“Known and Unknown;” Genesis 29:15-28; July 27, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Known and Unknown
Genesis 29:15-28
July 27, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacOur scripture today comes to us not too long after our scripture from last week. Our main character, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, taking his brother, Esau’s inheritance. His brother vows to kill him and so Jacob runs off to Haran, to the family of his mother, Rebekah. In the scripture we read last week he had a dream where God extended the covenant of Abraham on to him, that is to say he is promised to be the father of many nations. With this promise of God in mind, he continues his journey towards Haran and he comes across a cousin of his, Rachel.

SLIDE 3 – Jacob and ShepherdsWhen Jacob was still a bit away from Haran he comes across a group of shepherds, and we read in Genesis 29:7-14 as Jacob days to the shepherds, “‘Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.’ But they said, ‘We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.’ While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Slide04 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.”

It’s hard to imagine from our perspective, but in that time many family’s engaged in “intermarriage,” that is they preferred their children to marry their relatives’ children. And so, Rachel would be an ideal wife for Jacob, made even more ideal in their interaction. He wept aloud, presumably overcome by his attraction to Rachel.

Slide05And then we find ourselves at our scripture for today: “Now Laban had two daughters,” the story begins simply enough. Rachel we are told, is graceful and beautiful, more than that she is the one that Jacob was so overwhelmed by on their first interaction.

Slide06Then we are told there’s something strange about Leah’s eyes. In the Hebrew they’re described by the word rahke, but there’s much disagreement about what this word means. Depending on the translator it is translated as, “ tender,[1]” “weak,[2]” “lovely,[3]” “delicate,[4]” or “nice[5].” Whatever it is about her, she is placed as the inferior of the two sisters, though she is older.

Slide07 Their father Laban strikes a deal with Jacob, he will work the land for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Then we hear the lovely phrase, “so Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”[6]

You can ask David about how quickly the last nine months have passed as we’ve been preparing for our wedding.

Slide08Then there is a wedding, but when Jacob wakes up, we read in the scripture, “When morning came, it was Leah!” In the Hebrew there’s the exclamation hinneh! in the middle of this sentence. It holds the meaning “behold!” or “lo!” but it in a modern translation it might carry the same meaning as throwing an explicative in the middle of this sentence. It is certainly a statement of surprise, and not a welcome one.

And so, in a karmatic turn of events, Jacob who had deceived his father in the darkness of his father’s blindness, is deceived by Laban in the darkness of the night. Jacob then goes back to work for another seven years so that he may indeed marry Rachel, his beloved.

Slide09 It is not lost on me that this passage on marriage comes in the lectionary less than a week before David and I are to be married. Over the past weeks and months we’ve heard well wishes for our wedding day, and cautions about how hectic of a week and day it will be. While I understand that all of these thoughts come from experience, I might recommend a reading of this section of Genesis to any apprehensive wedding couples, firm in the knowledge that any logistical slip ups of the day pale in comparison to the chaos of this story.

There are so many questions in this strange tale of two deceptions, two weddings, and two wives, and things don’t become particularly smooth for Jacob and his family following this story. One of the questions that stood out for me the most in my reading of the text this time around, was how Jacob could possibly not be aware that it was Leah he was marrying and not Rachel.

Slide10Biblical scholars offer all sorts of suggestions, the heaviness of the veil, the heaviness of the alcohol consumption at the wedding festivities, but even with all of those things in mind it’s really hard to imagine how Jacob could be so mistaken. We are told there is something strange about Leah’s eyes, but in reality it seems that Jacob’s eyes are the ones that are unfocused.

Though I will be wearing a veil at our wedding, it will certainly not be nearly as dense as that of Leah’s, not leaving any room for a mistaken identity at the altar. And though I am the younger of two sisters, I am also sure my sister and her fiancé would have something to say about any last minute changes in the bridal party, particularly in terms of the bride or groom.

Slide11So what can we learn from this strange story? What does a mistaken identity thousands of years ago have to do with us? While hopefully we do not have family members who would seek to manipulate our love in such treacherous ways, there are deceptions in which we willingly engage as we approach those we love. We’ve heard the adage, “love is blind,” and if we don’t seek to clear our eyes long enough to truly know the person whom we love, we are stuck in this blindness, which can be helpful in some situations, but debilitating in others.

Slide12When I was at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching festival held in Minneapolis this past May, I heard Princeton seminary professor, Craig Barnes speak about this strange story of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s love and Laban’s deception. In a sermon on the same topic Craig Barnes writes, “Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. Rachel is the one you love, and you’re sure that she will be the blessing to your life. But you can’t have Rachel without taking Leah, who you don’t love and you didn’t think you were getting. Not long after you are together, you discover you didn’t get just Rachel. You’re also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel.”[7]

Slide13 There is always both known and unknown going into any relationship. What is known can be idealized, what is unknown can be troubling, but we will have to come to terms with both if we want that relationship to flourish. It’s easy enough to put this same equation in play with nearly any relationship in your life: the parts of your job that you love and the parts you tolerate; the experiences with your family that bring you deep joy and the issues that you deal with; and even the parts of your experiences with Christianity that excite you and the parts that seem frustratingly unattainable.

Slide14Perhaps there are places in our lives where we experience the reverse, ways that we feel we were held up to such high expectations that disappointing the other was inevitable. It’s hard when you feel like someone has failed you, but it can be even harder to feel like you yourself are that failure.

Slide15While scripture never tells us how Leah feels about any of this, I can’t imagine she appreciated her life, passion, and capacity for love being set aside so that her father could get fourteen years of work out of her cousin. I can imagine Leah in a Brady Bunch-esque way saying, “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel!” Having the strangeness of your eyes held up as your primary identifying characteristic is humiliating, yes, but being offered in marriage in the place of your sister is horrifying. And with Jacob expecting Rachel, beautiful and gracious Rachel, Leah was forced into the role of being the disappointment.

How do we go forward from this place of unattainable expectations, this place of disappointment? How do we redeem our relationships? When given the choice of how we view the flaws in our selves and in each other we can choose grace.

There is a difference between the words weak and lovely, even though they point to the very same eyes. With so many ways to translate our perceptions of each other, might we choose the most gracious?

Slide17This is after all, what God chose. Given our track record of sin and deception from the start of humanity, it seems the sensible thing would be for God to write us off as the human being we are, but God loves us in and beyond our flaws. As if loving us into creation wasn’t enough, God loved us enough to redeem us from our sin and deception through the death of his own son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ every flaw, every imperfection is made perfect.

God loves us not because we’re blameless, but because God deems us worthy of love and worthy of redemption. When we are given the same choice in how we view one another and especially ourselves, may we forever choose grace. Amen.

[1] BHS-W4

[2] NIV, ESVS

[3] NRSV

[4] NKJV

[5] The Message

[6] Genesis 29:20

[7] http://day1.org/1105-the_problem_with_two_spouses

 

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“Dreams and Promises;” Genesis 28:10-19a; July 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Dreams and Promises
Genesis 28:10-19a
July 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 3 - Christmas-in-JulyToday in worship we are celebrating something very special, no it’s not anything to do with the World Cup. And no it had nothing to do with RAGBRAI, though both of those would be appropriate timing wise. We are celebrating Christmas: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. July seems a strange time to do this as we’re used to the celebration of Christmas being firmly lodged between Thanksgiving and New Years, surrounded by so many days of shopping, giving, getting, and overscheduling. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in July by comparison seems quite odd and out of place. But we celebrate Christmas in July today not because the worship committee and praise team bumped their heads and became disoriented to which month is was, but because we believe that acknowledging Christ’s coming to earth is something we should do, in the words of our special music today, “more than once a year.”

SLIDE 4 - Jacob DreamOur scripture today takes us back in time, far before even the manger scene of that first Christmas, to another restless night. We hear the story of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance.

SLIDE 5 - Jacob and EsauThough they were twins, Esau was the older and therefore by his birthright would be in line to carry on his father’s legacy, which if we can remember our scripture from a few weeks ago was that same one given to Abraham: that the people would be faithful to God and God would bless them with abundant descendants. SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacBut Esau’s mother, Rebekah, had other plans. She did not like Esau’s wife, Judith and so wanted her son Jacob to take his place in the family lineage. Jacob and Rebekah schemed together so that when it came time for his ailing father, Isaac to die Jacob imitated his brother’s appearance and took his blessing for the inheritance.SLIDE 7 – Esau and Jacob fightingAnd then Esau, understandable angry, vowed he would kill him.

It is in the midst of this crazy family drama that Jacob finds himself in “a certain place,” lies down with a rock for a pillow, and has a dream.

I’m not sure what you place under your head before you go to sleep, but I’m doubtful that it’s a stone. Even with this questionable choice in bedding, he is able to sleep deeply and has a dream where he pictures a ladder from heaven to earth. Angels go up and down this ladder, and then God’s own self comes down the ladder and tells Jacob that God will extend the blessing of Abraham on to him, giving him an abundance of descendants. God closes the speech with one of my favorite lines, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[1]SLIDE 10 - Jacobs Ladder

Why is it that this dream comes to Jacob? Jacob was the one who took the inheritance of Esau. Jacob deceived his father and betrayed his brother. By all measures God could just write off Jacob as a schemer and a thief, but God doesn’t do that. God blesses Jacob anyways.

SLIDE 11 - GraceWe too could be seen as inheritance thieves, because we only become inheritors of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. As Paul teaches the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2] Unlike Esau, Christ doesn’t vow to kills us, but rather takes on death in our place. Thanks be to God that there is no such thing as “anyways” in God’s value system!

XIVWe read on in verses 16-19, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.”[3]

I love this moment in this story. Jacob wakes up looks around him, forever changed by this encounter with God, wanting to memorialize the moment, and so grabs that rocky pillow of his, sets it up on his side, pours oil on it and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

SLIDE 13 – DivineHave you ever had a moment like that? Where you are just so aware that God is present in that space that you want to mark it down, want to remember that location forever in some sort of divine foursquare check-in.

If I asked you where God lives, what address would you provide? Perhaps a church address? Maybe the Vatican or Mecca? Up in heaven in a house with many rooms? Or is it your own “certain place,” some rocky field somewhere between where you’re no longer wanted and the unknown beyond?

SLIDE 14 – God with UsFor thousands and thousands of years people have been trying to get a hold of that address. In Second Samuel, King David tries to build a house for God to contain God’s divinity.[4] But God’s answer to God’s location is right in what God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Any address we give to God is only temporary. God’s presence is with us always.

SLIDE 15 – ImmanuelEvery year at Christmas we affirm that Jesus is Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.” May we always remember it is so. Amen.

 

[1] Genesis 28:15

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Genesis 28:16-19

[4] 2 Samuel 7

“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

“Beginnings and Endings,” Acts 2:1-21; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Beginnings and Endings”
Acts 2:1-21
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I love home makeover shows. I love seeing the before and after, I love seeing how things come together, but my favorite part? The moment the family finds out that they are getting a home makeover.

In my favorite home makeover show, Slide02 Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, we saw Ty Pennington and crew come running into the family’s life, bullhorn in hand. I loved watching how the family reacts, knowing that their lives are going to be changed. In several episodes, people have explained their reaction as a “weight being lifted.” Most people just screamed and jumped up and down.

