“Living Alive,” John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11, June 25, 2017, FPC Holt

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
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Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

It was a matter of life or death.

If you turn on the news there are a terrifying number of situations where innocent lives are killed because of those complex sins of fear, bias, and hatred, all stemming out of a deep well of pain.

I watched a very important and troubling video these other days about parents and grandparents explaining to their children how they should respond if stopped by a police officer. I’d like us to watch it together, fully acknowledging that this will likely be uncomfortable for many, but also, that that discomfort can stem from the privilege given by the color of our skin and that for many of us in this room, these are not conversations we’ve ever had to have with children. For others among us, these conversations are likely far too real, perhaps even with your own experience of how who you are has warranted undue attention from law enforcement.

https://www.facebook.com/thismatters/videos/714035155442346/

In the video, each adult is adamant that there are both good and bad police officers, even when a high school girl tries to dismiss them as all bad, a mother says, no, there are good ones too.

My heart ached at seeing an 8-year-old recite a well-rehearsed speech, saying her name and that she is unarmed and has nothing that will hurt them. Her father sits next to her and tells were about a time he was stopped in the mall and tased, not because of anything he’d done, but because he was mistaken for someone else. She becomes visibly upset and goes to get a hug from her dad who then is also crying.

There’s a grandmother talking with her two grandsons, pointing out that the lighter complexion child will likely not have to deal with this. Another mother says to her daughter with her voice being to crack, “do everything that you can to get back to me.”

Where is Jesus in all of this?

Martha and Mary were angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

What about all those other brothers of weeping sisters? What have they done to deserve this? When is Jesus going to intervene for them?

It is in asking these questions we become confronted with the uncomfortable reality that we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are tasked with creating justice, restoring what is right. Sometimes resurrection doesn’t look like a man stepping backward out of a tomb. Sometimes it looks like a community surrounding a family in the face of loss. Sometimes it looks like lobbying and rallying. Often, it looks like listening, watching, and not turning away from the pain and death of those who do not look like we do, knowing full well that they, too, are created in the image of God and by knowing them, we are better able to know God.

In the strange story of Lazarus, Jesus uncovers hope beyond hope, and new life after death. We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. That after our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We know that death doesn’t have the final word. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin into new life. We are called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

And with the Holy Spirit’s breath circulating through us, we are called to speak out for justice, for hope, and for new life devoid of the hatred and pain that have changed us all so completely.

Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

God is not through with our world yet. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Breath to Live; Ezekiel 37:1–14; April 2, 2017, FPC Holt

Breath to Live
Ezekiel 37:1–14
April 2, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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What is the meaning of life? Now if you’ve been reading your Book of Confessions you may echo the Westminster Catechism and tell me why of course it’s “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” If you’ve been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and you’re feeling a bit silly you may say, “42.” Even when we have full confidence in knowing our lives are in God’s hands, everyone experiences a season, or two, or many of thinking, “what is the meaning of my life?”

When you feel in a rut, or a valley if you will, and your wells of inspiration and perhaps even hope have dried up, it can be difficult to see God’s meaning or purpose in it. With this in mind, Ezekiel’s prophetic conversation with God doesn’t seem outside the bounds of what we might want to discuss with God as well. For some, these dry bones are far too close of an analogy, for those struggling with the ravages of cancer or loss, or in the deep throes of depression or grief, you know what it is to feel dried up and hollowed out.

In this text we hear God asking Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And there seems to be some annoyance coming from Ezekiel as he responds with something akin to, “I dunno. You tell me!”

Like anything in the Bible, this text is not an isolated little story of some time that Ezekiel spent talking to God in a valley, but comes to us from the historical context of the Babylonian Exile. Ezekiel, alongside other Judeans, was thrown out of Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. Previous to that time the people of Israel were similarly deported, losing their communal identity in the ravages of life as refugees in Babylon. Ezekiel then was speaking to a people who were, in a great many ways, lost. By many markers of ancient culture, these followers of the God of Moses and of Abraham would have every reason to believe that their God had indeed lost out to a Babylonian god. They’ve taken over the Davidic monarchy, broken down the temple, uprooted the people, what’s left? It is in this context we hear, “mortal, can these bones live?”

It reminds me of a question in another story, that of Mary Lenox and Dickon discovering a Secret Garden and asking, “will it grow?”

When I was younger my parents would read to my sister and I every night. One of my favorite reading experiences was the Secret Garden. My experience was most certainly heightened by my mother’s love of this story, particularly in the musical stage adaptation. When we read the Secret Garden we had plans to go to see the musical in Detroit at the Fisher Theater when we had finished it.  As we read the story, we accompanied it with a listening of the soundtrack, but my mom was always sure to stop it before it got past wherever we were in the story so as not to spoil any of the plot for us. So, needless to say, we heard that soundtrack quite a bit over the weeks leading up to seeing that production.

