“Feast of Faith”; Luke 14:1, 7-14 and James 2:1-6; September 6, 2015; FPC Holt

“Feast of Faith”
Luke 14:1, 7-14 and James 2:1-6
September 6, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here

2015 9 6 Slide01I’d like you to imagine this scene, for some of you it might take thinking ahead to this upcoming week, for some it might take looking back a few decades: It’s the first day of school, you walk into the cafeteria and look around, try and gauge where your friends are sitting, or at least people who look like they might be friendly, and take your place. Why do you sit there? What happens when you can’t figure out your place? What would happen if you sat somewhere else? What happens if you sit with people who are higher up the social ladder than you see yourself to be? What happens if you sit with people who are lower down the social ladder than you see yourself to be?

Both of our scripture lessons today give us stories of seating arrangements.  In James we hear of seating arrangements as a form of judgment, “2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus offers this parable: 8″When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:8-11)

2015 9 6 Slide06What would it mean for these ideologies to to play out in the cafeteria? For you to ignore the superficial markers that set people apart? For you to purposefully pick a less desirable table? For you to refuse to care about the social ladder? What would happen to your own standing? How would that impact the school year for you?

Particularly in high school these social orders can be quite apparent, but that doesn’t mean they disappear when we leave high school. It happens in workplaces and social gatherings and who invites who to a party and unfortunately, even in the work and worship of the church.

What does it look like to allow others to have a better place than you? What does it look like if on a Sunday morning you show up and someone has taken your seat? What if we sat somewhere else?

Jesus also questions who is invited to the table, challenging hosts to expand their guest lists: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 12-14)

2015 9 6 Slide09Luther College Professor, Rolf Jacobson had this to say about our scripture today, “In Urban Roman culture, patronage and the idea of status is everything. From how you’re dressed to how you present yourself there’s a clear demarcation of where you belong. So if you’re invited to a party it’s not like you’re going to look at all the chairs and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder where I’m going to sit.’ You know right away based on who you are and who everyone else in the room is, you just do. And to try to upset the balance of that threatens to shame you and shame your host… It sounds kind of weird to us and really calculating and maybe it was, but it’s just the way it works. So if you start to overturn that, and to mess with that and say ‘I’m going to invite people who could never ever pay me back or who could never return the political favor or the generosity or whatever,’ some people are going to start to get in their minds they don’t have to pay attention to those rules. So those who guard the social order, or those who are simply trying to find their way in the world soon find this is a dangerous thing. You don’t give hope to certain people. You don’t upset the balance… this isn’t just nice, that ruins the entire system for everybody else potentially… There’s an edge to this, there’s a threat to this depending upon how it’s carried out.”[1]

Changing the status quo threatens the powers that be and threatens the value of social currency. Inviting everyone to the table will absolutely change what sort of meal happens there, but it will also allow for a richness of diversity, a wealth of gifts, and a breadth of fellowship. Such a banquet may be chaotic, but it will be a life giving reflection of the Kingdom of God to come.

2015 9 6 Slide10One winter, while I was in seminary we experienced our own sort of haphazard banquet. We were snowed in for several days right before Christmas break. Being here in Michigan, especially in the midst of a hot and humid couple of weeks it’s hard to imagine all of that snow or a community unable to deal with all of that snow, but that was how things went in Richmond, Virginia that December day. It hit Richmond late on a Saturday night and then of course the next day was Sunday morning, the morning most in the seminary community would spread out over Richmond, attending and leading worship throughout the 30 plus Presbyterian churches in the city. That morning, however, nearly every church had cancelled services.

And so, on that wintery December day we sent the word out that anyone who could get there would gather together for worship on campus. We put on our snow boots and walked across the quad to the campus chapel. Our service had a call to worship that was intended for a rural church 30 minutes outside the city, music from a praise bandleader who usually played in a suburban church, and a sermon from another church in the heart of Richmond. We cobbled together our prayers and praise and carefully prepared words and worshipped God in a very unusual sort of service.