This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. Slide03The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly. This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.

Slide04When watching these makeover shows, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the stories. The way we come to care about these people and their reactions is that these TV shows don’t just start out with showing up at someone’s door. We hear their story, many of all varieties of heartbreak and hardship. We hear specifically how getting a new home, one built to their needs, will make their lives better. We learn how a new home like this is not something they can build on their own.

Slide05The disciples too have had their own heartbreaks and hardships. These people have been following a man that they knew to be the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave them guidance, instruction, and purpose. When he died, they knew why, he died to save humankind from sin. However, this knowledge surely did not protect them from sadness at missing day to day breathing contact with this man.

Back even farther into the Judeo-Christian community’s history, was another heartbreak: Babel. SLIDE 7 - Tower of Babel In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of this story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Slide06The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.

SLIDE 8 - TrinityThroughout the Biblical narratives, we discover that when the Trinity enters into the human narrative, it’s to restore balance. In Babel, what the people needed was humility and diversifying their language created that. It made them reevaluate, reconsider, regroup. It forced them to work more on their relationships than their conquests.

SLIDE 9 - Pentecost PeopleBy the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel. As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.

Slide10Pope John Paul II explained this well saying, “According to the text of Genesis 11, the builders of Babel had decided to build a city with a great tower whose top would reach the heavens. The sacred author sees in this project a foolish pride, which flows into division, disorder and lack of communication. On the day of Pentecost, on the other hand Jesus’ disciples do not want to climb arrogantly to the heavens but are humbly open to the gift that comes down from above. While in Babel the same language is spoken by all but they end up not understanding each other, on the day of Pentecost different languages are spoken, yet they are very clearly understood. This is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.”

Slide11There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way.

A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.

In the Pentecost story in Acts, the Breath of all breath breathes into these disciples. The church is made alive by Pentecost fire. The people are linguistically reconnected to brothers and sisters separated by thousands of years of division. And now, 2000 years later, where are they now? By the grace of God and the work of millions of missionaries, the Gospel has been spread to nearly every country, and continues to be spread throughout communities around the world. Within the tradition of the Church we are the inheritors of hundreds of years of teachings and liturgy. A cloud of witnesses who have come before us surrounds us. But, with such gifts, also comes a history of deep division. Wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. Lines have been drawn for the sake of polity. The unity achieved by the Holy Spirit in Pentecost seems to have faded away. We are Pentecost people, but we are living like we are still suffering the consequences of Babel.

Slide12Galatians 3:26-29 tells us: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus came to this world to end division, give us hope, and like those home makeover recipients, lift our burdens. On this Pentecost day, know that the Holy Spirit is still breathing in and through this community. God is still yearning to be present in all that we say and do. Amen.

“Our Turn Now;” John 17:1-11; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Our Turn Now”
John 17:1-11
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide02There are times when the events in the world line up so incredibly with the lectionary scripture that it’s impossible not to notice God’s hand in things. When Maya Angelou passed away this past Wednesday her son, Guy B. Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”[1]Slide03The official day celebrating Jesus’ ascension was Thursday. There is something powerful and unsurprisingly poetic about Maya Angelou’s son employing the language of the hope of resurrection and ascension granted to all of us through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Slide04 The ascension of Jesus Christ is a story that is often forgotten in the larger narrative of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. After Easter we tend wrap up the story of Jesus’ live on earth and slide quite comfortable into what the church calendar calls, “ordinary time.” But, as many liturgical nerds will remind you, Easter is not just one day, but fifty! The official church season of Easter doesn’t end until Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday in worship.

Slide05Ascension is a strange sort of day to acknowledge, because if we really think about it, it’s rather frightening. After Jesus’ death and resurrection Jesus comes back to be with the disciples; he comforts them in their sorrow, he demonstrates his grace. But then when the time comes for Jesus to rejoin God in heaven, that means that Jesus leaves this world in our hands.

SLIDE 6 - Ascension Holy Spirit The good news is we are certainly not alone. Jesus leaves us with the Holy Spirit. Our scripture on Sunday two weeks ago affirmed this promise. In John 14:15-17 Jesus says to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Slide07The Holy Spirit remains with us so that we may do all that Christ has commanded, and live into the joy and the promise of unity with God. In our scripture today we read Jesus addressing our creator God in John 17:11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Slide08Christ prays to God for unity, so that we may together serve God’s people. How is that working out for us? Our world today is filled with division after division, limiting us from coming to a full knowledge of God’s love for all of us. In John 17: 3 Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When we stop acknowledging the others in our world as fellow created children of God, we limit ourselves from experiencing God’s grace fully.

Slide09As is befitting this scripture lesson and this day, I will quote Maya Angelou once again with a quote I posted to our church Facebook page this week upon the news of her passing. She said, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

Slide10Christ’s ascension leaves us as caretakers of this world. With all of its flaws and beauty, or as John Legend would put it, “perfect imperfections.” We are created in God’s image and commissioned to serve God’s people, or in other words, everyone.

If you want to overthink the whole thing, feel free to look up philosophical discussions of paradoxes of perfection, but one that stuck out to me was the baroque esthetic of art which says, “the perfection of an art work consists in its forcing the recipient to be active—to complement the art work by an effort of mind and imagination.” We are perfect in the way God intends for us when we respond to God’s presence in our lives, God’s desire to be active in this world through our activity: taking up Jesus’ call to discipleship.[2]

Slide11In our scripture today Jesus says to God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

Slide12Could we still say that this is true about us? Do we seek to know God through Christ? Do we seek to serve this world as caretakers of creation and of one another?

We affirm in our recitation of the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “ascended into heaven,” but we are not and will never be alone. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us, and together may we be bold enough to work towards bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-poet-author-dies-86

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection#cite_note-TatarkiewiczSu1980p120-16

“Dwell”; John 14:1-14; May 18, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Dwell”
John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today, I give you full permission to doodle during my sermon, in fact. I encourage it. What I would like you to draw is how you envision heaven. If you’re stumped then be sure to listen for how heaven is described in our scripture passages today. Following the sermon I would like whoever is willing to share their picture with all of us.Slide02This week I went to see the movie, “Heaven is For Real.” If you are unfamiliar with it, it is based on the real life story of a Nebraska minister’s family, the Burpos whose three year old son, Colton has an emergency appendectomy and then afterwards tells his family that during the surgery he floated above his body and went to heaven with Jesus. It’s a fascinating account and the book in particular gave me chills from time to time with the accuracy of how Colton’s portrayal matched up with more obscure Biblical texts. I had read the book a few years ago so I was intrigued to see how they could possibly attempt to depict some of the visions of heaven. It was interesting to see how the filmmakers interpreted Colton’s experience. Not quite as surprising was how everyone reacted in the film to this then four-year-old’s stories about his trip to heaven. Most people were fascinated on some level, but many were resistant, event hostile towards the idea that this boy could’ve possibly gone to heaven.

Slide03While we’re comfortable with the idea of heaven in the abstract, getting into the particularities can be divisive. In our passage today we hear a description of heaven given by Jesus and written down for us by the John, Jesus’ disciple.

Slide04This passage is often used at funerals to speak of the home God prepares for us in heaven. It’s a message of God’s care for us, preparing a place for each of us, for all. This is the place where God dwells and to where God invites us to come home. Here is a picture I came across this week done by a child to show what they think God’s house will look like. Each room a space of joy and celebration. One room with a giant birthday cake, another underwater, one with animals and sunshine, one with looks like what might be a ball pit, and another a person with a big drum. Looking at this picture at first I thought perhaps it was not completed since one of the rooms is empty, but the way I’d like to interpret that is that there is a room waiting just for you, for all the joys and delights of your heart.

Slide05 Artists throughout time have sought to depict the glory of heaven and the majesty of God. Slide06 Since we know we are made in God’s image, most interpretations show some version of God as a person, often wise looking with a beard. SLIDE 6 - Michaelangelo GodOne of the most well known interpretations is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. This painting shows God reaching down to humanity and humanity reaching up to God, but many will be quick to point out that they are not actually touching. There is a separation there. God in heaven and humanity on earth.

Over and over again throughout the Bible we hear stories of God being the one who lives in heaven.  In Isaiah 57:15 we read, “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Slide09 It’s amazing to thing of God as not only dwelling in heaven, but also inhabiting eternity. It’s hard to even wrap our minds around the idea of anyone inhabiting a time that never ends, but God is so far beyond what we can know with our own human understanding and language.

Slide10 In Colossians 3:1b-3 Paul implores the Colossians to, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Slide11Most of us would like to avoid thinking about death, but thinking about heaven is a different matter, as though we forget that death is something we will experience in order to experience heaven. Like the people surrounding Colton Burpo, there is a fascination with heaven, a deep desire to have confidence in the hope of something beyond what we experience on earth.

Slide12Influential Christian writer, C.S. Lewis writes of this desire for heaven in his book, Mere Christianity. He writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water… If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”[1]

Slide13How strange to think of heaven as our “true country,” when it is one we have not yet seen. Still, we yearn for the sort of contentment and simplicity that heaven offers. We long to be reunited with those that we love. Particularly when ones life holds much pain and many disappointments, it can be incredibly freeing to think of what will come afterwards.

Slide14Revelation 21:3-4 is another passage that is often offered at funerals as a message of hope. It says, “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 so, I will ask the question again, how do you envision heaven? Who is willing to share their drawing?

Let us pray: thank you God for the promise of heaven. May we live in your hope. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/462154-the-christian-says-creatures-are-not-born-with-desires-unless

“Fierce Love: Abundant Life;” John 10:1-18; May 11, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Fierce Love: Abundant Life”
John 10:1-18
May 11, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Mother’s day as many holidays in our household growing up meant breakfast in bed. My sister and I would conspire with our Dad to pick out some breakfast treat, perhaps pick some flowers from the garden, then put them all on a tray and carry them to my parents room. Nowadays, Mother’s day has taken on a different meaning for me as I have grown up and had so many dear friends become mothers themselves. I delight in the joy of my friends’ parenting, the milestones of walking, talking, and being called “Aunt Kafleen.”

Slide03At the same time, I have a number of friends and family, for whom desires of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood have brought many struggles, frustrations, and pain. Perhaps you have experienced similar struggles. If so, know that especially on this day of the celebration of mothers, your pain is known by God, upheld by our God who knows the birth pains of creation and the deep loss of the death of a child.

Slide04For some this day is a day that is a sharp reminder of being single. A day lifting up motherhood as if it is the absolute highest calling for everyone can be frustrating, possibly even belittling for those who long to be mothers and are not as well as for those who do not feel called to be a mother. If this is so for you, know that God has a call for each of us in every place of our lives, every family configuration, every life stage. God has a call for you.

SLIDE 5 - StrugglesFor some this day stings as a reminder of strained or absent relationships with mothers or grandmothers. Know in this day and all days that you have been adopted into the family of God, and surrounded with God’s unfathomably deep love.

As a pastor, my task is to bring God’s Word to you all, to invite the Holy Spirit into my words so that they may be transformed into something that will draw you closer to God, challenge or strengthen you in your walk of faith. With that goal in mind I struggle with how to address Mother’s day, not wanting to hurt or alienate anyone in the varied ways this day can effect us all. Some preacher just avoid speaking about the day at all together, after all it’s not a day on the church calendar, but rather it’s a national holiday. I too was tempted to avoid it, until I came across the 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation.

