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

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

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folk/Indie/Bluegrass Holy Week Playlist

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Here are some of the songs that have been buzzing around my brain this Holy Week. They’re not all direct reflections of the gospel, but for me have evoked the emotions of what this week is about. I hope they might bring similar reflection for you:

Palm Sunday

“Passion Song” by Sean Carter

I was with him when he rode into town
And crowds gathered round him like a king
Their smiling faces, joined a sea of branches waving
Thou they were masquerading in the end

And my heart rose in my throat
When I heard them sing
Hosanna, in the highest

Maundy Thursday

Last Supper

“Bread and Wine” by Josh Garrels

Of the places we left behind,
No longer yours and mine
But we could build a good thing here too
So give it just a little time,
Share bread and wine
Weave your heart into mine

If I fall, I fall alone, but two can help to bear the load
A threefold chord is hard to break
All I have I give to you if you will share your sorrows too,
Then joy will be the crown upon our heads
My friend

“Forget Me Not” by The Civil Wars

Forget me not my dear, my darling
Forget me not my love
I’m coming home real soon

“Break Bread” by Josh Garrels

Let us break bread together on our knees
Let us break bread together on our knees
When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun
Oh Lord, have mercy on me.

“Timshel” by Mumford and Sons

And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal your substance

Garden of Gethsemane

“Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars

Run fast as you can
No one has to understand
Fly high across the sky from here to kingdom come
Fall back down to where you’re from
Don’t you fret, my dear
It’ll all be over soon

Good Friday

“Good Friday” by Josh Garrels

I didn’t recognize that look in his eyes
When they cried
With a sorrow that no man has ever known

Hang him high, watch him die, hear the cry
Crucified up on that God forsaken tree

“Free Until They Cut Me Down” by Iron and Wine

When the men take me to the devil tree
I will be free and shining like before

Easter

“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford and Sons

That’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

All sorts of great Easter music free from Noisetrade: https://www.noisetrade.com/goodmorning

“What Has Happened Here” by Kris MacQueen (Good Morning. Happy Easter. 2)

I went to the place where I knew he was
But I did not find what I thought I would
An empty cave discarded clothes
No trace of the flesh that had contained my Lord.

Anger and rage, feeling misused,
Were the first things I felt, when I heard the news
His body was taken, his grave was defiled
Was there some other tale of wonder or woe?

What has happened here?
Do I dare believe?
What has happened here?

“Awake My Soul” by Derek Webb

‘Cause no one is good enough to save himself
Awake my soul tonight to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name
Nowhere else can I hide
‘Cause this grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides

“Kingdom of Heaven” by Jenny & Tyler

Set your mind, your mind, your mind, on things above
Set your eyes, your eyes, your eyes on the risen Son

Where there shall be no night
Nor need for sun to shine
The Lord Himself will be the light
In the Kingdom of Heaven

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40; March 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today is our last sermon in our series on Spiritual Practices. Throughout this season we’ve traveled through the Lenten wilderness of God’s instruction, hopefully growing closer to God’s will for us on the way. Since there are at least as many ways to experience God as there are believers we’ve certainly not exhausted the many ways to get to know God, but I pray this series has revealed at least a few more ways that you are able to connect to God.

Slide02Today in worship we’ve all already participated in today’s spiritual practice! As we watched or walked our processional of palms, sang our songs, and read our call to worship we were engaging in today’s spiritual practice: Prayers of Praise. So we can just check it our your list and I can just sit down, right?

Not quite. Even though “prayers of praise” are something we engage in all of the time, it’s still important to examine what exactly we are doing when we say our prayers, sing our songs, and wave our branches.

Prayers of praise are not an act of going through the motions, checking something of a list, and fulfilling an obligation. Prayers of praise are an act of love responding to love.

Slide03Let’s think about this, if you are talking to your significant other and say, “I love you,” in a monotone voice, once a week, and then go check that off your to-do list, how will they feel? Will they believe you? Will you believe you?

It’s important to know that God’s love of us is not conditional on our response, but we miss out in our own experience of loving God when we fail to notice acknowledge the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. We might even take God’s love for granted.

I know I fall into this problem sometimes, assuming the love of God, rather than joyously celebrating God’s love. When I get into a rut with expressing my love to God, I appreciate reading the Psalms. Like someone in love quoting a sonnet to their beloved, the Psalms give us words we can use to rekindle our appreciation for God’s love. The Psalms are filled with prayers of praise, including our Old Testament reading, Psalm 118.

Slide06Bookending today’s Psalm we hear the 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.

Slide07It 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. [1]

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.

Slide08With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world.

 

Slide09

Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. 

 

Slide10In 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.

Slide11In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ. Our New Testament passage today also provides an account reflecting God’s immediate presence and presence throughout history. It is the familiar account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This is a story we’ve seen enacted year after year. We’re used to waving palms and celebrating with joy the beginning of Holy Week. This scene of crowds, palm branches, and a donkey carries a history far beyond what we see in this scene. It is a fulfillment of several prophesies from throughout scripture:

One of the prophesies is our Psalm today, Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.” This verse is echoed in all four Gospels as Christ enters Jerusalem.

SLIDE 12 - Triumphal Entry Psalm 118 even gives instruction for the very procession that arises around Jesus’s journey. In verse 27 it says, “Bind the festal procession with branches.” And the crowds do, waving palm branches as Jesus passes.

Jesus’ chosen mode of transportation is identified in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Jesus, himself quotes scripture by reciting Habakkuk 2:11, telling Pharisees who were nervous at the shouts of the crowds that even “if [the disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”[2]

All of these references to historical scripture were not coincidences, but were enacted to show the people that Jesus was the Christ that they had been waiting for. He is the embodiment of the God of Hesed. He is the one who carries out the covenant of love. He is the one deserving of praise.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was surrounded by prayers of praise. Luke 19:37 tells us that “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, but not as some celebrity they had only heard tell of. This was not their first experience of Jesus, they were responding to all the amazing miracles of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s also important to notice that they understood that they understood that Jesus’ actions were not only his own, but were an extension of God’s divinity, and they “praise[d] God joyfully.” They were acknowledging God’s “hesed,” God’s everlasting love that was presented to them through the ministry of Jesus. We too are called to praise God for the many ways God enters into our lives.

