That Holy Spirit Glow, Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–12 [13–16], January 8, 2017, FPC Holt

That Holy Spirit Glow
Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
January 8, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2017-1-8-slide-1-trintiyMany people, even those who are lifelong Christians, are surprised to hear that the trinity is not in scripture. We have it in our creeds, our confessions, our catechisms, look out in the Narthex and you’ll see it represented on the stained glass depictions on the confessional banners, but at no point do Jesus, Paul, or any other apostles stop amidst their theological teachings and lay out the spiritual math equation of 1 Creator + 1 Savior Jesus + 1 Holy Spirit = 1 God. Christian teaching is one of very few places you will be taught that 3 = 1.

2017-1-8-slide-2-jc-baptismI know I’ve struggled with this understanding, especially in the Old Testament when there is so much language simply referring to God as “Lord.” For much of the Bible you only have one aspect referred to at any given time. It’s always struck me like one of those movie tropes where you only realize people are twins once you get them in the same room. But here, in this story we have the big three all together in one place: Parent, Child, Spirit; Father Son, Holy Ghost; or my favorite, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Here also we we have the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is perhaps one of those most common ways that the Holy Spirit is depicted. If you look out in the Narthex, both the 2017-1-8-slide-3-confession-panels Nicene Creed and the Brief Statement of Faith banners feature a dove as a depiction of the Holy Spirit. The imagery of the Holy Spirit as dove is so foundational to our specific tradition that we feature it prominently in the Presbyterian cross.

2017-1-8-slide-4-consider-the-birdsIf you’re as intrigued by the symbols of the Bible as I am, “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue is a really interesting read. The book highlights the role various birds play in the Biblical narratives as well as other layers of historical secular meanings. One of the ways that the dove as Holy Spirit is described is as the creative catalyst, the initiator. Blue writes, “In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art throughout the centuries has depicted this hovering presence…as a dove… Once we get to the baptism of Jesus the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus’ shoulder and a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son… with whom I am well pleased.’ “

2017-1-8-slide-5-dove This often used symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, is nowhere nearly as common in scripture, this symbol of the Holy Spirit explicitly as a dove  is only actually present in our particular text today, in verse 16: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

2017-1-8-slide-6-fire-doveNow I have a bit of a linguistic confession to make. Without being hyperbolic, I think I can honestly say I’ve read this passage at least 100 times. And every time previous to very recently I read “alighting” as some derivation of the word “lighting.” Now, being that we’ve been focusing on being “held by the promised light” all throughout Advent, it really comes as no big surprise that light is on my mind. But this word carries two meanings, one, the one I had originally thought, is a poetic way of going about saying something was set aflame. This is how I pictured the dovelike presence, not with the soft politeness one might typically see from a dove, but coming down to earth in a blaze of Pentecostal glory.

2017-1-8-slide-7-butterflyTurns out, when you dig around a bit in other translations and in the Greek, the real definition of “alighting” here is, “to descend and settle.” This evokes images of a crisp tree in autumn falling on green grass, a butterfly on a flower, or a pigeon on a park statue.  Not quite as intense as I thought.

Still, there is power in this alighting. At  Jesus’ baptism we have the convergence of God the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. In this moment Jesus is named as God’s beloved child and Jesus’ ministry begins.

2017-1-8-slide-8-jesusAnd where does he go from here? Does he have an internship at the office of a minor deity or perhaps an apprenticeship so he can learn the family trade of divinity? No, there’s no easy resting for him, once these words come to him he goes out into the wilderness,

2017-1-8-slide-9-wilderness automatically thrown into the most difficult of tests. And if being in the wilderness isn’t hard enough he is forced into a battle of wits and temptation with the devil. From there, from the wilderness place, he goes out to perform miracles, challenge the status quo, and teach a new way of living. The beginning of his career serving as a preview of the way his life on earth would end: death, hell, and then resurrection. He goes through the worst the devil has to offer, bearing the brunt of sin for us.

2017-1-8-slide-10-baptismDebbie Blue writes of the symbolic significance: “Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized. Baptism is a symbol of death and renewed life. It’s a bold statement to begin with. God’s don’t generally die. – nor would they stoop to be baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary. To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. “

In baptism we acknowledge the grace through which God claims us as God’s beloved. We acknowledge our inclusion in the family of God, function as the body of Christ, and enlivenment by the Holy Spirit. In baptism the spirit of God calls out new life from the muck of our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

“Remember Your Baptism”; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; January 10, 2016, FPC Holt

“Remember Your Baptism”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016 1 10 SLIDE 1 - BaptismI’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. It is always an honor and a privilege to perform a baptism. Every one of them is different: I’ve seen wonder and innocence in the eyes of small babies, a range of joy and vulnerability among adults and youth. There were some babies who were calm and happy in the waters, others who squirmed and cried. Each time I’ve made the trip down the aisle with the newly baptised, telling each of them how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for them. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 2 - Infant BaptismWe say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and many of these babies included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”

2016 1 10 SLIDE 3 - Remember Your Baptism“Remember your baptism.” The echo of those words across the years are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of your baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.

“Remember your baptism.” Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.

 Remember your baptism.” Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.

[Story omitted in text for privacy]

“Remember your baptism.” Especially because remembering your baptism is not just about remembering your baptism, but remembering everyone else’s too: the promises we make to one another, the interconnectivity brought at these waters, the ongoing covenant that we inherit…together.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 7 Baptismal FontThe Directory for Worship of the PCUSA affirms that our sacraments, including baptism, “are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” It also says that “The body of Christ is one, and Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ. As they are united with Christ through faith, Baptism unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. Barriers of race, gender, status, and age are to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome.” And we affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

2016 1 10 SLIDE 9 - Sealed Renewed MarkedWhat an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service. We are called to be united in that baptism, in equality throughout time and beyond all earthly demographic divisions. We remember our baptism by living into God’s call on our lives, individually and as the body of Christ.

How do you remember your baptism? How do you fulfill God’s call to equality through the promises of baptism? How do you seek to be the body of Christ? What are the ways that we as a church can better live into the baptismal promises we give to one another? What is a way that we can reflect the love of God we have received, to this broken and hurting world?

Some of you do this through teaching church school classes, coming together for bible study, leading our youth groups, participating in Faith Forest for all or VIPS. Some of you do this through mission work in Mexico or Uganda, working with Global Family Fellowship, or helping out at the food bank. Some of you do this by sharing your own peace and joy in the redemptive waters with your friends, coworkers, and family.

In our baptism each one of us is called into new life, and at every baptism all of us together are called to live into this new life together, to embrace the covenantal promises of our God.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 11 - Waters of CreationThe Directory for worship says, “In Baptism, the Holy Spirit binds the Church in covenant to its Creator and Lord. The water of Baptism symbolizes the waters of Creation, of the Flood, and of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, the water of Baptism links us to the goodness of God’s creation and to the grace of God’s covenants with Noah and Israel. Prophets of Israel, amidst the failure of their own generation to honor God’s covenant, called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24) They envisioned a fresh expression of God’s grace and of creation’s goodness, a new covenant accompanied by the sprinkling of cleansing water. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water. So, Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s grace and covenant in Christ.”

2016 1 10 SLIDE 12 - Jesus BaptismThrough our baptism every one of God’s children enveloped in the promises of God, each one of us named and accounted for, sharing in God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, that each of us is beloved, and in each of us God is well pleased. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“But Wait, There’s More!”; Acts 2:1-21; May 24, 2015, FPC Holt

“But Wait, There’s More!”
Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Pentecost Drum Circle:

As our call to worship in our Upstream Service We created rhythms utilizing the different names of the groups present at Pentecost in Acts 2 and then put them all together to experience the movement of the Spirit among the people, bringing them together in one voice.