Slide06Did you know that Mother’s Day was originally started after the Civil War, as a protest to the carnage of that war, by women who had lost their sons? I had no idea, but I was inspired by the place of vulnerability and strength from which this day arose. I will read to you the original Mother’s Day Proclamation from 1870 by Julia Ward Howe, who is also known as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God. In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”[1]

SLIDE 10 - Peace What a change this is from how Mother’s day is celebrated today. While I am certainly not opposed to honoring our mothers with cards, flowers, brunches, and presents, I was amazed that the sweet feminine holiday we now celebrate today originally came from such activist and feminist roots.

What would it be like to reclaim this sort of unification and message of peace that this mother’s day originally symbolized? What if we were to honor our mothers through compassion for the weak and support for the disenfranchised?

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 68:5-6a: “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in.” In fact, ten different times throughout the Bible there is a pleading appeal for the care of widows and orphans. God cares deeply for those who are marginalized.

Jesus offers his own image of what this sort of care for those in need can look like. SLIDE 12 - Mother Hen In Matthew 23:27b Jesus’ care for us is described as a mother hen, saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” I know a number of you have witnessed this sort of care firsthand, a hen with chicks beneath her, covering them with her warmth and any protection. Hens are not known for any notable amount of strength or intelligence, but in the face of trouble, they will protect their chicks with all they have, which is their wings, their warmth, their own lives.

In our passage we read today we hear another example of what God’s bold and vulnerable love looks like, a good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. When I was working with a youth ministry while in seminary I had an experience where a boy of another group was cruel towards a girl from my group. I would not put up with this. I immediately snapped to attention, stopped him right there, alerted his counselors and my supervisor. SLIDE 13 - Momma Bear This intense mothering reaction towards this girl from my group earned me the nickname “momma bear” among the youth with whom I was working. And though I am not a parent I get what it means when Jesus says “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” It doesn’t even seem like a choice, but rather an inevitability, that love propels us towards protection, and if need be, sacrifice.

What would it be like to take up our role in bringing about God’s kingdom; to reflect the great and good shepherding passion of Christ?

SLIDE 14 - Girls A real and jarring image of those lost and in the grasp of wolves is the story of the over two hundred girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria. It is a heart-breaking story, made even more troubling in how the media for largely ignored it for over two weeks before it enter the public consciousness.

Knowing that our good shepherd cares about each and every one of us and knows by name does not mean that we’re off the hook for knowing and caring for one another. These girls are quite exceptional and it is important that we know their story, that we share in the international outcry to bring them back to their community, to their lives.

Slide15 In a part of Nigeria where 72% of the population never attends elementary school, these girls were in high school, living in a boarding home so that they could pursue an education. They have goals and desires for a brighter future for themselves and for their country. [2]

Slide16 I saw an interview this week with the family of a girl who was taken. Her mother pleaded, “Let them release these girls…. probably one of them was born a president or a doctor or a pastor or a lawyer who will be helpful to the country. Please let him release them.”[3]

I can’t even imagine the ache of this mother’s heart, the ache of this whole region. Imagine then, the ache of God’s heart at such a great many people around the world who are hurting, oppressed, and separated from loving community.

Slide17So what can we do, half a world away from this tragedy? We can take up the cries of the women of that original mother’s day proclamation. We can strive to reclaim peace in our world through seeking reconciliation in our personal relationships, action in our government, and prayer in our communities.

We can take seriously the worth of all people around the world, seeking to know their stories and bring injustice into the light. We can shed the docility with which we treat our mothers and women at large and seek to support them in empowering ways. We are called to bring peace to this world but not hide in docility. May God reveal your role in transforming this world into God’s kingdom. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.peace.ca/mothersdayproclamation.htm

[2] http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2014/05/why-girls-in-nigeria-should-matter-to.html#ixzz31HHjIfM5

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/07/world/africa/nigeria-abducted-girls/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Shown After Sermon:

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

“Can You Believe It?” Mark 16:1-14; April 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Can You Believe It?”
Mark 16:1-14
April 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Easter morning growing up I remember waking up early, my often-groggy eyes opening excitedly in the anticipation of what was to come. Then my sister and I would wake our parents and rush them downstairs so we could see what the Easter bunny had brought for us. We were excited because to us Easter meant baskets and chocolate and home sewn often-matching Easter dresses. Over the years we celebrate Easter in a variety of locations, from my grandparents house in Chattanooga, TN, to Florida on a spring break vacation, own home, but each time the routine was similar, the feeling was similar: joy, anticipation, and family.

Slide02Two thousand years ago, the first Easter held a very different feeling: sadness, fear, and grief. We are told was early in the morning, the day after the Sabbath, and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus was laid. They likely walked slowly in the morning light, united in the grief that things would never be the same with this Jesus they had all followed, they had all loved. They brought with them spices for anointing Jesus’ body, which meant of course that they were expecting a body. They were coming as they likely had to so many other gravesides, to do the dirty work of grief, washing, anointing, preparing. They were worried about the logistics: who would roll away the tomb, how would they draw close to their beloved Jesus?

They were coming for a funeral, a memorial. What they found was an entirely different scene.

Slide03They approach the tomb and there they find the stone had already been rolled away. At this point I would imagine their adrenaline would kick in, wondering who else could be there, what their motivations were for rolling back that stone. Were they friends or would they wish these women harm?

SLIDE 4 - Angel in TombThey take a collective deep breath and enter the tomb, where they see a young man, dressed in a white robe. They are frightened by this sight and can you blame them?

They were expecting death and found resurrection! They were expecting to see brokenness and saw holiness. It was a shocking sight!

The man says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Slide05We are told that they ran from the tomb, in terror and amazement, and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Slide06When you approached the church today, this Easter morning, what did you come expecting? That Easter morning 2000 years ago they were expecting brokenness, they had come in grief. Why aren’t we all dressed in black? We’re here remembering the life of Jesus, right?

SLIDE 7 - FPC CrossWell, actually we’re here for much more than that. We’re not dressed for a funeral, because that is not what we’re expecting. Many of us are wearing bright colors, new dresses and ties, colors of Spring, of new life. We have confidence in something more than the death that the women of the Easter morning were expecting, we’ve drawn close to the tomb, not expecting brokenness, but expecting healing. We’ve come expecting not death but resurrection!

What an incredible thing! Can you believe it?! Can you?

If you’re anything like the disciples, an honest answer might be “no.”

Slide08Let’s be honest with one another this Easter morning, it’s easier to show up in this story after God has already worked out all of this gritty and awful crucifixion business and everything is all grace filled and new life and resurrection. It’s harder to walk with Christ every single day of our lives. It’s harder to come to church on an ordinary Sunday without trumpets and lambs and lilies and the palpable feel of new life.

Slide09We are so much like the disciples, ignoring Jesus when it’s inconvenient, only making time for worship in the extraordinary moments of life. We need to be prompted by angels and miracles to remember the magnitude of our great God. We have no problem coming into God’s presence for weddings, funerals, Christmas, Easter, when we know what God’s story holds for us, but aren’t quite so sure what God has to do with us in the in between times. God has so much going on, God couldn’t possibly care about our day-to-day. When there’s nothing special to ask for or celebrate, God still wants to be with us, to remain in relationship with us in the mundane, so that we will trust in God’s faithfulness when things do get rough and complicated.

Why could none of the disciples stay awake through the night of Maundy Thursday with their Lord, Jesus? Where were these disciples when the crowds were shouting, “crucify him?” Why do the disciples scatter into the darkness of Good Friday? Why do we all gather today when the crucifixion and resurrection has all played out?

Slide10We would love to keep the darkness of those three days in the tomb at a distance, because perhaps then we might be able to ignore our own darkness. We don’t often live our lives expecting angels to show up in the places of our deep sorrow and point to the emptiness where our pain has been and trust that God’s grace has now taken root there. It’s easy to put on a white dress and a bright colored cardigan and to enjoy spring flowers coming to bloom in gardens, but it is very hard to accept the newness of life that God desires to spring inside of us.

What is the darkness in your life that you’re spending your time and energy mourning? What would it be like to invite God’s resurrection hope into your hidden pain? What would it be like to accept that there’s an angel sitting in the place of your darkest fears sending you out into the light to share the hope of resurrection?

Slide11Three times in our passage today we are told that the disciples would not believe that Jesus was living again after his death. Three times they are unable to accept that what Jesus had been telling them all along was the truth: that He was the Son of God. That He had come to bring about the Kingdom of God. That they would take part in building the Kingdom of God to come.

If the story had ended at cross, there might’ve been hope of these disciples being off the hook for bring about the whole “thy Kingdom come,” aspect of how Jesus had taught them to pray. If Jesus were simply a man, simply a great teacher who lived an exemplary life, and then died, there wouldn’t be much work for the disciples after his death. For what would this story matter if Jesus wasn’t what He said He was, if their Jesus, wasn’t actually the Christ? It would just be a story of another man with good intentions, who did some nice things for some people who were down on their luck.

Slide12But the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end in the tomb. The tomb is empty, Jesus is resurrected, and the story continues on. Through the disciples, we’ve all come to know the hope of resurrection: that Christ took on the sorrow of the world on the cross, suffered through hell, so that we might share in Christ’s resurrection, so that we might live lives filled with the grace of God.

Slide13What is your response to this resurrection story? Can you believe it? And more than that, does it matter to you? Are you willing to allow God to roll away your stony thoughts of “having it all together,” and allowing him to free you from the tomb of your hidden darkness? It is my utmost hope and prayer that you will allow this story of grace to be much more than a story to you, that it might be a very real chance at new life. May all of us welcome Christ’s resurrection into our hearts, this Easter morning, and always! Amen.

 

“The End?”; John 13:1-17; April 17, 2014, FPC Jesup

“The End?”
John 13:1-17
April 17, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - spoiler_alertI think that this scripture should begin with a spoiler alert. It tells us from the very start that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. Like when my Dad asked why I was going to see the Titanic when I already knew the boat was going to sink, we’re all gathered here tonight to hear this text again, draw close to the story of Jesus’ last days, last supper, so many lasts.

When we think of it, the whole ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar SLIDE 2 - liturgical calendardoesn’t hold much in the way of surprises either. At Christmas we expect to hear about Mary’s pregnancy announced by Angels, the trip to Bethlehem, and Jesus’ birth attended by animals and shepherds. When we get into this season of Lent we expect to hear about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the company of the disciples, Palm Sunday, the last supper, the crucifixion, and without any hesitance or surprise, we greet Easter morning secure in the knowledge that Christ will indeed be risen, and the tomb will be empty.

Slide 3 - Last supperEven though we know how it’s going to end, we are drawn into the narrative of Jesus and his disciples, gathered at the table. It’s a common scene. They’ve been traveling with each other for a while now, accompanying Jesus as he speaks to crowds, brings healing, shares loaves and fish, turns tables, and challenges the establishment.

SLIDE 4 - Jesus Washing FeetAnd now at this common table, Jesus begins washing their feet. Peter is uncomfortable with this act. It seems so out of line that Jesus would be the one to wash their feet. When he resists Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter balks at this and says “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Given the denials that are to come before the dawn, it seems like a bit of anticipatory guilt in the way Peter so heartily desires to be washed so that he might fully commune with Jesus. After he is done washing their feet he tells them that he has done this as an example to them, telling them that they will be blessed by the service they give to others.

