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

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Listen here

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a matter of life or death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Jesus in all of this?

Martha and Mary were angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Hosanna,” Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11, April 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hosanna”
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11
April 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

God’s love endures forever. God’s love endures forever. There are times it is easy to echo the Psalmist’s words: when we see God’s beauty in nature, when we experience miraculous healing for ourselves or someone we love, or when falling in love. God’s love endures forever.

What about when the pain of this world seems all too much; when pain, death, and destruction can be found under every headline?

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

However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but, by the Holy Spirit, to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, as each of us takes a break from the 24 hour news cycle and from our social media feeds, that is what I will do.

Bookending today’s Psalm we hear our refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”  In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.  It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us.

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.  With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world. Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ.

God’s love endures forever. “Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to stay in that space of pain makes us frozen to the action we can take. In the often quoted Psalm 23 we hear of the constancy of God’s provision. In verses 4 and 5 we read: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

God is not merely creating comfort in an abstract intellectual way, but is walking alongside, co-creating peace, anointing with oil, and providing protection.

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

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

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

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

There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we be conduits of God’s love, so that through us others will know, “God’s love endures forever.” Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

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

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

Listen here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now and Forever” 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 June 7, 2015, FPC Holt

“Now and Forever”
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
June 7, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here
(audio picks up on the second paragraph)

2015 6 7 Slide1Anyone who’s stopped by the office the past month or so has seen Myra, Kirk, and I looking something like this. The irony was not lost on any of us as we were working frantically so that we could plan a church wide season of rest. In any given day my calendar was open to four months at a time, planning for the life of the church all the way into October.

2015 6 7 Slide2And you know what? We’ve got a tremendous summer ahead of us, with great guest preachers, musicians, and opportunities to connect through prayer and mission. It really is going to be a memorable sabbatical season, and hopefully one that will allow each of us to refuel and connect on a deeper level with God’s plans for us as individuals and as a church.

2015 6 7 Slide3For me personally though, the tricky thing with all of this intensive planning of several months at the same time is when I would slow down, step back and try to answer a question about what day it was or even what month it was, it took me a minute. My mind was in October’s logistics, my heart was pondering our Wednesday night worship services, and my soul was in prayer for our Diving into Dreamin’ retreat. Needless to say, that all left me feeling a bit discombobulated.

2015 6 7 Slide4Our text today the Apostle Paul gives us a similarly exciting and disorienting timeline: the excitement of the growing community of Christ in Paul’s midst, an ongoing feeling of his body wasting away, and an eternal hope in the heavens. It seems Paul also has his calendar open on many pages at a time. Perhaps that’s why Paul often looks stressed out in so many depictions of him.

2015 6 7 Slide5As Christians we are by definitions followers of Christ, a lived out example of what living in this sort of scheduling tension looks like: Christ was both fully God, everlasting and eternal, and fully human, living on a linear timeline, interacting with individual people in individual ways. Christ was embodied, living in a body that way not made to last forever. Christ was also a soul, an eternal and inseparable aspect of God. As Christians we are called then to live into this tension of the world to come and the world that is becoming.

2015 6 7 Slide6Following Christ means living excitedly for the world that is to come, the kingdom of God and all of the joy and glory that will bring. But that doesn’t mean we disregard that which God has put before us today. God’s eternal Kingdom comes together from what happens in our immediacy just as the forest is both a forest all together and a collection of trees individually.

There’s an old story about a disciple and his teacher. “Where shall I find God?” a disciple once asked. “Here,” the teacher said. “Then why can’t I see God?” ”Because you do not look.” “But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.“ Nothing. Just look,” the teacher said. “But at what?” “At anything your eyes alight upon,” the teacher said. “But must I look in a special kind of way?” “No, the ordinary way will do.” “But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” “No, you don’t,” the teacher said. “But why not?” the disciple pressed. “Because to look, you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,” the teacher said. [1]

In order to do the work of God we must be present to God’s movement in, through, and among us. We must live firmly in the tension of the big picture of God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom work close-up, which can look a lot like… nothing in particular.

2015 6 7 Slide7A frequent prayer of mine when thinking about all the day to day work that we do as a session, as deacons, and as a church all together, is that our right-here-right-now to-do lists may reflect God’s eternal purposes. What we do in the here and now can contribute towards that which is eternal, which is God’s heavenly kingdom.

The reason I pray this so often is because wrapping my own mind around the tension of working towards both now and forever is really challenging. I’d love to know in this instant all the goodness that will come out of the work that we do this summer: the inspiration drawn from the Divin’ into Dreaming Retreat, the lives impacted by our youth in Chicago, the connections we make to our community through our Vacation Bible School. It’d be great to know the sweeping impact that this congregation will have over the next 5 years or 50 or 150. But in the meantime, I’ll be here, to experience life with you, to walk beside you, and to do all that I can to make God’s priorities my priorities.

2015 6 7 Slide8As Paul exhorts us to follow him in believing in Jesus Christ, he also appeals to us to speak from that belief. Paul affirms that our bodies are not built to live forever, but our souls are. And as long as these are temporary bodies of ours hold out, we are called to work in our immediacy, pointing others towards the Kingdom of God which is eternal. May we be bold enough to do as Paul did: first believing and then speaking the good news of the Gospel. Amen.

[1] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting On the Word. 12 vols. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008-2011.

Litany of Joy from NEXT Church National Gathering 2015

I started this post out with the formal title of “Reflections,” but once I decided what I really wanted to hold onto from this conference, it came out in bursts of inspiration and joy, the little and big things that were life-giving in this short, Spirit-filled three day conference. So here are the gifts of inspiration that I am bringing with me out of this experience:

  • Collaborative Arts Workshop at Grace Commons: A tremendous, eye opening workshop, reflecting on the collaborative art that has been created in community at Grace Commons including stations of the cross reflecting on individuals’ experience of immigration
  • Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb

    and creation of icons through collage in various liturgical seasons. I appreciated that Pastor Nanette Sawyer shared the processes of the different projects, including showing us how for the collage the icon was first traced and then set up in a sort of paint by number fashion, with one color painted each week, which was then to be filled in by magazine clippings of that same color.

    Another helpful piece of that workshop was hear about Grace Common’s four-fold liturgical pattern. Most intriguing of which was a poetry based liturgy with improvised music to match

    We also had the tremendous privilege at that workshop of hearing the liturgical music of Rob Clearfield, the musician of Grace Commons. He has written many beautiful theologically thoughtful songs to accompany the liturgy at Grace Commons.