“But Wait, There’s More!”

Listen to the sermon here

2015 5 24 Slide01Do you ever feel like things are just a bit… noisy? You just have so many thoughts, so many ideas, that you can’t quite settle your mind down? Or you’re at a big gathering for a meal and there’s so many different people talking that you’re really not sure what conversation to tune in on? Or, you’re at one of those sports bars that seem to have one TV per person and they’re all on different channels and you just can’t seem to focus?

2015 5 24 Slide02This is the feeling I’m imagining at the very beginning of the Pentecost gathering. So many different people all drawn together, speaking in their own languages about their own thoughts and issues, everyone is buzzing about wondering what’s going to happen next. I like this picture of it… because it seems just messy enough to be accurate.

2015 5 24 Slide03Since the Holy Spirit has a great sense of humor, this very buzzing about is what was going on in my own brain as I tried to figure out what message this text could have for us today: We could talk about the correlation between Babel and Pentecost. We could explore the modern geography of the nationalities present at that gathering. I could attempt to deliver a sermon in Hebrew or Greek to see if the Holy Spirit shows up in the same particular way as in Pentecost so we’re all able to understand Hebrew and Greek perfectly, a miracle I would’ve been really grateful to have happen while I was in seminary. We could explore the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot as the setting for Pentecost, correlating the 10 commandments to the Spirit’s presence. We could talk about how the word for spirit and breath are the same or how the disciples had a similar reaction to the resurrection as they did to Pentecost.

2015 5 24 Slide05This text is overflowing with theological, ecclesiological, and eschatological meaning, but for today the message I know I needed to hear the most, the miracle in this text for me this time around, was the way the Holy Spirit calmed all of this madly buzzing chaos and brought clarity.

In a whoosh of wind and fire the Spirit transformed the community from frenetic into faithful, from cacophonous into melodious, from fearful into empowered.

2015 5 24 Slide06 In the midst of a busy season at the end of a busy year in my own life, I know I need that message. As a congregation freshly emerging from a big year of many celebrations, I believe this is the message we could all use: That when the Holy Spirit moves among us, we can better understand what God wants us to do next, because by the Spirit we can better understand God and each other.

2015 5 24 Slide07At the time of Pentecost, the disciples were under instruction from Jesus himself that they are not to leave Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes among them. But what will that look like? How will they know? In scripture we don’t hear them asking this question, but if they did I could imagine Jesus saying something along the lines of, “oh, you’ll know.”

After three years of ministry among them, his crucifixion, and then resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven. Jesus is no longer there among them to answer their questions, to wash their feet, or to feed them loaves and fishes. And so, they are likely fearful, afraid that they are on their own, that God is no longer in their midst, since the primary way they have experienced God, so far, is through Christ.

After all that has happened in their lives with Jesus, he gives the disciples the divine version of, “but wait, there’s more.” So at Pentecost they are awaiting the Holy Spirit to come among them.

2015 5 24 Slide08And as the disciples are gathered with “devout Jews from every nation,” the Holy Spirit rushes in with a violent wind, and “tongues of fire,” resting on each of them. And in their bewilderment they draw close together and inexplicably can all understand each other, even though they are speaking different languages.

Imagine actually being in this crowd at that time and how it would make you feel: a strong and angry wind, fire all around you. It would certainly be terrifying. Loud noises and fire are usually not an indication of positive things, rather of an attack or hurricane or tornado. Keep in mind it was a packed crowd in that temple, with lots of unfamiliar faces, perhaps even people in the room who looked like the type of people you had been taught to mistrust. But you’re in this together, whatever bad or good may come of this strange situation.

2015 5 24 Slide09And then all of a sudden comes the moment I love in this passage, where the people in their fear draw closer to one another, and what was initially cowering in fear is transformed into gathering in unity. Their shouts of personal bewilderment aren’t just their own, but those of a common language and voice. They’re terrified, but in their terror they’re able to understand one another and the joy of that newfound clarity turns their panic into relief, discomfort into joy.

2015 5 24 Slide10It reminds me of a story from my favorite artist, Brian Andreas. He writes, “this is a machine that’s supposed to make people good & true & kind & the funny thing is that it works best when it’s completely broken down so everyone has to stop what they’re doing & get together & figure out how to fix it.”[1]

Their unification was initially out of fear, but in surrendering themselves to their astonishment, the Holy Spirit breathes restoration and new beginnings in their midst.

2015 5 24 Slide11As they drew together in fright the Holy Spirit transformed them into people of one language. As they were able to hear one another and Peter’s preaching they became people of one purpose, the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ.

The flames and wind and spontaneous ability to hear in one language were undoubtedly miraculous, but the part of this that I think speaks best to me today, was the way that the Holy Spirit enabled them not just to hear the words that each other were saying, but that the Holy Spirit enabled them to listen to the heart of one another, that they were each laid vulnerable before the other and truly understand God’s prophetic word for all of them.

2015 5 24 Slide12Author Mark Nepo writes of the ways the Holy Spirit can transform our own fears and misgivings into life-giving unification, “The moment we speak from the truth of compassion, we speak the same language always waiting underneath our differences.” Continuing on he says, “in a moment of vulnerability, in a moment of suffering or acceptance, in a moment of letting the truth of things rise within us, in a moment of risking to be who we are in front of others, we can feel the life of others wash over us as we slip back into the sea of compassion. And in that…moment, there is only one tongue.”[2]

2015 5 24 Slide13Through the Holy Spirit we experience clarity, a freedom from all of those things that we thought divided us, all those human-created conventions that we thought were necessary steps to accessing God. This freedom can and should shake up our lives, compelling us to reprioritize our own lives, and perhaps even our church to better reflect the priorities of God’s Kingdom.

2015 5 24 Slide14Particularly in our upcoming Summer of Sabbatical, may we be mindful to silence any voices in us that are not of God, ever pursuing God’s call for each of our lives.

Whether it be through flames of Pentecost or a look of familiarity in the eyes of the stranger, thanks be to God for every time that the Holy Spirit helps us to get out of our own way so that God might be more mightily at work among us. May we ever open our eyes to the ways God is in our midst. Amen.

[1] http://www.storypeople.com/2013/12/16/broken-down/

[2] Nepo, Mark. The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life. New York: Harmony Books, ©2005.

Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Liturgy first led in worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt on March 29, 2015 at our Upstream Service. The liturgy is designed so that the responsive confession is happening while the palm frond is being folded. I recommend letting the congregation know this before the invitation. Also, take your time and be sure to show them your frond you are folding (and/or project images of the folds close up – feel free to use my photos for this) so that the congregation can follow along. I did provide the written directions alongside the liturgy when I used it in worship. Since different people receive information if different ways, I recommend having the directions visually and in written form.

Invitation to Confession: The palms don’t wave for long. Just moments later and the people were picking up their coats, cleaning them off, and going about their day. So, too, we are quick to move on, pass the joy of welcoming our savior, into our own concerns in day to day living. Together, we transform celebration into ignorance, and our ignorance is transformed into pain. As we confess our sins together, we fold palms into crosses, symbolizing the journey of Holy Week. Together let us pray:

Prayer of confession

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Holding palm frond

Holding palm frond

Leader: We come knowing the way we ought to live

People: The path of righteousness laid before us

 

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Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Leader: But we bow before so many idols

People: Ego, status, wealth

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Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here's what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here’s what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

 

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Leader: Offered the guidance of the Holy Spirit

People: We turn away

 

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Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Leader: Offered God’s boundless love

People: We draw boundaries around those we will love

 

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself

Leader: Offered the peace of Christ

People: We join the crowd in demanding for his crucifixion

 

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Leader: For all of these things we ask forgiveness

People: When our “Hosannas” turn to “Crucify Him!”, we know not what we are doing.