SLIDE 5 - DisciplesIt’s the end of the road for this band of followers, and Jesus knows that not one of them will last the night with their allegiance in check. Jesus being fully God knew every bit of what was to come, but also being fully human he was not immune to fear. Over the three years of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples he taught them a great many things and yet over and over again they showed through their actions that they didn’t quite get what was going on here. How could Jesus have full confidence that this band of misfits would carry his Good News into the entire world? But time was running out from what Jesus could teach them, and so he had to trust in the new beginning that would come from the ministry they had shared.

Slide6Roman Philosopher, Seneca is quoted as once saying, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” If you haven’t been studying Roman philosophy and that sounds familiar to you it might because Slide7it was quoted in the one hit wonder, “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

After this meal of service, this night of betrayal, and the day of horror to follow, a new beginning was coming: the beginning of a world no longer beholden to death’s power, the beginning of a time when the disciples would be tested to share all they had learned from their brief but intense time in the presence of God’s incarnation. With God no longer dwelling on earth in the person of Jesus, God’s dwelling would need to take root in all who would come to believe. God’s kingdom would need to be brought by these confused, sometimes fickle, human disciples. What a message of hope that is for us, thousands of years later as we seek to know, follow, and share Christ with others.SLIDE 8 - Start Finish

SLIDE 9 - HearWe’ve heard it all before, and so often times we stop really listening to what all of this means, and what it could possibly have to do with us, here and now. Though our story doesn’t change, our response to it can. Will we let these words wash over from our comfortable view on the sidelines of salvation? Or will we take Jesus’s actions to heart, using our place at the table to welcome others, to invite them to the cleansing healing that we’ve found in the company of Christ? May you invite the presence of God in this world to begin again through you, this Holy Thursday and always. Amen.

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.

“Having a B-Attitude,” Matthew 5:1-12; March 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Having a B-Attitude”
Matthew 5:1-12
March 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01My plan for today was to preach about having an attitude acknowledging our blessedness, an assignment that has proved to be both challenging and convicting. With this sermon still uncompleted yesterday afternoon, sitting snowed into my house stewing in frustration at this seemingly endless winter, I did not have exactly what you could call an attitude of blessedness. In fact, I was angry. Last night I had tickets to an event in Cedar Rapids that I had bought David as a Christmas present, thinking hopefully by March we wouldn’t have a problem getting around. And then it snowed, and snowed some more, and that plan just did not work. I was stuck at home.

SLIDE 2 - A Tree Full of AngelsSometimes when I get really frustrated I need to get out of my own mind for a bit and read the words of much calmer authors. I turned to a beautiful book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” by Macrina Wiederkehr and read these words, so very fitting to what I needed to hear:

She writes, “I always say that winter is my fourth favorite season. It is not first, to be sure, yet there is something in it that I favor. I need the scourging that it brings. I need its toughness and endurance. I need its hope. I love the way winter stands there saying, ‘I dare you not to notice my beauty.’ Slide03What can I say to a winter tree when I am able to see the shape of its soul because it has finally let go of its protective leaves? What do you say to an empty tree? Standing before an empty tree is like seeing it for the first time… “

SLIDE 4 - Sorrow She continues“…Are our lives so very different when we’re empty? When we’ve turned loose our protective coverings, is our beauty any less? In the seasons of life, suffering is my fourth favorite season. I could not place it first, yet like winter, there is something in it that has my favor. It is not easy to be praying about suffering while the sun is rising, but I try not to turn away from what God asks me to gaze upon. My sunrise is someone else’s sunset. My cry of joy stands beside someone else’s cry of sorrow. They are two seasons of the same life.”

Slide05When we only look at the world solely through our experience, through our own season it is quite possible to only see the winter, or only see our own season of sorrow or frustration. And as much as I did not want to admit it yesterday, that snow is gorgeous. The way it sparkles, the way it covers all the grit and dirt that has a way of mixing in. There’s a gentle beauty to ice frosted trees.

Slide06It’s a dangerous beauty, of course. We only need to drive down 20 to see the account of how many drivers’ lives this winter has already taken. It’s frightening to fishtail, to spin out, to try and find the edge of the road by the grooves of the tires of those who have come before you, or by aiming to drive parallel to the headlights coming at you. If you can avoid traveling at all in this weather I’d highly encourage safety over any other obligation.

We live in the promise that this winter will not last forever, even if it’s hard to believe it on a snowy March 2nd in Jesup, IA.Slide07I remember when I first learned that Australia was having summer when we were having winter. It blew my mind a bit. Also, I decided I wanted to perpetually chase Fall since it was my favorite season and also when my birthday happens. I didn’t quite get that two Falls did not mean two birthdays. But still, it made me think of the world in a whole different way.

SLIDE 8 - Upside Down ChurchI’ve had similar revelations while reading the Bible. Sometimes things just seem so completely upside down. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, many of the value systems of this world will be reversed.

Favorite author of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this in an interesting way—God’s Ferris wheel:

Slide09“Jesus makes the same promise to all his listeners: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the worlds’ lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

I love this image, each of us having a chance to touch the stars. Each of us simply being on our own part in the journey, our own journey around the sun. I also like that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of how this movement around the Ferris wheel is not one of judgment, rather that God our creator loves every one of us and desires goodness for all of us.

Lutheran preacher, Brian Rossbert spoke these words about the beatitudes:

“Instead of hearing Jesus’ blessings from atop a mountain as an encouragement to become meeker or poorer in spirit or to have more mourning in our lives, perhaps what those blessings were about, perhaps what Jesus was speaking about on the mountain was an invitation, an invitation to prayer and an invitation to take notice of where God’s blessedness had already arrived.”[1]

Slide11Acknowledging our blessedness is not about placing ourselves into a new context or into a new season, it is about recognizing the blessedness that already surrounds us. As much as being snowed in yesterday frustrated me, I can acknowledge even in the same scene, the same season that I am so blessed to have a house with a working furnace, food to eat, and Bailey to keep me company. I don’t need to be more meek or poorer in spirit, but Jesus reassures me even if I were, and even when I am, I am blessed. This blessedness may look different in seasons of meekness and spiritual poverty, but it is still there.

Macrina Wiederkehr in “A Tree Full of Angels,” continues saying, “there is something about suffering that is ennobling. I’ve seen it recreate people. I’ve seen the mystery of suffering unfold people in a way that is sacramental, giving them the face of Christ. I have watched people suffer and wondered…what it is that gifts people with the courage to suffer so well. What is it that makes some people able to embrace suffering in such a way that they are lifted up rather than crushed?…Why is it that some of us learn how to embrace suffering in a way that makes us beautiful? And why is it that some of us allow it to embitter us?”

Slide13Well known author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called “The Irrational Season,” about the season of Lent, which we will be entering this week on Ash Wednesday. In it she writes, “I am too eager for spring… fields need their blanket of snow to prepare the ground for growing. In my heart I am too eager for Easter. But, like the winter fields, my heart needs the snows of Lent….Each one of the beatitudes begins with Blessed, and translated from the Greek blessed means happy….Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to be truly happy, we are so conditioned to look for instant gratification. Thus we confuse happiness with transitory pleasures, with self-indulgence.”

As each of us passes through our own seasons of life may we be ennobled to see the blessing God has for us and live into that hope. Amen.

“Loving a God Who is Worthy;” Deuteronomy 30:15-20; February 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Loving a God Who is Worthy”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
February 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - what_do_you_wantWhat do you want? At different points in our lives this can be the simplest or the most baffling of questions. You might answer “a ham and cheese sandwich,” or “to be a better person,” or “to meet the person of my dreams.

What do you want?

Slide02When we look at it on a larger scale the question could be “what do you want to shape your life?” or “why are we here?”

Perhaps the answer is still “a ham and cheese sandwich,” but since you are a person who seems to find it worth your time to show up at church on Sundays, gathered with the people of God to experience God’s presence and seek God’s will for their lives, I’m guessing you are searching a little harder than simply creating a lunch order.

Slide03The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church is made up of two books, one is the book of order which tells us how we do all sorts of things in the church from the buying and selling of property to the placement of the communion table and the methods of baptism. Our new elders and deacons study these each year for their training in the leadership of the church. This book shows us a lot of the “how” of the work of our church, but for the why, we look to the other half of the Presbyterian constitution, the Book of Confessions.

This book is a compilation of various confessions over time that the Presbyterian Church affirm as congruent with what we believe to be true. If you take the time to read through these documents you will find that there are some tensions in what we believe. Some tensions between the affirmations of the various confessions, but still, as Presbyterians we affirm that all of these things, even in their tension, get at the truth of God.

There’s a lot of answers in these confessions as to the “why” of our lives, and all of the “what”s that accompany them.

Slide04The shorter Westminster Catechism is a series of questions and answers, the first of which is “what is the chief end of man?”

This giant question that people have attempted to answer for years of years the Westminister Catechism summed up in just one sentence: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

“Glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Understanding and affirming that as our own chief end, or reason of being is both empowering and daunting. Knowing that we are to glorify God with are lives can seem like an insurmountable task, causing us to question all of the little  ways that we live our day. Am I being kind to others? Am I showing respect to my self as a creation of God in the way that I eat, exercise, and practice habits? Is the job that I have chosen reflecting God’s glory into the world?

But the second part of that confession, is much easier to take in, “enjoy God forever.” That sounds great to me. Basking in the glory of God, simply enjoying God in all of God’s goodness.

Our scripture today gives us insight into how we can live out this chief end of God.

15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Slide07By choosing to love and follow God we are choosing a life of hope, a life of blessing. This scripture is clear that there is another choice that can be made. We can chose to turn away our hearts, we can chose to follow other gods, and in fact we will be tempted to do so, but those who make it out to look to be easier and more gratifying and simpler. But the ease and simplicity of following that which is not God does not last and it does not have our best interest in mind.

Slide08Free will is a tricky thing, given to humankind so that we might be in relationship with God. So we might respond to the love of God. We are not puppets, and God knows that when given the choice, we all to often chose the wrong thing, we all to often chose things that do not bring us life.

Adam and EveWhen Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden they had a great many choices: what to name each individual animal, what beautiful garden they wanted to rest under A they enjoyed God’s presence. They only had one choice that would cause them harm, one choice that would limit their experience of life, their experience of relationship with God. And, as we all know the story, of all the choices they had, they took that choice, the choice to bring separation into the world, the choice to not trust God in providing all they needed. And for it, they were banished from the garden of Eden, and humankind was forever held at a distance from our creator God.

Our world is filled with an innumerable amount of choices these days. With instantaneous availability of almost and movie, music, or book we could desire and an internet full of almost any thing we could ever imagine to search for, it is hard to think of things as black and white, right and wrong.

SLIDE 10 - Choice GraphicI came across this graphic this week, showing a diagram of how an average consumer in today’s world would address a basic problem, “having a headache,” and then it spirals out from there of all the many ways they can make that choice and the actions to be taken. Just look at this fives me a bit of a headache. Even the simple choices are not so simple anymore.

