“Dwell”; Psalm 84:1-12; August 23, 2015, FPC Holt

“Dwell”
Psalm 84:1-12
August 23, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here

2015 8 23 Slide01Have you ever received a postcard like this? One that has “Wish You Were Here” written across the front? Being that it’s summertime I know that many of you have had the chance to go on vacation, to experience a change of view, something beyond what you see in your every day life. Perhaps on your trip you sent a post card like this one. Or perhaps you posted a “wish you were here,” type of status or picture on some variety of social media.

When we experience something extraordinary in our lives, something that brings us peace, clarity, or beauty, we often feel compelled to bring others into the experience, to try to make them understand a bit of what we’ve been through and why it matters.

2015 8 23 Slide02 If you talk to anyone right after a life-changing mission trip, perhaps in Muko, Uganda or the Yucatan, and ask them what it was like, often the first answer is something along the lines of: you’ve just got to experience it for yourself. There’s something that can’t quite be put into words, when we experience God’s tremendous presence for ourselves, particularly in ways that are new to us.

With this same indefinable joy, we hear the voice of the Psalmist: “How lovely is your dwelling place…” The words of this Psalm invite us into God’s presence, draws us into an experience of God that is beyond anything we could attempt to capture in a snapshot or write down on a postcard.

Many scholars agree that these verses were originally written to speak of a pilgrim’s journey towards the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival. You can hear the excitement mounting throughout these verses, “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God!”

2015 8 23 Slide04The Psalm as a whole seems penned as a “wish you were here,” to all those who have not yet encountered the presence of God. The scripture serves as directions for the physical journey towards Jerusalem: through Baca, taking the highways to Zion. For thousands of years, continuing to present day, Jewish pilgrims have made their way to this holy city, drawing close to the temple that was built per God’s own instruction. Though two temples have come and gone in the place, the foundation remains, and serves as a touchstone to that ancient faith community.

There’s something tangibly felt in a place where people have worshiped for a long period of time, the presence of God breathing through so many millions of prayers. Throughout much of the Old Testament the presence of God was seen as something that could be contained, walls surrounding the “Holy of Holies” in tents made for worship, or in the temple, where God’s presence dwelled.

But this Psalm also lays the framework for welcoming God’s presence into your own life, allowing God to dwell fully within you, your heart ever pointing towards God’s goodness, an understanding that is more fully fleshed out in the New Testament.

In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 we read Paul’s exhortation, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

After God’s incarnation in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes among the people at Pentecost and rests within them.

In Ephesians 3:16-19, the apostle Paul expresses the desire for us to fully comprehend God’s desire to dwell within us. He writes, “I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory…you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Being “filled with the fullness of God” seems like an abstract concept. We want a to-do list, a distinct map, a fail-proof tutorial showing us how we too can encounter God, how we can have God dwell in our hearts.

2015 8 23 Slide08I’m reminded of the Lego Movie, where the main character Emmett takes a tremendous amount of comfort in having “instructions” for everything, not only in creating buildings but also in living his life. In the beginning of the movie we see him pick up instructions on how to “fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy,” involving tasks like “breathe.” It even says at the bottom of these instructions, “Failure to follow instructions may result in a sad and unfulfilling life.”

Encountering God’s presence is abstract, because we worship a God who is beyond containment, who cannot be captured in words or contained in boundaries.

2015 8 23 Slide09In her book “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a great many places and a great many ways we may encounter God. She writes, “I worry about what happens when we build a house for God… Do we build a house so that we can choose when to go 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 be people who never show up in our houses of God?”

2015 8 23 Slide10We do indeed experience God’s presence in the sacred spaces we’ve designated as such, but if we do not open our eyes and our hearts to God’s presence beyond our four walls we are not opening ourselves to God’s presence dwelling within us, and within those we encounter. To allow God’s fullness to dwell within us we must first experience God and then live a life that points to that presence.

Some of you encounter and share God’s presence through mission work around the world, some by saying nighttime prayers with your children, some by holding the hand of your spouse and affirming God’s covenant between you, some through drawing close to those who are seeking healing and breathing a word of hope whether in this life or life eternal.

Allowing God to dwell within you does not mean you will live without sin or without mistake, because we are human after all, but it does mean that you will strive to keep the bigger picture of God’s will in mind, that you will seek to have your life arc towards worship of God in and through all things.

2015 8 23 Slide11In Hebrew, which the Psalmist used to write our scripture today, the word we know as “dwell,” is “shakhen.” While in English “dwell” can mean resting for a short time, in the Hebrew and in the Greek, “kat-oy-keh´-o,” this word does not carry our transitory understanding. It means to settle down, permanently, to be established.

God desires to remain fully and permanently in our lives, inhabiting all of us. God May we open ourselves fully to God’s presence in our worship and in our world, so God may dwell within us. Amen.

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

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

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

Audio of sermon available by clicking here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 2 22 Slide10Here’s one of the prints, right from my wall. It says “I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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