 

Here are a few finishing steps to tie them. I did not put them in the liturgy itself simply for timing, but the end of the last piece folded can be tied around the back as shown below:

Folding end around the middle

Folding end around the middle

IMG_0697_2

Tucking the end into the middle back

IMG_0698_2

Pulling the end tight. I then ripped off the loose part, but it could be looped through again so it will lie flatter

Learn more about FPC Holt’s Upstream Service here:

“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

“Christ Alone,” Galatians 2:15-21; June 16, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Christ Alone”
Galatians 2:15-21
June 16, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 2 - FPC MaumeeAs a Presbyterian pastor, some people find it strange that I do not personally have strong roots in the Presbyterian Church. When searching for a church, my family historically has picked churches based on the community found within the church. The church I’ve spent most of my life in, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, was chosen by my parents because of the children’s programs it provided, as well as fellowship for my parents. I grew up in and into the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian tradition, confessions, customs, and processes shaped how I experience God and specifically, God’s call for my ministry. But here’s something shocking, I do not believe that we as Presbyterians have everything figured out. And here’s something even more shocking, I think that’s okay.

30459-Least Still Christian_pThere’s a book that came out January of 2011 called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian.” I like the concept of this book, a getting back to the basics of our faith.

SLIDE 4 - LutherIt is certainly not a new idea. When Martin Luther wrote up his famous 95 theses his main desire was to take the Christian faith back to the beginning, back to the core elemental beliefs that makes people Christians.

SLIDE 5 - FormingIf we hold to the Presbyterian tenant of being “reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God,” these institution shaking ideas of going back to the basics should excite us. But of course there are things that we very much enjoy about our tradition. We like the stability of history, the comfort of the way we’ve always done things. There is nothing inherently wrong in any of these things. What becomes troublesome however is when we believe that we’ve got it all figured out and that these man made rules of how to go about being faithful are the one and only way.

SLIDE 6 - LeviticusSometimes when I read Paul’s letters to all of those early Christian communities it sounds like he is simply giving them a talking to for a lot of things we don’t even do anymore. It’s tempting to read this simply as Paul scolding the Jews for their desire to maintain salvific legalism even after Jesus’ death and resurrection superseded the old law. Yes, that is in there, and I don’t know about you, but I’m under no temptation to return to all of the laws given in Leviticus. I have no desire to give up shellfish or cheeseburgers or try to figure out what fabrics I’m allowed to wear. And I’m not tempted to believe that any one of these practices will bring me closer to God, let alone will bring me salvation.

SLIDE 7 - SplitsBut that’s not the only legalism we’re dealing with. There are so many theological conventions, liturgical rituals, and sociological assertions that have developed over years and years of Christian faith, reformations, and denominational splits. In this cartoon it shows a membership class and the presenter has a chart that says “Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History.” The presenter says, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And one of the people in the class says, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.” While I value the history, wisdom, and community found in our denominational structure, the splintering of denominations throughout time points to the very religiosity that Paul railed against, saying, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:18-19) Paul tells us that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ. Period. The end.

Presbyterian pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong writes, “Salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else: not Jesus and certain cultural practices; not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective; not Jesus and a particular income level; not Jesus and a specific denominational brand; not Jesus and one political party; not Jesus and being good enough. Just Jesus. If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died for nothing” (v.21)”[1] The community of Galatia used to depend on the law to bring them to salvation. If they just followed all the rules they would be saved from their sinfulness. Jesus came about to bring another way, a new path to salvation.

SLIDE 10 - Shrek Jesus is a burner of old bridges. Like Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, and so many action movies where the pathway crumbles behind the person who steps on it, as we follow Jesus, the old pathways fall away. Any way we try to access salvation apart from Jesus is like Wile E. Coyote trying to run on air. We are not left midair. Christ makes a new pathway, one designed for the forgiveness of all.SLIDE 11 - Midair

Emory professor, Wendy Farley wrote, “If we begin with faith, we can inhabit our traditions more lightly. We can enjoy the formation our particular community provides without insisting that it is the only way. Our faith can allow us to be nourished by tradition without assuming that those who practice differently have not knowledge of God. Faith gives us the confidence to honor our heritage, while recognizing the new things God is doing in other people’s lives.” [2]

I love the idea of inhabiting our traditions lightly. I think it helps to place the emphasis on our elemental faith in Jesus Christ, while allowing our traditions to compliment and support our faith, without overshadowing it.

SLIDE 13 - FeetThis passage also brings up a beautiful image, allowing Christ to live in us. We affirm that Christ came for all, and so might Christ live within all for whom He died, that’s to say, everyone.

Farley continues, “Through death and resurrection Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions but on love. This community should reflect our common human situation as recipients of grace and bearers of the Divine. The Divine dwells in Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. This indwelling reveals the essential intimacy that exists between humanity and its creator, an intimacy that even we cannot neutralize, because it does not depend on us but on the graciousness of the living God. Faith allows the indwelling of Christ to become more transparent. Free from the logic of a social world built on the oppression of others, we are able to recognize others as bearers of the Divine. Faith is the sire of unity, where God’s desire for us and our own desire are woven together.” [3]

When we acknowledge one another as bearers of the Divine we are compelled to treat each other differently, to open up our eyes a bit wider to recognize Christ in our midst. And once we do recognize Christ in the other, we must make room for all to experience Christ’s great love.

SLIDE 15 - Communion TableMaking room for all at the table of Christ may mean we get a little scrunched. We belong to a faith that affirms, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” We may approach the table as the last and then become the first, but what will we do from that position? At a certain point we need to cede our place as “first,” in order to allow others to come close.

This was also a concern of the Jews in Galatia. The first line of this passage could probably even be read with a bit of sarcastic bite: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (Galatians 2:15) The Galatians were concerned that if even Gentiles could be a part of this new covenant, could access salvation, that all of their law-abiding had been for nothing.

Slide17Why should they get to be a part of things when the Jews had done the hard work of establishing the community? You see, the idea of equality in the eyes of God is not so appealing when you think you’ve got the upper hand or the moral high ground. It’s tempting to think, what’s the point? The point is such equality expands the Kingdom of God. The second you perceive yourself as more worthy of salvation because of your great life or your good works you are missing the point. Your salvation comes not in spite of but because of your inadequacy. All are justified by faith in Christ. All of us, all of you, all of them, whoever the “them” is in your life. Those “others,” are also bearers of the divine image. They are also beneficiaries of grace.

Slide18In the time Paul wrote his letter to the community at Galatia the observant Jews would avoid eating with Gentiles, not because of any specific law, but because it would help to maintain purity of their faith. After observing the many dishes required to maintain a kosher kitchen I would imagine part of this avoidance was probably simply because it was easier. Christians who had been Jewish since birth and still desired to maintain these practices had a hard time sharing a table with Gentile Christians. It was difficult to bridge the difference between the old law and the new, and harder still to welcome others on equal standing to a table where they would always seem “the other.”[4]

SLIDE 19 - DenominationsIt can be tricky and strange to explain to people in other denominations why we do the things we do, especially when many of our practices are based on tradition or what we’ve found works best for us. What is important is to make sure people know that these practices are not what brings salvation, Christ is. We too are tasked with welcoming these “others” to the table.