These days there’s kaleidoscope of choices spanning the spectrum of good and bad. God calls us in this text to chose a way that is different from the culture around us. A way that is often countercultural even, choosing to follow God in faithfulness.

SLIDE 11 - TorahThe Jewish community that would have been the first to adopt this book of Deuteronomy as their own truth did not see it as a restrictive document but as a gift. The scripture of God, the Torah was a gift to them. It showed them how to be in right relationship with God. It showed them how to choose life, as God instructs us to do in this passage. It showed them how to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

SLIDE 12 - JesusWhen Jesus came, the rule following aspect of our faith was thrown upside down like the tables Jesus turned over in the temple. We’re no longer instructed not to eat pork or not to wear clothing of blended fibers. At the same time, Jesus came to fulfill the Torah, to create a way beyond the rules, into the very arms of God.

SLIDE 13 - ArrowsOur scripture gives us a choice: will we chose life or death? Will we chose God or will we chose the world?

When our scripture tells us that to choose other gods will cause us to perish, it’s not just talking about death as an end to our life, it’s talking about being whittled away, becoming less than what God intended for our lives. If we chose that which causes us to perish, we are making the conscious choice to life in a state of diminished possibility. When we direct our reverence towards things that are not God, we miss out on having that relationship reciprocated in a life fueling way.

SLIDE 14 - mountaintopOnly God is God, and only our creator knows how to love and care for us so utterly and completely. Only God knows every desire of our heart and has intentions fully for our well being.

Choosing life means that we get to live into all that God intends for us. We get to fully realize the possibilities that come with a life in relationship with God. Choosing God is choosing this life of fulfillment.

May you discover the joy and promise of living to glorify God, and enjoying God forever. 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.

“Beloved” Matthew 3:13-17 January 12, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Beloved”
Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” The Beloved. What a wonderful name to Jesus, for anyone, for all.

When I was in seminary my Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson, would always refer to one’s significant other as “beloved.” Occasionally Carson would ask friend of mine who was engaged and was in the class, “How is your beloved?”

To me, this title extends beyond what other titles can, because it names the action of being loved. It is an active title, a moving title. It whispers of all the many little actions that add up to being loved by another. It is holding hands and washing dishes and opening doors and holding one another close. It is carrying each other’s burdens and listening to each other’s concerns and sharing in each other’s joys. It is promise and covenant. Beloved.

Slide02I have a question for you, do you see yourself as beloved? Would you identify yourself in that way? If not, what are the words that you use to describe yourself? If you’ve been watching TV or seen any internet ads in this New Year, you’ll see many ways that this world will tell you you’re inadequate. Commercials will tell you that you need to lose weight, stop bad habits, read more, get ahead in your career, and in essence: change. All of these things can have a positive impact on our lives, but it’s also important to keep in mind that the One who created you loves you just as you are! The best resolution we can make is to allow ourselves to bask in the love of God and only once we are fully convinced that God loves us every step of the way can we go about improving our lives. We can glorify God through healthful living, God-honoring finances, and loving others as God loves us; all things that are done best when we acknowledge that we are worth it. We are beloved.

SLIDE 3 - Henri NouwenAuthor, professor, and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen once wrote, ““Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

Slide04One day in middle school I remember I was sitting in the cafeteria at lunch and one of my friends told me that she heard from someone else that a boy had a crush on me. Of course that was quite the convoluted expression of love, so I didn’t really know if I could trust it, but it was middle school after all so I thought, “really?” I remember looking around the cafeteria excitedly trying to figure out who it might be. Whose eyes were looking for mine, who was seeking me out, who cared for me in that way? I know I sat up a bit straighter, certainly twirled my hair a bit, and smiled. I don’t even think anything else became of that rumor, but even in the hope of that mysterious crush, my life was brightened. In being beloved, I was able to see myself in a better light.

If we can get so excited by the fleeting transient expressions of even middle school crushes, how infinitely more should our joy be in light of God our father calling us beloved.

What would it mean for you to take on the name beloved? To define yourself as one who is beloved by God? What would it mean to accept that God has chosen you as someone worthy of love?

In first John, the readers are addressed as, “beloved,” and told how we may love: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Slide061 John continues, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us…. We love because he first loved us.”

Being beloved by God is to be invigorated by the greatest love we can ever imagine. It should lead us not only to sit up straight, but to stand in God’s light. It should lead us not to twirl our hair, but to extend our hands to care for others.  It should lead us to reflect the light of God’s love in the world. Because God loves us, we are able to love one another, we are able to speak God’s love into the world.

SLIDE 7 - Albert CamusAuthor and philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him.”

What a great joy it is to share the news that each us of are the beloved of God. God actively loves each of us.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians he writes, says, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

Through God’s love we are anointed as disciples of God, transmitters of this great message of love. This passage tells us that the gospel message of Jesus’ great love for all of humanity was not a passive word, but a lived expression of love. Jesus lived a sinless life as an example for us of how to live: forgiving enemies, being in relationship with the outcast, and working so that all would know God’s love. Jesus died, experiencing the horror of hell, for us, so that we might be redeemed. This was God’s love in action. This was God being love and naming us the beloved.

Matthew 3:16 says, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Slide10In baptism we too are welcomed into the household of God, we become siblings with fellow Christians, and with the very Son of God, Jesus. In each baptism the words offered to Jesus are offered also to us from our heavenly Father, “You are my child, I love you, I am pleased with you. When we place our worth and identity in this knowledge we can’t help but be transformed.

SLIDE 11 - Brennan ManningFranciscan priest Brennan Manning wrote, “Living in awareness of our belovedness is the axis around which the Christian life revolves. Being the beloved is our identity, the core of our existence. It is not merely a lofty thought, an inspiring idea, or one name among many. It is the name by which God knows us and the way [God] relates to us.”[1]

“Beloved,” that was the name that was spoken at our own baptism, echoing over the millennia from Jesus’ own baptism. May your life be transformed through such a claim. Amen.

 


[1] Manning, Brennan Abba’s Child: the Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. Expanded ed. Colorado Springs, CO: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002.

“He’s Coming…” Isaiah 11:1-10 December 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

 “He’s Coming…”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - MailboxOn a usual week going to the mailbox you’ll find a mixed collection of bills, newspapers, advertisements, but during December, things are different. Going to the mailbox there’s always the possibility of a Christmas card. SLIDE 2 - Christmas CardsChristmas cards are different than cards throughout the year. They speak of the hope of Christ coming 2000 years ago, and being born again into our reality each year. They wish us happiness, peace, joy, hope, for the whole year, asking God’s blessing on all that will come to pass. And often times you’ll have a Christmas letter that accompanies the card.

SLIDE 3 - Christmas LetterMy family has always had a Christmas letter. When we were younger my mom would write our Christmas letter, but as my sister and I were able to do some writing for ourselves, each member of the family was tasked with writing their own paragraph. This was a fun but daunting task, summing up all of the past years experiences into about 5 or 6 sentences. This sort of letter marks time, tells of the recent past, what is important to us at that time, what has shaped us, what are hopes are for the future. These many years of letters lined up side by side would tell you the story of our family, the twists and turns that have led us to exactly where we are today.

SLIDE 4 - Tree of JesseOur scripture today speaks to the Jesus’ own family timeline, the “tree of Jesse.” Jesus is referred to the root of the tree of Jesse. When we think of trees at Christmas we usually think of evergreens, or artificial trees, or maybe even a Charlie Brown tree. Rarely do we think about family trees, the genealogy of how we came to be. This is the type of tree that the Jesse tree is. It is a tree of the genealogy of Jesus. The New Testament starts in Matthew with this family tree, the history of the family of Jesus.

SLIDE 5 - Advent CalendarIf you’ve picked up our advent calendar you will have seen this tree. There are many familiar names on the tree but also some not so familiar. I hope that you will use this calendar as a resource in helping you grow deeper in your faith with Christ as well as allow you to widen your understanding of what history brought Jesus to us.

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SongsIn 1 Samuel the first king in Jesus’ line of ancestors is identified. When tasked with appointing a king for Israel Samuel initially goes along with the usual expectations for a leader, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SonsSamuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

In Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

SLIDE 8 - DavidWhen the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” This is the one, the one who God has chosen to fulfill God’s promises. The unexpected, the imperfect, the chosen.

Two centuries after King David’s death God spoke through the prophet Isaiah as we read in our scripture lesson today: “1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 1:1-2)

SLIDE 9 - StumpThe tree of Jesse is described as a stump. Over the years since King David’s promising beginning, the Davidic line grew weaker, more corrupt. It seemed that it would nearly die out. But even when it seemed cut off, there was life in it yet. When many had thought the lineage of David wouldn’t lead to anything, God made a way, drawing humanity once again out of chaos through Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Book of Isaiah we read many other references to the promised King in David’s line, the king who will be messiah and savior. The other prophets make the same promise: God is drawing near, a savior is coming.

SLIDE 10 - God is nearOur entire story of faith speaks of this arch from a people lost in sin, to a people redeemed. This is the great story of God that unfolds throughout the narratives of the Old and New Testament. In the very first paragraph God pushes reality out of formless chaos into light and darkness, water and sky, sky and land. What will be come our own existence is spiraled into motion. God can certainly do a lot more with a paragraph than I can!

SLIDE 11 - God and ManIn the first pages of our Bible Adam and Eve disobey God and the need for salvation is established. In the story of Noah we see the need for newness and redemption. In Moses’ mountaintop conversation in the wilderness, God provides commandments to try to set people about the business of living right. Throughout every story is the promise, God is drawing near, salvation is coming.

SLIDE 12 - Foot of CrossAt Advent we celebrate the coming of a savior, the fulfillment of a promise. The big and small ways God’s plan is unveiled, person by person, story by story, year by year: God continues to draw near.

Maybe your family will write a Christmas letter this year, maybe not, but either way I’d like you to reflect on your own location in time and space this year. What has happened to shape you? How might you be a part of this greater story of God’s amazing love? How might you share the incredible news we anticipate and celebrate at Advent: God is ever drawing near in God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right;” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; November 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today we have the incredible blessing of being able to celebrate the two sacraments of the reformed church in one service: baptism and communion. It is an exciting thing to be united in the sacraments, coming to table and font together as the community of Christ.

The Directory for Worship the Presbyterian Church USA’s affirms that we celebrate both baptism and communion as sacraments because they were “instituted by God and commended by Christ.” and it says that “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” We affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service.

How does that impact you? Are you daunted by such a lofty connection and responsibility? Are you overwhelmed by the incredible scope of God’s goodness? Or once you’re brought into these sacraments do you feel like you’re off the hook? If your sins are forgiven and your life is redeemed through Christ, what do you have left to worry about in your own living?

The Thessalonians in our passage today were just beginning to learn how Christ’s promises played out in their lives, and what their response to God’s redemptive action should be.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Slide3Our scripture today can be a controversial one, it’s message having been distorted throughout time in political arenas. This passage has been misconstrued to lift up a puritanical work ethic and to question social services such as welfare. But in the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonian community, that was not at all the case. Paul was not confronting people crushed by their socio-economic situation or those unable to find a job.

He was confronting people who, in response to God’s message of Christ’s second coming decided to stop working all together, and simply wait for Christ’s coming. They thought if Jesus is coming soon, any work that they were doing was pointless.