One of the songs was titled, “Wick.” When Mary and Dickon uncover the Secret Garden, Mary believes that all the plants have died because, well, they look like they’ve all died. Dickon explains that it’s not so simple, there’s still life in those plants, life that can be coaxed out with attention and care. He calls this spark of life within the plants their “wick,’ and sings:

“When a thing is wick, it has a light around it. Maybe not a light that you can see. But hiding down below a spark’s asleep inside it, Waiting for the right time to be seen. You clear away the dead parts, So the tender buds can form, Loosen up the earth and Let the roots get warm, Let the roots get warm.”

Dickon knows the potential left in those plants and knows the way to bring it out. He will prune and water, weed and rake. He will take away the dead parts to give room for life to flourish. He knows that though this garden has experienced abandonment, it’s story is not over yet.

Ezekiel finds himself in a similar position, but learning how to bring renewed life only through God’s good counsel, who tells him to prophesy to the bones, to tell them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

When you are feeling like those dried bones or that neglected garden, it really isn’t a matter of pulling yourself out of it, you need that prophetic word. You need someone else to believe on your behalf that there is life in you that is worth saving; noticing and naming that you are “wick,” and then tending you back into blooming.

This spring there has been an incredible example of renewed life in, of all places, Death Valley. As the name would suggest, this valley is known for being dry, a place where not much grows. But… every decade or so, there is just enough rain that there is a super-bloom that brings life and brightness to the valley. Rangers are saying that this year is the best one they’ve seen since 2005.

The Washington Post describes it this way:

“The types of flowers that appear during a superbloom are known as ‘desert ephemerals,’ since they are so short-lived, according to the National Park Service. Their brief lifespan is a survival strategy; rather than battle the relentless heat year after year, the flowers’ seeds lie dormant underground….One upside of the hot, dry conditions is that they keep the seeds from rotting as they shelter beneath the soil, waiting for the right moment to sprout. A winter like this one provides that moment. An autumn storm brought 0.7 inches (a deluge by the desert’s standards) to the valley in October. The storm was devastating at the time, setting off flash floods and damaging one of the visitors’ centers. But it also prompted park rangers to begin speculating about a super bloom like they hadn’t seen in more than 10 years.

“The rainstorm washed the protective coatings off of the dormant seeds, the NPS explained, allowing them to sprout. Then, the “godzillo” El Niño climate cycle that has chilled and drench parts of the West Coast… brought more water to the parched landscape. The continued watering kept the … plants alive as they waited for spring to come. With the arrival of warmer weather … the plants finally began to flower.

In a video we’re about to watch, Van Valkenburg says “I’ve lived in Death Valley for 25 years and I’ve seen lots of blooms, lots of wildflower blooms in Death Valley, and I kept thinking I was seeing incredible blooms. I always was very excited. Until I saw one of these super blooms. “And then I suddenly realized there are so many seeds out there just waiting to sprout, waiting to grow,” he continued. “… When you get the perfect conditions…they can all sprout at once.”

What in you is lying in wait for God’s breath to make it live? Who around you needs the care and tending that you can provide to help them bloom to their fullest? As we enter this Spring season, may we be attentive to that which is “wick” in one another, seeking to speak God’s message of hope, that God is ever eager to fill our lungs with the breath of new life. Amen.

Watch: www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/b7ba8caa-d166-11e5-90d3-34c2c42653ac

“Out of Control” Luke 9:51-62, June 26, 2016, FPC Holt

“Out of Control”
Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

slide-1-cranky-jesusAnybody listen to this scripture text and think, “wow, Jesus is a bit cranky!”? Really, I can’t bury my father? And I can’t even say good bye to my friends and family? Can I at least leave a note? Jesus seems quite unreasonable, given the would be followers’ requests. Is it really so much to ask to want to get your affairs in order before following Jesus out into who knows what? With our story today, Jesus says, yes.

slide-2-follow-meFollowing Jesus requires not only willingness, but first priority. Faithfulness is not faithfulness without follow through. What Jesus is asking is not for them to just take on a new extracurricular activity, but to take on an entire new way of life. What he is ultimately asking them to give up is control. Giving up control can be a very scary thing. We are taught to be self-reliant, to make well reasoned, thought out decisions.