In Philippians 4:4, the apostle Paul calls us to “rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” When times get difficult this seems like a strange thing to do. There are certainly times that we don’t feel like praising God, but Paul encourages us to draw close to God especially in these difficult times.Paul continues saying, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) By lifting up our concerns and directing them to God Paul tells us that, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So how do we engage in this practice of prayers of praise? It is more than the recitation of prayers, it is a prayer that taps into a joy brought by love of God. It is an exultation, it is a dancing, a laughing, a forgetting our own selves for a moment so that we can more fully focus on God. It is letting ourselves be giddy in love with our God who loves and created us. Revelation 4:11 affirms our call to praise God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Psalm 150:1-6 gives suggestions for how to praise: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!  Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

This text is not a simple description of what happens in worshiping God. In this text “praise,” is in the imperative sense. We are being urged, provoked, commanded to praise. This is the Psalmist saying, “hey you there, pick up an instrument, jump to your feet, and PRAISE!” We might find ourselves looking around and thinking, well hey, “the praise band does a great job, so they should be praising,” or “wasn’t everyone in the procession of the palms great with waving their branches?” But the Psalmist doesn’t leave this up for discussion, saying, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” This means me, this means you, this means all of us! If we have air in our lungs we have the capacity to praise.

Praise might look a bit differently from person to person. Some may praise God through song, or instrument, some may praise through writing poems or creating art, some may praise God in showing appreciation for creation. The point is, we are all called to praise God, in whatever way we can.

In a few minutes we will sing our Doxology, a call for all of us to praise. May this be our prayer today:

“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Amen!


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 149.

[2] Luke 19:40

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing; Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8; March 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing
Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout our Lenten series we have been studying many different practices, iconography, fasting, prayers of petition, walking a labyrinth, and prayers of confession. Though many of these practices have the concerns of others in mind, most of those practices can be done just fine alone. Today’s practice however, requires interacting with others in a way that might not be the most comfortable thing.

Slide02The practice is “foot washing.” Within the context of our worship service today we will translate this to hand washing. But for now I’d like to stay with the image of foot washing.

Have you ever watched the TV show, “Dirty Jobs?” In this show the host, Mike Rowe takes on some of the dirtiest jobs that there are out there. And boy does he get dirty. From trash, to sewage, to tar, to animal carcasses, Mike Rowe has dealt with all of these things, and given the outside world an often-nauseating look into each of these worlds.  I know there are some of you in this congregation that have experienced your own dirty jobs, working with manure or animals or other such things in ways that would make your suburban-raised pastor faint.Slide03

What I’m trying to get at here is that one of the dirtiest jobs in Jesus’ time was that of a foot washer. In Jesus’s time traveling primarily involved walking. There was no plumbing of any kind, there was no pavement, no real regard for sanitation. People’s feet were very, very, very, dirty.

Slide04How strange is it then that when Jesus comes to Bethany, Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. Her hair! The thought of it grosses me out. Her concern was clearly not for her own vanity, but for worship of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 5 - Jesus FeetIn the dirt and in the grim of those road weary feet of Jesus there was also beauty. These feet weren’t the feet of someone who kept at a distance. They were the feet of someone who walked among the people. Jesus was both God and human, and in his walking he was very human. If you have the power of heaven and earth, why would you choose to limit yourself to being constrained within a body? And if you must be in a body, is it really necessary to do all of that walking? Couldn’t he fly or in the very least, ride a donkey?

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this, “The four gospels are peppered with accounts of [Jesus] walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”

SLIDE 8 - Pedestrian CrossPart of Jesus’ ministry was being very present, very human, and in every definition of the word, “pedestrian.”

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 52:7 we heard

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

Slide10How beautiful than were the feet of Jesus, the announcer of peace, the embodiment of good news, and the provider of salvation?

This passage in Isaiah exults the feet of ministry. Feet of peace, good news, and salvation are much more than the dirt that may cover them. Their beauty stems from the goodness of the person attached to them, but it also stems from their own work: their ministry of walking on the earth, of bearing goodness as they travel. This ministry will make them dirty, at times will cover them with callouses, blisters, heel spurs, but these feet are beautiful because they are feet that are in motion.

Slide11This is my family with my Great Grandmother, Granny Ruth, who lived to be 101. She used to say “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”

Slide12This is the call also of the disciple. We are not meant to sit around with clean feet. We are meant to be in motion. We are meant to keep our eyes open, our hearts open to those who might cross our paths. We are meant to get our own feet dirty,SLIDE 13 - Mary or in the case of Mary, our own hair. Mary’s act of love for Jesus required a disregard for her own well being both hygienically and financially.

In response to today being St. Patrick’s day, a seminary friend of mine, Rachel Jenkins wrote this lectionary themed limerick: “There once was a woman named Mary. /Though Jesus’s feet were quite hairy, /she opened the jar /and poured out the nard /and foreshadowed that he would be buried?”

Her alternative last line is: “and everyone spit out their sherry.”

SLIDE 14 - MaryThey were indeed shocked and probably would’ve spit out their sherry if they were drinking it at the time. This perfume that Mary was to be used for burials. Though Jesus was frequently pointing to the short life before him, only Mary seemed to understand that perfume for burial was exactly what this situation called for. Jesus’ ministry was not leading to election to a political post or to celebrity status; it was leading to the crucifixion, it was leading to death.

