“Find your Greatness”; Ephesians 4:1-16; August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Find your Greatness”
Ephesians 4:1-16
August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

Who has been watching the Olympics? I love watching the competition, seeing those moments where one second can make such a difference; one misstep can change a future. But mostly, I love watching those human-interest stories that are shown alongside the coverage. I’ve never been too into athletics, but I am very much into stories. Seeing how a person’s life is oriented towards an Olympic goal, how they’ve flourished with family support or thrived in the face of adversity. Each story makes me watch a little closer to what will happen for that person in these games. Those stories make us care about what happens. Those teams become more than just a country represented on uniforms, rather they become a multi-dimensional, breathing force of will and intention. When we recognize the individual, we can see the function of the team all the better.

This multi-dimensional functioning team is similar to the example of the church that Paul gives us in our passage today. Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave gifts to his people… In verse 11-12 it continues saying: “11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In verse 16, “16from Christ the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

When we each are “working properly,” we are able to go forward, to grow as a community, to grow the Church universal. Notice, each working properly, does not mean each working the same. We each have different gifts and take different roles. When we use these gifts to work together towards a communal vision of service to God, we become “the body” of the church.

This passage’s example of the church as the body is echoed in another, perhaps more familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

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

Now if you look around at the Christian political climate right now, can we really say that we are consistently giving greater honor to those who need it most?

And do we even need to question whether or not there is dissension within the body and if all are having the same care for one another?

Hebrews 12:1 provides an example of how we may go forward as the universal Church. It is often quoted in an athletic context, as it says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” This verse can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.

When we take the time to listen to one another, to pay attention to what is important to each other, we are better equipped to run this race together. Like the Olympic coverage, we are more motivated to care when we know those human-interest stories. The reality is, every human is interesting in his or her own way, each has value, and each has a role they have been called to fill. When we open our lives and our hearts to taking in the worth of others, we are also better equipped to understand our own worth. We too have been called to serve God in our own unique and particular ways. We are not called to be all things to all people, but we are called to be faithful to the gifts that God has placed in our passions.

Admittedly another thing that I love about the Olympics is the commercials. Actually, we’re going to watch one here together. As we do so, I’d like you to think of the first verse of our passage today. In Ephesians 4:1 we read Paul’s encouragement to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Let’s keep that in mind as we watch this commercial together.

So what is your greatness? Are you a great listener? Are you a great talker? Are you a great musician or vocalist? Are you great at cooking or baking? Are you great at being present in times of need?

In your passions God has placed a purpose for your life, a greatness to which you are called.

Our passage tells us we are to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [you] have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

With this in mind, what is your greatness and how can you use it to point to the greatness of God?

[Walked around with microphone to receive responses from congregants.]

This Wednesday an online devotional called, “The Daily Word,” gave this great message,

“[The] Spirit within is always calling me toward the desires of my heart. I needn’t worry that I’m not ready or worthy to pursue them. When I am willing to be more, do more, and share more, [the] Spirit provides everything I need for success. My joy, excitement and passion tell me I am moving in the right direction.

“I am willing to share my gifts and talents, knowing the world needs every one of us to open to our greatest potential. Even if I do not feel fully prepared, [the] Spirit works within me and others, to synchronize timing and provide resources for the highest good of all. Fueled by my passion, I step into a flow of positive energy that carries me forward and expands my life.”[1]

2 Corinthians 8:12 says, “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have.”

It is my prayer that we may go forth together in eagerness to serve with the greatness we have been given. Amen.

“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

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever”

“If you stay around here long enough you will be changed forever.”

When I was at choir rehearsal last night, one of the women leaned over and said this to me as a way of explaining the camaraderie and sense of humor of the group. It is indeed a group that delights in one another and in sharing a good hearted joke. They have welcomed me graciously and I am enjoying getting to know them.

Her comment stuck with me. As a musical theatre fan I can’t help but hear echoes of “because I knew you, I have been changed for good,” from Wicked. And as very dear friends are graduating from Union Presbyterian Seminary this weekend, I can’t help but be caught up in the nostalgia inevitably produced by this season of graduations, it’s endings, and new beginnings.