Afterwards we gathered for a potluck. Since people had been getting reading to get out of town, each person’s cupboards were nearly bare. It was the strangest potluck I’ve ever attended. There was canned fruit and Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese. There was half of loaf of bread and half a jar of jam. Someone brought some hot chocolate packets. It was weird, but it was also wonderful, because though none of us had a lot of food, or even food that made much sense all together, we were all fed by the meal and nourished by the company. It was communion.

2015 9 6 Slide11Preacher and teacher Sharron R. Blezard wrote this, “Serving God and neighbor is more like a community potluck than a gourmet meal in the finest restaurant. It’s less about perfection and more about improvisation. It’s less about form and more about function. It’s less about looks and much, much more about love. It’s has something to do with rubbing elbows with strangers and kin alike; after all, both can present challenges. Instead of a guest list carefully crafted to reflect our wishes and wiles, Jesus crafts a “grace list” that is an open invitation to the party. The point is this: At Jesus’ banquet table there is room for everyone. Great Aunt Mabel’s lime Jello salad can exist peacefully with vegan Valerie’s fresh green bean vinaigrette. Homemade mac and cheese can sit side-by-side with a bag of store-bought potato chips. Hamburgers and tamales and sno-cones co-exist and complement one another in delightful ways. When everyone brings his or her best offering, when we all show up, the banquet table groans with the goodness of God”[2]

2015 9 6 Slide12Our congregation has had our own experience of this throughout this summer as we worship with our Wednesday night Open Cloister services. As we entered into our time of worship each week we would frame the service itself as it’s own sort of potluck, “a coming together of different flavors and recipes, with various levels of preparation, various histories behind the offerings of food and the offerings of spoken word and song.”

These services were tremendously life giving to me, because of the open format, they both challenged and enabled me to be fully attentive to the Holy Spirit, to get out of the way, as it were, and hear what God was saying to each person gathered together. It was a tremendous gift to get to know those who attended in that way, each of us daring to be open to God’s movement among us. There were times when we had no idea what to say, there are times when we had mostly desserts at our potluck beforehand. But at every service we were indeed fed in body and spirit. We brought what we had and it was enough.

2015 9 6 Slide13This comic reflects the beauty of this radical kingdom banquet where all are invited. In this first picture the one sheep says “Jesus has good intentions, but really! what sort of party would you have if you just invited these down and out people.” And the other sheep says “uhh – you’d have the Eucharist, the offering of forgiveness and anticipation of heaven!” then the first sheep says “Huh! So Jesus does know how to party!”

2015 9 6 Slide14When we come to the communion table we are all eating a common meal, bread and juice, but it is indicative of a much larger and more varied table. We come to this table in the midst of fellow Christians all over the world and all throughout time. At this table we offer up ourselves, our own ideas of who we think we should be, what we think we deserve. We forgo social conventions and pecking orders so that we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we may fully partake in Christ’s grace.

2015 9 6 Slide15At the communion table we celebrate the unconventional sacrifice of the ever-worthy Christ, for the perpetually unworthy sinners. We are fed and nurtured and renewed and valued in a way that has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with our own perceived worth, but has everything to do with the way God sees us and loves us and values us. We are an honored guest at this feast of God’s grace, not because of our bank balance, occupation, or social popularity, but entirely because of God’s love for us.

2015 9 6 Slide16The message of the gospel is learning to see yourself as God sees you, learning to see that the systems of worldly standing don’t matter to God and your ability to break out of them isn’t the measure of who you are as a Christian, but it’s the way in which you actually can see the Gospel and can tangibly experience it in our presence.[3]

This is a table for the last, the lost, and the lonely. If you feel like you don’t belong, you’re in the exact right place. If you feel like you have fallen short, here you are more than enough. All of us and all of them, whoever the them of your life may be, are welcome to this table, and welcome to God’s larger kingdom. May it be so. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=432

[2] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/08/invited-and-inviting/

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=432

“Palmassion;” John 12:12-16; March 29, 2015; FPC Holt

“Palmassion”
John 12:12-16
March 29, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 3 29 Slide02“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” The crowds shouted and threw their coats at Jesus’ feet, making a way for him to come into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, hosanna!”

