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

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

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

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

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

housing

housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Listen here

Welcome mat

Welcome mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home by Another Way; Matthew 2:1-12; January 3, 2016; FPC Holt

Home by Another Way
Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - Family PictureLast Sunday a few of you met my aunt Karen, as she came up here for worship. On Monday she was to head back to her home in Plano, TX, via the Detroit airport. SLIDE 2 - Airplane in ShowWell if you’ll remember Monday’s weather, that was when the ice storm was hitting Michigan while Texas was recovering from tornadoes and getting hit by snow. My aunt went up to Detroit in the hopes that her flight would take off as planned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly up until a few minutes before the flight, when they shared the news that their flight crew did not make their flight in from Chicago. Not too long after the flight was cancelled. After standing in line for several hours to get her bags and trying to get a new flight she learned they didn’t have anything available till Thursday. She decided to go to a hotel for the night, but after trying six different hotels, none had any room, she rented a car and drove back to Toledo. Hoping to get home sooner than Thursday so as to not leave her shift uncovered as a neonatal nurse practitioner, she called the airline and saw what airports had any flights available, and ended up finally flying out of St Louis on Wednesday, connecting in Charlotte, NC and finally heading to Dallas.

SLIDE 3 - Bethlehem Inn

 In our scripture today we hear a story not entirely dissimilar from the travel woes my aunt experienced. We’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus’ fateful delivery in a manger after there was no room at the inn. SLIDE 4 - Wise MenBut we rarely pay quite as much attention to the latter half of the journey, when they are told by the wise men to travel home by another way. The trip there was already difficult, so to take the long way home was likely a tremendous inconvenience, and then added onto it the reason why they needed to go this way it must’ve been a very frightful situation. More frightful even than flooding and ice blizzards.

SLIDE 5 - HerodWhen the wise men first met with Herod they were meeting with him in the hopes of getting direction, perhaps even to placate him in his own authority. Herod even tried to make the wise men believe that he too wanted to come pay homage to Jesus, but things were not as they seemed. The reason why they needed to take this long way home was the wise men had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was fearful of what a king of the Jews would do to his power.

SLIDE 6 - Return Trip Joseph too is visited by an angel in a dream who says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” This was not an idle threat. In the verses following our passage today we are told, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” New parents as they were, I can’t imagine the horror that Mary and Joseph felt at hearing of so many children’s death due to their actions, and the simultaneous relief for their own son’s safety.  The divine rerouting of this dream altered the course of history, saving Jesus to live into adulthood.

The great modern theologian, James Taylor summarizes the story in this way: He writes, “Steer  clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do.  A king who  would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you … Time to go home another way.  Home by another way … Me and you can be  wise guys too and go home by another way … We got this  far to a lucky star but tomorrow is  another day.  We can make it another way …”

SLIDE 7 - PathWhat are your own stories of a divine rerouting? A time in your life when you thought you knew the path ahead of you, maybe you even had a boarding pass in hand ready for a specific trip, or for a specific educational path, relationship, or career. When those things we’ve planned for change it’s hard to know what to do next. Often in the moment being rerouted does not feel divine at all, rather it feels much more like being inconvenienced, or worse, being misled.

The Bible has many examples of this divine rerouting. Jonah thought he had things all figured out when God told him to go to Nineveh, when he resisted God went as far as scooping him up in a big fish to get him turned in the right direction. Joseph, son of Jacob, is deceived by his brothers, thrown in a well, and unjustly imprisoned, but he ends up becoming a trusted advisor to the king in the midst of drought and famine.  In their exodus, the Israelites thought that praying to an idol would get them out of the wilderness, but Moses showed them that they would only survive by God’s provision of manna and quail. Ruth thought she knew what lay ahead of her, marrying into a good family, but then her husband, brother in law and father in law all died in quick succession and she and her mother in law Naomi were able to find a way forward by staying close to one another. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the son thought he had everything figured out of how he would be happy in life, but in humility he ends up returning home and is joyfully received.

SLIDE 13 - Five Stories It doesn’t feel good to be inside of a fish, betrayed by your family, reprimanded by a tablet wielding Moses, encounter a succession of tragic deaths, or slinking home after squandering the family fortune, but God shows us over and over again, that in seeking God’s guidance we are able to make it home again, home to God’s will for us, which may look nothing like where we started. As Joseph says when he forgives his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” To be clear, I am not saying that God causes the harm, but rather that God can work through our adversity for good.

SLIDE 14 - Mary and JosephMary and Joseph also had plans for what their lives would look like. They were engaged to be married, had lived piously and now their lives were uprooted by a pregnancy that was hard to explain to their families or community. But God had revealed to them that Mary would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and bring Jesus, the very son of God into the world. This change from what they thought they wanted changed their lives and the entire world for the better.

SLIDE 15 - Cradle to Cross This child, come into the world through difficult and extraordinary circumstances provided the divine rerouting that changed all of us. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for all of our sins, and was resurrected so that all of us may experience eternal life. Jesus made it possible for every one of us to go home by another way.