SLIDE 20 Baptism and CommunionWe approach the table and the font not because we’ve got it all figured out, but because we are so in need of God’s redemption. The sacraments are not about getting right with God, they’re about getting honest with God. They’re about being vulnerable. They’re about showing up. And since we are all sinners, we all approach the table at an equal footing.

God through the Holy Spirit makes us able to receive the waters of baptism. God through the Holy Spirit turns bread and juice into a life-giving feast. Christ’s presence is forever renewed in our midst when we acknowledge Him, seek Him out, and put our faith in His redemptive power.

May you approach the table today seeking Christ’s redemptive power for you and for all, even those you never might’ve thought we’re invited. Amen.


[1] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[2] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[3] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[4] Gregory H. Ledbetter, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

“Praise for the Singing” and “Everything That Has Breath” Psalm 150; June 9, 2013, FPC Jesup

Sunday June 9th was a special Sunday in the life of our church with a Hymn Sing in the morning service and a special 6 pm Worship in the Park (that ended up being inside because of a forecasted thunderstorm).

Here are some of the resources I found helpful for these services:

Call to Worship on Psalm 92 and 92

Prayer of Confession for a Music Sunday

I adopted this music based communion liturgy into an Affirmation of Faith utilizing the form of the Apostle’s Creed:

Affirmation of Faith

One: Together let us confess our faith. Do you believe in God, our creator?

All: I believe in God, creator of all things, whose heavenly song sent the planets into motion. Even when we go astray, God calls us back, showing us the fullness of life and giving us new songs of praise for each and every day.

One: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

All: I believe in Jesus Christ who lived for us and among us, healing the sick, easing the burdens of all people, and teaching us the new song of God’s kingdom. He showed His love for all God’s children in His death and the hope for eternal life in His resurrection.

One: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

All: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of life who sings God’s grace through all time and space. I listen for the Holy Spirit through the history of songs sung by all the communion of saints and through the unwritten songs of all who are to come in the future. I believe that God has a song for my life as well. Amen.

Here are the short reflections on Psalm 150 that I shared in each service:

“Praise for the Singing”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 10 am, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1What a joy it is to sing with you this morning in worship. Singing has been a part of the history of our faith from the very beginning, with the Psalms as the original hymnbook. Our faith is a faith of stories, often sung as a way to pass them on to the next generation.

Slide2There’s a great beauty in the comfort of old hymns, the songs that don’t really require the use of a hymnal. About once a month I lead a service at the Nursing Care centers in Independence and I love seeing how so many of the residents know all of those songs by heart. The hymns of our faith sink into us in a way that even the scriptures do not, reminding us of the larger community faith, over many many years.

SLIDE 3 - Morning Has BrokenOur opening song “Morning has Broken” has been one of my favorite hymns for a long time. When my sister was little, and I was even littler, she danced to it in a ballet recital. I remember her costume red and white with a red tutu.

Slide4One of my favorite parts is the line “Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.” I love how the very ground itself becomes complete through it’s interaction with Jesus’ feet. I can picture the dew. I can picture the flowers coming into bloom opening to the light of God’s own Son. It makes me think of the ways we become sprung in completeness by living a life of interaction with Jesus.

Slide5Mainline Protestant traditions have a bad reputation as being the “frozen chosen” for our love of tradition, our desire for everything to be “decent and in order,” and the value we place on everyone being an informed participant in the “priesthood of all believers.” Somehow in the midst of this we have forgotten the call of Slide6Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Loving God with our heart, soul, and might is allowing ourselves to be enveloped in God’s goodness, to be bathed in the light of God’s joy. How might we become complete in sharing in God’s presence? How might we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might? How might our lives spring into completeness?

Slide7One of the ways is through revealing the joy God brings us, through our own sort of blooming, our own sort of springing into completeness. One way to discover the potential for blooming is to think about the places you feel incomplete. Are there relationships that need mending? Forgiveness that needs to be offered or received? When others are telling the stories of faith, do you stay silent? Is there a family member or neighbor you could share God’s love with?

Slide8For me, I feel like I bloom best when I am able to share the stories of our faith, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through singing, sometimes simply by being in relationship. As we continue to sing together today and go out into the world singing our faith, may each of us prayerfully consider how God is calling us to spring in completeness. Amen.

“Everything That Has Breath”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 6 pm, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When I was in seminary I led a children’s choir called the “Joyful Noise” choir. Each week I would get together with this group of 10 to 15 elementary age kids and we would sing songs, play instruments, do dances, and hand motions. We had a blast and it was a wonderfully exhausting worship filled time. While I can’t always say that we made music per say, we always made very joyful noise.

At some point in our life we stop being willing to make these joyful noises. Our noises get squelched out by others. Self-doubt creeps in about our abilities. Desire to blend in makes us quiet our voices. This is not what God call us to. God calls us to praise, to make loud noises, to lift a joyful noise.

Our Psalm today tells us that everything that has breath, all created beings are called to worship. It also lists many different ways to offer praise, through trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance; strings and pipe, clanging and clashing cymbals.

When I look at that list I see that each instrument requires a different sort of skill. Though I can goofily make fake harp noises with my mouth I’d have a tricky time of trying to play a harp. And I’ve tried to play a bagpipe before and could only get it to squawk. We are not all called to play each of these instruments, but we are called to praise God.

When we join in with the heavenly chorus you will likely be picking up a different instrument than the one I pick up, but each of us can use whatever instrument we have to worship God. When we use these instruments in the spirit of love of God we are making a very joyful noise indeed

In the Hebrew Bible the Spirit of God is called Ruach. It can also mean breath or a rushing wind. This breath of God swept over the chaotic waters at the very beginning of creation. This breath was breathed into our lungs and pumps through our veins. We are filled with the very breath of God, that powerful, awe-inspiring, amazing breath. And as long as we have air in our lungs, we are called to breathe it out in praise.

So what is your instrument? How does God harness your breath into a joyful noise?

The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of worship. Perhaps your instrument is an ability to create a legal brief, which allows justice and care to be shown towards someone in a complicated legal situation. Your instrument may be plumbing for a house: whereby you allow a family to live comfortably. Your instrument may be your ability to teach, managing a classroom, creating curriculum. When we are able to use the instruments God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

You, in your life, in your abilities are called to make a joyful noise. To breathe God’s breath into this world. May we do so with great joy! Amen.

“Three-In-One,” Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15; May 26, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Three-In-One”
Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15
May 26, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Have you ever been watching television in the middle of the day and you see one of those infomercials? You know the ones, ones that offer a product that will change your cooking/cleaning/daily life/outlook/world in such a profound way that you’ve just got to have it! And it comes to you cheap and you’ll get a second one if you call right now!

SLIDE 3 - As Seen on TVThough I’ll admit I do have a few “as seen on tv,” products in my life, I’ve always been a bit dubious about the claims that are made for these products. Will it really do all of those things at the same time? Will it really be of a good quality at that price? Why do I suddenly feel like my life won’t be the same without it? Those ads can be quite effective if you’re in the right mood!

SLIDE 4 - TrinityWell this morning I’m going to tell you about another multifunctioning, got to have it, sort of thing: the three in one of our faith, the trinity.

The trinity is one of those often referred to but rarely understood beliefs of the church. Like infomercial sales people we may take on the overeager, seemingly unfounded certainty and proclaim: Creator, redeemer, sustainer! Father, Son, Holy Ghost!