  • John Hendrix‘s sketch art responses to the conference throughout our time together:

  • My own chance encounter with Dwight McCormick: Dwight’s business card reads “Pastor, public speaker, and comic,” and he happened to join the group of people I was talking to informally on Tuesday night. I’m so glad he did. He had taught a workshop the previous day on “Improv: the Art of Listening, Being Present, and Not Being Afraid,” which I did not attend simply for the fact that I could not be two places at once. We chatted about improv, the way it cultivates attitudes and ideas that are life giving in relationships…which is a very polished way of saying we had a great time geeking out about our shared love of improv.
  • Crowdfunding the Church IGNITE presentation: I’ve experienced different crowdfunding initiatives, but it was interesting seeing crowdfunding framed as a way to draw people from outside of your church into your community through the very things you are most passionate about.
  • Biblical Storytelling by Casey Wait FitzGerald: I first experienced her ministry last year at NEXT Church and have been blessed to get to know Casey and her ministry through the Young Clergy Women Project as well as her podcast, Story Divine and blog, Faith and Wonder. It is always a joy to hear her lead worship in person. The story begins at 3:05 in the video below, which also contains a service that is all around wonderful with a great discussion of the church as a “third space”:
  • Collaborative art during the conference, which was transformed into the final form of a bird lifted up in the sanctuary

So grateful also for the less easily defined, but tremendously life-giving interactions I had throughout the conference with many individuals who offer a hopeful vision of the future of the PCUSA. To learn more about NEXT Church, as well as see orders of worship, recordings of the conference livestream, and additional conference notes check out the website: http://nextchurch.net/ .

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2015

A favorite practice of mine on this blog is to put together playlists for liturgical seasons, based on the songs that have been buzzing about my brain on the themes of the Biblical narratives. Some of the previous years’ Holy Week playlists are available on my blog:

– 2013: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist – 2014: Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist 2014 Addition

As we are now approaching Holy Week, here are some songs that resonate for me this year:

Note: These songs are not specific expositions on the Gospel, but rather they reflect the mood and themes in ways I find helpful as approaching these narratives

Maundy Thursday

“Believe” by Mumford and Sons

“I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
I don’t even know if I believe
Everything you’re trying to say to me

I had the strangest feeling
Your world’s not what it seems
So tired of misconceiving
What else this could’ve been”

This song speaks to me of the disciples’ frustration in trying to understand what it is Jesus is saying to them.

Good Friday

“No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross” by Sufjan Stevens

Be aware that this one does have explicit lyrics

The depth of the frustration, pain, and exhaustion in the repeated line “no shade in the shadow of the cross,” speaks for me to the lost feeling that the disciples must have had following Christ’s crucifixion

Holy Saturday

“World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies

“Woke up and wished that I was dead
With an aching in my head
I lay motionless in bed
I thought of you and where you’d gone
and let the world spin madly on

Everything that I said I’d do
Like make the world brand new
And take the time for you
I just got lost and slept right through the dawn
And the world spins madly on”

This song echoes for me how lost the disciples felt, knowing that they were called to carry on Jesus’ message of hope, but not quite able to rally without guidance from Jesus.

Easter

“I Ain’t the Same” by Alabama Shakes

“I ain’t the same no more
In fact I have changed from before
No, you ain’t gonna find me
Oh no, cause I’m not who I used to be”

I’ve always been intrigued by the way Mary is unable to recognize Jesus post resurrection. This song makes me think of the way both Jesus and Mary were changed by the resurrection, and how we are transformed by encountering Jesus at Easter.

“Beloved in the Wilderness,” Mark 1:9-13, February 22, 2015, FPC Holt

“Beloved in the Wilderness”
Mark 1:9-13
February 22, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“Beloved” video reflection by the kids of X-team, shown in worship before this sermon.

Audio of sermon available by clicking here.

2015 2 22 Slide01How do you pack for a trip? Do you have a checklist you go through, meticulously making sure to attend to every wardrobe detail and amenity? Or do you do my dad’s method, working head to toe, thinking through every detail of what he would need for a trip, contacts, toothbrush, shirts…you get the idea.

Depending on where you’re going the list might change. As my sister was packing for her honeymoon in Jamaica this past week she certainly packed differently than I did when I was headed towards Cincinnati for her wedding.

Your packing list can also change depending on how much room you have to pack. I know several members of the Tres M trip packed very strategically to make sure they could get all of their personal items as well as donations of toothbrushes and soccer balls, some packing, weighing, and repacking till they got it just right. My parents sometimes go on camping trips on my dad’s motorcycle and they have to be very creative in the packing of the small trunk on the back of the bike, prioritizing camping equipment over a diversity of clothing.

2015 2 22 Slide02But, what about when you are unsure of your destination? How do you pack for an uncertain future? There are times when all the list making in the world cannot prepare you for what is to come, when what is needed are not things, but strength and hope-filled conviction.

2015 2 22 Slide03Just a few moments ago we watched a video of our X-Team kids, telling us about how they understand what it means to be “beloved.” One of the things this church does very well is that from an early age the children, youth, and adults of this church hear and recite the affirmation that they are a beloved child of God. It was a joy to interview the X-team kids and to have the opportunity to hear how this message has become a part of them, and how it frames their views of how they should care for others, and how God cares for them.

In our scripture today, Jesus received this affirmation for himself, we read: “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

2015 2 22 Slide05It’d be a nice and happy place to end our scripture passage, basking in the love-drenched identity of Jesus as beloved child of God. It’s tempting to tack on an “and then they all lived happily ever after, Amen!” to the end of it, close the book and go on our merry way. But that’s not our reality, and that’s not our scripture.

In the very next verse Mark’s gospel tells, “and the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” So much for a happy baptism day. Certainly somebody could’ve thrown him a brunch beforehand at least. But no, Mark’s gospel doesn’t allow for that, and Jesus is immediately thrust into the wilderness.

If you heard me preach on Mark’s gospel a few weeks ago you’ll remember that “immediately,” is a favorite word of this gospel, God’s action is decisive and encompassing.

2015 2 22 Slide08Though these two snapshots of Jesus’ life, baptism and wilderness, may seem incongruent, I would argue that they are actually a very important pairing. When Jesus goes into the wilderness it is not as one lost and alone, but as one claimed as beloved, as one accompanied by the Holy Spirit. This is foundational to our own life in God as well: claimed by God, we face the world; confronted by the world, we are sustained by our identity as God’s beloved.

