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

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

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Welcome mat

Welcome mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Light and Salvation”; Psalm 27; February 21, 2016, FPC Holt

“Light and Salvation”
Psalm 27
February 21, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 21 SLIDE 1 - FPC Holt SanctuarySanctuary, it’s a word that sometimes is functional, the way we point to the room we are sitting in right at this very moment; sometimes historical, as the word was used to identify a place of refuge in which people could have protection; sometimes referring to spaces that enable us to feel a sense of peace and connection with God; and sometimes this sense of sanctuary comes not from the feeling of the space itself, but rather the particular intention of the people gathered together in that time and place.

Throughout history, religious people of all beliefs have gone to great lengths to experience this sense sanctuary, an experience of God’s presence. Like the Psalmist, there is an intrinsic desire in us to “live in the house of the Lord all the days of [our] lives.” Some seeking this experience using their life savings to travel thousands of miles on pilgrimages to places that their tradition have identified as holy,  from the Western Wall in Jerusalem to Stonehenge in England, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. There are also personal pilgrimage destinations, where others you’ve known have experienced God at work in their lives:  perhaps the church in which your grandparents were married, the place your church family goes on mission trips, or the camp that your youth group has gone to year after year. There is something in these places that draws us near, beyond what the place itself could offer us, a sense to experience what others have before us, that is, sanctuary.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 12 - Church SignFor many of us, this church is one of those places, a place where we have experienced the presence of God, sensed God’s light and been awashed with God’s salvation, where we have engaged in worshipping God, and where we have sensed God at work in others.  If you have been around here for a while, and I know some have 50 years on some of the rest of us, this space is more than just this space in this moment, it is also where you and your children were baptized, the place you held Christmas Eve candles alongside your family and church family, where you married your beloved, where you were anointed with oil and ash year after year, and the place where you mourned and celebrated the life of loved ones. Some of you even helped to build this very building, deciding what sanctuary would look like to all of us these many years later. But this space is so much more than this roof and these walls, it’s a summation of the experiences had here, and the enduring sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 17 - GalaIn “The Power of Place,” historian Thomas Bender writes, “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshaling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 19 - Holy SpiritIn other words, this sense of sanctuary comes not from without but within, the sense invoked in us, the hope stirred, the wholeness felt. For us, the strongest of these  “inner resources” is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming the places in this world that from an objective perspective might seem ordinary into the extraordinary, opening our hearts and mind to God’s presence in and among us wherever we may be.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 20 - Isabella in AisleWhen you sense this sort of peace and healing in a space it’s tempting to want to somehow bottle it up, keep it safe and protected from any who might somehow alter this experience. But if our intention is to follow the Gospel, to welcome all into an experience of Christ, this sense of sanctuary is not something that we can or should keep to ourselves. Sanctuary is a place set apart from the rest of the world, but it is not a place we should set at a distance from any of those who are seeking that same sense of God’s presence.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 21 - Body of ChristIf we truly believe that we as followers of Christ are the body of Christ, welcoming more into our midst won’t diminish God’s presence, but increase it, as each individual with all of their unique gifts, challenges, joys, and struggles enable us all together to better be the full body of Christ.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 22 - Layton WilliamsLayton Williams, Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago speaks of what this greater inclusion looks and feels like from her perspective as a woman who is bisexual. She writes, “Often I think that the church treats queer people like a Frankenstein arm that has been stapled on to the body of Christ. ‘Queer people haven’t always been a part of the body,’ the thinking goes, ‘but we’ve included them by letting them get ordained or married in our sanctuaries.’”

She continues, “ Let me tell you something: we are not a Frankenstein arm. We are a true part of the body. Many parts, actually. We are the toenails and kneecaps and lungs and beating heart. And the church has not added us on; we have always been here. God has included us from the beginning.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 23 - HandsBy being fully inclusive of the entirety of the body of Christ we give greater credence to the safety and wholeness that we have experienced, for what is safety that is unsafe to some, and how are we to have wholeness as the body of Christ if we choose to sever or ignore any part of ourself?