Slide16Mary immediately receives criticism for the wastefulness of her actions.  As if on an episode of “The Price is Right,” Judas readily identifies the 300 denarii that went into purchasing that perfume. He was upset with how much money she “wasted.” As a bit of an aside, the author of this gospel tells us “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6) Judas desire was not for the money to serve someone else, but rather that it might serve him. He was looking not for the humility of service, but for personal promotion.

While Jesus was alive, the disciples never seemed to really understand what Jesus was calling them to do and be in their world.

Luke 9:46-48 tells us:

“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’”

Jesus was always doing things like that, making flipping things on their heads and reordering their expectations.

In Matthew 20:26-28 Jesus corrects the disciples saying:

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And in the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, he demonstrates this service to his disciples in one of the most unexpected of ways. He takes on the “dirty job” of washing their feet:

“[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4-17)

Richard J. Foster writes in his book, “A Celebration of Discipline”: “As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service…. The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or title, but in a towel.” [1]

Contemporary society is familiar Jesus’ call in Matthew 16:24 to deny ourselves, taken up the cross and follow Jesus. We are much less familiar with the call to take up a towel and follow Christ.

SLIDE 23 - Towel and SandalsTaking up the towel involves kneeling at feet. Taking up the towel involves making ourselves dirty in the process. Taking up the towel in the way that Jesus demonstrates involves washing the world clean. Not just the parts that need some light dusting, but the parts that need a deep scrubbing. Jesus washes the feet of Judas. All throughout the story of this last supper Jesus points to his knowledge of Judas’ imminent betrayal, but still he kneels before him and serves him. This is the sort of servant-hood to which Jesus is calling us.

Foster writes about this: “We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.” [2]Slide25

When we choose servant-hood out of love of God and desire for the care for the world that God loves, we are taking up that towel of service. When we go out to share God’s love, our feet become beautiful. May we seek to share God’s love with all we meet in both word and action. Amen.


[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 126, 128.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 132.

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession; Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; March 10, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession
Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04As we continue our way through Lent experiencing different spiritual practices, today we have another practice that is very familiar to us; one that we participate in every Sunday in worship: prayers of confession.

Slide02

 

A prayer of confession is a prayer in which we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to follow God. When we pray our prayers of confession in worship we pray first for our own individual sins and then for our sins as a community.

Slide03

Historically confessions of sin have taken place throughout one’s community and personal life. Puritans wrote extensively detailed private diaries to allow them to confess their sins to God. These diaries were so thorough and so personal that they were most often burned at the time of the person’s death. Before there was a professional priesthood, Christians would gather together and confess their sins to one another to pray for each other’s healing. Slide05In the Catholic tradition priests use confessional booths to hear the confessions of their parishioners.

 

It seems our society these days is filled with opportunities for confession.Slide06 One-camera “confessionals” are part of nearly every reality show misconstruing the term “confession” as a venting of frustrations with another or rare moments of self-reflection. The boom of social media allows for quick opportunities to reveal our thoughts to whoever will listen. Many we interact with day to day receive our confessions: hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers in lines.Slide07

While there is nothing inherently wrong in this self-reflection, we should be aware of our motivation for these confessions. Are we simply trying to clear our minds? Gain accountability or advice from someone we trust? OR are we seeking forgiveness from God and other’s we have hurt out of a repentant heart?

Slide09It’s often a blessedly strange moment when I’m out in public and people find out I’m a pastor. I have been privy to many a confessional: on airplanes, in coffee shops, grocery stores, and just about everywhere else, just by someone learning my title. People often tell me of their church attendance, or lack thereof, confess their desire to strive to be a “good person,” some might tell me of their works in mission.

Often I want to ask, “Why are you telling me?” But then I remember who this position calls me to be.  Over the centuries the role of clergy has been as a medium to God’s grace. In the Presbyterian Church we uphold a “priesthood of all believers,” which means that each of us can ask for God’s forgiveness directly. However, it can be a daunting thing to approach God in confession, and so pastors and other clergy become a proxy.

Though these unsolicited confessions can lead to very interesting and insightful conversations, they most often seem like a defensive response, sort of a “making this right,” rather than the thought out contrition of a penitent heart. On the occasion that these conversations become a bit deeper they can lead to some pretty profound views of how those outside a church home view the church and their relationship to God. Many tell me that they don’t go to church because they’re just to busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.Slide10

One of the more reflective confessions I’ve been privy to listen to was a young woman who told me that she didn’t like going to church because it makes her feel too vulnerable. This made me both hopeful and sad. Hopeful that she understands the depth that can be found in a church community and sad that she didn’t want to be a part of it, at least for now.

Slide11Confession has long been one of my favorite parts about being a part of a worshipping community. I love the beautiful vulnerability of standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another.

Imagine what would happen if we went out to other places and relationships in our lives and confessed this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship. What a strange and wonderful world that would be.

Slide12So what is it that we’re even doing when we confess our sin? Do we think that our confessions will surprise God? Do we think that our words undo the hurt that we’ve caused to ourselves or to others? Why do so many of us have such an urgent desire to confess our sinfulness? Why is “making things right with God” such a priority?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s something I say in worship every Sunday before our confession. Can anyone sum up what I say before we pray together?

“Though God knows our every action, God desires us to confess our sinfulness so that we may be open to Christ’s redemptive action in our lives.”

This is not a traditional liturgy and you won’t find it in any book, but I wrote it to for our community to sum up the Biblical witness as to why we confess our sins together.

Psalm 139:1-3 says:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”

God knows us intimately; there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. God surrounds our action and knows our hearts. God is well aware of each and every sin we have committed. God knows when we have willingly chosen other paths.

In 1 John 1:9 we hear:

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James 5:16 says:

“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

When we confess our sins it is not God who discovers our sinfulness, but rather it is our eyes that are opened to the presence of those sins and we begin the journey beyond our sinfulness.