2015 2 22 Slide09 If you visit my office, and I hope you will if you haven’t yet, you’ll see on the wall several pieces of art by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas. His whimsical, child-like drawings feature stories in the form of anecdotes, vignettes, and snippets of conversation. Brian Andreas is able to capture emotional truths in just a handful of words. For me, the prints on my wall nod towards my own theological understandings of how I understand God and God’s relationship with us.

2015 2 22 Slide10Here’s one of the prints, right from my wall. It says “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.”

I believe this is God’s intention for our lives, to love us in and through our every wilderness, providing a light in darkness, manna-sustenance in our journeying, and a way home for every prodigal son or daughter.

2015 2 22 Slide11This is why we as a church go to such lengths to affirm the call that each of you is a beloved child of God. We hope that this church will be a place where you feel the baptismal waters rush over you, where you experience God’s love through the love of your Christian brothers and sisters. And then, when you are confronted with the wilderness of this world, the darkness that you will inevitably face, that you are fortified for those journeys by the love of God and the deeply rooted knowledge that you are a beloved child of God.

2015 2 22 Slide12One of the ways that we are seeking to deepen our affirmation of God’s claim on our life this Lenten season is to state what we believe on these pieces of paper, so that our experiences of God might live on into 2065 when our time capsule is opened for those Presbyterians of Holt who will then be celebrating 200 years together as a congregation.

SLIDE 13 - BOCConfessional statements can be their own sort of spiritual tool for our journeying, allowing us to claim our identity in God and confront the world around us. As we have been addressing our denomination’s Book of Confessions throughout this year it’s been revelatory to see how each confession has been shaped by the theological, social, and political issues of their time.

SLIDE 14 - Theological Declaration of BarmenMost recently, I taught a class on the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the panel of which we rose today. It is an apt confession to be paired with our scripture today as well as with this, the first Sunday of Lent. The Barmen was written in a very dark wilderness time, as Adolph Hitler was rising to power in 1930s Germany. In all times, the world offers untruths about our identities and value as individuals, but in 1930s Germany these untruths were amplified and propagated to a devastating and horrific extent, as racism and nationalism superseded humanity. It is staggering to be confronted with the terrors of that dark time in history.

SLIDE 15 - Preaching in Hitler’s ShadowTo gain some sense of the Christian resistance to Hitler in the context of that time I read various sermons in an anthology called, “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.” In it was a sermon by Gerhard Ebeling, preached at the funeral of a 34 year old German man who was systematically killed by the German government because they saw him as unworthy of life, a view so abhorrent it is hard to fathom in our context, but was indoctrinated in many Germans at that time under the banner of national strength.

With this man’s grieving parents before him, Ebeling preaches, “God’s love…burns for the lost and leaves the ninety-nine for the sake of the one lost sheep in order to take that one on the arm and to care for it and to rejoice over it. So special is God’s love that this love does not love those who are worthy of it but rather those who have special need of it…. I am compelled to speak and testify: that Jesus stands on the side of these little ones, for us little ones: ‘Do not despise one of these little ones.’ Jesus stands up for the life of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Not only with words and expressions of sympathy but with action. He healed the sick, he gave love and companionship to the despised and rejected sinners….We must testify today to this work of Christ in the midst of our world so that we never despise one of the little ones, that we do not abandon those Christ has accepted and for whom he died.”[1]

SLIDE 16 - BibleWhile I cannot begin to comprehend the depth of wilderness surrounding Ebeling and this grieving family at this time, these are gospel words that are familiar to me, that speak hope into our world today, and whatever is to face us in the future. This is what the church is about, drawing close to that message of a love that never abandons or forsakes us, giving us the strength of the Gospel to stand in the face of whatever may come.

We are indeed beloved children of God, and so I ask you to join in the message our children know so well.  Let us read on the screens, inserting our own names as we go. “I [state your name], am a beloved child of God.” And all God’s children say: Amen.

[1] Dean Garrett Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 139.

“Make Way”; John 1:1-8, 19-23; December 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Make Way”
John 1:1-8, 19-23
Rev. Kathleen Henrion
December 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen along by clicking here.

2014 12 14 Slide01Wilderness. It is a place where one can get lost, some intentionally, some accidently. It is a place of in between: between Exodus and Promised Land, between an inheritance and a prodigal’s return. It is the place that lies below the mountaintop and precedes the burning bush. It is a place of abandonment and provision; humility and testing. Where manna falls and rocks gush. Even when we enter into it willingly, wilderness is not a place where one intends to stay, but rather the place from which one comes.

2014 12 14 Slide02Wilderness is not restricted to the Biblical narratives. Wilderness can look like the descending cloud of depression coloring all that you experience. Wilderness can be the powerlessness felt when watching the news or reading the paper. Wilderness can look like learning to navigate life after the loss of a beloved spouse, parent, sibling, or child. Wilderness can be the cold plunge into the unforgiving waters of Alzheimer’s. By nature, wilderness isn’t restricted at all, but rather it paints obscurity over that which we think we know, in either our surroundings or our very selves.

2014 12 14 Slide03Jesus was no stranger to the wilderness, both surrounding him and within his own self. We often, and rightly so, associate “wilderness” in our liturgical year with the season of Lent, as Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days proceeding his fateful week in Jerusalem that took him from parade to upper room to cross. But today, we have a different scene of one emerging from the wilderness into the public eye.

2014 12 14 Slide04He had his surprising birth announced by an angel. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. And being that we’re in church, less than two weeks away from Christmas, it seems logical to imagine that I’m talking about Jesus. And of course that biography would be fitting for Jesus, but it also belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, SLIDE 4 - John the Baptistalso known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is John’s origin in this Gospel, and his persona is notably marked by these beginnings.SLIDE 5 - Saint John the Forerunner  John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man of wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. He comes from the wilderness place of in between.

He comes with the message of Christ coming soon and still not yet.

SLIDE 6 – John Preaching to CrowdAs John stands among a gathered crowd, priests and Levites that the Jews had sent to Jerusalem confront him. They ask him, “Who are you,” and there is a series of back and forth questions and answers between John and these Pharisee representatives. Is he the Messiah? No, not the Messiah. Elijah? Nope, not Elijah. Surely he must be a prophet. No, not a prophet.

As these priests run out of possible suggestions they seem to throw their hands up in the air saying, “Who are you? …What do you say about yourself?” He replies not with his name or credentials, but with scripture he says, “‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

John defines himself by his wilderness context and by his voice that testifies to Christ’s imminent presence among them. We read that John was sent from God and “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Who John is and what he does are as a function of his role as witness to the light of Christ, in and among the dark wilderness spaces of this world. This light shines in darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorIn his book, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Robert Fulghum tells this story: “At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, our instructor (asked), ‘Are there any questions?’ These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. So I asked. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ He looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. ‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter and said: ‘When I was a small child, we were very poor and lived in a remote village. One day, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept this little mirror, and as I grew up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I am not the light or the source of light. But light is still there, and will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world and help change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”[1]

SLIDE 9 - Light in DarknessJohn knew this was the meaning of his life. He was not the light, but he would do everything in his capacity to reflect that light that had touched his life.