I remember as a kid, reading the Palm Sunday scripture and acting this out, walking up and down the aisle of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio, waving our palms. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” Not knowing the word, “hosanna,” I assumed that it was similar to shouts of “hurray” or “yay” or “welcome.”

2015 3 29 Slide03When I later learned what all was going on in this Holiest of weeks, I was confused. In Holy Week Jesus comes to Jerusalem, but it is not a party or celebration. He is walking towards the place where he will be hurt, where he will be mocked, the place where he will die on a cross.

2015 3 29 Slide04We’re told that the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” and we think of this as a shout of excitement and joy. It was that to be sure, but the actual word carries a bit more with it. The Greek word hosanna, comes from the Aramaic, meaning “save us.”

2015 3 29 Slide05“Save us!” they cry. They are excited because they have heard about this man who has preached about a new kingdom, one where the last are first and the first are last. This is a man who has performed miracles, creating healing and hope. They see this man, who is so much more than a man, and think, could he be, might he be, the messiah they’ve been waiting for?

2015 3 29 Slide06“Hosanna!” the crowd cries, as they throw out their coats to greet this man they have heard so much about. “Save us!” they shout, not knowing how this salvation will come about, but eager for a new way forward. They tear branches from the palm trees surrounding the road and wave them in front of this man named Jesus. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!”

2015 3 29 Slide07This is a strange day in the church, even the prescribed lectionary texts aren’t sure what to do with it, giving preachers the option to choose whether it will be cast in worship as “Palm Sunday” or “Passion Sunday.” It seems bizarre that the option is given. Choose Palm Sunday, leaving the Passion for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and any who aren’t at these Holy Week services will skip right over this gruesome death-on-the-cross-business and move right on to Easter baskets, bonnets, and egg hunts, going from one celebratory day to another. Skipping straight from the parade to the joy of the empty tomb. No use putting a damper on the joy of Easter, right? Or, if you choose “Passion Sunday,” excluding Palm Sunday, you’re choosing, voluntarily to enter into the death and darkness of Christ’s death before the season necessitates it. Why would anyone want to hurry their way into the horror that awaits? Who would choose that?

In approaching this Sunday I find myself in the tension between these two Biblical narratives, joy and sadness, light and darkness, celebration and mourning. It seems like the weather agrees with me, not being able to choose between new life of and frozen ground of winter.

In this tension I came across a poem by, called, “Palmassion,” by Thom Shuman. It’s a blending together of both the Palm and the Passion. Shuman writes,

“joy dances down
the street,
grabbing us by the hand,
twirling us round
and round
as glad tears and songs
make a carpet
of welcome
for the one who comes.
but later…

we’ll strip the branches
to weave
a cross;
stones that echoed
‘hosanna!’
will bloody the knees
of the stumbling
servant;

we’ll dust off
our cloaks
and swaddle ourselves
to ward off
the cold breath
of death
sweeping down
from the Skull.

and when we
look back at everything
we could have
done
it will be
too late.”

2015 3 29 Slide12I appreciate the way Shuman sets the scene, stones echoing ‘hosanna!’ and scraping Jesus’ knees; cloaks laid out in welcome, softening the ground for the donkey’s feet, picked up again as protection against the cold reality of Jesus’ death.

2015 3 29 Slide13We are a Christian people, following a resurrected Christ, but the truth that is difficult to deal with, is there is no resurrection without death. There is no Easter without Good Friday. The shouts of “hosanna” of Palm Sunday turn to shouts of “crucify him” by Good Friday.

Why do we wave the branches of this heartbreaking procession? Why do we allow ourselves to play a part in this story when we know it’s inevitable end?

2015 3 29 Slide14We echo the cries of the people of Jerusalem, shouting “save us!” We desire salvation from the pain of this world: from terrorism, from hunger, from poverty, from loneliness, from pain. We want to be freed of the heartache of the sin of this world. We want Jesus, His presence in our world, and His intervention in our distress. “Save us!” we cry.