Paul is quick to correct them, pointing to work as a way to lessen the burdens of the community, a way that they can be fed to do the kingdom work they have been called to do.

Slide4Victor Pentz, a Presbyterian Pastor in Georgia related a story about a woman who was joining a church. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” she said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ secretly disguised as a legal secretary.” [2]

We are all called to await the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime, we are called to work. Working towards God’s kingdom in whatever way we make our living. Our calling in our baptism and through the communion feast is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job provides a mission field and a way to be fed on earth even as we await the heavenly feast.

In verse thirteen we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Living with faithfulness even in the mundane aspects of our lives can be tiring, but it is part of our call as followers of Christ. Our day-to-day work can glorify God if we approach it with a right spirit.

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer who once wrote,

“And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”[3]

Through prayerful attention to the work of our lives, we demonstrate our love for God and the blessings of God’s work and provision. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and then work alongside God to make that happen.

Slide7Today we will witness the baptism of Aria, Karsidee, and Amanda. They will take vows as followers of Christ, but this call is not for them alone. We are not to stand idly by, but we will also be called to make vows, “to help them know all that Christ commands, and by [our] fellowship, to strengthen their family ties with the household of God.” There is work for us to do in their lives as this community, as children of God. You are called to uplift these newly baptized as they navigate Christ’s plan for them. You are called to support and uplift them whether they be your family by blood or by being fellow members of the household of God.

May we embrace the call and the promises of our sacraments, being strengthened by this renewal and recommissioned to do the work to which you have been called. Amen.

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through Jesus Christ. 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

“Faithfulness,” Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13; September 22, 2013; FPC Jesup

 “Faithfulness”
Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13
September 22, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - ScriptureOur scripture lesson today pairs two difficult passages, one from a conversation with John the Baptist and one with Jesus. In each there is discussion about what it takes to be faithful in our stewardship. Stewardship is often a word congregations become wary of when they hear it in sermons, and pastors often balk at preaching because there is often the presupposition that when we talk about stewardship we’re just talking about money. But these two passages show us the need for faithfulness in our stewardship within money management but also far beyond it.

SLIDE 2 - Parable GraphicEach of our passages is strange in it’s own ways. In the parable preceding our passage in Luke 16 a “dishonest manager” is introduced. When he comes up short in his accounting, instead of shouldering the blame, he goes to all of his debtors and tells them to fudge the numbers a bit so it’ll all work out evenly for him. When he does this his creditor rewards his efforts.

SLIDE 3 - Parable of ManagerAlyie McKenzie explains, “In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. SLIDE 4 - Parable of ManagerThe steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - ParableAnd so, he fudges the numbers and while the manager commends his efforts, we’re not told whether or not he gets his job back, but just that he has helped himself to have some political capital among the other dishonest people and so even if he’s left without a job, at least he has some friends he could fall back on.  Whenever I read this parable I want to ask, really Jesus? You’re uplifting those making friends by dishonest wealth? Are you being sarcastic?

This parable is a bizarre example to come before the moral tale we read here, that God calls for our faithfulness, and that faithfulness in little and in managing the wealth of others allows us to be given much more as our own wealth to manage. Bizarre, yes, but is this the word of God? Well yes, yes it is.

And though the parable is hard to interpret I think there is still a message beyond that parable: God calls us to be faithful, and to be stewards of the gifts we have been given. Perhaps the challenge related through that parable is how easy it is to manipulate the system for our own profit and wealth. While such manipulation may have immediate earthly rewards it leads to the sort of deception that is condemned in our earlier passage in Luke.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist lays out specific directions of how to honor God in our stewardship. In verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked him, ‘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.’”

SLIDE 7 - Peter“What should we do?” This is the 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 he 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.

“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. They 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.

SLIDE 8 - John the BaptistBut 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 every day life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives, and how we operate within our work, choosing at every moment grace over profit.

Helen Debevoise offers this reflection on our scripture passage for today, “Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”[2]

SLIDE 10 - Burying treasureBurying our treasures keeps it out of the hands not only of those who make take it from us, but also out of our own hands so that we are unable to create good with our use of it. Burying our treasure keeps us from offering it up to others. How often does our own desire for security keep us from opening our hands, our minds, and our lives to another?

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.

SLIDE 11 - Bearing fruitIf we are living only for ourselves, this call to bearing fruit in our worldly relationships simply doesn’t make sense. If stewardship was about hoarding, those holding on to their treasures to separate themselves from those who they deemed below them would be the one’s getting things right, but that’s not what is being asked here. John is asking this crowd to look beyond their own treasure, into how their treasure can be invested in the lives of others, can be invested in God’s kingdom.

Every one of these acts explained by John have to do with taking from our neighbor what they need. Repentance is not just about the difference between faith and sin within our own being, but it is about living out our love of neighbor, extending the love and grace we have received from God.[3]

SLIDE 12 - luke 3v9Luke 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.”[4]

SLIDE 13 - Bearing_FruitSo, 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 being a good and faithful steward, not only of your resources, but of your position in this life. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

One year Pastorate-versary!

This Sunday I celebrate one full year as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA. It has been an incredible year, and to sum up all that has happened would be impossible, so I will simply offer up some highlights:

September 9: Arrived in Jesup

welcome

Welcoming Sign on Front Lawn of Manse

welcome1

Welcome Sign at Church

September 10: Officially voted in by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa to serve at FPC Jesup

September 16: My first Sunday at FPC Jesup, preached “What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22

October 9: Adopted Bailey, my sweet yorkshire/rat terrier dog, his story is posted here

October 21: Ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament at my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, OH, reflection post here

ordination

My Ordination at First Presbyterian Maumee

October 28: Installed as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jesup, IA, sermon preached by my mentor, James York, is posted here

December 16: First Baptism, reflection post here

baptism

Morning of First Baptism

December 31: First Wedding Officiated, sermon posted here

February 6: Led First Funeral in Jesup

March 18-19: Attended Barnabas Cohort Retreat at the Presbyterian Camp, Continuing Education with Northeast Central Iowa Presbytery

March 24-31: Holy Week

Created this video for Good Friday Worship:

April 12: First date with David

May 5: Blessing of the Tractors Service, sermon here

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

Blessing of the Tractors Service at FPC Jesup

May 13-17: Festival of Homeletics

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

At the Festival of Homeletics in Nashville with dear friend, Patricia

July 1-5: Massachusetts Vacation with Family

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

With David and my Dad at 4th of July Parade

July 11-13: Jesup Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

FPC Jesup Float for Farmers Day

July 21-26: Synod School

Synod School

Synod School

September 7: St. Louis with David

At the St. Louis Arch

At the St. Louis Arch

Feeling so blessed at the end of this difficult and wonderful first year as pastor. I am grateful for the support not only of a great congregation, but also of colleagues, mentors, friends, family, pastors, and professors who have provided resources, support, and a listening ear as I have navigated this first year of ordained ministry. Thank you also for your support, reading this blog and taking this journey with me. I am looking forward to many more years as a pastor to come!

“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.

“Abundance;” Luke 12:13-34; August 4, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Abundance
Luke 12:13-34

August 4, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Where in your life do you feel inadequate? For many of us, when asked this question we can probably give a whole list of things: financial instability, health concerns, strained relationships, job insecurity, pain in the lives of those we love, heartache for the pain of the world. It seems like worry is somewhat of a default setting when we are thinking about our world.

Slide02My mind even brings up a scene from “Mean Girls,” in which a group of high school girls are looking at themselves in the mirror and each pointing out their own perceived physical deficiencies. When one of the girls doesn’t say anything negative about herself the other girls stare at her until she comes up with something, insisting through their peer pressure that there has to be something about who you are that is simply not good enough.

Slide03We seem trained to look for inadequacy, to point out our faults, to see where we are lacking. Worrying is such an easy thing to fall into, and when we’re doing it, it seems helpful, productive, supportive even. If we let it, this world will always make us feel that like the man in Jesus’ parable, that we need bigger barns; that what we have or who we are is not enough. The man in this story was not working from a place of true deficiency; in fact scripture tells us that the rich man had accumulated much wealth. But that wealth did not bring contentment, it simply brought about his perceived need for more barns for all of the crops he took in.

Slide04How about we ask another question: where in your life do you experience abundance? I hope we can also write a list for this one: plenty of food to eat, comfort of a roof over our heads, warmth of the company of loved ones, the joy of God’s creation, the love of our great God, and the companionship of a loving church family. I hope we can look into the mirror and share in God’s affirmation that God’s creation is indeed “good.”

SLIDE 5 - ContentmentAcknowledging the abundance in our lives isn’t as popular of a thing to think about. Counting our blessings can seem haughty. Acknowledging the depth of our inherent worth as children of God can seem unfounded since it is something we are unable to quantify. We are taught by this world that contentment is complacency. That being comfortable in our own skin, in our own pay scale, in our relationships, means that we don’t have enough ambition. Contentment, to some, seems like we are giving up on growth. God calls us to live deeply and fully into our lives, into our relationships, into the eternal.

1 Timothy 6:6-10, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Accumulation of things that tie us to our earthly existence is an investment in that which simply will not last. Contentment is the acknowledgement of the blessings that are in our lives and finding joy in what already is.

Slide07There’s a British pop group named, “The Streets,” who have a song called “Everything is Borrowed” which echoes these verses. The music video for this song shows a family waking up in the morning to a knock on their door and the news that their house has been foreclosed. Everything in their home is now the possession of the bank. The video ends out with the couple and young son standing on the sidewalk in front of their house as everything they own is loaded into a moving truck to be taken by the bank’s collectors. As the camera pans out it’s hard to feel hopeful for this family who has just lost all that they own, but then the chorus to the song comes on. It goes like this: “I came to this world with nothing, and I leave with nothing but love. Everything else is just borrowed.”

While this telling of the family’s foreclosure is all too real of a reality in this economic time, our scripture speaks of a security beyond what we can carry around with us in this world, beyond what can be loaded into a moving truck or stored in barns.

Slide09Luke 12:33-34 says, “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If we find our abundance in earthly things, we will be disappointed. If we invest in the stuff of this world, we will find that perhaps our barns are overflowing, but our lives are empty. Emphasis on the quantity in our lives life rather than on the quality will always be evasive.

Slide10This toxic desire for accumulation can even infect our church life. Even as we seek to welcome all who enter into this building with open arms, growing a church just to have more numbers on the rolls is not what we are called to be about. We are called first to grow in the depth of our love for one another, to show more richness towards God, and to fall more in love with the life to which God has called us. Abundance of love towards God and another opens the doors to the kingdom of God here on earth.

Slide11One deficiency that this passage points out as being very, very real, is the fleeting nature of time. While the man in the parable had accumulated wealth so he could live comfortably, in verse 20 we are told that he will lose his life that very night. And in Luke 12:25 we read, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

While all in this congregation will find themselves with different timelines trailing behind them, none of us can know what time lies before us. When we are working with such unknowably finite time, busyness becomes an idol. We want to have some thing to show for our time, some quantifiable measure of our worth.