What is the wilderness you find yourself in today? Your space of disorientation, confusion, disillusionment, or disconnect?

What could you do with in this wilderness space with just a little bit of light? The good news that John brings for you and for me and for all of us is that the light is never overcome by the darkness.

SLIDE 10 - Christmas Eve Columbia Seminary Professor, Marcia Y. Riggs writes “Like John we live as witness to the light of Christ, for the light of Christ is life. Thus, as we testify to the light, we also embody that light as believers who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world this Advent season. To embody the light and reveal the life of Christ anew means that we are to live so as to nurture our humanity – especially the capacity to love our enemies – and to act humanely, offering compassionate and restorative justice.”[2]

SLIDE 11 - Candle What does this light mean for our own wilderness? Might it be that what we now only see as wilderness is in fact Advent embodied? We, like John, await Christ’s presence in our lives with hope. Through our hope we are making a way in the wilderness for Christ to come again.

Thomas Merton, 20th century Catholic writer and mystic wrote this of our wilderness turned Advent hope, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”[3]

Might we live as Advent people, make a way for Christ’s light to shine in our wilderness. Amen.

[1] “The Meaning of Life”: from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum ©1988, Ballantine Books

[2] Marcia Y. Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1

[3] Thomas Merton, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/hope-restoredrejoice-always.html

Advent & Christmas Playlist

Though they are not necessarily all typical Advent or Christmas songs, here are some songs that are bringing me a sense of hope, peace, joy, and/or love this Advent season. May it be so for you as well!

Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” by So Elated

Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

“Faint Not,” by Jenny & Tyler

The problem’s not a gun, not a color, not a hundred dollar bill
We think the struggle can be won with simple thoughts like ‘come together be good willed’
The gap between the rich and poor is spreading out all the more or so they say
We ignore the claims

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love

It’s not that we don’t know or we’re not shown the proof of poverty
It’s not that we don’t have the tools to go to break this yoke of slavery
We quit because it’s not an easy fix and then forget that they are even there
We forget to care

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love

Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, let me pardon
Where there is darkness, let the Light come, come

O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love
O my soul, faint not, no, faint not
O my soul, keep up, up
In love
Faint not
Faint not

“Mary and Joseph,” by Dave Barnes

Mary was the first of three
Long black hair and sugar sweet
Daddy’s eyes and Momma’s crooked smile

She was barely seventeen
Got a job keepin’ dishes clean
Planned to stay in this city for a while
For a while

Joseph ran a lumber yard
About a mile from Olive park
Quiet boy, he never had much to say

It was love right from the start
He bought a ring and won Mary’s heart
Had hopes for a home and kids someday
Kids someday

The angel scared her half to death
She would’ve screamed but she lost her breath
On a midnight there in the middle of May

He said “Oh Mary, don’t be afraid
You’ll bear a son that the Lord has made
Name him Jesus, He’ll light the way”

She packed the clothes, he made the plans
They had to go to Bethlehem
But there was nowhere left to stay

So in a barn she gave birth
To the King of Kings, the Lord of Earth
Just a little bitty thing sleeping on the hay
Sleeping on the hay

The story’s too long to tell
But He walked on water and lived through hell
Killed on a cross and rose from the grave

We got a King, they got a Son
Mary and Joseph were the only ones
There on that very first Christmas day
There on that very first Christmas day

“Hear Oh Hear,” by Kris MacQueen

Couldn’t find a transcript of this one and so typed it up myself. Some of the words were unclear which I indicated by […]. I would welcome clarifying suggestions on these lyrics.

Hear, oh hear, he’s come at last
He’s resting now on Mom […]
Come and share the air he breathes
God in flesh the newborn king

The love the flows through infant veins
Will buy all people’s peace with God.
And set the world as it should be.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

See, come see him lying there
Was there ever one so strange?
From flesh and bone and earthiness
Of heavens throne’s and spirit’s […]

The love the flows through infant veins
Will show all people’s peace with God.
And set the world as it should be.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.
He’s Christ the Lord, come and receive.

“Cradle in Bethlehem,” by Sleeping at Last

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

While wise men follow through the dark
A star that beckons them
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

“A little child shall lead them”
The Prophets said of old
In storm and tempest keep ’em
Until the bell is tolled

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

Sing sweet and low your lullaby
Till angels say, “Amen”
A mother tonight is rocking
A cradle in Bethlehem

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At the Well;” John 4:5-30, 39-42; March 23, 2014, FPC Jesup

“At the Well”
John 4:5-30, 39-42
March 23, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide20I think the modern Christian Church owes the woman at the well an apology. Jesus said she had five husbands, and that the man she is with now is not her husband. For this reason it is cast as a moral tale, the story of Jesus converting this woman from a life of sin to one of repentance. We’ve been told that here is a woman of ill repute, a woman of brazen sexual immorality that flaunts her indiscretions in the public square. People think that if she had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband, that it would surely be some moral failing on her part.

Slide21I do believe there is a transformation that takes part in our text, but not necessarily the conversion of a repentant sinner. What if, instead, it is a story of Jesus inviting this woman out of a life of earthly bondage into a life of divine freedom?

Slide22What if we considered this story from a different perspective: that of a first century Samaritan woman. No one sets out in life wanting to have five husbands. It was not an easy time to be a woman. Women were treated like property. Marriage was more of a business contract than anything having to do with love. A woman alone was impossibly vulnerable.

Slide23She likely entered each marriage with little knowledge of with whom she was about to be spending her life. As friends and relatives around her also entered into marriage contracts she probably witnessed some loving marriages, some not so loving, and was hopeful for the marriage that was arranged for her.

Slide24Maybe she was unable to conceive and was cast aside for her infertility. There could’ve been violence and the relationship covenant broken by her father’s desire for her protection. Maybe she was blessed by a happy marriage, and maybe they were separated by death.

Slide25Perhaps with the death of one husband, she was made to marry his brother according to law. This might have been what Jesus meant by the one she is with now. That she might be with someone that she did not choose, who also did not choose her, throw together by law and sorrow-filled circumstance of a deep mutual grief. She might be seen as a drain on resources, a financial burden to bear.

