“#Blessed” Acts 20:32-35, October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“#Blessed”
Acts 20:32-35
October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-23-slide-1-ethete-high-schoolSeveral years ago I worked with “Group Workcamps,” an organization that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth and their leaders going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

2016-10-23-slide-2-workcampIt made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed.

Thinking of this from the perspective of that girl from this neighborhood, it’s very possible that she can’t even imagine having enough money and free time to be able to give it away like that. When you are barely scraping by, mission work and financial giving is an uncomfortable and risky stretch.

All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving what we had to give. Allowing youth to experience firsthand the joy and benefits of putting others before yourself, encouraging lifelong patterns of selflessness and generosity.

On the surface it seems like giving of our time and money is indeed quite weird. Why should others receive what we have worked for? Our money, our energy, our free time. Ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine. 2016-10-23-slide-3-seagullsI’m reminded of the seagulls in Finding Nemo, “mine, mine, mine,” swooping and diving with crazed desire to be the one to eat that particular fish. They all want to claim it as theirs, devour it on their own.

We, however have a different understanding of “mine.”2016-10-23-slide-4-brief-statement-stained-glassThe money, energy, and even free time that we have are not ours to claim, but they are gifts given by God. We are stewards of what God has given us. Extending those gifts to others expands the reaches of God’s work here on earth, and enables those in need to see Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world. When we give as we can we are reflecting the image of God within us, our God of abundant love and generosity.

But it is not just those in need that experience the joy of this generosity, Matthew 25:37-46 tells us of how our giving honors and delights God’s own self. This passage reads: “the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2016-10-23-slide-8-heaven-or-hell This passage is rather explicit about the the benefits of caring for those in need, eternal life with God, as well as the penalty for ignoring those whom God has called you to care for, which is is eternal punishment. Read that to someone unfamiliar with church and they will really think you’re weird! Thankfully we don’t need to wait until our afterlife to experience the benefits of generosity.

2016-10-23-slide-9-paradox-of-generosityProfessor Christian Smith and Doctoral Candidate Hilary Davidson, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a book reflecting on these benefits, called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” It seems so nonsensical, giving what we have would seem to produce a deficit, but that seems to not be the case. In this book, Smith and Davidson wrote, “the results of generosity are often… unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win. Rather than generosity producing net losses, in general, the more generously people give of themselves, the more of many goods they receive in turn. Sometimes they receive more of the same kind of thing that they gave – money, time, attention, and so forth. But, more often and importantly, generous people tend to receive back goods that are often more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose, and personal growth.” This discovery came about through quite a bit of statistical analysis, proving empirically that increased generosity increases our likelihood of happiness, health, contentment, fulfillment, and feeling close to God.

“By grasping onto what we currently have,” Smith writes, “we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’” It may seem then that generosity is the cure not the cause for financial anxiety and protective hoarding.

2016-10-23-slide-10-blessedIf you spend any time on Twitter you will have likely seen the hashtag blessed. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, hashtags are a word or phrase begun with the pound sign and function as way to provide a topic or category. The hashtag blessed is often filled with pictures celebrating material wealth or personal achievements. If we only used secular media as our guide for showing us the blessed life, we would think that the end game to life was to accumulate as much money, things, and accolades as we can.

2016-10-23-slide-11-makariosIn this last phrase of our passage today, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” the word “blessed” in the original Greek is makarios. It doesn’t really translate fully but using the word blessed. Makar is the basic word for blessed, but makarios is more expansive, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, or well off.

This type of “well off” is very different from that of Twitter’s #blessed, the blessedness coming from generosity is rooted in love, spurring a wealth of joy, compassion, hope, contentment, and interconnectivity.

2016-10-23-slide-12-sanctuaryWhen I look around this room I see a people who seek God’s blessedness. I’m not referring to any one’s bank account, but when I see all of you I see a supremely blessed, fortunate, and well-off crowd. 2016-10-23-slide-13-prayer-shawlI’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. 2016-10-23-slide-14-pumpkins I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. 2016-10-23-slide-15-fpc-holt I’ve seen you step up and speak to one another about the joy of giving what you can in the capital campaign, planned giving, and annual stewardship campaigns. Your generosity in the tangible things in life have in turn made you wealthy in intangible ways.

Proverbs 11:24-28 says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”

If we live our lives to give to others, will it be considered weird? Yep. Will it be difficult? Probably. Will it be fulfilling? Without a doubt. Alleluia. Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

“Who is My Neighbor?” Luke 10:25-37; July 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Who is My Neighbor?”
Luke 10:25-37
July 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Mr RogersThis song sung by Mister Rogers at the beginning of each episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood welcomes us into a familiar, comfortable and slow moving world of love, understanding, and community. Mister Rogers asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” as an invitation, a desire for relationship and connection.

SLIDE 2 - who-is-my-neighborIn our scripture today we hear another question about neighborliness, coming from a very different place. “Who is my neighbor?” This is the question of the lawyer in our story today, trying to figure out what exactly is required of him to attain eternal life. “Who is my neighbor?” This is a question that seeks boundaries: If you can tell me who my neighbors are, then I can also know who my neighbors aren’t. The lawyer desires to place limitations on whom he should love. The lawyer invites Jesus’ help in identifying his neighbor. This means that there is a category of “nonneighbor.” The lawyer wants to draw a line.

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborAs your pastor tasked with bringing God’s word to you each week I carry the blessed duty of letting the Sunday’s scripture color the rest of my going about as I think of what God has to say to us all in worship. This week was a particularly interesting one putting the text and life side by side. All week I’ve had this question of “who is my neighbor?” buzzing about in my brain.