Like the Psalmist, we can see “the goodness of the Lord” revealed “in the land of the living.” Christ’s hands and feet at work through all people who seek God’s will. The greater the diversity there is among us, the better we are able to know the fullness of God, who created each and every single one of us in God’s image.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 24 - 1 Corinthians 3 16In 1 Corinthians 3:16 we read of God’s presence in and among us, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

When we embrace our own ability, as the body of Christ, to be a living sanctuary for God’s presence to be known and felt, we expand the reaches of God’s kingdom here on earth: God at work in and through each of us.

2016 2 21 SLIDE 25 - Acts 17 24-25In Acts 17:24-25 we read, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

2016 2 21 SLIDE 26 - PrayerGod does not need human made shrines, temples, altars, or even churches to be felt in this world, but will meet us in the spaces where we seek God’s presence. It’s important for us to realize this distinction: God is here among us because of the intentions of our hearts and our own receptiveness to God’s Word, witness, and work in our midst. That is what makes this space we inhabit into sanctuary, rather than just another room in just another building.

Building these buildings and calling them churches can serve an important function.  Our human designations of sacred space point people to places where presence of God is sought and the body of Christ is alive. In that way our human made sanctuaries are signposts in our journeys, postcards saying “wish you were here” sent out to those who are searching.

As those who have experienced God in our midst, we are the ones tasked with making sure all who seek God may receive their own invitation into the light and salvation of God’s sanctuary. May we ever endeavor to welcome all into the sanctuary we have experienced. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tear Open the Heavens;” Isaiah 64:1-9; November 30, 2014; FPC Holt

“Tear Open the Heavens”
Isaiah 64:1-9
November 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Slide01Lloyd Dobler on Diane Court’s front lawn with a boombox above his head. Katniss Everdeen volunteering as tribute when Prim’s name is called at the Disctrict 12 reaping. Slide03The town of Bedford Falls gathering around George Bailey and his family to help him on Christmas Eve.  Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers of Paris to safety. Slide07 Harry Burns running across New York City on New Year’s Eve to recite his declaration of love to Sally Albright. Anna throwing herself in front of Elsa for protection.  An astronaut going on an impossible journey through galaxies for the love of his family.

 

When it comes to movies, we all love a grand gesture, the chance for wrongs to be made right, for good to overcome evil, for love to win. Slide08Some of these scenes even evoke a visceral reaction, no matter how many times we’ve seen them, like the way my aunt always cries at “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and depending on my mood I can pretty choked up over that final scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” I know what’s going to happen, I have confidence that my DVD wouldn’t have somehow added in a new ending, but still in the re-watching I get caught up in the story, in the “will they, won’t they” of it all, and so I feel a tangible sense of relief and joy when it works out just the way I was hoping.

Slide09In our scripture today the prophet Isaiah is calling out for a grand gesture from God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah says. Isaiah has journeyed back from Babylon with the exiled Israelites and comes to find Jerusalem in ruins and the temple destroyed. “Where are you, God?” the people ask. “Surely you have hidden your face from us. O that you would break forth in justice and righteousness so that the mountains would quake, the nations would tremble, and the evildoers would get what they deserve. O that you would make yourself known to us. O that you would rescue us from ourselves.”[1]

Slide10 The Israelites know God’s presence best through the grand gestures of their history. Their family stories include plagues as persuasion for their deliverance, the parting of the Red Sea to stop their enemies, and food falling from heaven when they’re in the wilderness. They know that God is capable of greatness beyond all measure, and so that is the type of presence they request, the grand gesture that will make things right again. They want God’s presence to be manifest among them, to shake up their enemies, and to form their claylike-selves into the people they are meant to be. They are looking for something monumental to happen.

Biblical commentator, Scott Bader-Saye writes, “God’s refusal to replicate a Red Sea-type deliverance does not mean that God has abandoned Israel (or the church). Our hope does not rely on God’s acting today in the same ways God acted in the ancient stories, but it does rely on God’s being the same God yesterday, today, and tomorrow – a God who hears our cries, a God who does not abandon us, a God who will finally redeem all that is lost in a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17). The tradition of biblical lament does not invoke the past as nostalgia, nor does it dismiss the present in despair; rather, it draws on the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope for the future.”