Some have suggested that the one she is now with, who is not a husband to her, could be because of his unkindness and possibly even abuse towards her; a “husband” who does not give her any respect or deference. One whom by law and social contract she is incapable of leaving by her own will.

Slide26Regardless of specific circumstances, a woman with five husbands would have sorrow upon sorrow compounded in her life. With each separation, each loss she was shuttled from home to home like property, shrouded in the dark cloud of lost hope. No doubt she felt tremendously disempowered by her circumstances.

I want you to hear something that you might have never heard before, that I have come to discover in this text: it is very, very, very likely that it was not this woman’s fault. She did not anticipate or invite this life of uncertainty and disappointment.

Slide27And here, into this place of disenfranchisement and sorrow, she meets a different sort of man. She meets Jesus. She recognizes almost instantly that he must be a prophet because he sees her for all that she is. Aside from the fact that Jesus provides an account of the number of husbands she has had, it is astounding that Jesus is even talking to her at all. She is a Samaritan woman, after all. The very water she could offer from that well would have been seen as unclean to an Israelite person of that time simply because she was the one giving it. Yet none of that stops Jesus from speaking with her.

Slide28He sees her. She is not treated simply as property or as the other to be ignored. Jesus sees her many, many sorrows.

What would it be like for Jesus to truly see you? Not to point out your faults, but to point out all the things that have brought you down in this life; all the things from which you need rest, and freedom.

Slide29A common Lenten practice is to take on a spiritual practice, a way of connecting with God. I addressed many of these last year through my Lenten series of spiritual practices.

One of those spiritual practice is fasting, limiting something in order to create space for a closer experience of God. Another is practicing Sabbath, engaging in purposeful rest one day a week. Slide30I have been engaging in a different sort of fast this Lent, avoiding both internet and television on Fridays as a means of reclaiming a sense of Sabbath in my life. You see, Fridays are supposed to be my days off, but all too often they end up being sermon-writing time at the end of a busy week. If you remember the Ten Commandments, honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy was not just a suggestion, but a requirement. By avoiding the internet and television I am purposefully seeking to be just a bit out of touch with the world, so I can be better in touch with God, and God’s purpose for my life. For one day a week, I need to be free from the feeling of needing to be on top of every communication and news story.

Slide31Where in your life do you need rest and freedom? How can you seek to reclaim the life giving freedom that Christ offers?

Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink, in turn, he offers her living water. With all the burdens she carries, Jesus does not need to convince her even for a moment that this is something she needs. Slide32She knows she is thirsty and asks how she may get this water and how she may worship the God who provides it. She meets Jesus and he makes himself known, and in turn she cannot help but overflow with his life-giving message of hope to all she meets. Through her testimony, many come to believe and trust in this God of living water, of freedom, of hope.

Jesus knows those burdens in your life from which you need freedom and rest. May you allow God to transform you through the living water. 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.

“He’s Coming…” Isaiah 11:1-10 December 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

 “He’s Coming…”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - MailboxOn a usual week going to the mailbox you’ll find a mixed collection of bills, newspapers, advertisements, but during December, things are different. Going to the mailbox there’s always the possibility of a Christmas card. SLIDE 2 - Christmas CardsChristmas cards are different than cards throughout the year. They speak of the hope of Christ coming 2000 years ago, and being born again into our reality each year. They wish us happiness, peace, joy, hope, for the whole year, asking God’s blessing on all that will come to pass. And often times you’ll have a Christmas letter that accompanies the card.

SLIDE 3 - Christmas LetterMy family has always had a Christmas letter. When we were younger my mom would write our Christmas letter, but as my sister and I were able to do some writing for ourselves, each member of the family was tasked with writing their own paragraph. This was a fun but daunting task, summing up all of the past years experiences into about 5 or 6 sentences. This sort of letter marks time, tells of the recent past, what is important to us at that time, what has shaped us, what are hopes are for the future. These many years of letters lined up side by side would tell you the story of our family, the twists and turns that have led us to exactly where we are today.

SLIDE 4 - Tree of JesseOur scripture today speaks to the Jesus’ own family timeline, the “tree of Jesse.” Jesus is referred to the root of the tree of Jesse. When we think of trees at Christmas we usually think of evergreens, or artificial trees, or maybe even a Charlie Brown tree. Rarely do we think about family trees, the genealogy of how we came to be. This is the type of tree that the Jesse tree is. It is a tree of the genealogy of Jesus. The New Testament starts in Matthew with this family tree, the history of the family of Jesus.

SLIDE 5 - Advent CalendarIf you’ve picked up our advent calendar you will have seen this tree. There are many familiar names on the tree but also some not so familiar. I hope that you will use this calendar as a resource in helping you grow deeper in your faith with Christ as well as allow you to widen your understanding of what history brought Jesus to us.

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SongsIn 1 Samuel the first king in Jesus’ line of ancestors is identified. When tasked with appointing a king for Israel Samuel initially goes along with the usual expectations for a leader, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SonsSamuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

In Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

SLIDE 8 - DavidWhen the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” This is the one, the one who God has chosen to fulfill God’s promises. The unexpected, the imperfect, the chosen.

Two centuries after King David’s death God spoke through the prophet Isaiah as we read in our scripture lesson today: “1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 1:1-2)

SLIDE 9 - StumpThe tree of Jesse is described as a stump. Over the years since King David’s promising beginning, the Davidic line grew weaker, more corrupt. It seemed that it would nearly die out. But even when it seemed cut off, there was life in it yet. When many had thought the lineage of David wouldn’t lead to anything, God made a way, drawing humanity once again out of chaos through Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Book of Isaiah we read many other references to the promised King in David’s line, the king who will be messiah and savior. The other prophets make the same promise: God is drawing near, a savior is coming.

SLIDE 10 - God is nearOur entire story of faith speaks of this arch from a people lost in sin, to a people redeemed. This is the great story of God that unfolds throughout the narratives of the Old and New Testament. In the very first paragraph God pushes reality out of formless chaos into light and darkness, water and sky, sky and land. What will be come our own existence is spiraled into motion. God can certainly do a lot more with a paragraph than I can!

SLIDE 11 - God and ManIn the first pages of our Bible Adam and Eve disobey God and the need for salvation is established. In the story of Noah we see the need for newness and redemption. In Moses’ mountaintop conversation in the wilderness, God provides commandments to try to set people about the business of living right. Throughout every story is the promise, God is drawing near, salvation is coming.

SLIDE 12 - Foot of CrossAt Advent we celebrate the coming of a savior, the fulfillment of a promise. The big and small ways God’s plan is unveiled, person by person, story by story, year by year: God continues to draw near.