Each would-be disciples’ responses are met with Jesus’ counter-cultural control-arresting admonitions. First is the one who says“I will follow you wherever you go.” To him Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

housing

housing

Housing security is one of our most basic needs. Your safety and physical well being are directly tied into your ability to have a roof over your head at night. If you have a consistent place to sleep each night, chances are your rent or mortgage, along with utilities and property taxes are your highest expense each month. And we pay those bills because of how highly we value the security and consistency of having a place to call our own, a place where we can live as we please.

slide-4-we-need-housingJesus, however, is calling the disciples to set aside control in this very basic aspect of human life, and to take on a nomadic existence, not knowing where they will end each day, or how they will get their meals. If you have experienced housing insecurity perhaps you understand what a seemingly impossible task to which Jesus is calling the disciples to willingly undertake.

In Jesus’ example he lifts up foxes and birds as having a home, while asking the disciples to go without, which would mean that they have less control in their lives than animals. This is a bold and frightening thing.

slide-5-homeless-jesusCanadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz has generated some interesting conversation and some controversy through his statue of a homeless Jesus. He has made over 30 of these statues at this point, the first in Toronto and then in cities across the United States, including Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Austin, Buffalo, and D.C., as well as around the world in Belfast, Dublin,Longton, and the Vatican. Through the statue Schmalz has said that he’s trying to generate conversation about Matthew 25, and how we care for Jesus through caring for those in need.

As far back as Psalm 127 and David in 2 Samuel 7, followers of God have been concerned with making a home for God, but over and over again God has insisted that God’s presence is not to be contained. While we may never be exactly comfortable with the idea of God as homeless, we can come to trust that Christ is at work in and through experiences of our unrest and lack of control.

slide-6-jerusalem-graveyardA second would-be disciple asks Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And to him Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Rituals surrounding death have a long and deep history, involving social, physiological, and sacred purpose. Jewish burial customs of this time included a tearing of garments, constant watch of the body before it was buried, hiring of paid mourners, very specific body preparation, and then a week long mourning period for the family called Shiva.

It’s also important to note that the body was supposed to be buried on the same day in which the person had died. So this man was likely being called upon to leave and follow Jesus on the very same day as his father’s death. Asking this man to leave those family responsibilities and personal desires to process grief seems like a cruel thing. Why would Jesus ask that of him?

While grieving the death of a family member can be deeply personal there are also quite a bit of logistics to go alongside it. By asking this man to leave at this time Jesus speaks to man within his grief and stress and frees him from the work surrounding this death so that he may experience new life. In doing so there are decisions that he will have no say in, possessions he will not inherit. Jesus is asking him to willing give up control of his family’s situation so he may be able to take his place in the family of God.

The third potential disciple, tries to bargain with Jesus. He says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus is not one to negotiate, saying to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

slide-8-plowI’ve never personally plowed a field, but understand that doing so, particularly with a mule and plow as would’ve likely been the method at that point, requires much concentration. Often mules will be outfitted with blinders to keep them headed straight. If the farmer looks to the side, or worse, turns around, chances are the mule and the plow will swerve, messing up the work that has been done, slowing down the process and creating more work.

Jesus saw this man’s request to say goodbye as a sign of reluctance, a lack of focus for the work that laid ahead. There’s a possibility too that in turning back and saying goodbye to those in his home they might try and talk him out of it. They might give him reason to never make it back to Jesus, never begin to pursue Jesus’ mission. Jesus was asking for unconditional surrender of control. No, “First I’ll do this and then I’ll follow you,” would work for following Jesus.

slide-9-three-responsesEach of these acts, nomadic living, operating outside of societal burial customs, and focusing on God’s kingdom, require renouncing the control that they thought they had, and placing their trust in Jesus’ ministry and mission. Each act requires faith.

Presbyterian minister, Carol Howard Merritt, writes, “In these three responses, Jesus…calls out to those in this time who will follow him and be his disciples. To follow Christ means a reordering of life that includes the possibility that one may never settle down. To follow Christ entails understanding oneself in relation to Jesus, even when experiencing disorientation in one’s own family and confusion in one’s sense of self. To follow Christ requires a single-minded resolve that looks forward to the work ahead and is cognizant of the risk that accompanies discipleship.”

Does Jesus seem cranky in his responses? Perhaps, but Jesus’ eyes were set to Jerusalem, set to the place where crucifixion awaited him. He was running out of time and nothing but resolute faith through action would do. May we relinquish our control so we may follow Jesus with the focus he requires. Amen.

 

“Tend, Feed, Follow”; Luke 19:28-40; April 10, 2016, FPC Holt

“Tend, Feed, Follow”
Luke 19:28-40
April 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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What do you do when nothing seems right? When you need a bit of a reset button? Is there a place or a practice where predictability brings you a sense of peace?

Believe it or not, when I was a freshman in college and overwhelmed by a majority classes that required critical thinking and never had just one answer to a question, math homework brought me a sense of peace, knowing that if I did things just right, there was just one right answer.