SLIDE 12 - BusyAuthor, Carrie Anne Hudson writes, “Busyness is an interesting god.  It tells us that we are important and needed.  It reminds us that if we keep moving, eventually our existence will be validated.  This idol tells us that if we stop to chat with our elderly neighbor or write a letter to a friend, that someone else will be gaining ground on us.  Busyness becomes such powerful force demanding our worship, that we minimize things like relationships because relating doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Slide13Belief that self-worth is based on time devoted to productivity or solely reflected by paychecks is a lie. I’ve seen friends that struggle with this when making decisions on whether or not to be a stay at home parent. When so much of our life path is structured towards being “productive members of society,” we are not conditioned to see the worth of relationship and the blessing of time invested in the well being of others.

Slide14When reading the parable of the foolish man, it’s important to realize why this man is foolish and how this man is making his decisions. In verse 17 it says, “he thought to himself,” and in verse 19, “and I will say to my soul.” This man was talking to himself!

Slide15In his abundance of crops, he wasn’t taking any time to think about how his abundance could contribute to the lives of those around him. Nor was he taking time to be thankful for the others who had allowed this abundance to be possible. Surely he had help working the fields and surely he could be thankful for appropriate weather conditions that allowed for such a harvest. Wealth in and of itself is not the sin presented in this story or what makes him foolish; it’s the man’s inability to consider others when managing his wealth. It is his investment in his own material happiness, at the expense of others. There are people around him who could benefit from his material abundance, and also from his eternal investment of relationship.

In verse 19 and following we read that the rich man says to his soul, “’Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Slide17What does it mean to be “rich towards God?” Richness in God is acting in ways that enlarge God’s kingdom, welcoming others into the abundant life to which God is calling them. Matthew 25:31-46 tells us how we may to be rich towards God, how we may invest in our eternal inheritance:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.’

Slide18Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Slide19We become rich towards God when we are rich towards one another. The prepositions are important here. Being rich towards God is very different from being rich from God. Richness towards God is applying the abundances of our lives in ways that work to bringing about God’s kingdom. It is not simply sitting back storing up the blessings we have received, placing them in our barns and closing the doors. Richness towards God is investing the material wealth, and particularly the meager wealth of time we have, in relationships that bring God glory.

In Luke 12:29-31 we read, “And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for the kingdom, rather than the world, is a radical proposition. This means giving up the twin vices of worry and busyness. It means counting our blessings. It means seeing our abundance as not something to be squandered, but something to be shared.

Slide21As “The Streets” remind us, “We came to this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing but love. Everything else is just borrowed.” May we invest our love richly in ways that last. Amen.

 

 

Here is “Everything is Borrowed,” by “The Streets”:

“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide09Our New Testament lesson today speaks about the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition. It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] John 1:1-4

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

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

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40; March 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today is our last sermon in our series on Spiritual Practices. Throughout this season we’ve traveled through the Lenten wilderness of God’s instruction, hopefully growing closer to God’s will for us on the way. Since there are at least as many ways to experience God as there are believers we’ve certainly not exhausted the many ways to get to know God, but I pray this series has revealed at least a few more ways that you are able to connect to God.

Slide02Today in worship we’ve all already participated in today’s spiritual practice! As we watched or walked our processional of palms, sang our songs, and read our call to worship we were engaging in today’s spiritual practice: Prayers of Praise. So we can just check it our your list and I can just sit down, right?

Not quite. Even though “prayers of praise” are something we engage in all of the time, it’s still important to examine what exactly we are doing when we say our prayers, sing our songs, and wave our branches.

Prayers of praise are not an act of going through the motions, checking something of a list, and fulfilling an obligation. Prayers of praise are an act of love responding to love.

Slide03Let’s think about this, if you are talking to your significant other and say, “I love you,” in a monotone voice, once a week, and then go check that off your to-do list, how will they feel? Will they believe you? Will you believe you?

It’s important to know that God’s love of us is not conditional on our response, but we miss out in our own experience of loving God when we fail to notice acknowledge the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. We might even take God’s love for granted.

I know I fall into this problem sometimes, assuming the love of God, rather than joyously celebrating God’s love. When I get into a rut with expressing my love to God, I appreciate reading the Psalms. Like someone in love quoting a sonnet to their beloved, the Psalms give us words we can use to rekindle our appreciation for God’s love. The Psalms are filled with prayers of praise, including our Old Testament reading, Psalm 118.

Slide06Bookending today’s Psalm we hear the refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.

Slide07It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us. [1]

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.

Slide08With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world.

 

Slide09

Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. 

 

Slide10In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

Slide11In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ. Our New Testament passage today also provides an account reflecting God’s immediate presence and presence throughout history. It is the familiar account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This is a story we’ve seen enacted year after year. We’re used to waving palms and celebrating with joy the beginning of Holy Week. This scene of crowds, palm branches, and a donkey carries a history far beyond what we see in this scene. It is a fulfillment of several prophesies from throughout scripture:

One of the prophesies is our Psalm today, Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.” This verse is echoed in all four Gospels as Christ enters Jerusalem.

SLIDE 12 - Triumphal Entry Psalm 118 even gives instruction for the very procession that arises around Jesus’s journey. In verse 27 it says, “Bind the festal procession with branches.” And the crowds do, waving palm branches as Jesus passes.

Jesus’ chosen mode of transportation is identified in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Jesus, himself quotes scripture by reciting Habakkuk 2:11, telling Pharisees who were nervous at the shouts of the crowds that even “if [the disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”[2]

All of these references to historical scripture were not coincidences, but were enacted to show the people that Jesus was the Christ that they had been waiting for. He is the embodiment of the God of Hesed. He is the one who carries out the covenant of love. He is the one deserving of praise.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was surrounded by prayers of praise. Luke 19:37 tells us that “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, but not as some celebrity they had only heard tell of. This was not their first experience of Jesus, they were responding to all the amazing miracles of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s also important to notice that they understood that they understood that Jesus’ actions were not only his own, but were an extension of God’s divinity, and they “praise[d] God joyfully.” They were acknowledging God’s “hesed,” God’s everlasting love that was presented to them through the ministry of Jesus. We too are called to praise God for the many ways God enters into our lives.

In Philippians 4:4, the apostle Paul calls us to “rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” When times get difficult this seems like a strange thing to do. There are certainly times that we don’t feel like praising God, but Paul encourages us to draw close to God especially in these difficult times.Paul continues saying, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) By lifting up our concerns and directing them to God Paul tells us that, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So how do we engage in this practice of prayers of praise? It is more than the recitation of prayers, it is a prayer that taps into a joy brought by love of God. It is an exultation, it is a dancing, a laughing, a forgetting our own selves for a moment so that we can more fully focus on God. It is letting ourselves be giddy in love with our God who loves and created us. Revelation 4:11 affirms our call to praise God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Psalm 150:1-6 gives suggestions for how to praise: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!  Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

This text is not a simple description of what happens in worshiping God. In this text “praise,” is in the imperative sense. We are being urged, provoked, commanded to praise. This is the Psalmist saying, “hey you there, pick up an instrument, jump to your feet, and PRAISE!” We might find ourselves looking around and thinking, well hey, “the praise band does a great job, so they should be praising,” or “wasn’t everyone in the procession of the palms great with waving their branches?” But the Psalmist doesn’t leave this up for discussion, saying, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” This means me, this means you, this means all of us! If we have air in our lungs we have the capacity to praise.

Praise might look a bit differently from person to person. Some may praise God through song, or instrument, some may praise through writing poems or creating art, some may praise God in showing appreciation for creation. The point is, we are all called to praise God, in whatever way we can.

In a few minutes we will sing our Doxology, a call for all of us to praise. May this be our prayer today:

“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Amen!


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 149.

[2] Luke 19:40

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession; Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; March 10, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession
Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04As we continue our way through Lent experiencing different spiritual practices, today we have another practice that is very familiar to us; one that we participate in every Sunday in worship: prayers of confession.

Slide02

 

A prayer of confession is a prayer in which we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to follow God. When we pray our prayers of confession in worship we pray first for our own individual sins and then for our sins as a community.

Slide03

Historically confessions of sin have taken place throughout one’s community and personal life. Puritans wrote extensively detailed private diaries to allow them to confess their sins to God. These diaries were so thorough and so personal that they were most often burned at the time of the person’s death. Before there was a professional priesthood, Christians would gather together and confess their sins to one another to pray for each other’s healing. Slide05In the Catholic tradition priests use confessional booths to hear the confessions of their parishioners.

 

It seems our society these days is filled with opportunities for confession.Slide06 One-camera “confessionals” are part of nearly every reality show misconstruing the term “confession” as a venting of frustrations with another or rare moments of self-reflection. The boom of social media allows for quick opportunities to reveal our thoughts to whoever will listen. Many we interact with day to day receive our confessions: hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers in lines.Slide07

While there is nothing inherently wrong in this self-reflection, we should be aware of our motivation for these confessions. Are we simply trying to clear our minds? Gain accountability or advice from someone we trust? OR are we seeking forgiveness from God and other’s we have hurt out of a repentant heart?

Slide09It’s often a blessedly strange moment when I’m out in public and people find out I’m a pastor. I have been privy to many a confessional: on airplanes, in coffee shops, grocery stores, and just about everywhere else, just by someone learning my title. People often tell me of their church attendance, or lack thereof, confess their desire to strive to be a “good person,” some might tell me of their works in mission.

Often I want to ask, “Why are you telling me?” But then I remember who this position calls me to be.  Over the centuries the role of clergy has been as a medium to God’s grace. In the Presbyterian Church we uphold a “priesthood of all believers,” which means that each of us can ask for God’s forgiveness directly. However, it can be a daunting thing to approach God in confession, and so pastors and other clergy become a proxy.

Though these unsolicited confessions can lead to very interesting and insightful conversations, they most often seem like a defensive response, sort of a “making this right,” rather than the thought out contrition of a penitent heart. On the occasion that these conversations become a bit deeper they can lead to some pretty profound views of how those outside a church home view the church and their relationship to God. Many tell me that they don’t go to church because they’re just to busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.Slide10

One of the more reflective confessions I’ve been privy to listen to was a young woman who told me that she didn’t like going to church because it makes her feel too vulnerable. This made me both hopeful and sad. Hopeful that she understands the depth that can be found in a church community and sad that she didn’t want to be a part of it, at least for now.

Slide11Confession has long been one of my favorite parts about being a part of a worshipping community. I love the beautiful vulnerability of standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another.

Imagine what would happen if we went out to other places and relationships in our lives and confessed this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship. What a strange and wonderful world that would be.

Slide12So what is it that we’re even doing when we confess our sin? Do we think that our confessions will surprise God? Do we think that our words undo the hurt that we’ve caused to ourselves or to others? Why do so many of us have such an urgent desire to confess our sinfulness? Why is “making things right with God” such a priority?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s something I say in worship every Sunday before our confession. Can anyone sum up what I say before we pray together?

“Though God knows our every action, God desires us to confess our sinfulness so that we may be open to Christ’s redemptive action in our lives.”

This is not a traditional liturgy and you won’t find it in any book, but I wrote it to for our community to sum up the Biblical witness as to why we confess our sins together.

Psalm 139:1-3 says:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”

God knows us intimately; there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. God surrounds our action and knows our hearts. God is well aware of each and every sin we have committed. God knows when we have willingly chosen other paths.