Episcopal Bishop, Michael B. Curry writes of the young and rebellious son in our New Testament passage today:

“Jesus uses a marvelous turn of a phrase. Wallowing among pigs, the prodigal ‘came to himself.’ He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, ‘You were not meant for this.’”[1]

Slide19We were created to be creatures of Eden. We were created for paradise. The ultimate goal of confession is reconciliation. With the taste of the first sin in their mouths Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. The paradise was filled with many beautiful creations of plants and animals, but most importantly it was filled with God’s presence. When Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God, God walked with them in the garden. God was tangible and present in relationship with them. Through their sinfulness they willingly sought out a different future, a different path, a life that was apart from the paradise of full relationship with God.

Ever since that moment God has been creating opportunity for us to touch paradise. God became present on this earth once again, walking among us as Jesus Christ. Jesus served as an example to us of how we could live, how we can demonstrate God’s grace and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says:

“God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. “

Confession is necessary for our life together. Only through the authentic confession of a repentant heart can we begin the work towards reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” It is saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Reconciliation can be the outcome of confession, but it requires action on both parts.

In our prodigal son story we hear in verse 30 that:

“While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Once the son even headed in the right direction the father was there to greet him. God’s forgiveness is already there; God is simply waiting for us to come home to grace.

When we are aware of the abundance of grace awaiting us, what keeps us from confessing? What keeps us from seeking God?

Slide23The prodigal son did not feel himself worthy of forgiveness, worthy of coming home. He had struck out on his own, squandered his inheritance, brought shame to his family name. He was caught up in all the wrong that he had done. He did not know what his father’s reaction would be, but he had run out of options in the world outside of his family. He had run out of options in the life of dishonesty, and was forced to seek reconciliation. He did not expect to be restored to his former life, he just hoped to live as a servant.

SLIDE 24 – Perks of Being a WallflowerA favorite book of mine, now turned into a movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” encompasses this in a way that has stayed with me since I first read it as a high school freshman: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”[2]

The prodigal son did not feel that he deserved forgiveness, or deserved the love of his family, and so he stayed in a life of sin until this life had left him starving.

Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 32 speaks of this feeling in verses 3 and 4:

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

But then the Psalmist is turned in verse 5:

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Slide27We are called to confess not because we are worthless sinners, but because we are worth so much in God’s eyes that God wants to bring us out of our sorrow and out of our isolation. God wants us to value our lives enough to ask for God to redeem them. To be unrepentant is to be expelled from Eden, purposefully separated from God’s love. To be unrepentant is to be lonely.

Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay P. Armstrong wrote, “Focusing on fault and magnifying its importance is not confession but megalomania, as if we know better than God does that we are undeserving of forgiveness. Such a posture narcissistically keeps the focus on our actions, when what God has done and continues to do is far more important. It involves refusing forgiveness and features failure to follow God’s lead into fresh ways of living.”[3]

Slide29Confession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It is about being drawn to reconciliation, it is about responding to God’s great love and God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Confession is about moving past what we’ve done so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us. Confession is about God.

Through confession we are restored to right relationship, we are restored to paradise. May we strive for this life giving authentic confession. Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[2] Perks of Being a Wallflower. p.27

[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 106.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Matthew 3:17

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. 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 among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He 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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.

“Simply Loving,” B-Side

Many weeks I feel like the sermons I write need to have a sort of “b-side” to them: a response to what was written, sort of the footnotes of more information that’s in conversation with the original sermon. So here goes:

After looking at the three scriptures in conversation with each other, this story immediately came to mind:

“One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.” – “Purple Madonna,” StoryPeople by Brian Andreas

This article provided many of the details of story and also came to it’s own conclusions about the necessity of giving:

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Should We Give a Homeless Man Shoes?”

No Act of Love is Ever WastedAlso, this sermon brought up for me the phrase “no act of love is ever wasted.” “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.” If I were to have gone that route with the sermon, there is much to be discussed of how some people with cognitive disabilities are often seen unworthy of the basic necessities of love and relationship simply because of an inability to respond. A perspective that is confronted by this book.

“Simply Loving; ” Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; December 9, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Loving”
Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
December 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1There’s a story that was in the news a week or so ago about a New York policeman who offered boots to a man who was elderly, barefoot, and homeless. The policeman, officer Larry DePrimos, bought the shoes with his own money and helped to place the socks and shoes on this man’s feet. A tourist captured it in a photograph and posted it online. The picture went viral and was seen by more than 400,000 people. When questioned about it, the policeman said that he knew he had to help and so he did.

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. People saying that this action restored their faith in the NYPD and their faith in humanity. People asking, “why don’t I do that?”

Then, a few days later, the story changed. The man, Jeffrey Hillman, was seen out on the streets without shoes once again. He said he hid them because they were “worth a lot of money.” Suddenly investigations were launched about this man and it was discovered that he was “not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. The New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft and more.”[1] Some say that his erratic behavior is indicative of mental illness, but he has received no treatment.

This story has become more than a simple good deed. In many people’s eyes, this act of generosity has become sullied by the complexity of the story of the man who received it. This is not a simple story.

The question remains, “is helping someone still worth it?”

In our passage in Matthew today we heard, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ Hear that Jesus is not saying, “give to those who need it,” or “check someone’s credit history and criminal record before you help them.” Jesus is calling us to love, calling us to respond. He preaches a message of love independent of reaction, of faithfulness independent of result.

Slide3Arnold Cohen, President of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City says, “We should be asking why there are so many people on the streets. And why a rich city… is so ill equipped to deal with the complexity of homelessness — because it is very complex.”[2]

It is tempting to think that Jesus’ message doesn’t apply to us because we live in such a complex world. But to do so would be to disregard the reality of the first century world. Slide4This was the time of the Roman Empire. There was oppression, persecution, and financial disparity. Many were illiterate and disenfranchised. All except those at the very top were vulnerable socially and economically. It was indeed a time of complexity, when good deeds could be confused and charity could be seen as gullibility. This was not a simple world.