Nowadays knitting does that for me, one row building off of the next, each stitch linked to the one beside it, hats, scarves, and socks building up in predictable patterns.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 2 - Disciples GriefIn our scripture today, the disciples are looking for this very same sense of predictability, a reset on the pain surrounding them. This story comes to us in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus had appeared to the disciples three times previously. By doing so he had confirmed the promise of his resurrection and proved, even to the doubters, that he was indeed Jesus and had returned from the dead. But for Peter things were yet a bit unresolved. Peter was stuck in the grief of having denied affiliation to Jesus. He was grief stricken and not quite sure how he could continue to follow Jesus when he felt like he had failed him when put to the test. In his defeat he returns to what he knows, what is safe and predictable: fishing.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 4 - Full NetBut then, after a night passes with no luck in their fishing, Jesus shows up again and gives fishing instructions to the disciples.  When fishing on the other side of the boat yields a tremendous catch, John realizes that Jesus is the one on the shoreside. At this news, Peter jumps into the water, eager to be by Jesus’ side.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 5 - Peter and Jesus ShoreIn this moment we see two different responses to the presence of Jesus. First, John is the disciple who sees, who recognizes Jesus and names him. Second, Peter is the disciple who acts, diving into the water to pursue Jesus.

In our relationship with God we need both, we need to see Jesus and to act in response. Or to put it in Biblical terms, we need both the faith and works, both believing and responding.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 6 - Faith that WorksIn James 2:14-18, 26, we read, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith… 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

2016 4 10 SLIDE 7 - Peter and Jesus FireOne without the other is incomplete. A point which Jesus further drives home with Peter by the firelight. Peter is desperate to be reconnected with Jesus whom he loves.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

As Peter seeks reconciliation, Jesus not only forgives him, but welcomes Peter back into the community of disciples and empowers him to do the work of God’s kingdom.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 8 - Agape and PhileoIn the Greek this passage takes an interesting turn, through the use of two different terms for love, agape and phileo. Agape is the word for the strongest form of love, unconditional love, while phileo is a more subdued term for love,  a type of sibling or friendship love.

With these words in play the exchange goes a bit more like this:

Jesus says to Peter “Do you agape me?”

And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”

The second time Jesus asks “Do you agape me?

And Peter says again, “Yes Lord, you know I phileo you.”

The third time however, it changes a bit, Jesus asks “Do you phileo me?”

And Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I phileo you.”

This could be read as Peter’s lack of commitment to Jesus, but I think it’s equally possible, that after Peter’s confidence in his allegiance to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed by his betrayal, Peter wanted to be a bit more realistic in what he was capable of. Jesus asks for unconditional love, and Peter not wanting let down Jesus any farther says that he can provide this friendship type of love. They repeat this exchange one more time, and then the third time Jesus meets Peter where he’s at, asking for brotherly love, which Peter confidently says he is indeed able to provide.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 9 - Abundant FishJesus’ generosity in abundance, patience, and grace with the disciples and particularly Peter underscores this entire story. When giving help with the disciples’ fishing he provides not just enough for breakfast, but enough to overwhelm their nets and boat. 2016 4 10 SLIDE 10 - Peter and Jesus Silhouettes When Peter wants forgiveness, Jesus provides both understanding and a way forward, a way that requires Peter to respond with his own acts of generosity, putting his faith into action.

For me, Peter makes this story a bit more accessible than some of the other acts of the disciples. In this exchange Peter is humbled by his past failures, but that doesn’t exclude or excuse him from the important work God has for him. This is a message of hope for all of us, our mistakes do not make us ineligible to serve our neighbor in God’s name. Thanks be to God for that!

2016 4 10 SLIDE 11 - Jesus and DisciplesSome refer to this story as a “re-commissioning “of the disciples, who were commissioned at the beginning of their ministry to leave their nets and follow Christ. So much has happened between then and our story today. They’ve seen healings, heard parables, and walked long distances, all alongside Jesus who took every opportunity to invite them into God’s will and work for them. Then, this man in whom they’d come to love and trust, was met with the betrayal of one of their own and the opposition of an overwhelming crowd. In the pain of these circumstances, all but John withdrew from Jesus’ company, filled with the very real fear that to remain would be to invite the same fate for themselves.

But over and over again Jesus meets them behind the locked doors of their fear and at the shores of their grief, bringing an abundance of hope and grace. When they’re not sure how to carry on, Jesus gives them a new direction, a new way to throw their nets. When Peter’s worry turns his focus inward on his own failings, Jesus turns him again to look outwards, to tend his feed his lambs and tend his sheep.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 12 - Peter and RoosterLuther Seminary professor David Lose had this to say, “we will fall short of our goals and aspirations. We will at times have to compromise. We will not always follow through. And we will time and again disappoint and even fall away. 2016 4 10 SLIDE 13 - CommissioningWhich is why we not only need Luke’s story of commissioning, but also John’s of re-commissioning. Because Jesus does not give up on us. Ever! Rather, after each failure he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment – what else is our Sunday gathering? – and then calls us to add what we have and depart worship to meaningful work in the world.”