In 1 John 1:9 we hear:

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James 5:16 says:

“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

When we confess our sins it is not God who discovers our sinfulness, but rather it is our eyes that are opened to the presence of those sins and we begin the journey beyond our sinfulness.

Episcopal Bishop, Michael B. Curry writes of the young and rebellious son in our New Testament passage today:

“Jesus uses a marvelous turn of a phrase. Wallowing among pigs, the prodigal ‘came to himself.’ He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, ‘You were not meant for this.’”[1]

Slide19We were created to be creatures of Eden. We were created for paradise. The ultimate goal of confession is reconciliation. With the taste of the first sin in their mouths Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. The paradise was filled with many beautiful creations of plants and animals, but most importantly it was filled with God’s presence. When Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God, God walked with them in the garden. God was tangible and present in relationship with them. Through their sinfulness they willingly sought out a different future, a different path, a life that was apart from the paradise of full relationship with God.

Ever since that moment God has been creating opportunity for us to touch paradise. God became present on this earth once again, walking among us as Jesus Christ. Jesus served as an example to us of how we could live, how we can demonstrate God’s grace and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says:

“God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. “

Confession is necessary for our life together. Only through the authentic confession of a repentant heart can we begin the work towards reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” It is saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Reconciliation can be the outcome of confession, but it requires action on both parts.

In our prodigal son story we hear in verse 30 that:

“While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Once the son even headed in the right direction the father was there to greet him. God’s forgiveness is already there; God is simply waiting for us to come home to grace.

When we are aware of the abundance of grace awaiting us, what keeps us from confessing? What keeps us from seeking God?

Slide23The prodigal son did not feel himself worthy of forgiveness, worthy of coming home. He had struck out on his own, squandered his inheritance, brought shame to his family name. He was caught up in all the wrong that he had done. He did not know what his father’s reaction would be, but he had run out of options in the world outside of his family. He had run out of options in the life of dishonesty, and was forced to seek reconciliation. He did not expect to be restored to his former life, he just hoped to live as a servant.

SLIDE 24 – Perks of Being a WallflowerA favorite book of mine, now turned into a movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” encompasses this in a way that has stayed with me since I first read it as a high school freshman: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”[2]

The prodigal son did not feel that he deserved forgiveness, or deserved the love of his family, and so he stayed in a life of sin until this life had left him starving.

Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 32 speaks of this feeling in verses 3 and 4:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

But then the Psalmist is turned in verse 5:

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Slide27We are called to confess not because we are worthless sinners, but because we are worth so much in God’s eyes that God wants to bring us out of our sorrow and out of our isolation. God wants us to value our lives enough to ask for God to redeem them. To be unrepentant is to be expelled from Eden, purposefully separated from God’s love. To be unrepentant is to be lonely.

Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay P. Armstrong wrote, “Focusing on fault and magnifying its importance is not confession but megalomania, as if we know better than God does that we are undeserving of forgiveness. Such a posture narcissistically keeps the focus on our actions, when what God has done and continues to do is far more important. It involves refusing forgiveness and features failure to follow God’s lead into fresh ways of living.”[3]

Slide29Confession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It is about being drawn to reconciliation, it is about responding to God’s great love and God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Confession is about moving past what we’ve done so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us. Confession is about God.

Through confession we are restored to right relationship, we are restored to paradise. May we strive for this life giving authentic confession. Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[2] Perks of Being a Wallflower. p.27

[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 106.

Photo a Day Lent – Day 22: Shadow

“Shadow”

3 6 Day 22 ShadowIn the courtyard of our church there’s a cross on the ground built out of stones. With over a foot of snow in the past week or so it’s now completely covered.

I think it’s rather beautiful, particularly in this season of Lenten wilderness as we await the horror of crucifixion and the hope of resurrection. This cross is a shadow of what is to come. It’s also a beautiful symbol of how, through Christ, our sins are made white as snow.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18b

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth; Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; March 3, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth
Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
March 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message
I am posting this mainly because this was something I was unable to find in other resources. I hope it will be helpful for you!

Click here for handout. First I showed the kids the maze we talked about what a maze is like (dead ends, objective of reaching the end). I then showed them the labyrinth and told them how the labyrinth only has one path which winds around itself. We read the description on the handout that I wrote up:

Labyrinth, a maze where you never get lost: For hundreds of years people have been walking labyrinths as a way of focusing on how God walks with them. Some people use the different parts of the path to be different parts of prayer. Walking towards the middle can be like walking towards God’s presence. You can use this time for confessing things you’ve done wrong. When you get to the middle you can use that time to thank God for all the blessings in your life. When you’re walking out of the middle back to the beginning you can pray about how you will share God’s love with other people in the world.

We lifted up our own confessions, thanksgivings, and prayers for others.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth

Slide04We are now about halfway through our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices. So far we have discussed iconography, seeking God’s presence in this world; fasting, hungering for God’s will; and prayers of petition, crying out to God from our helplessness. Today we are continuing on with another practice: traveling a labyrinth.

Slide03In the book “50 Ways to Pray,” Teresa Blythe explains what a labyrinth is:  “A labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice involving a winding path that leads ultimately to a center and then winds back out to the point where it began… The path is symbolic of the journey inward toward God’s illumination and then outward, grounded in God and empowered to act in the world.” [1]

Slide07Many labyrinths are outdoors: constructed of rocks on the ground, the way grass is cut, or in hedges.  Some outdoor labyrinths are made of paint on pavement. There are labyrinths laid out in the stone, marble, or carpeted floors of churches all over the world. There are also fabric labyrinths that you can rent and lay out a floor. Any church with pews can be walked as a labyrinth, winding in and out of the pews and back up the aisle. A familiar neighborhood can also be walked as a labyrinth as long as your don’t get lost. There are also smaller labyrinths, such as the ones you have in front of you that can be traced with your fingers or even followed with your eyes.  There are labyrinths nearby in the Cedar Valley Arboretum, at St Luke’s Episcopal in Cedar Falls, and at Camp Wyoming.

When I was in seminary I took a class during my first year called “Spiritual Formation.” In our class we worked through different prayer practices. One of these practices was, as you might have guessed, praying through the labyrinth.

Slide12At Union Presbyterian Seminary we had a labyrinth on the edge of campus out behind the campus apartments that was made with stones in the ground, so that you couldn’t really see it until you were right up at it. For my class assignment, I went to the labyrinth and walked the path.

Slide13I knew that the correct thing to be doing was to walk along the path, mediate as I walked, and seek God’s guidance. This was supposed to bring me peace and quiet in my heart, connection with my God. However, as I walked that path I did not find transcendence. Rather, I found myself getting more and more annoyed. I got to the center of the labyrinth and let out a big sigh and stomped off in frustration. When I got to class that week I complained to my professor saying, “Labyrinths are everything that’s wrong with organized religion! Everyone just walking around in circles looking at their own feet! Everyone’s just following others in their faith and are afraid to make their own path!”Slide05

I was angry. I was annoyed. I felt let down by my own inability to be meditative. As others in the class shared how they had enjoyed themselves in their labyrinth walking, I was jealous. Why couldn’t I experience God in that way?

Slide15When I left class that day I went into work at the seminary library where I worked the desk and shelved books. There was a full cart of books to be sorted, a challenge that I enjoyed; creating order out of what was sometimes chaos. And then, I took those books around the building to the stacks, going up and down the aisles making sure things were straightened up, and placing the books from the carts on the shelves where they belonged. Though this task was mundane, it also brought a lot of peace. I did my best thinking as I was walking down around those books.

Slide16About halfway through shelving books I stopped myself right in an aisle and nearly laughed out loud. An hour ago I had been complaining about walking a labyrinth. Complaining about having to walk around in that patterned path. And now, here I was walking another patterned path and I loved it. I felt God’s presence around me. I prayed prayers, talked to God, and was able to clear my mind and reach that transcendence I was trying so hard for in that labyrinth path. God had already been working through me in a labyrinth practice and I hadn’t noticed. It’s a funny thing to be in a school where you are being trained to think theologically and to stumble quite by accident into the very spiritual practice you’ve been resisting. God certainly has a sense of humor.

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

When we seek to follow God in our lives and fully place our trust in God’s direction we are often led in ways we could never expect. Labyrinths are a place where we are forced to trust that we will end up where we need to be. As we allow God to lead us in our daily lives we are transformed. Following God in the labyrinths of our lives takes us to a place of wilderness, but with God as our focus it is also a place of hope and transformation. In the desert, the people of Israel were transformed into the children of God. Jesus went into the wilderness in the forty days before his crucifixion, was tested and tempted by the devil, and came out on the other side fortified for the horrors of his atoning death.

Our New Testament passage today speaks of God’s presence guiding people through the wilderness, emphasizing the many ways the people stepped off the path and failed to trust God’s guidance. Paul exhorts his readers to strengthen their trust in God saying in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13:

“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) In our labyrinth experiences, there is always a way out, and God desires to lead us through it.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading writes of his first experience walking a labyrinth, “I was both held by the inevitability of the journey – one step in front of another – and also vulnerable: I knew where I was going – the pathway wound inexorably to the centre – but I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got there.”

Slide20At first glance a labyrinth looks like a maze: twists and turns on a defined path. The difference is, while one can pick the wrong direction in a maze and become lost, the path of a labyrinth never branches off. While in the labyrinth you might be confused by the twists and turns of the path, as you are getting closer to the center it may suddenly take you back right by where you started. But if you keep moving forward along the path, you will always make your way to the center, and will always make your way back out again.

Sally Welch, author of “Walking the Labyrinth,” writes: “It is quite a brave thing to do, to step on a labyrinth for the first time… The centre is plain to see; the way to reach the centre is not so obvious. I have seen many people pause at the entrance, look, hesitate as they tried to follow the path with their eyes, and then walk on, not daring to risk themselves on something for which the outcome does not appear certain. And yet, once that first step is taken, the rest is physically straightforward and spiritually can be transforming.”

Slide22So what are we supposed to do as we walk a labyrinth, or trace one with our fingers? Some recommend praying through the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or any other familiar prayers. However, I think the danger with any sort of prayer practice is we become convinced that our experience needs to look a certain way, or feel a certain way, and we close ourselves off to the outcome that God intends from our circumstance. For some, having a checklist of prayers to run through can seem like another distraction. Allow yourself to pray whatever you need to pray, and to be comfortable with silence. One of my favorite prayer suggestions was by author and labyrinth expert Jill Geffrion who suggests to simply pray “Your will be done,” at the beginning of the labyrinth, and then walk with intentionality to your own movement and pace.

This Lenten season I would like you to try a labyrinth practice. Allow God to work through the winding paths, to provide wisdom and clarity in the silence. I would also like you to open yourself to the purpose of this practice: allowing prayer to be rise out of movement, allowing meditation to surface in the seemingly mundane tasks of your everyday life. Slide28This may happen for you in the piecing together and sewing of a quilt, in filing files in an office, perhaps in plowing rows in a field, or as I often find it, in knitting. These patterns of your life can be adopted into labyrinth prayer practices. As you work through these activities pay attention to  your movement, quiet your mind, and see what God may be saying to you. Remember Paul’s urging to the community at Corinth, traveling through life’s path is requires trust in God. This Lenten season, may we move forward as God leads us. Amen.


[1] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 92-93.

“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 ow