Slide11Hope is the way forward out of the wilderness of those times when God seems absent. Hope in the God who has been, is now, and forever will be the potter of our claylike existence, molding us into our full-capacity selves. The Israelites in our passage defer to this potter, this creator God who holds all things in God’s hands, but are not quite sure how God will work it all out.

Slide12And since this passage in our lectionary does fall on the very first Sunday of Advent, we all have an idea where things are headed, right? We sit here as people who have seen this story play out year after year. We know that sweet baby Jesus is going to glide into our world to come and save the day!

But wait a minute, that’s not exactly what the Israelites were looking for. They wanted the mountains to quake and their enemies to tremble. They want the immediate and grand gesture, not a divine rain check for deliverance in the distant future. They want God’s divinity to be present among them unencumbered. Instead, divinity comes in the form of humanity. Jesus comes as both fully divine and fully human.

Slide14Luther Northwestern Professor, Diane Jacobson writes, “The call is not to come as a child, as ‘God with us,’ but to come in power, in theophanic splendor…[they] call on the Lord to come as mountains quake, fires burn, and nations tremble. Here is a God so terrible that a mere glimpse of his visage might cause death. Such is the God for whom we wait.”

They’re waiting for God’s might, God’s power, even in the expectation of God’s wrath. The Israelites accuse God of being hidden from them, but might it be that God is just not revealed in the ways they’re expecting? Slide15You don’t expect the mighty creator of everything to take the form of small baby. You don’t expect the all powerful to be vulnerable and sleeping in a manger.

When we’re expecting God’s grandeur, we can become blind to God’s incarnation. It was no small gesture for God to become embodied, to take on humanity. It is indeed an act of the heavens being torn open that allows God to break into human history. But it is not the grandness that the Israelites were used to: this small baby born in a small town in a disconnected world, who comes not as a demonstration of God’s might, but of God’s love. Who comes not to control God’s people, but to teach how to be in right relationship; what care for neighbor looks like; and how to live a faithful life, not just to avoid judgment, but to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God comes into our world embodied, so we might be instructed in how God is to work through our own embodiment towards the bringing about of God’s kingdom. The ways that God might be present in and among us.

Alongside the list I gave of those memorable grand gestures in the movies we likely have our own lists of actions in our own lives or of those we love that are not grand as much as they are incarnational actions of love made present.

Slide16A father reaching down instinctually to hold his daughter’s hand as they cross the street. A teacher offering a listening ear to a student who’s struggling at home.Slide18Someone shoveling the walk of an elderly neighbor after a particularly harsh snowfall. A mother tucking in her son after he falls asleep with book in hand. Slide20 A wife driving to see her husband in nursing care every afternoon, day after day.

Slide21These gestures are not the grand things of the movies, but they are the very real ways that we are incarnate in one another’s lives, and that we allow God to be incarnate in us. May God indeed tear open the heavens, once again, and come incarnate into our Advent waiting. Amen.

[1] Paraphrase by Rev. Vicki Kemper: http://www.firstchurchamherst.org/sermons/past_srmns_08_11_30.html#one

“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.

“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.

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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.

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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 7: Wonder

“Wonder”

2 19 Day 6 Wonder

This is posted a day late, but is a reflection of yesterday’s day. Yesterday I was in the hospital with a family from church. It was a very serious situation and procedure, but had the best of possible outcomes. The day was steeped in prayer, conversation, and more prayer. God’s presence was certainly felt in that place.

As we were gathered in one the waiting rooms of the hospital we heard a lullaby playing over the intercom. Someone mentioned that they do that when a baby is born. There was something quite beautiful about that moment. While so many people throughout the hospital were experiencing a whole scope of emotions as they dealt with the health of themselves and their loved ones, there in that moment we all were made to take a second to take in the miracle and joy that is new life.

Photo by Christy Bindas