Slide5Both the photographer and the officer described the homeless man’s reaction as lighting up like it was Christmas morning. They delighted in this man’s delight. The moment was deemed worthy of capturing, worthy of doing. But when the story changes, is the feeling still the same? Is the action still reasonable? I believe in my heart of hearts, that “no act of love is ever wasted,”[3] that God’s love is shown through our love. Since God loves with an unconditional love, we are called to love in the same way.

Slide6We affirm in scripture and in our creeds as a Church that Jesus Christ, God’s own self, came to this earth and in the most extreme act of love, lived a sinless life, yet died for our sins. We were not and are not worthy of such a gift. There is nothing we can even do to fully earn such an enormous love. But that’s the beauty of grace, it’s a free gift of love, of forgiveness, of redemption.

Our Old Testament passage today speaks of how loving us so fiercely, altered and ended Jesus’ human life here on earth:

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[4]

How can we even begin to respond to such a gift? We can love. Simply love.

1 John 3:16-18 says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is not a love that comes naturally. It takes work to love when that love is not returned. It hurts to turn our cheek. Giving our coat to someone may leave us cold. Giving shoes to a man who remains barefoot is a hard thing to watch. But still, we are called to love.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians urges, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” This is the calling to which we are called. When we enact Jesus’ kind of unconditional love we are allowing God’s presence to become manifest in our midst. We are welcoming God as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Slide9We are standing at the Advent of God’s presence in the world once again: A birth of One, fully God and fully human, inaugurated at Christmastime. We are also standing at the Advent of the possibility of God’s Kingdom lived out here on earth: God’s love through our love, God’s care through our care. God promised never to leave us or forsake us. God forever desires to be in relationship with us. God is always, God-with-us, Emmanuel. May we remember that promise this Advent season and every day. Amen.


[3] “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.”

[4] Isaiah 53:2-5

“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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 1:1-5 tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196

“God in Control;” Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44; November 11, 2012; FPC Jesup

“God in Control”
Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Our New Testament passage today is situated on Tuesday of Holy Week. I know that when I read accounts from Holy Week I have a hard time imagining how so much was condensed into this one week of Jesus’ life. I also wonder how he could have concentrated on the every day activities of this week, knowing what was coming. But Jesus knew his life was coming to an end and didn’t want people to have any doubt about God’s will for the current state of things in the country and in the religious community. Standing here on the precipice of joining God in heaven, he had no interest in seeming rationale or being likeable, just in being heard.

Though he had roused the suspicions and anger of the established religious community throughout his ministry, in this final week of his life, his actions became more and more impossible to ignore. On Sunday he rides into town on a donkey, surrounded by crowds, palm branches waving. On Monday he comes into the temple, and turns over tables in anger with the shady commerce happening there. And now it’s Tuesday. Jesus comes to the temple and speaks to a crowd gathered there. In a subversive move, he says to them “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[1]

I can imagine the scribes of the temple, gathered around the treasury, overhearing this critique of them, their faces red from the anger and embarrassment of being called out by Jesus in this way. How dare Jesus come into this space and slander them?

As if on cue one of these very widows whose houses was being devoured by the scribes enters the scene. And scripture tells us, “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”[2] We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

I really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

This passage is often lauded as an example of sacrificial giving. In stewardship sermons it is often offered as a reason for us to increase our giving. For surely we should increase the percentage we are giving if this woman if giving all that she has. I don’t think that is necessarily the message of our text. Right before Jesus points out the relative enormity of her gift he is admonishing the scribes for their abuse of widows. It is very possible that this text is not a commendation of the widow’s gift, but a condemnation of a system that so brutally oppresses those already oppressed. And in the temple, no less!

In this time, the scribes of the temple were also scribes of the community. They were literate individuals among a largely illiterate population. They charged high fees to help people to write to family members far away, decipher legal contracts, and to manage their estates. Since most everyone else was unable to tell what they were really reading, the actions of the scribes would go unchecked. While they would help widows with their estates, they could also help themselves, creating wealth for themselves and bankruptcy for their clients.[3] Though they read and preached texts of God’s power and might, they had moved farther and farther from acknowledging God’s control of their lives and even the temple itself.

This was directly contradictory with the message of the Hebrew Bible, which has numerous appeals for people to take care of widows in their community. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” Deuteronomy 10:17-18 offers God up as the one who takes care of widows saying, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, an command is given for farmers to offer the access of their crops to widows and others in need, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Isaiah 1:17 commands us to,” learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

If you were here in worship last week, you may also notice that these scribes are working in ways opposite to the example of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth disavows the stability of her community in order to support a widow, her mother in law, Naomi, even though there is no foreseeable gain. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi was an example of sacrificial trust in God’s will and design for her life. The scribes do not trust in God’s ability to take control of their lives and financial situation. They seek to create their own financial stability by taking from the already vulnerable widows.

Reading about the injustices of this community makes me want to turn over some tables too. This was the temple, a place where people could come and be in God’s presence. Religious leaders were still strongly enforcing dietary restrictions and protocol for sacrifices, but when it came to showing love and care for one another, they were falling short. They were concerned about themselves, worried about their own well-being with God, their own financial well-being, but entirely uninterested in caring for the most vulnerable in their community. They had lost focus of God’s heart for God’s people. This is the sort of corruption that makes a bad name for all religious institutions.

In the two verses following our passage we are told: “As he came out of the temple, one of [Jesus’] disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[4]

All will be thrown down. This makes the situation even less stable for the widow in our story. She comes to this temple and gives all she has to an institution that Jesus says will not last, will be thrown down. “She gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned.”[5]

This seems like a terrible investment. That is until we remember the week that surrounds her actions. This story of Jesus in the temple rabble-rousing and scribe-annoying is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. This quick, three-verse mention of a disenfranchised woman, is a preview of what is to come. Jesus is making his way to the cross. He is about to offer his whole life, for something corrupt and condemned: the whole of humanity. [6]

She gives, even though she is giving to an unjust system. She gives, even as her gift is taking away her own life. I’d like to think that she gives with faith that God will see her through to tomorrow, but we simply can’t know the intentions of her heart.