Slide05But then we sit back in the pews like we do on our living room sofas and ask: really? Can God be all of those things at the same time? Does God’s energy get divided? How is my life different for claiming God is three in one? How much am I going to have to pay for shipping and handling for this one?!

SLIDE 6 - TrinityActually, there’s no shipping and handling, and there’s no need for multiple payments, but it does beckon us to watch what’s next, as in the unpacking of these statements we are able to grow closer to God.

The trinity is often described as the different roles of God. One God with multiple roles, points to a quite practical idea that unity and is achieved through interrelationship.

SLIDE 7 - About a BoyA favorite movie of mine, “About a Boy,” starts with the main character, Will, claiming that Bon Jovi got it wrong and “All men are islands… This is an island age. A hundred years ago, for example, you had to depend on other people. No one had TV or CDs or DVDs or home espresso makers… now you can make yourself a little island paradise.”

Through these couch side purchases and a small fortune off of royalties for a one hit wonder his dad wrote Will does manage to live quite isolated, quite self-centered. But when he reaches outside of his own little corner of the world his life gets much more complicated and much more fulfilling through relationships.  At the end of the movie his view changes and Will restates his theory, SLIDE 8 - Island Chains “Every man is an island. I stand by that. But clearly some men are island CHAINS. Underneath, they are connected.” In the course of the movie Will becomes a friend, mentor, and boyfriend, and is made much more whole through these relationships.

SLIDE 9 – JugglingWe are who we are in context of relationship, like how I am simultaneously a pastor, daughter, and friend. As humans when we try to fully support each role we occupy we can become overwhelmed and feel inadequate. I know I often feel pulled in multiple directions in the different roles I try and live into. This is not the same with God. God is actually able to be all things at the same time.

Anglican pastor Richard Norris explains the Trinity as the way we interact with God through the different roles we are to God and God is to us. He writes that this relationship “is, first of all, a relation of creature to Creator. At the same time, it is a relation of sinner to Redeemer. Finally, it is the relation of one in process of transformation to the Power, which transforms. This is the threefold way in which Christian faith knows and receives the God of the exodus and the resurrection.”[1]

Senkaku isles in JapanKnowing God as creator, redeemer, and transformer expands our island chain of connection with God. By relating to God in these different ways we are better able to see below the surface of connection into the depth of relationship.

Oxygen Volume 14It means something different to me to know that God created me. When I acknowledge God as creator I have to also acknowledge being created in God’s own image. This forces me into the sometimes uncomfortable knowledge that how I look is exactly what God intended. That God is revealed through who I am, how I am, what I am. This is simultaneously daunting and empowering. This person in front of you, and all of these people gathered here are a reflection of the “good” ness God proclaimed at creation. You are good. You are in God’s image. Understanding God as creator is also knowing God as all knowing, all encompassing. Psalm 34:18 refers to God as close to the brokenhearted. This is God the parent who weeps with us, loves us in our brokenness and in the sorrow of our human experience.

Slide13It means something different to me to know that God is my redeemer through Jesus Christ. Jesus came to this earth, lived, breathed, and walked about on this planet. God doesn’t just stay far off, but comes near, comes into the human story, into human history. I can’t imagine it would be the most comfortable thing to be both God and human. I wonder if human skin felt itchy to Jesus? God as redeemer also makes me think about all of the horribleness that Jesus endured both on the cross and through experiencing hell on our behalf. God as redeemer reminds me of my sin, it reminds me of my need for redemption. It makes me feel a bit itchy in my own skin, in my own sinfulness. It reminds me that there is life beyond our human walking-around experience.

Slide14It means something different to me to know that God transforms me through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, sometimes called the “Holy Ghost,” can seem a bit spooky, a bit illusive. I picture God as Holy Spirit as an invisible blanket covering all of us, the impermeable atmosphere of the heavens touching earth. I think of God as Holy Spirit as that voice whispering in the stillness on that mountaintop to Elijah. I think of that bush set on fire in the beyond the wilderness place where Moses was hiding out with sheep. I think of my own places of searching, of loneliness and God whispering into my ear messages of hope, of love, of connection, of joy. Knowing God through the Holy Spirit is knowing God who is speaking to you, to your life, to your mountaintop, to your valley. It know God as Holy Spirit is to trust that God is still speaking.

SLIDE 15 - TrinityKnowing God in these three ways can and should change us. Like discovering those island chain connections knowing God better, having better spiritual geography, reminds us who we are and whose was are.

Presbyterian pastor and theologian, Frederick Buechner explains the trinity in this way: “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems farfetched… look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to [which is like God,] the Father. There is (b) the visible face, which in some measure reflects that inner life [which is like God,] the Son. And there is (c) the invisible power you have which enables you to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely known about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are [which is like God,] the Holy Spirit. Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only you.” [2]

The different aspects of God reveal God’s depth and reveal our own complexity as created beings.

In our epistle reading today Paul explains the different natures of God in how they interact with each other in regards to grace: “1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[3]

 So, we become justified with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the redeemer, the aspect of God that bent to this earth to pave our own way to heaven, cover our sins so that we may fully be in relationship with God. The redeemer brings us peace. Jesus the redeemer gives us a way to access grace.

By this grace we can share in God, the creator’s glory. This glory is the great goodness of the whole wide world. This glory is the building of a Kingdom both on earth and in heaven. Sharing in the creator’s glory means taking on the joy and responsibility of being God’s children.

The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that places Gods love in our hearts, or as the text poetically says, “pours.”

These three aspects of God work together, going about being God by relating to us in specific ways: indivisible yet multifunctional.

Perhaps a bit like those products the infomercials tell us about. Three-in-one. One-in-three. All available if you call right now!

Slide24Confused? Still sitting on that couch with the remote in your hand deciding whether or not you actually buy these claims? Our gospel reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit’s impending clarity, saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”[4]

Notice that it does not say if the Spirit of truth comes. It says when. God does not leave us in our confusion but desires to speak truth into our lives, when we can handle it. As a professional theological thinker you better believe I’m looking forward to a time devoid of theological confusion. SLIDE 26 - TrinityBut in the meantime, I’m sort of loving thinking about the many and varied ways that God is God unto Godself, and that God is God to me. May we yearn to know God better. May we not forget that we are created, we are redeemed, we are transformed. Amen!


[1] Richard Norris, “Understanding the Faith of the Church”

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

[3] Romans 5:1-2, 5a

[4] John 16:12-13

Festival of Homiletics Tweets

I just returned from a wonderful week in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was such an incredible time I’m having trouble summarizing all of it, so I have decided to share some of the highlights from my tweets from the week. Please feel free to read more of them on my twitter page.

Festival of Homiletics Tweets 1Festival of Homiletics Tweets 2Festival of Homiletics Tweets 3 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 4 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 5 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 6 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 7 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 8

“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition; Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1; February 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition
Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today we are continuing our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices with a practice that we engage in together every Sunday. “Prayers of Petition.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Prayers of Petition”?

In our worship service “prayers of petition” are part of our “Prayers of the People.” Simply put, prayers of petition are when we ask God to do something for us or for someone we care about. These prayers are also called “prayers of intercession,” as we are asking for God to intercess, or intervene, to change the outcome of our situation.

SLIDE 3 - Test PrayerThese are also the sorts of prayers that are quite common surrounding big tests at school or pleading for that green light to hold when you’re running late to a meeting. We pray to win the lottery. We pray that our chores would do themselves. We might intercess on behalf of our GPS and pray for help with directions.

