reminder that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers; 36 Biblical warnings.

And yet we sit overwhelmed both by the present situation of international distress and the overwhelming Biblical mandate to do something about. What are we to do? How can we enact God’s word in this story still taking shape?

Stated clerk of our denomination, Grayde Parsons wrote this week,  “Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. … Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”[5]

Through supporting these efforts of our denomination, and joining our voices with those speaking for justice we enable God’s word to speak hope to those in need of hope.

2015 10 11 Slide15In this very church and community there are many opportunities for you to extend God’s love and welcome to those who are seeking home and sanctuary through relationship with Global Family Fellowship. I’m sure Lazara, Gary, and Trudy would be delighted to find ways to connect you with those in need of the very welcome and connection that the Bible urges us to provide.

When we open ourselves to proclaiming God’s word in our actions, relationships, and livelihoods, we can share in the confidence of the prophet Isaiah who said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” May we indeed accomplish God’s purpose. May God’s word come to life in us and through us, as we seek to speak and live God’s word into being. Amen.

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

[5] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/10/2/clerk-issues-letter-trump-refugees-immigrants/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Letter for Annual Report

Grace and Peace to you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Christ,

Pastor Kathleen

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

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

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

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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