To what is God calling you today? To what “other side” are you called to extend your nets? What different way forward does God have for you?

Life is messy. Peter knew that, and Jesus certainly does too. But our mess is not an end, but a beginning. Our deficit is not a stopping place, but a place to start again. For where we offer little, God multiplies it into much. In Christ we are called, claimed, and commissioned to be a people of generous abundance. Thanks be to God.

“The Power of Vulnerability”; Jeremiah 11:18-20; September 20, 2015, FPC Holt

“The Power of Vulnerability”
Jeremiah 11:18-20
September 20, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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SLIDE 1 - Internet CommentsSometimes when I read scripture I’m taken aback for a moment: “evil deeds,” “lamb led to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “retribution upon them;” these are not phrases we are used to hearing. To 21st century ears they sound hyperbolic, a dramatic misconstruing of the situation. The type of thing that if left as a comment on an internet post would likely be disregarded as the ranting of someone out of touch with reality, if not deleted entirely. But if we allow ourselves to enter into Jeremiah’s context a bit more, perhaps we can see why Jeremiah was using such strong language, and what it was that he was striving to oppose.

SLIDE 2 - JeremiahJeremiah is known in tradition as the “weeping prophet,” ever lamenting for the pain of his people. Here Michelangelo depicts Jeremiah in evident distress. Situated in Judah around 600 BCE, Jeremiah saw his society fall apart around him as the Babylonians took over the area. In order for his people to have any sort of future, he pleaded with them to submit to the Babylonian authority. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, but not before Jeremiah was imprisoned, accused of treason, and nearly executed.[1] His prophetic text is filled with the pain of his people.

SLIDE 3 - Temple DestructionMy mind can’t help but draw a parallel to the modern day dire situation in this very same region, with places of worship again being destroyed and refugees being forced to flee their homes upon threat of death. 2015 9 20 Slide04Or in our own country the way that conflicts over racial and sexual identity have led to horrifying acts of violence. When the sacredness of life and livelihood are so disregarded, lament is a tremendously faithful response.

2015 9 20 Slide05Religious Studies Professor Amy Merrill writes, “Part of what makes the lament such a powerful artistic medium is that it can give expression and structure to chaotic and overwhelming experiences… The structure of the lament works to name the sorrow without ensnaring the individual in unrelenting grief. Thus, the lament moves from grief toward some kind of resolution. In the case of Jeremiah, the lament transitions to an expression of trust. Jeremiah asserts with confidence that God knows what is hidden from others and will judge evil deeds with righteousness (v. 20). God will set the world to rights.”

2015 9 20 Slide06This shift from pain to action is what makes lament so powerful. Lamenting is not the same as complaining. It is not an expression of mere frustration or an assigning of blame, but of anguish demanding justice. Lamenting is an act of vulnerability, surrendering to God’s tremendous presence and power. When we lament, we confess to the limits of our own abilities as individuals and humankind all together. We are created beings in need of our creator, with solutions lying outside of what is possible on our own.

2015 9 20 Slide07Lamenting dares to ask the questions that don’t come with easy or immediate answers: why me? why them? what more can I do? where is God in the midst of this? “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

SLIDE 8 - Holding EarthWe lament not because we are without hope, but because our hope lies in our God who is beyond what we can fathom. When we are surrounded with incomprehensible grief and pain, we lament because going on with business as usual would be to be out of touch with that which makes us human, separated from the breath of God that brought us into being from the beginning of creation. We are not called to be callous in the face of injustice, rather to follow the call of Romans 12:15 and “mourn with those who mourn,” even and especially when we are the ones who are mourning.

This brings to mind the movie “Inside Out.” In this movie the main character, Riley moves away from everything she knows and her identity is rocked by the shifting reality around her and within her own mind. The movie itself functions as a lamentation of coming of age. Wanting to make the best of things she struggles with the lack of joy she feels in changes her life, and worries that her inability to be happy is a betrayal of who she is and what her parents want of her. How can she be who she is when she doesn’t feel this joy?

The audience is shown that the beauty of her life comes from the very complexity we might initially view as problematic, that in darkness the light shines most brightly.

2015 9 20 Slide11As followers of Christ we have ingrained in the fiber of our community the knowledge that God is not finished with us yet. We experience pain and we experience healing. We experience emptiness in our grief and wholeness in our mourning. We witness death, but know resurrection is coming. We’ve seen the horrors of the cross, but our hope is in the emptiness of the tomb.