In worship on Sundays we ask for God’s intercession in our community and world. We pray for the comfort of those who are lonely, for the healing of those who are sick. We pray for wisdom of leaders, for guidance of the Holy Spirit in important life decisions. Sometimes we’re not sure what to pray. We have the anxiety, stress, and grief, but not the words to make any sense of them.

Slide05There are times when we are sitting in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a phone call from a loved one in times of war or natural disaster and we feel utterly helpless. Prayers of petition are the prayers of someone waiting, waiting for a change, waiting for resolution, waiting for comfort. Waiting on God to reveal whatever is going to happen so that we can wrap our minds and hearts around whatever may be. Sometimes these prayers are not quite as polite as our communal prayers on a Sunday morning. These prayers might be loud shouting at God. They might be an angry litany of muttered frustrations.

Romans 8:26 says:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I have always liked that phrase in Romans 8:26, “sighs too deep for words.” I have uttered those sighs and I imagine you have too. It gives me comfort knowing that the Spirit comes beside us even when we can’t form our concerns in words. Prayers of petition are prayers in which we offer up the concerns of our hearts and minds in one big sigh. We admit that we don’t have control, and we give it up to God. That’s the important part of a prayer of petition that is often missed in frustrations or anxieties of our lives: surrendering our concerns, admitting our powerlessness, and trusting that God will work things our however they are to be.

 Romans 8:27-28 continues saying:

“God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I love that verse. It gives me peace in God’s greater plan, comfort that God will work through my circumstance, and hope for a happy ending.

Sometimes, I hate that verse. I want to tell God, “if this circumstance is things working together for good,” I don’t want any part of it. Sometimes I blame myself for the outcome, thinking, “Well if God works good for those who love God, I guess my love for God is just not strong enough.”

SLIDE 8 - Soul FeastAnnoyingly and fortunately, God’s plan is beyond human comprehension. I do not believe that God causes pain, suffering, or death, but I do believe in the midst of all of the minor disappointments and larger horrors of this life, God comes alongside us and holds us in our distress. God’s goodness ultimately wins over any evil the world may offer.

If things seem so out of our control, why do we bother to pray? What is the point of all this praying? The Bible gives us many possible explanations. In the book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,” Author Marjorie Thompson offers seven scriptural perspectives:

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Writer and spiritual director, Teresa Blythe writes: “It’s popular in Christian circles to say that prayer works. Yet no one knows how prayer works or what exactly constitutes and answer to the many requests we make of God on behalf of our families, friends, and loved ones. It’s a matter of faith. We pray because we trust that God precedes us in caring about all aspects of human life. We pray because we know prayer changes how we think, feel, and act. And sometimes we pray because we don’t know what else to do – we’ve exhausted all human action on behalf of the one we are praying for. We have no choice but to leave the concern in God’s hands.” [2]

Prayers of petition require a certain amount of helplessness: admitting that what can be done by our own will, by our own hands, in our own human capacity will not be enough. Placing our helplessness in God’s hands, seeking God’s response and action and trusting that regardless of what we would like the outcome to be, God’s will will be done.

Our New Testament passage today calls us to take confidence in the promises of Christ, calling us out of our present distress through an eternal perspective:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

When I am stuck in a wordless state with my personal prayers of petition, I enjoy looking to the Psalms. Our Psalm today offers up a prayer that is simultaneously hopeful and helpless, spanning from “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) to “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:10c) And in the last few lines of the Psalm we hear echoed throughout the millennia the prayer of exhaustion and confidence of one waiting for God’s long sought answer, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

That is my prayer for you today as well, in whatever circumstances are filling you with sighs too deep for words: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Amen


[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: an Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 38.

[2] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 121.

Photo a Day Lent – Day 10: Spirit

“Spirit”2 22 Day 10 Spirit

This photo is from a Taizé worship service that I led at FPC Maumee as my mentored project for Project Burning Bush when I was in high school.

“Come Holy Spirit,
from heaven shine forth
with your glorius light.”

– Come Holy Spirit, Taizé

“Water Into Wine;” Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34; January 13, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Water Into Wine”
Isaiah 43:1-7, John 2:1-11, and John 1:29-34
January 13, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Have you ever read the Bible and felt like this? Like you’re being pointed in all sorts of directions and you’re not sure where to go? Or maybe you felt that it might mean something for your life, but your not sure which? And when you read more about scripture it you might hear even more of a confusing message?

Signs are really only helpful if we’re able to read them, and able to understand what the mean, and what we’re supposed to do in response.

This is also true when it comes to Jesus’ actions in the gospels. His miracles, including this one in Cana, are called “signs.” A sign points to something beyond itself. There needs to be a certain sort of understanding to be able to interpret a sign.SLIDE 4 - Arrow right

The thing about a sign is that it points to something beyond itself.  If you’re driving along and you see this sign you know that this line with the triangle at the end means that the road is curving right.

SLIDE 5 - ConstructionIf you see this one, you know there’s construction up ahead and you know to watch out for workers in the road.

 When Jesus does a miracle, more is going on that just what we can take in at first glance. Which is important to know, especially when we see a sign like his miracle in Cana. In a first read through it seems like all Jesus is doing is making some people happy at a party. The signs of Jesus tell us about who Jesus is, His mission on earth, and the new age He brings about by his coming. Slide06The signs of Jesus are truly “significant.” They point to who Jesus is and what he came to do. So, let’s unpack this story a bit and figure out what making wine at a party has to do with the mission of Jesus Christ and what it has to do with us.

Slide07When we first start out this story it’s a bit strange: when told by his mother, Mary, that there was no wine his initial response is “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Any parent or teacher who has asked a child to do a chore, go to sleep at bedtime, or learn a math problem might hear a familiar voice here: “Why me?” “Why should I care about this?” “Can’t I do it later?” “Ten more minutes?” When we know that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, it’s a strange thing to hear that he seemed reluctant, and even a bit petulant at his mother’s request.

Mary’s appeal brings images of a proud mother. She had confidence that in this situation Jesus could do something to turn it around. But really, making wine at a party? This is Jesus’s first act of ministry? This is what gets the ball rolling on a career as savior of the world? Winemaking?

SLIDE 8 - Water Into WineHowever, when we look at this one strange seeming inconsequential act in the scope of Jesus’ entire ministry, it makes a great deal of sense. Jesus is the bringer of living water and that water is transformed by His death, which we remember by sharing in the wine of communion. This one act, at the beginning of His ministry provides bookends to his life’s ministry. Christ gives living water and is transformed into wine.

Slide09Scripture is filled with imagery of water as challenging, saving, confronting, and life giving. As our students learned in WOW this past Fall, water is woven throughout the Moses narrative: carrying Moses to a new life, saving the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and flowing from a rock as a sign of God’s provision to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Old Testament passage today we hear the claim God places on us, which we commemorate in baptism: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

Slide11In John 1:29-34 we hear of Jesus’ baptism:  “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

SLIDE 12 - Jesus BaptismThis passage of Christ’s baptism comes right before the story of his first miracle. This is no accident. When Christ is turning water into wine, He Himself has already taken his place as the living water. In His baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism it says that, God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[1] Though always connected, the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all cited a specifically present during Christ’s baptism. Though Jesus was claiming God as father as early as when he was twelve in the temple, this claim by God that Jesus is God’s own son was the first public action by God that set Jesus apart as God’s son. And in this ministry Jesus does not go it alone, but goes in the company of the Holy Spirit, who is in and through all things.

On Christmas we celebrated Jesus’ birth, last week on Epiphany Sunday we celebrated Christ’s manifestation. These two scriptures Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ miracle at Cana, bring us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A time when the living water came to life, living a ministry that would give live to all people.