Our Hebrew Bible passage says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

The temple was built initially as a place for people to worship God, but it became corrupt as rules became more important than grace, and self-promotion became more important than the well being of all.

The entire world was created as a place for all of humankind to be in relationship with God, but it became corrupt as humanity chose knowledge over love, and chose to build high towers rather than reach out to those beside us.

Relationship with God is a choice we make every day. If we truly want to be people of God, we must invite God into our hearts and our intentions as both individuals and as a Christian community. God must be the builder of our relationships and of our churches.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise here, but we are not Jesus, and this church is not in and of itself a means of salvation. Any human institution will inevitably be fallible. But Christ came for the broken, for the fallible. If we remember that God is in control our future is teeming with hope and possibility. Amen.


[1] Mark 12:38-40

[2] Mark 12:44c

[4] Mark 13:1-2

[5] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

[6] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

“Abide in God;” John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30; James York; Installation Service October 28th; FPC Jesup

Today’s sermon preached by James York at my Installation Service:

Abide in God
John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30
James York
Installation of Kathleen Sheets, October 28th
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There once was a grape branch that was very proud of the grapes it produced. The grapes were beautiful, plump and were emitting a delicious aroma. The branch was overwhelmed with pride in producing such wonderful grapes. The branch thought wouldn’t it be great to produce even more grapes I bet if I detach myself from the vine then I can produce grapes from both ends of the branch. The branch had no intention, nor desire, to be anything less than a healthy, productive grape branch. It just thought that it could produce more grapes detached from the vine.

So the branch detached itself from the vine and before long the branch no longer felt strong and vigorous. In fact it felt utterly drained and limp. Its grapes withered and dropped off. Eventually it became just a stick on the ground. The other branches remained attached to the vine and were nourished producing a bountiful harvest. The other branches realized that without the vine, they could do nothing.
Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – John 15:1-11

 

Kathleen I am inspired by the way you first strive to abide in God then let God’s blessings flow through you blessing others. In confirmation you made getting to know God through prayer and scripture reading your priority. Your delight in discovering God’s will and blessings produced fruit, an inspiring personal statement of faith.

 

 
As a teenager you founded G.I.R.L.S. group which stands for Grace In Real Life and Service. Your desire was to discuss your faith, share God Sightings and grow closer to God and your peers. The G.I.R.L.S name reveals your passion to abide in God. First you abide in God’s grace, you name and celebrate God’s activity in your daily life and the lives of others. Filled with God’s grace you joyfully, graciously serve. You discipled, helped younger girls perceive God and abide in God. You started the Box City mission by sharing devotions that helped you abide in God filling you with the compassion to serve.
You worship with great passion giving all praise, honor and glory to God. You were so nourished through Taize worship that you came back to church eager to share, to lead a Taize worship service. When I ran the idea past the worship commission they were reluctant. Then you talked to them, a teenager, soaring from your experience of God. Upon hearing you speak about your connection with God their posture straightened, they smiled, and asked. “What can we do to help you lead us in Taize worship?”

 

At Workcamp you did not let the project get in the way of devotions or perceiving God. You were eager to talk about what God was doing, how you saw a facet of God in the person being served, how God was renewing people. You first abided in God, which then fueled your service to get the project done.

 

As North Presbyterian’s summer seminarian intern I marveled in how you have grown in abiding God. Your wonder in God’s creativity inspires you to create all sorts of beautiful things. You saw God in children running through a sprinkler and in a song so with delight you created and shared it as a video. You sense God’s longing to connect with every person so you were inspired to create the “Be Our Guest Ministry”.

 

 

Your awe of God’s joyful playfulness enables you to connect children with God. Your sermons are a reflection of your wrestling with God, your delight in being with God, the nourishment you receive from God. Your time in prayer with God has filled you with compassion and peace that comforts us.

 

 

Your delight in savoring God’s love overflows you with love for all of us. Your awareness of God’s abundance overflows you with generosity.

 

Jesus says that when we abide in God we are filled with joy. Kathleen thank you for abiding in God, for sharing God’s joy through your great sense of humor, upbeat personality, warm smile and contagious laugh.

 

 

God urges us all to abide in God. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and love in many forms is the fruit. Jesus gives us our top two priorities. Number one to abide in Jesus. Number two producing the fruit of love. If we do these two things in order then we are friends of God, are nourished by God and we will have abundant joy.

There is so much to do, so much clamoring for our attention it is easy to live like the branch who disconnected himself from the vine in hopes of bearing more fruit. It is easy to switch priority 1 abiding in God with priority 2 producing the fruit of love. If we are not intentional in daily abiding in God we will dry up, burnout, become exhausted and overwhelmed.

The dilemma for us is if we focus to much on producing the fruit rather than nourishing ourselves by abiding in God then we have nothing to give. One can easily fall into this downward spiral. It starts subtle with a busy season of urgent demands. One shaves some of the ways they abide in God to complete the tasks. With less nourishment from God one has less energy, love, creativity and inspiration resulting in the person needing to spend more time completing these tasks taking even more time away from God. Now the person becomes fatigued, a little under nourished with love, therefore they say a harsh word, they regret, which causes damaged relationships which now will take time and energy to heal and soon the downward spiral spins out of control. Without Jesus we burnout. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus was well aware of our human dilemma and stressed the utmost importance of abiding in God.