Maybe your family will write a Christmas letter this year, maybe not, but either way I’d like you to reflect on your own location in time and space this year. What has happened to shape you? How might you be a part of this greater story of God’s amazing love? How might you share the incredible news we anticipate and celebrate at Advent: God is ever drawing near in God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“Things Hoped For”; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; August 11, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Things Hoped For”
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”[1]

These words by Emily Dickinson speak of hope as a birdlike creature in our soul, singing a song of improvisation, a song that begins without knowing where it will go, that sings wordlessly, unceasingly.

SLIDE 2 - Hebrews 11 1Our scripture today says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

To many faith can seem like a strange or elusive thing, it is, by definition, a trust in a promise without concrete evidence.

Favorite artist of mine, and Decorah native Brian Andreas is known for his “StoryPeople,” art that carries anecdotal stories with playful drawings. One such story speaks to the intangibility of faith, it says,Slide03 “Can you prove any of the stuff you believe in? my son asked me & when I said that’s not how belief works, he nodded & said that’s what he thought but he was just checking to make sure he hadn’t missed a key point.”

Slide04The Bible has quite a bit to say about hope. Hope appears in the Bible 167 times, 15 of which occur in Job. Job is a man who has lost everything he had and all of his immediate family. He wrestles with hope, whether or not hope his hope is warranted. His friends try and talk him out of hoping. Slide05Hope is in the Psalms 26 times, as the Psalms provide poetic accounts of interaction with God over time, in good and in bad. Proverbs 10:28 says: “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nothing.” Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In Paul’s letters he often refers to the Gospel promise of redemption as “hope.”

SLIDE 6 - AbrahamThe story of Abraham and Sarah is held up several times throughout scripture as a model of faithfulness, a lived out hope. In our scripture today we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-and Sarah herself was barren-because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.””

SLIDE 7 - AbrahamIn Romans chapter 4 Paul shares this reflection on the faith of Abraham, beginning with verses 3-5: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

SLIDE 8 - AbrahamContinuing in verses 13-25 Paul writes, “For the promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world…depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  SLIDE 9 - Father AbrahamHoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Slide10It says that Abraham “hoped against hope.” Abraham had hope in that which was deemed impossible, that which seemed ungraspable. The “thing with feathers” inside of him sang a tune that he couldn’t know the words to. He hoped for the impossible.

I’ve always been a big fan of musical theatre, which is known for it’s infectious tunes. Sometimes when I’m reading scripture or working on a sermon certain songs will get stuck in my head on repeat. Slide11This week it was the song “Impossible,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The song begins by listing all the impossibilities of Cinderella’s predicament, as she’s standing distraught with no way to get to the ball. Her Godmother sings to her, “the world is full of zanies and fools, Who don’t believe in sensible rules And won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Slide12What are the impossible things that you hope for? The things that might seem foolish. The things that might even hurt to hope for? The places in our life where to ask God for a yes risks possibly receiving an unfathomable “no.” How might we trust God in these circumstances?

How might we begin to see these things as possible? How might we hope unceasingly? How might we hope beyond hope?

Slide13Our passage today says in Hebrews 11:13, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Can we really take comfort in hopes that our not answered in our own lifetimes?

Slide14

How can we be anything but disappointed by unanswered prayers? How can we continue to trust God when things don’t work out the way we want them to? The only way is by having a kingdom mindset, by having faith that God’s willing is being worked out in the way it needs to. That God’s plan for us is much larger than us, and with a much longer timeline than any we will experience firsthand. This is not an easy thing, but it is part of what faith calls us to. God is not in the business of wish fulfillment

Slide15Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

The unceasing song of hope, does not end when we are no longer the ones singing it. To have faith is to trust in the promise that just as the blessings of our lives came from that which was only promised to those before us.

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou speaks of this slow to come hope in her poem, “I Rise.” This comes from the conclusion of the poem:

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.”[2]

That line, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” haunts me. Though I do not have ancestral roots in 19th century American slavery, we as children of God, come from a people enslaved. Our faith’s origins are found among those slaves in Egypt, those aching for freedom, aching for the Promised Land they would never live to see. We are their dream and their hope. We are the harvest of that deep grief, of that desert wandering.

Slide17After the familiar narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the continuation of kingdom through the harvest of believers that they themselves did not cultivate:

In John 4:34-38 we read, “Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.””

Slide19The hopes of our hearts may not always come into fruition before us, but as heirs of salvation, workers in God’s kingdom harvest, our acts done in faith bring life to the hopes of those who come before us. We reap a harvest for which we did not labor, and we hope for a promise that we may not witness.

Romans 8:24-25 says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 2 Corinthians 3:12 after speaking of confidence in the promises of Christ says, “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.”

How may your hope spur you to action? When something seems impossible, our fear can paralyze us. May we be bold in our hope, allowing ourselves to hope for what seems impossible, to invest in the promises of God’s goodness. May we be bold to invest in the future we may not see.

Slide22One of the hardest prayers to pray is one we echo week after week in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done.” This short and simple phrase can seem an easy one to pray when we are thinking of the circumstances of another, but in our own circumstances it can seem callous or like an act of retreat. Though “thy will be done” is a prayer of surrender, it is not one of retreat. It is faith in allowing our hopes to rest in God’s hands.

May we have faith in the promises of God’s kingdom. May we sing the tune of hope even while God is still revealing the words. Amen.


[1] ““Hope” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619

Christmas in July; “Emmanuel: God With Us;” John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28; July 21, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Emmanuel: God With Us”
John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28
July 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CalendarThis Sunday on the church calendar is called the “15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Sounds exciting, huh? The Christian calendar has a total of 33 weeks of ordinary time,” time that is not defined by Lent or Advent or Pentecost or any other liturgical celebration. The trouble with ordinary time in the church is it can lull us into a liturgical rut. While churches all over see decreased attendance due to vacations and busy summer plans, calling this “ordinary time” doesn’t exactly encourage excitement in worship either. Worshiping in ordinary time doesn’t carry the anticipation of Advent, the loneliness of Lent, or the joy of Easter. Compared to fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the horror of Christ’s death at Good Friday and the joy of resurrection on Easter, this in between time can seem, well, ordinary.

SLIDE 2 - Ordinary TimeBut even in our ordinary time, we profess a faith that is much more extraordinary than we often give it credit. Which is why today as we crank up the air conditioning, walk about in shorts and skirts, and fan ourselves off with the order of worship, we are traveling back to the manger, drawing close to the story of a baby born into the world to save us all. We are celebrating Christmas in July not because it feels particularly Christmas-y out in the world, but because even in a week where we’ve hit 90 degrees almost every day, we are called to recognize and bring about Christ’s presence in this world.