2015 9 20 Slide12Questioning the presence of God in the midst of horror is not a sin of insubordination, but an act of honesty, a willingness to be vulnerable with our emotion towards our creator in whom we are called in Acts 17:28 to live and move and have our being. The fact that Jesus himself questions God’s ways shows that questioning is not incongruent with belief, or with Christianity itself.

2015 9 20 Slide13Our God is a God of empathy, so desiring to enter into the joy and pain in of our world that God came to earth in the tremendously vulnerable form of a human, Jesus Christ. We are created us in God’s own image and charged with the fundamental call to love one another, to empathize with each other’s joy and pain.

2015 9 20 Slide14When our reality is incongruent with God’s desire for us, it should make us uncomfortable and cause us to seek God’s love and justice. The fullness of God’s love for us and the love we are charged to share with one another, means we are called to care, to be vulnerable, to truly desire God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. May the injustices of this world cause us to lament with hope for the world to come. Let all God’s children say: Amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2630

“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.

 

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30 April 21, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30
April 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Our Psalm today, which we read together at the beginning of the service, is arguably one of the most well known passages in all of scripture. At funerals I have seen people recite this alongside the minister. I have seen people with dementia that have a hard time with the names of their own children, but who can clearly remember this passage. This passage is shared as peace in present grief, and as a comfort in death for one dying, or for those in grief at the loss.

Slide02How eerily fitting that this passage would come in the lectionary schedule on a week when the news is filled with grief and tragedy.

I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where such terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief.Slide03 As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord has been so near throughout this week.

Slide04However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, in the midst of everything that is what I will do.

Slide05Our scripture today says: 1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

These verses bring up images of rest and peace: green pastures, still waters, restoration. This Psalm claims God as provider, as sustainer, as life giving force.

Slide06This week I know that I am in the need of still waters and green pastures. When so much of the world has become “ground zeros,” tangible reminders of pain and loss, I am in need of spaces of stillness, of provision, of hope. My heart yearns for restoration, for escape from the pain of this world.

SLIDE 7 - Smart GirlsI saw a great video by Amy Poehler this week. Amy is well known for her comedic acting on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation,” but she is also part of an online-based show called “Smart Girls at the Party,” that lifts up important character lessons for young women.

In her video this week she said, “In light of recent events, I’ve …been looking at photographs that have been really hard to take. I’ve been thinking about what these images do to our brains and to our heart and how we should look at them, and when we should look at them.”

She continues, “What do I want my eye to see? How can I keep myself informed and connected without exploiting people and harming myself? Slide08 I kind of feel like my eyes need a break. Don’t you? And if you do, then my encouragement to you and to myself would be to take it. That it’s okay to not be looking at what everyone else is looking at all the time… to be okay with letting some things rest in peace.”[1]

I would say the same goes for us as Christians as we try and understand the grief of this world. The twenty-four hour news cycles and frequent “breaking news,” can break our hearts if we allow ourselves to be inundated with them. Why can’t we, as Amy suggests, “let some things rest in peace”?

Slide09Why is it that we pay so close attention to these stories? I know I have been guilty of watching more than a healthy amount of television coverage in the face of tragedy. I tell myself that watching these stories is helpful, that somehow I will be more useful for knowing the details. I think of how each individual story is important. Christ knows them by name, so shouldn’t we?

Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”[2]

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to do so may be to disregard the hope of the resurrection, the hope of eternal life. Even Psalms often quoted in times of death and darkness, bear messages of hope and restoration.Slide11

The middle of our Psalm says in verses 4 and 5: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Slide13This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.

Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.[3]

Slide14There are so many things in this world that will make us feel unsafe: North Korea, the Boston Marathon, West, Texas, and even Evansdale. There are spaces in this world that evoke images far separated from the green pastures and still waters of our Psalm.

Author and activist Eve Ensler writes about our particularly American perspective of security in her book, “Insecure at Last.” She writes: “All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because now you have to watch out all the time. There are people not like you, people you now call enemies. You have places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit…Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission…Of course you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, contradict your stereotype, destroy the whole structure…. There are evildoers and saviors. Criminals and victims. There are those who, if they are not with us, are against us.”

She continues, “How did we, as Americans, come to be completely obsessed with our individual security and comfort above all else? … Is it possible to live surrendering to the reality of insecurity, embracing it, allowing it to open us and transform us and be our teacher? What would we need in order to stop panicking, clinging, consuming, and start opening, giving— becoming more ourselves the less secure we realize we actually are?”

Slide17There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. Even if evil takes our life on earth, we can still be secure in the hope of resurrection, in the promise of God’s Kingdom, and in the joy of redemption.