We don’t know all that  awaits us on the path in front of us, we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but if we keep our eyes and ears open to God’s direction, we can have hope that even the long way will lead us home in the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worthy of the Call;” 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; November 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Worthy of the Call”
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
November 3, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When was a time someone told you they were proud of you? What was it for? What did it feel like for them to tell you?

In our scripture today we read in verse 4 that Paul and his coworkers in mission, Silvanus and Timothy, write to the community of Thessalonica saying, “we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”

They boasted of the community of Thessalonica and the way it has maintained faith and increased in love.

Slide03How do you speak of this church and the community formed here?

A few weeks ago when Hospice hosted a Memorial Service at our church I was quite proud of the praise that our church received. One of the women who worked with Hospice told me that even before people were in the building it felt comfortable and it felt like home. What an incredible thing, that our building would feel like home to someone who had never been here before!

When people ask me about this congregation, I say that you are a loving church, a family church that loves to hug one another. I’m proud of how you have worked to tithe 10 percent of the church budget to missions. I lift up the WOW program and how it has now created a legacy in this community of kids who have come to experience the love of Christ. In short, I’m proud of you.

What does it feel like to hear that? I hope it’s not too big of a surprise. But I also hope that this encouragement doesn’t just remain in this room, in this hour, but that it motivates the mission and work of this church.

How may we respond to the blessings of this community?

First, and foremost, we can echo the prayers of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy who write, “we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Slide05How often do you pray for this church? I know some in this congregation are prayer warriors with a steady habit of praying for those around them and I commend you for that. For others of us, myself included, we need a good deal of direction in our prayer. We need prayer lists and reminders.

I would encourage you to take home your order of worship each week and post that prayer concern list on your refrigerator. Pray the names listed there not just on Sunday mornings when that insert falls out of the bulletin, but all throughout the week. Pray for this congregation, for the work of the session, that they may make sound decisions for our church and for the deacons, that they may be strengthened in their ministries of helping this community. Pray for Sunday School leaders and WOW volunteers. And please, please pray for your minister, that I may live healthfully in ways that allow me to be strengthened to preach, pray, and care for this church and community.

In praying these prayers our awareness of God’s hand in the work of our church and community increases and we are open to what God has yet to reveal. Our deacons are reviving a way for us to be in prayer for one another, by participating in our church prayer chain calls and e-mails. I hope that you will consider adding this to your practice of prayer.

Slide06The second way we can respond to the blessings of this community is to contribute to the future of the church. In a few weeks, on November 24th, we will be having a congregational meeting following worship. In this meeting our elders on session will be presenting several needs in our church building.

If you are not excited by the prospect of spending money on a new roof, I’d ask you to think about all the things that will be happening underneath that roof. All the lives that are touched in worship, all the children who will be ministered to by WOW, all the baptisms, weddings and funerals that will take place beneath it. By keeping up this building, we continue to make a home for all who will come in the future.

Beyond financial contributions, we can also contribute our time, through participating in Bible studies, providing music for worship services, leading children’s Sunday school or WOW. Taking the initiative to welcome a new visitor, or welcome someone who may has been in worship for a while to spend some time together outside of the church, extending our community beyond these walls.

Third, we can strive to respond to this prayer, by working to live lived worthy of the call we have received in Matthew 28:19-20. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are disciples tasked with allowing God to work in a through our lives to glorify Jesus Christ. Are you living a life worthy of that call? It’s a strange thing to think about, the worthiness of our lives as followers of Christ.

Slide08It is important to understand that God does not demand us to be worthy of God’s love, in fact the gospel message tells us that as sinful people we are not capable of perfection, but are able to attain it through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. However, when we receive this gift of God’s grace we are compelled to respond.

Working towards worthiness is also how we, as followers of Christ, might reflect Christ’s light into the world; how we might respond to grace with gratitude. When we proclaim ourselves to be Christians we are proclaim that we are Christ’s disciples. That is a bold claim and one that we are to take seriously through living lives of love and grace.

So, how will you uplift this church? How will you enable this community to grow in love and faith?

I echo the words of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus, “[I] always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” May it be so. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Wendell Berry

In honor of Wendell Berry’s 79th birthday today, here is a poem of his:

“A Homecoming”

by Wendell Berry

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distances of our faith,
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

Which makes me think of this:

"The Way Home" by Brian Andreas "I'm not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you're ready, I'm here to remind you of the way home."

“The Way Home” by Brian Andreas
“I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

“Known;” Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16; October 14, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Known”
Psalm 139 and Hebrews 4:12-16
October 14, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

This week I adopted a dog. His name is Bailey and he’s a sweet little four year old terrier. Anyone who’s had a dog in their lives before will have an idea of why he came to mind as I was reading these scriptures this week. The second verse of our Psalm today sums up a dog’s attitude towards their owner quite well: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up… You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” Dogs have a way of following your every move. They’re interested in what you’re doing and interested in what your goings on might have to do with them.