SLIDE 3 - NativitySo what can you tell me about Christ’s birth?

[Received responses about Jesus’ birth]

We are used to the story of Christ’s birth and so all of these very extraordinary circumstances seem quite ordinary to us.  Our two scripture lessons today tell us that this could not be farther from the truth. This quaint story of a manger birth in Bethlehem was not just what we see at first glance.

SLIDE 4 - WordOur Gospel lesson tells the story of Christ’s birth not in the story we’re used to hearing on Christmas specials in December, but rather in scope of all of time. Through poetic language John’s Gospel emphasizes the theological implications of Christ coming into the world. In this passage, the manifestation of God is identified as “the Word”: “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.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - FootWith Jesus’ simple birth, a greater mission was brought to fruition. Jesus united heaven and earth, by being both God and human, both eternal and temporary. Jesus experienced human pain, happiness, hunger, and certainly the discomfort of 90 degree plus days. He also carried within him the love of a God willing to get his hands dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul’s letter to the Colossians also describes Christ with a long term lens as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[2]

While we often think of Christ’s birth as something that happened about 2000 years ago, these two poetic and somewhat complicated passages remind us that Christ is without time and that the Savior who would come to redeem us all was set into motion from the very beginning of creation. Christ as an incarnate living and breathing walking about man was always intended to be a part of how we experience God.

SLIDE 7 - JesusColossians describes Christ as both “firstborn of all creation”[3] and “firstborn from the dead.”[4] While I could probably do a whole sermon on the many times Jesus is described like a zombie, today we can just recognize that Christ was in the beginning with God at creation and also made a way for us to have eternal life with God. Through living a perfect life and enduring the cross Christ brought life to all people.

SLIDE 8 - LightAs John 1 affirms saying, “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… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

SLIDE 9 - Gods ChildrenJesus, God’s only begotten son, was born into the world and died in this world so that we might also become God’s children. So that we might be drawn into the covenant of God’s providence and covered by God’s grace.

Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”SLIDE 10 - Fullness of God

“The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I love that phrase.  At the great commissioning Jesus passed along the joy and the burden of this calling unto his disciples, and by extension, on to us.

SLIDE 11 - God within“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[6]

SLIDE 12 - God With UsWhen we gather in worship we are strengthening ourselves for this mission, immersing ourselves in this hope. Since we carry such a powerful message of hope and restoration calling even these in between times in our year “ordinary time” seems a bit inconsistent with this great story we are called to be a part of.

SLIDE 14 - Nativity SetI was reading a story this week by Erin Newcomb, an English professor and author, about her own experience of ordinary time. She writes: “I was struggling with ordinary time this year. Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a brutal heat wave followed by days of downpours that kept us confined to the house for far too long. Our time was getting a little too ordinary, so I rummaged through the basement and brought up some of our Christmas things — a small, artificial tree, a play Nativity set, a box of miniature decorations…We’re listening to Christmas hymns and reading Christmas stories… My daughter and I are talking about what Emmanuel means, and why Jesus bears that name…”

SLIDE 15 - Baby JesusThere’s something about Christmas — the animal stories, the mama and baby — that make it innately more appealing and tangible for small children than the abstract and gruesome theology of Easter. I know the Incarnation is incomplete without the cross and the Resurrection, but sometimes in ordinary time we need a reminder of the vulnerable child who came to live among us.”

She continues, “I am loving Christmas in July, a celebration of the joy and hope of the Christ-child without the surrounding cultural commercialism. As much as I appreciate liturgy, this uncharacteristically spontaneous break from the church calendar is lifting my spirits more than the December season usually does, because this time it’s unburdened by a climate of greed, materialism, and social obligations that often exclude Christ. My departure from liturgy reminds me what liturgy is for: it’s not the dates that are significant but the acts of remembrance, not the calendar itself but the continual effort to walk with Christ throughout the year…Christmas in July assures me that Emmanuel is a year-round gift that transcends liturgy and history and makes all time extra-ordinary.” [7]SLIDE 15 - Walking with Christ

Perhaps your ordinary time has gotten a bit too ordinary. Maybe today, this Christmas in July, this singing of carols and celebration of Christ’s presence on earth will help you to continue to walk with Christ throughout the year.

SLIDE 16 - SurrenderEvery Christmas we celebrate God coming into this world walking and talking among us, but through our witness to God’s power in our world and in our lives Christ is still walking and talking among us, through us. May God become Emmanuel through you this day. Amen.

Here is the song that was sung by the Praise Team after the sermon:


[1] John 1:1-3a

[2] Colossians 1:15-17

[3] Colossians 1:15

[4] Colossians 1:18

[5] John 1:3b-5, 12-13

[6] Matthew 28:18-20

“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.

“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen

Photo a Day Lent – Day 39: Restore

“Restore”

3 23 Day 39 Restore

This is the Weingart Center. It is a center for homeless services in Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. I was blessed to visit there in 2005 as a friend introduced me to many of the urban ministries of the Los Angeles area. It was a joy to see how through health care, education, and support so many people’s lives were being restored from brokenness to hope.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth; Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; March 3, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth
Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
March 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message
I am posting this mainly because this was something I was unable to find in other resources. I hope it will be helpful for you!

Click here for handout. First I showed the kids the maze we talked about what a maze is like (dead ends, objective of reaching the end). I then showed them the labyrinth and told them how the labyrinth only has one path which winds around itself. We read the description on the handout that I wrote up:

Labyrinth, a maze where you never get lost: For hundreds of years people have been walking labyrinths as a way of focusing on how God walks with them. Some people use the different parts of the path to be different parts of prayer. Walking towards the middle can be like walking towards God’s presence. You can use this time for confessing things you’ve done wrong. When you get to the middle you can use that time to thank God for all the blessings in your life. When you’re walking out of the middle back to the beginning you can pray about how you will share God’s love with other people in the world.

We lifted up our own confessions, thanksgivings, and prayers for others.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth

Slide04We are now about halfway through our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices. So far we have discussed iconography, seeking God’s presence in this world; fasting, hungering for God’s will; and prayers of petition, crying out to God from our helplessness. Today we are continuing on with another practice: traveling a labyrinth.