The great, good news is this: NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

Slide182nd Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

While we are on earth, while we are in the body, we are not in our ultimate home with God.

Methodist Elder, Catherine L. Kelsey wrote about our passage saying,  “Psalm 23 is the most familiar of the many psalms that reassure us of God’s continuing presence, no matter what is happening to our bodies, our relationships or community, or to our world. It is easy in the midst of trauma to give our confidence over to doctors or leaders as if they hold everything in their hands. They do not. Psalm 23 helps us retain perspective in the midst of trauma, perspective that retains our agency in relation to those who intend to help us. We seek to discern the hand of God in the work of those who help in times of trauma, but we do not expect them to do everything on our behalf….Through it all, God and God alone is our true safety, our true shepherd.”[4]

Our New Testament passage speaks of these other agents in our lives as “hired hands.” There are people in this world who do their best to protect us, but ultimately are fallible, surrendering to their own safety and well being.

Slide20 Jesus says in John 10:11-13 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

SLIDE 21 – Jesus and SheepJesus assures us in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We are called to follow our shepherd, out of grief into redemption. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to be the sheep of Christ, following our shepherd out of the pain of this world into the glory of the next.

Slide22But this is not just a call for our lives after death, this is a call for our lives right now. Our Psalm concludes in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we allow the tragedies of this world to rest in peace, knowing that our comfort is in our savior who loves and cares for us. Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

Amy Poehler’s video:


[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 434.

[4] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436.

“Witnessing the Resurrection”; John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43; Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Witnessing the Resurrection”
John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

 Slide01Try to picture the scene: It’s early. The grass is still wet with dew, which darkens the hem of Mary Magdalene’s clothing as she makes her way to the grave. Her sleeve is similarly damp from wiping away the tears that have slipped out as she’s hurried on her way past a few stationed guards and vagrants scattered among Jerusalem’s streets, quiet in a Sabbath rest.

Now she is before the tomb, but things are not as they should be. The stone closing the chamber where Jesus laid is pushed away. She is in shock, assuming the worst: grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body.Slide02

Though an empty tomb was not what she had expected, it makes me wonder what she was looking for. She knew that he had died. She saw him mocked, tortured, and hung on the cross. The man that she loved was gone. She knew, or at least thought she knew, that she would never talk, eat, or laugh with him again. But yet, she came to his tomb.SLIDE 3 - Mary and Disciples

Maybe she just needed to see it for herself for it to be real; the giant stone as a final punctuation to the drama of the past three days. That stone would serve to separate and sever Mary from the man she was never too far away from in life. But with the stone removed and the body gone she wasn’t able to have that kind of closure. Though at this point she surely did not picture Jesus as supernaturally exhumed, she knew quite clearly that the open tomb meant that the story still had not ended.SLIDE 4 - Mary Empty Tomb

In the shock of the empty tomb Mary takes off running towards the disciples. Of anyone, surely they would understand her grief, her confusion, her frustration. She runs to them, likely telling them the details of the situation through panting frantic gasps.  They do not seem to wait to comfort her, or to form a plan of how they might deal with possible grave robbers, or to pause to consider that Jesus might have actually meant all of those things he had said about eternal life. No, they simply run, breaking into a race.

In this way they seem like young boys, propelled, partially by curiosity, partially by righteous indignation, eager to see what has happened. I can also see them in their running, looking over their shoulders, making sure to keep an eye out for any legal authority that may recognize them from the crucifixion three days before.

SLIDE 5 – John and Simon Peter at TombThey arrive at the graveyard, the “beloved disciple” first, who seems to peek into the tomb, but not fully enter. I can see him sheepishly grinning at the door, like a child at a funeral too young to really understand the weight of the day’s events.

He lets Simon Peter go in first. Peter goes in and surveys the scene. The burial cloths are rolled up, which is just enough evidence for him to see that, wherever Jesus’ body is, this was not the work of grave robbers. We are told that the “beloved disciple” enters as well, sees, and believes (though we’re not told exactly what it is that he believes).

Slide06This is enough for the two of them, and they run back to their homes. They do not wait to see what has really happened, they do not try to gather more evidence, or to care for Mary. It seems that their mourning is a sort of selfish grief. As a child too young to understand the scope of grief and loss, they are concerned with simply how the death will affect them in their own individual lives. Things are changed, and that is what upsets them, but the tomb doesn’t hold any more answers than they were able to find at home.

This is not enough, however, for Mary. She still does not have any answers, and now she has lost her support as well. She breaks into tears, overcome by the compounding losses. She looks towards the tomb and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been.