SLIDE 14 - Water to WineThough this first miracle happens in the context of a party, this transformation from water into wine points to a future much more bitter than that of living water. Christ did not come simply to wash the world clean, but to transform the world through His life.

Though we use grape juice in our communion as we remember Jesus, there are reasons why Jesus’s death is remembered through wine and not grape juice. Sure there’s the cultural context of a community of disciples that would’ve been more likely to dine with wine than with water, but there are also chemical reasons. While both are bitter and sweet, wine can be abused. Wine can lift the spirits, but too much can cause personal harm and ruin relationships. Wine is in remembrance of Jesus’ death, in remembrance of the pain of crucifixion, and the horrors of Christ’s descent into Hell. We sample just a taste of this bitterness in communion, but we are not meant to intoxicate ourselves with the grief of Christ’s death.

Slide16This is not to say that we are powerless in this transformation as Christ moves the world from living water to eternal life giving wine. We have a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, a role demonstrated by Mary in this story. Jesus is reluctant, but Mary prods Jesus towards this new ministry. Divine action and human initiative are linked. God does not need us to point to what is wrong with the world, but when we pray we are lifting up the concerns of God, making them manifest in our own lives, and we await an answer. We open ourselves to God’s action in the world. When we hear “my time has not yet come,” we are frustrated, we are annoyed, but we are also attentive to what will come next Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us an example of her own prodding at God, but also an example of how God’s will is to be enacted. “They have no wine,” Mary says. Jesus replies, “my time has not yet come.” She does not say, “ oh yes it does!” She does not rail against her literally holier than thou son,  but she leaves space for divinity to be enacted, instructing the servants of the house, “do whatever He asks of you.”

Slide18Here is the blueprint to divine transformation: When God’s concerns become our own, and we lift them up to God, faithful obedience leads to the transformation of our hearts and the world. God’s will can be enacted through us, but only if we are open to be changed by asking for that change, and discovering our role in transforming God’s Kingdom.

In our baptism Christ claims us as His own, as children of the Kingdom of God. We drink of the living water. We are cleansed of our sins and given new life. In Christ’s death Christ claims our sins as His own, giving us the ability to live eternally in God’s Kingdom and God’s grace. The good news is as Jesus transforms water into wine, Christ also transforms our lives through claiming us in baptism and redeeming us through his crucifixion.

 Raised arms womanThis is a message of hope that poet, Tom Lane writes of this in his poem, “If Jesus Could”: If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine spit and dirt into new sight troubled sea into a pathway well water into living water Could Christ transform the waters of my life? shallow murky polluted stagnant sour into a shower of blessing?

May we be open to Christ’s transforming power in our lives and in this world, and open to how God is calling us to help transform the world for His kingdom. Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:17

Remember Your Baptism

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing my first baptism. I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. I’m grateful to this dear boy for not crying or fussing. I’m grateful I didn’t mess up the words or drop my Kindle in the font or trip down the aisle. I’m grateful for his dear family and the joy and pride in their faces for their sweet son. But most of all, I am grateful for the way he looked at the water as I said the words and the water washed over his forehead. It was a look of innocence and of inquisitiveness. He was fully engaged. We walked down the aisle together and I told him how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for him. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

We say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and this sweet boy included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”

“Remember your baptism.”

The echo of those words across the years and from my lips yesterday are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of your baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.

“Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.

Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.

Watching the news reports on Friday of a man in Chengpeng, China stabbing 22 children and one adult and then a man in Sandy Hook, CT, shooting 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life, it was hard to remember what grace felt like. The stark contrast of such innocence with such violence seems unfathomable. These are children.To the stabber and the shooter they were nameless. Now these communities and parents cry our their names in prayers, petitions, and eulogies. We know them as children created and loved by God. God’s grace was manifest in Christ for them. As so many parents, relatives, and communities members morn, we draw our families in closer to us, say more “I love you”s, and pray for protection for this hurting world of ours.

“Remember your baptism.”

As hard as it is to recognize, God’s grace also came for these two men. Christ came for the redemption of the evil that took root in the actions they committed. The darkness of mental illness leaves us with so many unanswerable questions as to the “why” to these events. I urge you to read this article on mental illness from a mother’s perspective: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We live in a complicated world with much pain, but if we are to truly remember our baptism, the grace of our own atonement compels us share the grace that we have received. We can and should be angry when there is violence and injustice in this world, but we must also live into the hope that evil never has the final word.

 

The video below is one I created in collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Preaching and Worship Professor, Beverly Zink-Sawyer. The images were collected from various online sources. The song is “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by fellow UPSem students, Laura and Jamie Thompson. We showed this in worship this Sunday before the baptism.

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday;” Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5; November 11, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday”
Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

A few days ago I was walking my dog Bailey outside late at night. With the absence of traffic, I could hear the faint humming of the grain silo and the scratching of tree branches in the wind. The air felt electric. Perhaps it was my imagination but Bailey seemed to sense it too. He sniffed at the air, looking around expectantly. I looked up and the stars were brighter than what I could experience back in my hometown in Ohio, and then all of a sudden a shooting star blazed across the sky. I looked around, had anyone else seen it? Had anyone else witnessed this quick and bright moment of beauty?[1] Standing there in the midst of God’s amazing creation, I remember thinking, “surely God is present.”

In Genesis 28 we are given the story of Jacob having such a moment with God. Jacob was traveling in the wilderness and stopped to rest, using a rock as a pillow.That night he had a dream where God came to him and said,

“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”Jacob then takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar, pours oil on it and names it Bethel, House of God. In Hebrew Beth means house and El is short for “Elohim,” a name of God.

The space where this dream happened was not particularly exceptional. It was merely a patch of land with a stone. By any outside observation Jacob’s remarkable evening would’ve seemed like a rather mundane occurrence. A man, falls asleep outside with his head on a rock, and then wakes up and pours oil on it and keeps on walking. All in all, it was not a very remarkable experience. It became remarkable through God’s presence, and Jacob’s acknowledgement of that presence. God did not need Jacob’s monument to be present in that space. God was already there. But by drawing attention to that space, Jacob left a reminder of God’s presence and called it the “house of God.”

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor explains her own encounter with God’s presence in her book “An Altar in the World.” After explaining a particularly beautiful scene during a visit to Hawaii she writes, “I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God…I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” She continues, saying:

“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God? The people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God, after all, There are also wolves and seals. There are also wild geese and humpback whales. According to the Bible, even trees can clap their hands.”[2]

Barbara Brown Taylor’s redefinition of the House of God as the whole world opens up the worship of God to all parts of creation and speaks to God’s inability to be contained in a single building or community. Our uncontainable God is spoken of in this way in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Before God came to earth in Jesus Christ, God was perpetually being described as One who is unknowable, unnameable, and far beyond the bounds of human convention. This view of God is described in the poetic devices of the Hebrew texts.

Our Psalm today speaks in merisms. Merisms are phrases that list two extremes with the implied, “and everything in between.” Merisms are not foreign to our culture, we still use phrases like, “searched high and low,” “through thick and thin,” and “in sickness and in health.” Merisms are used quite a bit in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. I’m going to read through a few of them and just to help all of us to be aware of what is really being said, I’d like you to say with me, “and everything in between” after each one.

Our passage today says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And say it with me, “and everything in between”Later in the passage it says, “The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 139:2 says, “You know when I sit down and when I get up.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.” And… “and everything in between.” I particularly enjoy this verse because the rising and setting of the sun can be interpreted both in terms of geography and in terms of time. God is to be praised in all places at all times.