You, First Congregational of Williamstown, are changing me. You challenge me to be ever more aware of who my neighbor may be, how I may serve and support them through pursing social justice and responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources. Your balance of intelligence and humor are shaping the way that I approach God’s word and will work to bring it to life in my ministry among you.

You, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, haved changed me. Though I ended my employment at FPC Maumee just under a month ago, my history with FPC started back about 20 years ago when my family joined the church. FPC raised me in the faith, helped to foster and support my call to ministry, and provided a second family to me throughout it all. In our ministry together I discovered much about who I am as a minister and how I hope to serve in the future.

You, Union Presbyterian Seminary, haved changed me. I am privileged to call this institution my alma mater and was blessed to call it home. Through my three years in seminary and three years in Project Burning Bush in high school, you opened up God’s word to me in invigorating and challenging ways. You challenged me to work harder academically and deeper spiritually than I had ever worked before. Most importantly, I am blessed by friendships with many classmates, professors, and staff. You provide crucial love and support, truly understanding the joys and challenges of ministry.

And you, friend, family, colleague, or blog stumbler-upon, change me through your desire to enter into conversation. I am grateful to have this outlet for sharing inspiration, musings, sermons, and stories. It is my prayer that you too are changed by what you read, see, and hear as we navigate through life and ministry together.

“All Things in Common”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:38-47

Yesterday we celebrated the founding of the Christian church, Pentecost. We read of the Holy Spirit descending upon a gathering of people and though all are speaking different languages, the Holy Spirit enables them to understand one another. And, “all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

All things? Really? We’ve been told that they come from a great many different places, with a great many different native languages. Surely each place had their own customs and varying experiences of life. I bet some were farmers, some were shepherds. Some came from pagan traditions and some were Jewish. But still…we are told that they had all things in common.

As the Christian church has continued over the centuries would we still say that we have all things in common? Throughout the horrors of the Crusades, when Martin Luther called the pope, “the devil,” in the ongoing tragedies caused by those who read God’s Word and decide that God hates anyone, our history is littered with many and terrible examples of ways we aren’t united.

A lawyer asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” – Matthew 22:36-40

These two greatest commandments, identified by Jesus himself, must be the foundation for our faith in order for us to achieve any sense of unity. Having “all things in common” is not about unity in demographics, life experiences, or cultural worldview, it is about having love of God and neighbor in common.

This past week was my first week at First Congregational. Though it is a UCC congregation and I myself am Presbyterian, I find that denominational issues differences are not any sort of a problem, but rather a great experience for me to learn about the different expressions of the Church. These are a kind and caring people who love God and neighbor through striving for justice, providing homes for the homeless, and welcoming any who who enter the church with open arms. There’s a lot that could be argued is different between us, but in the things that matter, we do seem to have “all things in common.”

Halfway

Sitting here in Williamstown, Massachusetts I am in a very unique place in time and space. I moved here last past weekend and will begin my work at First Congregational in a few days, but for this week I am a bit suspended between my life in Maumee and my life here.

My favorite poem when I was younger was “Halfway Down,” by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh)

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn’t any
other stair
quite like
it.
i’m not at the bottom,
i’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
where
I always
stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

There’s something very exciting about being in between things. There’s a sense of newness, a novelty to being unknown. As in Milne’s poem, when you’re in the in between there’s no real assigned task for this place other than being present and thinking. This independence in space, relationship, and occupation provides for a deep sense of sabbath.

But, as a favorite artist of mine, Brian Andreas puts it in “Outsider,”: “I’m an outsider by choice, she said, but I’m hoping that won’t be my choice forever.”

Right now I’m sitting in the middle of a courtyard on the main street in Williamstown. It’s great people watching, seeing who is walking by and hearing snippets on conversations. Right now, I don’t know a single one of them. But, as my time here passes, I hope that I will gradually get to know people. Later, sitting in this courtyard will likely take on a different feel, occasionally catching the eye of someone I know, stopping to have a conversation.

Last night I volunteered for a special event at MASS MoCA. I decided being a volunteer would be a great way to make connections with people outside of the church. I met a few people and enjoyed being at the event. And as it turned out, one of the very first people I met, is a member of First Congregational. It’s funny how those things work out sometimes!

Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Gilmore Girls, but I’m excited to see how this small town will begin to be more and more familiar to me. I’m looking forward to getting know this town and for it to know me. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying being “halfway.”