And when I read Hebrews’ account of God’s word being like a “two edged sword” and “all must render an account,” I thought of the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and company approach the wizard to ask to go home, for courage, for a brain, and for a heart, he angrily bellows “I know why you have come.” The wizard knows their ways, having had watched them all along, and requires that they do as he asks before he will fulfill their desires.

Our two passages today speak of God’s knowledge of us, describing God as knowing us in a way that falls between Bailey’s inquisitive and encouraging attentiveness and the Wizard’s frightening omniscience. God dotes on us with love and examines us with judgment.

Our Psalmist’s relationship with God is one of joy, praising God for being fearfully and wonderfully made. The psalmist speaks of God’s knowledge of him from the very beginning his life, how God knew every detail of him even when he was still in his mother’s womb. In Hebrews chapter 4 God’s Word is described like a sword, separating out soul from spirit, bringing judgment to thought and intention.

In both passages, God is spoken of as knowing every detail of our lives, both good and bad. Whether we take initiative for a relationship with Christ or try to ignore God’s impact on the world, God is still aware of all that we are and what we do. When we open our hearts to God we open our lives to God’s judgment, but also to God’s grace.

Presbyterian pastor, Robert Boyd Munger wrote a sermon called “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” that speaks of welcoming Christ into our lives through the metaphor of welcoming someone into your house. At first he is excited to have Christ in his house. Christ makes the darkness light, builds a fire on the hearth and banishes the chill. Then he tells Jesus, “Lord, I want this heart of mine to be Yours. I want to have You settle down here and be perfectly at home. Everything I have belongs to You. Let me show You around.”

He shows Jesus the house, room by room. As he watches Jesus look at the house he sees things in a different light. In the study, his mind, he realizes there are books, magazines, and pictures he’s not proud of, and asks Christ to help him to be filled with scripture and images of Christ. The dining room is a room of his appetites, his favorites being, “money, academic degrees and stocks, with newspaper articles of fame and fortune as side dishes.” Jesus did not eat of those things, but instead tells him of satisfaction that can be found by fully pursuing God alone.

Jesus continues through the house, asking to go into each room, and he lets him in but becomes more and more reluctant when Jesus wants to be let into his relationships, the work that he does, and the way that he spends his time. Then, they get to the hall closet, the place of hidden things. There’s an odor that emanates from this closet that he is unwilling to deal with, but when he hands Jesus the key, Jesus cleans it out in a moment. Finally, he decides to entirely transfer the deed to his heart to Jesus, in the knowledge that he cannot keep this house of his heart clean on his own.

Just as this man decided to surrender the house that is his heart to Christ, we are called to surrender our lives to Christ. This does not mean that we offer up just the pretty and cleaned up parts of our lives, but that we share all parts of our lives with Christ.

In Psalm 139 the psalmist says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

God is ever present in the world and desires to be ever present in our lives. Even when we strike out on our own, intentionally following darkness, God is still there beside us. When we run away from what God has called us to be and do, God is still there beside us.

Once we are aware of God’s presence in the world, our ignorance or inaction are both acts of disobedience. Through God’s creative act of bring each of us into the world God has placed a call on our lives for a relationship with God’s self.

Galatians 4:8-9 says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?”

When we welcome Christ into our lives, we are inviting both affirmation and judgment.  As we read in Hebrews 4:13: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

There is no hiding from God. God has known us since time began, and will continue to know us through eternity. God delights in who we are, but is not naive to the good and the bad that we allow to occupy our lives. We should be prepared for the correction that comes by fully opening our hearts to Jesus Christ.

Author Anne Lamott writes in her book, “Traveling Mercies,”: “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are.”[1]

Christ desires to clean up the house of our hearts, to sweep away all things that are harmful for us. Only when we welcome Christ into our hearts can that sort of cleaning begin.

Hebrews 4:14-15 says, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Author John Burgess points out that as these verses follow the passage we just discussed about being laid bare before God, these verses cause us to “wrestle with the theological tension between God’s word to us and our words to God, between God’s judgment that lays us bare and God’s grace that empowers us to ask help of God in our time of need, between God’s claim on us and our claim on God by virtue of Christ’s saving work…The God who places us under judgment is the very God who loves us and sympathizes with us in every respect.”[2]

Jesus Christ came to earth and experienced deep pain, loss, grief, and struggle. We needn’t be afraid to face God with complete honesty and candor. God can take our anger, cursing, crying, whining, and confessing. When we come to God, especially in our weakness, we express our deep need and desire for God’s grace.

The good news is God doesn’t leave us in our own sinfulness. God brings it to the light and then washes it clean. Through Christ we do not have to assume the punishment for our sins. Christ has already taken on our sins through his death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love and nothing that we can do that will stop God from pursuing us. God knows us intimately and yearns for us to know God’s self in the same way. Let us open our hearts with honesty and with joy and receive God’s grace. Amen.


[1][1] Anne Lamott, “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith”

[2] “Hebrews 4:12-16, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4