God is present in shooting stars, rocky wilderness, Hawaiian vistas, and everything in between. God is present in this building, in the other churches of Jesup, in my home church in Ohio, in the temples of Jerusalem, the cathedrals of Rome, and everything in between.  God is there when we take notice, and there when we don’t. God is there in the exceptional circumstances of our lives and there in the mundane. God is in the everything in between. Our experiences are made holy by God’s presence. And God’s presence is made known to us when we praise God with thanksgiving.

This is what we acknowledge in our sacraments of baptism and communion. Sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible actions of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Sacraments change our experience, making sacred meaning out of secular elements.

Just as with the seemingly everyday actions of Jacob in the wilderness, if an outside observer was watching us today without an explanation of what was going on, they would think that later on in the service as we share bread and grape juice that we are simply having a snack together. It might seem a bit odd, everyone lining up and ripping off bread. But while we outwardly receive bread and juice, “by the work of the Holy Spirit [we] also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal.”[3]

This is what Jesus did too. He was born in an ordinary stable into an ordinary body. He was beyond exceptional, but also lived an everyday sort of life. He is immortal and beyond time, yet He also lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, and died, all in a very real way. He was the shooting star surrounded by the dark night.

John 1:1-5 tells us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was in the beginning, He will be with us in the end. And in everything in between.

With gratitude towards God’s presence in all of creation and all of our experience, I’d like to close today with a poem by e.e. cummings:

thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May the ears of your ears and eyes of your eyes be open to God’s presence in every in between of your life. Amen.


[1] I discovered later that this was the North Taurid Meteor Shower.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 9.

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196

“Living Bread;” John 6:51-58; October 7, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Living Bread”
John 6:51-58
October 7, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you think of “living bread,” what comes to mind? If you’ve been in the church for a while it likely conjures up images of communion and Jesus and scripture and everything you think you should be thinking about right now. But let’s try to press reset on our minds and reimagine these words as if we’ve never heard them put together before. Living bread. Sort of strange isn’t it? Bread come to life. I imagine it might be friends, or perhaps enemies with “The Brave Little Toaster,” of the Disney 1987 cartoon film.

Bread, with eyes and a smile, maybe some arms and legs. It might look something like this.

This puts a new spin on things when we hear living bread. It’s perhaps even a bit creepy. Our Gospel lesson today doesn’t make it any less creepy: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

It is sayings like this that scared some people away from Christianity in the time of the early church. These people were clearly cannibals! Why would anyone want to be a part of this? If we joined them that’d mean we’d need to eat flesh and drink blood too. That’s just wrong! In a culture currently fascinated with teenage vampires, perhaps it’d be easier to get people to go along with things these days, but still, it sounds creepy.

Setting aside these rather frightening images of living bread, we can consider another dimension of these words. When you look closely at a piece of bread there are all sorts of tiny holes; the places for our peanut butter and jelly to settle in on your sandwich. These hole-y spaces are made by tiny organisms called yeast. Yeast is activated by the warm water and flour of bread making. Once activated they make the dough grow by creating little pockets of carbon dioxide.[1]

Yeast is airborne and can be cultivated by literally pulling it from the air. When I was living in North Adams, Massachusetts this summer I was able to witness a project of Canadian artist, Eryn Foster where she did just that at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA. Eryn Foster’s projects are most often very interactive and have to do with a sense of place, including a video tour of Canada that can be viewed by walking on a treadmill. This summer I saw Eryn walking around with this wooden cart with a bowl in it and I wasn’t quite sure what on earth she could be doing until I saw a video about it.[2] Together let’s watch this video and it will tell us a bit more about her project.

[We watched the first 2:30 of the video]

I found this project pretty fascinating. At first it’s kind of strange to think about the sort of airborne cultures that are surrounding us day-to-day.  Sure we hear about germs in the air and take precautions with hand washing and cleaning products to try to get rid of them, but there are also other things that surround us that can be life giving, such as the yeast.

This got me to thinking about how are we affected by what is around us. What are the external sources that feed into our composition? What are the things in our environment that cause us to rise, or not? In the video Eryn Foster says, “There are certain areas where you’re going to find wild yeast more plentiful.”

The same could be said for these rising forces in our lives. When we surround ourselves with people living lives fueled by Christ, we in turn are fueled by their good “yeast.”

This weekend I had this sort of fueling, rising experience. I attended Women of Faith with a busload of 52 women from Jesup and Independence and about 3,000 other sisters in Christ. There was a palpable energy in the place, of stories shared, sung, painted, and danced. Three thousand-some women all fueled by the love of Christ, whose joy in worship spilled over to those around them. This was certainly a place where the “yeast” of faith was plentiful.

Particularly on this World Communion Sunday, we are made aware that that there are places in this world where this “yeast” of faith is not as plentiful. We’ve heard about “at risk” communities, the despair of war torn countries, and pain of impoverished nations.  These are places yearning for those external ingredients to help them to rise up.

In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.” [3] In our world today there are indeed famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, our living bread, Jesus Christ.

John Calvin wrote of the seed of faith. He said that this seed exists within all of us, this kernel of desire for experience with God. Like the living yeast that surrounds us and is present in our bread, this kernel is only activated when we feed it the nutrients of Biblical truths and allow for it to grow through times of contemplation and prayer.

Another line that caught me in the video was when Eryn says, “It’s this kind of funny idea of looking for something that we can’t actually see.” How often have we heard, or perhaps thought ourselves, of this a criticism of God. How can we be fueled by a God we can’t see?

Once when Billy Graham was asked to explain the existence of God he likened it to the wind saying, “I can’t see the wind, but I can see the effects of the wind.” When we look at bread that has been directly affected by yeast, the effect is holes. The effect is to create space for flavor to flourish. This hole-y place is life giving.

And how do we even know when yeast has been found? We know the yeast has been found by the bread it produces. By the same token, we know lives fueled by the seed of faith by the grace filled lives they produce.

In Luke 6:44 we read, “Each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” When we are rooted in faith, we live faith-filled lives.

On this world communion Sunday it’s also intriguing to think about Eryn Foster’s discussion about the flavor of a place.

For me I think of the description of India by Frances Hodgson Burnett in “A Little Princess.” She talks about how you can taste the perfumes of the spices in the air. Certainly our lives carry their own flavors as well. Think about it. What are the smells, sounds, and tastes of home? As this airborne yeast contributes to dough that is distinctly drawn from this community, so are we flavored by the culture that surrounds us.

What would we want the flavor of this community to be? What sort of bread are we making with our lives? Are we a complex multigrain? Are we a tough but flavorful sourdough? Are we a mixed up marble rye? And what sort of flavors do we carry out into the world with us? How do our lives flavor those with whom we interact each day?

As we come to communion today our bread is living bread both literally through the yeast culture, and sacramentally through the presence of the Holy Spirit among us as we eat this bread in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let us allow this living bread to flavor our lives so that we may in turn flavor the lives of one another. Amen.

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum

“Extreme Makeover: Holy Spirit Edition,” Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9, June 12, 2011, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee

For Pentecost today I am posting the sermon I preached at FPC Maumee last year:

“Extreme Makeover: Holy Spirit Edition”
Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9
June 12, 2011, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee

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

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

This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly.

This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.

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

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

Back even farther into the Judeo-Christian community’s history, was another heartbreak: Babel. In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of this story. The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.

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

By the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel.

As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.

Pope John Paul II explained this well saying:

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

There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way. A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.

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

Galatians 3:26-29 tells us:

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

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