2015 3 29 Slide15Throughout the 40 days of the Lenten season we’ve been slowly approaching this week, this Holy Week. It’s a time of reflection, fasting, self-examination. Hopefully you’ve been able to join us for some of the mid-week Lenten communion services, participating in the contemplation inherent in this season. Hopefully you have taken the chance to walk the labyrinth, to write down what you believe and place it in the time capsule for the years to come. I pray that this season has been one of deepening your faith and strengthening your connection to God’s will for your life.

2015 3 29 Slide01In the midst of this contemplative season, all of a sudden taking up palms and waving them about seems out of place, incongruous with where we’ve been and where we’re headed. When we’re walking towards the cross, why are we throwing a parade? In celebrating Palm Sunday, are we trying to lessen the tension of what is to come? Simply prolonging the inevitable?

2015 3 29 Slide17We join the parade, joyous for the salvation that we see coming on the other side of this week. We are excited by God’s gift of grace through salvation. But we don’t want what comes with it. We’re eager to shout “hosanna,” but reluctant to finish out the week, knowing “crucify him,” is what comes next.

2015 3 29 Slide18We can’t have resurrection without death. We can’t have the parade and the empty tomb, without all that comes in between. Taking up the palm branches is easy; taking up the cross is so very hard.

Jesus says in Matthew 16:24-26:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

There is no life without our resurrected Christ, and there is no resurrection without death.

2015 3 29 Slide20Following Jesus means joining in the parade, acknowledging the depth of joy in our salvation, but it also means seeing Jesus through this week, following the steps that lead all the way to the cross. May we follow Christ in joy, in truth, and in hope. Amen.

“Who’s Invited?” Matthew 22:1-14; October 12, 2014; FPC Holt

“Who’s Invited?”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon by clicking here.

2014 10 12 Slide01Imagine this, one day you go out and open your mailbox. Inside is a beautiful, thick envelope. Upon opening it you are astonished to see that you have been invited to George Clooney’s wedding, or for those of who that would not be so exciting perhaps imagine it were William and Kate’s royal wedding, or your favorite athlete, actor, or politician. What would you do with such an invitation? I know if it were my mom she would likely gasp, yell, dance around the living room, and then proceed to call everyone she knows and tell them the exciting news. 2014 10 12 Slide02Given that I have not yet received such a call from her, I don’t think she was in Italy with the Clooneys, though she certainly would’ve been there if the invitation had shown up.

SLIDE 3 - InvitationHowever, our scripture today presents a very different picture. When the king sent out his wedding invitation everyone who received it simply went about business as usual. They certainly did not jump up and down with glee. Then the king sent out his servants again, and the messengers of this exciting news were thrown out, abused, and in some cases, even killed.

The king reacted even more strongly, sending troops to avenge the death of his slaves who were killed and to burn their city, which is presumably also the king’s city. Upon reading this text my first reaction was, “huh, that escalated quickly.” Such a horrific way to react to a party invitation.

2014 10 12 Slide04With the remains of his city still smoldering in the background, the king insists there was still a party to be had. His oxen and fat calves had been killed and there was his son’s marriage to celebrate. And so he tries again, reprioritizing who it is that will be invited. The king says to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

2014 10 12 Slide05This time around, everyone is invited. The doors are flung open and what could mostly certainly be described as a motley crew is assembled. And so our story ends, right? Not quite.

2014 10 12 Slide06One of the guests, who we don’t need reminding had just dropped everything and came into this gathering right off of the street, is fiercely reprimanded for not wearing a wedding robe. Which had me thinking, perhaps the first guests were justified in not showing up if this was the sort of reception awaiting them?

2014 10 12 Slide07This mess of a party is compared to the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly a comforting thought. People are being thrown out for dress code violations and having their houses burned down for refusing an invitation.

It’s fair to say that even for a parable, the logic of this one is tricky to follow from a literal view, so let’s unpack it a bit before we like the original guest list, disregard this event as something to be avoided.

2014 10 12 Slide08More than the tale of a strange party, this story provides a framework for how we are to respond to the urgency of our own invitation into the kingdom of God. It ‘s not so much about this particular wedding feast, but about the party to come, that is eternal life with God.