The word abide appears eleven times in the scripture reading. Other translations use remain in God, be in God at all times, live in God and be joined to God. Our number one priority is always to abide in God. We are productive and thrive when we are firmly joined to Jesus.
Half of the abides in our scripture are reciprocal; Jesus abiding in us. God is doing 99.9% of the work. God is the vine grower providing everything for abundant growth the soil, rain, sun, seed, and nutrients just as God has created everything and given everything to us as a blessing. Jesus is the vine the source of all love and nourishment. God knows we will have bad days, do bad things and get our priorities all mixed up but if we can just hang onto the vine even by the smallest thread, even if all we can do is just pray, “God help me”, then God will forgive us, nourish us and infuse so much love into us that we will become vibrant and joyful again.

 

Kathleen my hope and prayer for you, for all of us, is that we make abiding in God our priority. I will confess that there have been seasons, as a pastor, when I have failed to adequately abide in God. Times when I cut my time with God to attend to to many well meaning people’s good, loving ideas. Gradually I became fatigued and my entire ministry suffered. This is a really, really, hard part of ministry, it is a hard part of life, prayerfully with God’s help we all must prune some wonderful aspects of our life so we can abide in God.
Thankfully God has filled my life with a wonderful family, a spiritual director, a great personnel committee and a faithful congregation. Since I regularly share with them ways I abide and am nourished with God they lovingly help me abide in God. The congregation knows that when I ride my bicycle I am praying, being nourished by God through the beauty of creation.

 

My Spiritual Director often tells me to go on a date with Leslie and play with the kids. Leslie tells me to get out into the woods. Two years ago the congregation sent me to the Presbyterian Credo Conference.

 

 

They paid for me to go a week early to climb Mount St Helens and Mount Rainer. My time abiding with God on the mountain inspired a series of sermons. After one of them one of the personnel committee members told me that they knew the whole congregation would be blessed by sending me into the mountains to abide in God.

 

 

 

I believe I have been called to be a lead listener, to hear each person’s story, to listen until we are able to see how God is inviting them to abide in God. I keep listening to their story and whenever I hear that they are becoming worn out I encourage them to abide in God.

As a family of faith all of us need to listen to each other and encourage each other to abide in God. Kathleen I hope you will share with these people how you abide in God, how you are pruning to nourish your relationship with God.

How you are searching for a spiritual director, pray through knitting, are rejuvenated by family, friends, music, art, media, a coffee shop, and sunsets.

 

Kathleen I hope you will listen to their stories and encourage them to abide in God.

 

 

You listened to your mom’s story how she experiences God’s joy by playing with Abigail and Spencer so on Mother’s Day you paid for an airline ticket to send your Mom to be with the York family because you knew it would rejuvenate your mom.

A man was working in a remote jungle and had a portable generator that ran a single light that hung from the ceiling. The native people marveled at the light and begged for a light bulb. Communication was difficult therefore he was unable to explain the need for electricity for the bulb to shine. They persisted in their desire to have a light bulb so he reluctantly gave them a bulb.

 

It became a great source of frustration for the native people as they hung the light bulb by a variety of strings but it never shined.

 

 

If we are to shine we must be connected to God. When others enjoy our light may we always point them to God the source of all light, joy, hope, peace, grace and love.

 

 

God’s renewing grace, desire to nourish us and love for each of us is amazing. Jesus knows even with our best efforts, even with the support of family and friends even with our entire family of faith encouraging us to abide in God there will still be times when we become exhausted, make mistakes and overwhelmed with some burden.
Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” -Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be in your skin. Jesus is eager to partner with you, not for you to take the lead and try to do it yourself, neither to hold back and relay on Jesus to do all the work. Rather to live, play, work and rest in harmony, a partnership with God. God created all of creation with rhythm. God created you with a unique rhythm that Jesus is eager to match as Jesus walks with you. Jesus is inviting you to discover the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus is inviting you to let go so you can let come. Jesus is inviting you to enjoy time with God so that you will recover your life and overflow with joy.

All of us are called to show the world how to abide in God, to partner with Jesus, so we can bear sweet, abundant fruit, so we can fill the world with God’s renewing love. Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the best part of this service came next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________

 

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

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

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

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom,” 2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22; July 22, 2012

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”
2 Samuel 7:1-14a and Ephesians 2:11-22
July 22, 2012

Children’s Message: “God In Between,” Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

“From Tent to Cornerstone: Building the Kingdom”

Humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I faithfully fill out my schedule and try not to miss appointments. Even when planning family vacations I like to research ahead of time to know what events will be going on, making a calendar of all the things we could do. I have definite ideas about how to plan my grocery shopping. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God.

In our Old Testament passage today I sense this same sort of attitude from David. I imagine David in his palace. Comfortably sitting on cushions, perhaps being cooled by a servant fanning him with a palm branch. Things are going pretty well for David at this point in our account. There is relative peace in the Kingdom, as scripture says, “the LORD had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him.” I imagine him glancing out the window and seeing the tent containing the Ark of the Covenant. David wonders while he is living in a house of cedar, why the ark, the revered commandments from the Lord, a reflection of God’s own self, would be carried about in a tent. He thinks, “Surely God should have a house.”

He tells Nathan and immediately Nathan agrees saying, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” Though our text does not give us any more of this conversation between them, I can imagine David explaining this to Nathan, perhaps getting excited planning architectural ideas and maybe even discussing a site where they could create this great space to house their great God. Surely David fell asleep that night with ideas buzzing about of this great thing he would do, excited to serve God in this way. David had a plan.

But that was not the sort of plan God had in mind. Nathan’s sleep was interrupted that night, with the word of the Lord coming to him. While David had said he wanted to build a house for the Lord, the Lord says no, I want to build you a house.

But wait, we just heard that David had a house. A rather nice house in fact, built of cedar, one of the more expensive building materials of his day. So, why does the Lord want to build him a house?