Slide03In the book “50 Ways to Pray,” Teresa Blythe explains what a labyrinth is:  “A labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice involving a winding path that leads ultimately to a center and then winds back out to the point where it began… The path is symbolic of the journey inward toward God’s illumination and then outward, grounded in God and empowered to act in the world.” [1]

Slide07Many labyrinths are outdoors: constructed of rocks on the ground, the way grass is cut, or in hedges.  Some outdoor labyrinths are made of paint on pavement. There are labyrinths laid out in the stone, marble, or carpeted floors of churches all over the world. There are also fabric labyrinths that you can rent and lay out a floor. Any church with pews can be walked as a labyrinth, winding in and out of the pews and back up the aisle. A familiar neighborhood can also be walked as a labyrinth as long as your don’t get lost. There are also smaller labyrinths, such as the ones you have in front of you that can be traced with your fingers or even followed with your eyes.  There are labyrinths nearby in the Cedar Valley Arboretum, at St Luke’s Episcopal in Cedar Falls, and at Camp Wyoming.

When I was in seminary I took a class during my first year called “Spiritual Formation.” In our class we worked through different prayer practices. One of these practices was, as you might have guessed, praying through the labyrinth.

Slide12At Union Presbyterian Seminary we had a labyrinth on the edge of campus out behind the campus apartments that was made with stones in the ground, so that you couldn’t really see it until you were right up at it. For my class assignment, I went to the labyrinth and walked the path.

Slide13I knew that the correct thing to be doing was to walk along the path, mediate as I walked, and seek God’s guidance. This was supposed to bring me peace and quiet in my heart, connection with my God. However, as I walked that path I did not find transcendence. Rather, I found myself getting more and more annoyed. I got to the center of the labyrinth and let out a big sigh and stomped off in frustration. When I got to class that week I complained to my professor saying, “Labyrinths are everything that’s wrong with organized religion! Everyone just walking around in circles looking at their own feet! Everyone’s just following others in their faith and are afraid to make their own path!”Slide05

I was angry. I was annoyed. I felt let down by my own inability to be meditative. As others in the class shared how they had enjoyed themselves in their labyrinth walking, I was jealous. Why couldn’t I experience God in that way?

Slide15When I left class that day I went into work at the seminary library where I worked the desk and shelved books. There was a full cart of books to be sorted, a challenge that I enjoyed; creating order out of what was sometimes chaos. And then, I took those books around the building to the stacks, going up and down the aisles making sure things were straightened up, and placing the books from the carts on the shelves where they belonged. Though this task was mundane, it also brought a lot of peace. I did my best thinking as I was walking down around those books.

Slide16About halfway through shelving books I stopped myself right in an aisle and nearly laughed out loud. An hour ago I had been complaining about walking a labyrinth. Complaining about having to walk around in that patterned path. And now, here I was walking another patterned path and I loved it. I felt God’s presence around me. I prayed prayers, talked to God, and was able to clear my mind and reach that transcendence I was trying so hard for in that labyrinth path. God had already been working through me in a labyrinth practice and I hadn’t noticed. It’s a funny thing to be in a school where you are being trained to think theologically and to stumble quite by accident into the very spiritual practice you’ve been resisting. God certainly has a sense of humor.

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

When we seek to follow God in our lives and fully place our trust in God’s direction we are often led in ways we could never expect. Labyrinths are a place where we are forced to trust that we will end up where we need to be. As we allow God to lead us in our daily lives we are transformed. Following God in the labyrinths of our lives takes us to a place of wilderness, but with God as our focus it is also a place of hope and transformation. In the desert, the people of Israel were transformed into the children of God. Jesus went into the wilderness in the forty days before his crucifixion, was tested and tempted by the devil, and came out on the other side fortified for the horrors of his atoning death.

Our New Testament passage today speaks of God’s presence guiding people through the wilderness, emphasizing the many ways the people stepped off the path and failed to trust God’s guidance. Paul exhorts his readers to strengthen their trust in God saying in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13:

“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) In our labyrinth experiences, there is always a way out, and God desires to lead us through it.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading writes of his first experience walking a labyrinth, “I was both held by the inevitability of the journey – one step in front of another – and also vulnerable: I knew where I was going – the pathway wound inexorably to the centre – but I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got there.”

Slide20At first glance a labyrinth looks like a maze: twists and turns on a defined path. The difference is, while one can pick the wrong direction in a maze and become lost, the path of a labyrinth never branches off. While in the labyrinth you might be confused by the twists and turns of the path, as you are getting closer to the center it may suddenly take you back right by where you started. But if you keep moving forward along the path, you will always make your way to the center, and will always make your way back out again.

Sally Welch, author of “Walking the Labyrinth,” writes: “It is quite a brave thing to do, to step on a labyrinth for the first time… The centre is plain to see; the way to reach the centre is not so obvious. I have seen many people pause at the entrance, look, hesitate as they tried to follow the path with their eyes, and then walk on, not daring to risk themselves on something for which the outcome does not appear certain. And yet, once that first step is taken, the rest is physically straightforward and spiritually can be transforming.”

Slide22So what are we supposed to do as we walk a labyrinth, or trace one with our fingers? Some recommend praying through the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or any other familiar prayers. However, I think the danger with any sort of prayer practice is we become convinced that our experience needs to look a certain way, or feel a certain way, and we close ourselves off to the outcome that God intends from our circumstance. For some, having a checklist of prayers to run through can seem like another distraction. Allow yourself to pray whatever you need to pray, and to be comfortable with silence. One of my favorite prayer suggestions was by author and labyrinth expert Jill Geffrion who suggests to simply pray “Your will be done,” at the beginning of the labyrinth, and then walk with intentionality to your own movement and pace.

This Lenten season I would like you to try a labyrinth practice. Allow God to work through the winding paths, to provide wisdom and clarity in the silence. I would also like you to open yourself to the purpose of this practice: allowing prayer to be rise out of movement, allowing meditation to surface in the seemingly mundane tasks of your everyday life. Slide28This may happen for you in the piecing together and sewing of a quilt, in filing files in an office, perhaps in plowing rows in a field, or as I often find it, in knitting. These patterns of your life can be adopted into labyrinth prayer practices. As you work through these activities pay attention to  your movement, quiet your mind, and see what God may be saying to you. Remember Paul’s urging to the community at Corinth, traveling through life’s path is requires trust in God. This Lenten season, may we move forward as God leads us. Amen.


[1] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 92-93.

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

“First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame
God came, and God’s Light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “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…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4

President Snow and the Chief Priests

While reading the Gospel of Mark in preparation for preaching about Holy Week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this scene from the Hunger Games in the way the the chief priests fear the hope that Jesus embodies.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. – Mark 11:15-18