Slide07I imagine that this scene would be shocking: two angelic figures, appearing out of thin air; two figures framing where Jesus had laid. I wonder if Mary knew they were angels. Were her watery eyes blurring her vision? Or maybe she thought they were merely others at the tomb to pay respect, mourn, or indulge their curiosity. Whatever the situation, Mary does not react to their appearance in our text, but the angels react to her.

Slide 8 - Mary Crying“Why are you crying?” they ask. I can see Mary getting frustrated at this. She was at a tomb after all. If one cannot cry there without having to explain it, where can you cry? I can see her nearly yelling her response back at them in between sobs. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Some have translated the Greek phrase in this text “τον κυριον,” which I have read as “my Lord” as “my husband.” Though there’s ambiguity in translation whether her relationship is read as something authoritative like “lord,” or “master,” or temporal and intimate like “husband, “ what is important here is the closeness she felt towards him. Jesus was likely the man to whom Mary was closest. He helped her make sense of the world, and accepted her just as she was. She lived her life in the context of his, not out of obligation, but out of devotion. To see such a man die, and not only just die, but to be crucified had to evoke the deepest kind of grief.

Slide09It is in this moment of overwhelming grief that Mary turns around, away from the tomb. Maybe she too, like the disciples would’ve broken into a run and left this place of sorrow, which, as the dark morning turned to day, was quickly becoming crowded by others who did not, could not, understand the depth of her pain, but there was someone standing in her way.

SLIDE 10 - Mary and JesusIt’s a man. We, the readers know that this man is Jesus. The gospel writer tells us this plainly. Mary however, is unable to see this at first. To her, he is simply another person who disrupts her. She assumes him to be the gardener, and he too frustrates her with his questioning, mirroring the angels’ questioning, “why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?”

Slide11I can see her, at this point quite visibly upset, still wiping tears away with her now deeply tear-stained clothing. The dawn has come, the city is now likely abuzz with the gossip of the weekend’s events as people make their way to the Sabbath worship. Most everyone else walking about on this morning has dressed in their best clothing, washed, and prepared for the day. They may have felt some ripple effect of the crucifixion, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on with their Sabbath routine.

In the midst of this morning, this Jerusalem, Mary is mess. Perhaps this is why she is unable to recognize the man she knew so closely. He is separate from her experience. He is put together. He is composed. How could he have anything to do with her situation? To her, he is just another suspect. She pleads with him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Albert Edelfelt 1890“Mary,” Jesus says. “Mary,” not “here I am,” not “why could you accuse me?” not “silly woman.” “Mary,” Jesus says. This, she finally understands. I can see her eyes light up, her shoulders relax, and she cries, “Rabbouni!”

I can see her now wanting to collapse into his arms, and Jesus anticipates this too, saying, “Do not cling to me.” It’s hard to imagine her not being hurt by this command. Do not cling to me? Here is a man whom shared much with, whom she thought was dead, now alive in front of her, but yet she cannot be close to him. The relationship has changed. It is still intimate, to be sure, for after all Mary is the first of all of Jesus’ followers to see him in this state and it is intimate as well that he calls her by name, but, still, there is a new distance here.

Instead of enveloping her grief in his embrace, he directs her outwards. Out of the graveyard, out of her grief, to go to tell the disciples that he is ascending to God the Father. And what’s is truly surprising, she goes. The text gives us no sign of any hesitation, there’s no further dialogue between the two. She simply goes. She tells the disciples what she’s heard and seen and all of history is forever changed as a result of it.

This is what shows us the selflessness of her grief. If her tears were for her own loss, she would still be crying, for Jesus’ reappearance at the tomb does not mean a return to life as it was. She will never be close to Jesus in the same way again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The loss of her relationship with this man is not what matters to her. What matters to her is that in returning to life, Jesus has made real the promise of resurrection. What was once the theme of many confusing parables is now a lived reality. It is in this, Mary is brought from deep grief to deep joyous peace.

SLIDE 13 - Flower at TombNow take a moment to think. Where would you be in the scene? Are you Simon Peter: running to and fro, curiously searching for tangible evidence of what really happened at the tomb? Are you the “beloved disciple”: wary of the tomb, confused by the loss, but believing still? Are you a citizen of Jerusalem: intrigued by the gossip, the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, but not sure that it has anything really to do with you? Or are you Mary: deeply grieved at the loss of this intimate companion but propelled into the world by the greater news that the tomb cannot contain the Christ?

On this Easter Sunday, I invite you to take a place in the scene with the resurrected Christ. Maybe your place isn’t as close, or as passionate, as you would like it to be. Maybe you’re still standing nervously outside the tomb. Maybe you want simply to run in the opposite direction of all the crucifixion drama. Wherever your place, I pray that you may be close enough to hear and bold enough to listen to Jesus speaking your name as well. We’re all invited to know the joy of our Christ resurrected and to speak that joy into the world. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32