SLIDE 4 - who-is-my-neighbor“Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I encountered others in travel plazas as I traveled back from Massachusetts last weekend. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I had dinner with Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity on Monday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked when I learned that my favorite knitting store in Cedar Falls was closing. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked at our Community Celebration Service on Wednesday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as rides and food stands were set up for Farmers Day. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as the streets became filled with people walking about to enjoy the festivities. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I read the news of the George Zimmerman trial. All of these experiences have made me examine who my neighbors are and think about how I can be a neighbor.

SLIDE 5 - Passing ByJesus shares his own such story, a familiar one: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

SLIDE 6 - Samaritan33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

SLIDE 7 - ThreesIn the storytelling of Jesus’ time and in the Goldilocks storytelling formula we are used to, audiences expect that series of three will create a pattern in the first two actions of characters that is broken by the third. In Jesus’ time the expected sequence would be a priest, a Levite, and then an Israelite. Jesus often brought into question the relevance of the law in the scope of God’s greater kingdom and so such a sequence would uplift the common person rather than the leaders of the temple pointing out that an ordinary Israelite would do what the priest and Levite would not.

However, our story shows us that it is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan that comes to the aid of the injured man. Jesus makes an unfamiliar and uncomfortable comparison, placing the two Jewish characters as inferior to the Samaritan. In Jewish culture of this time, Samaritans were seen as not only unclean but antagonistic. In this story they would be more assumed to be the robbers than any other character, and certainly not the hero. The neighborliness of the Samaritan therefore, would not be attributed to his being a Samaritan, but rather because someone was in need of a neighbor.

SLIDE 9 - ManInterestingly, in a story where we are provided with the nationality of the majority of the characters, the lead character is not given any identifying characteristic. He enters the story as a “particular man,” is abused, and then identified only by his need. He became a neighbor because he is in need of a neighbor to help him. Through these two characters in this story Jesus shows us that it is not class, social status, nationality, or ethnic identity that defines us, but rather we are defined by our actions. Someone’s need makes them our neighbor and our acts of love make us a neighbor in return.

Biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes this in his Luke Commentary: “Jesus has turned the issue from the boundaries of required neighborliness to the essential nature of neighborliness. Neighbors are defined actively, not passively…Neighbors do not recognize social class. Neither is mercy the conduct of a calculating heart, nor eternal life the reward for doing prescribed duties. Eternal life – the life of the age to come – is that quality of life characterized by showing mercy for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or region – and with no thought of reward. Mercy sees only need and responds with compassion.”[1]

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborBy simultaneously identifying the Samaritan and defying the cultural expectations by showing a compassionate Samaritan, Jesus forces us to look beyond outward identity and towards outward action.  True neighborliness is about the joy and inconveniences of being confronted with one another’s reality. It’s about realizing that there is someone in a ditch and not pretending we haven’t seen them. Being a neighbor in the way Jesus calls us to is the difficult commission to allow our own lives and plans to be inconvenienced for the sake of another.

Slide12 Perhaps you experienced some of this inconvenience this week: waiting behind others in line at Farmers Day, having to drive the long way around town in order to avoid construction designed to make things easier for those traveling through town with farm equipment, driving around the parade route. When streets are torn up or Farmers Day reroutes us, we interact differently, we see different things, and in a way, we have a different set of neighbors. And when we do try to go about in our regular ways we are forced to think differently.

We have to think about whether the person we’re visiting lives on the west or east side of 6th street. We have to think of where there are breaks in Young Street. In our detours we learn new ways of traveling. We change perspective. We change routine. We are caused to notice. We have a different set of neighbors. What seems a mere inconvenience is actually an opportunity to follow God’s call to love our neighbor, we just might not have seen them as neighbors before.

SLIDE 13 - ThreeUltimately, Jesus does not directly answer the question of “who is my neighbor?” Jesus instead asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” This reversal asks us to be more concerned with acting neighborly towards the other, than with deciding who is our neighbor. Acts of mercy are not to be done based on our neighbors worth but rather on their need.

SLIDE 14 - QuestionJesus responds to the lawyers questioning with questions of His own. That was one of Jesus’ teaching methods, not giving the answers, but asking questions that cause others to think through things on their own. This can be uncomfortable, annoying even when you are trying to get a straight answer or receive teaching.

Slide15Maybe some of you felt a bit of this a few weeks back when I asked you to respond to the sermon in groups during the sermon, and then went around for responses. You can rest easy, I’m not planning on doing that this week, but think about that moment. I know when I have been asked to respond to sermons within worship my response in the past has been, “wait, you’re the preacher, you want me to work on this too?”

Jesus wants us involved in reflecting, active in the process of understanding who we are called to be. The lawyer wanted to know “what must I do?” He didn’t want something to contemplate he wanted something to do.

SLIDE 16 - StepsThis is the appeal of so many self-help books: the promise of concrete ways forward, tangible steps to take, solid ways to measure progress. Jesus promises no such thing. What Jesus’ stories do, however, is give life to the question. While the lawyer was worried about steps, Jesus was worried about individuals. SLIDE 17 - ManStories make it real. Walking by individuals in our day to life make things real. Learning to know our brothers and sisters in this community gives flesh and blood to the word “neighbor.”

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. He seeks to limit, to check something off his to do list on the way to salvation. Jesus calls us to a much broader definition of neighbor. In fact he calls us to seek to expand our circle of neighbors, to widen the kingdom of God. Slide18So rather than asking “who is our neighbor?” the best question we could as is the one that Mr. Rogers asks? “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.


[1] Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.”p. 230

Photo a Day Lent – Day 43: Help

“Help”

3 27 Day 43 Help

Today we had our final program for the term for our WOW (Worship on Wednesdays) after school program. I am so very grateful for all of the volunteers that help make it happen each week. Here’s the thank you note the kids gave the volunteers after the program tonight.