It’s a rather confusing passage on an initial read through because it seems like the Lord and David have similar ideas. David would like to build a house. The Lord would like to build a house. Okay, so let’s go ahead and build a house. What’s the issue?

To truly understand this conversation we need to go back to the original Hebrew text. The word that both the Lord and David are using for “house” is “bayit.” Though this word can be translated as “house,” it can also mean “palace,” or “temple,” OR “household,” “tribal group,” “nation,” or “royal dynasty.” David was concerned with God’s need for a house in the physical sense, a place for containment and comfort; a place that will honor God and provide a place for people to encounter God’s presence.

The Lord does not seem to care for this though saying, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not seeking to be contained to a house or building. The Lord says, “wherever I have moved about among all the people.” God is very clear to point out that God was the one doing the moving. God was the one to decide where God’s presence would be.

While David is all excited about his plans, God has a different vision for the future of God’s people. Reminding David of God’s providence for David’s life, the Lord speaks of the ways that God has accompanied David from pasture to royal throne. This is the very same David whom the Lord picked over his seven brothers though David was the youngest, a shepherd, and not thought to be of consequence. This is the same David of the story of David and Goliath. Now the Lord will be the one to make a “bayit,” for David. This “bayit” is not the house of comfort and containment that David was proposing, but rather it is a “bayit” in the sense of a nation or a royal dynasty. A nation that will grow beyond what is comfortable and containable. A nation that is to be the very Kingdom of God.

There is an account of the lineage of David at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I know sometimes when I’m reading the Bible, lineage accounts are the very sort of thing that I might skip over. If I’m reading an older version I tend to get caught up in all the “begats,” and decide to skip to the end of list and see what happens next. Perhaps you may have had a similar experience of these sorts of lists in scripture. However, in ancient Christian tradition, this was the sort of thing that made people sit up in their seats and listen more attentively. These lists were about legacy, about connection, and in reading them an ancient game of connect the dots was played, revealing an amazing picture of how God’s plan is worked out in God’s own cosmic time and order. So, let us try to listen to this list with this sort of attentiveness. Listen for the names that you know, and those that you don’t know. Try to picture the familiar narratives that pop into your head, and take in the great picture that is God’s plan.

This passage comes to us from Matthew 1:2-5 Listen for the word of our Lord:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

When we see David, we can see his lineage trailing back to Abraham. Abraham who had grown old and did not believe that a child would be in God’s plan for him. And to Ruth who had lost her husband and so by society’s standards did not seem to have a future. Yes, God had provided for David by elevating his personal social standing from pasture to palace, but he also comes from a long history of people uncertain of how the story would turn out for them.

Abraham had grown impatient in his wait to have a child and so had one with his wife’s servant. At the age of ninety-nine God came to Abraham to establish a covenant with him, a covenant that would make Abraham a father of many nations, nations borne by his wife, Sarah. God had a plan for Abraham.

Ruth’s father in law and husband had both died, so all societal obligations she could have rightfully returned home to her own family, but instead stayed with her mother in law, Naomi. Ruth sought out Boaz who helped her to reestablish the family line. God had a plan for Ruth.

And God’s story certainly does not end with David. Those who are to follow after have an even greater story to tell. This lineage leads directly to Jesus.

While David wanted to contain God’s presence in a temple, God was the one who would work out a great plan for being present in the world. God worked through the “bayit,” the royal lineage of David to lead to the man who would serve as earthly father to God’s own son, Jesus Christ. God’s plan was indeed greater.

God’s Kingdom would come to life not through the establishment of a temple that people could visit and experience God’s presence, but through the living, breathing legacy of the ministry of God’s son, Jesus Christ. God’s presence is not something we visit, but something that lives among us and is enacted through the ways our lives reflect the will of God.

Our New Testament passage today gives us a blueprint of this plan. From Ephesians 2:19-22 we read:

You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

This beautiful “bayit” household of the Kingdom of God is constructed not with cedar, but by those who seek to follow God. Our New Testament passage speaks also of the different people who Christ has come to reconcile, the Jews and the Gentiles. Both groups were “far off” in their own ways. Though the Jews were God’s chosen people from the very beginning, their desire to follow God through adherence to the law had gradually become more about legalism than relationship with God. When they were unable to fulfill all that the law required they felt far off from God. Those who were not Jewish, the Gentiles, were unaccustomed Jewish religious tradition. Though the disciples, particularly Paul, were working to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, they were still unsure of their place in this new community, feeling far off from God. Our passage speaks of Christ reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one “bayit,” household of God. Listen now to Ephesians 2:13-18:

13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection pieced together apostles, prophets, Jews, and Gentiles into a spiritual “bayit,” with Christ as the cornerstone. We are God’s dwelling place. God dwells in and among us.

In the book we read earlier, “God in Between,” we hear of a community searching for God after hearing that God could fix their problems. They searched through mountains, over the oceans, in the desert, and in a cave trying to find God, but did not find God in any of those places. Only when they stopped searching and started helping one another they were finally able to discover how God was present in their care and attentiveness for each other.

In Matthew 18:20 we hear a familiar verse. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Notice that unlike God’s plans for the tabernacle in Exodus or David’s ideas for a temple, this plan for encountering God’s presence has nothing to do with physical space, and everything to do with relationship and intentionality. This is the plan for Christ’s Church, a fellowship not determined by physical space but by relationship.

Which brings up an important question: when someone asks you about your church, what do you tell them? Do you tell them about a building or about a people? What sort of “bayit” are you interested in being a part of? What sort of “bayit” are you seeking to build in this world?

It is my prayer that we will all seek to be builders of God’s Kingdom, building a fellowship of believers and a lineage of reconciliation. Unlike the building that David was proposing, this building of the Kingdom of God is not a building that is built just once, it is constantly being remodeled, forever under construction. We build God’s Kingdom through each act of care for one another, each admission of our need for God’s plan. Let us work together to build the Kingdom of God. Amen.

“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