Some parties are made more significant by the exclusivity of the list, those whom you are put in a class with simply by being invited. The kingdom of God is not that kind of party. We are told in verse 10, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Both good and bad.

2014 10 12 Slide09Those who you were just sure would be there are no where to be seen, and those who you cannot imagine sharing a bus seat with, much less the kingdom of God, are at that banquet table right beside you.

Ultimately, our own worldly calculations of worth and value, our naming and classifying are ours, not God’s. Our job is to help extend the invitation. With the parable in mind, that does not seem like the best thing we could be doing either, as puts us in the role of the slave who faced rejection, persecution, or at the very least, being ignored.

But that is the call that we are given, passed down through the disciple’s commission just 6 chapters later as Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Instead of receiving an invitation to George Clooney’s wedding imagine this much more likely situation: You’re sitting at your desk at work or in a classroom and a friend of yours comes up. They say, hey I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve just got to tell you about my church. I’ve been going for a while now and being among all these people who are living their life for God, well, it’s really changed me. I’ve been noticing more of God’s goodness in the world and I have a great deal of peace with what I’m going through. It would really mean so much if you’d be willing to join me this Sunday for worship.

How would you respond to that person? Would you scoff in their face and go about your business? Would you react aggressively or even violently? Or would you see the passion and joy in their face and take them up on their offer?

SLIDE 10 - Each One Bring OneWhat would it take for you to be that person extending that invitation? What would it take for you to share what you’ve experienced here with someone in your life? Today is the first Invite a Friend Sunday and since you are here today and not sleeping in or off at brunch somewhere, clearly you believe it is worth your time to be here. Hopefully you have taken that opportunity already and there’s a friend sitting beside you right now, but if not, the good news is today is the first of seven Invite of a Friend Sundays all leading up to Easter Sunday and our 150th anniversary celebration. Though of course you are welcome to invite a friend any time we are together, we hope that you will use the intentionality of these special Sundays for your own opportunity to extend this invitation.

As great as our own experience of God is, there are some who have yet to have received their invitation to the feast. There are those out there who still don’t understand how much God loves them, or what sort of church family is available to them. We are urged, tasked, called, and commissioned by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to invite others to this feast and to this place of worship.

Perhaps you’re just sitting there, arms crossed, scoffing at the idea. Why should we invite people? Aren’t things fine enough how there are? I like these people, why would I want to invite others? Why should I take that awkward step of asking someone to come to this church?

2014 10 12 Slide11The question I would ask you to think about is why are you coming to this church? What makes you keep coming? I would hope it’s because you find something of value in our life together. I pray it’s because someone has made you feel welcome in this space.

I heartily believe that what we do here together each Sunday is worthwhile. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have spent the past 12 years of my life working towards this job, this life, and this specific church. I feel called to serve this community and I feel that what we do here each week makes a difference to this community, to the furthering of the Gospel of Christ, and to the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Do you?

I’d like you to honestly consider that over these next several months. And if you do truly believe that none of us are wasting our time here, I would invite you to count the blessings that you have received from this church, from worshiping together, from living life among these Christians. And out of that gratitude, I ask that you open your heart and your mind and your arms to invite someone else to experience this church.

So who is invited to this party of eternal life with God? The good, the bad, and everyone in between. May we ever strive to extend the invitation to all we know. Amen.

“A Rich Man’s Regret”; Luke 16:19-31; September 29, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A Rich Man’s Regret”
Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01In today’s scripture lesson we read a story of two men, one rich one poor. This is a tale of wealth disparity, social inequality, and a broken system. They live and operate in an economic state where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer. The rich are the keepers not only of wealth, but also of the political capital that accompanies it. The poor are disenfranchised, voiceless, and looked over.

Sound familiar? One only needs to turn to the news to hear stories of the way this story echoes over the centuries. I do not lift it up to you from a political perspective, but simply in light of the Gospel in the words of Jesus, one who always shook up the establishment.

Berkeley Professor and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, said recently that “The 400 richest people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.”[1]

Nobel Prize-winning Economist and Columbia Professor Joseph Stiglitz wrote in an editorial earlier this year, “Inequality [is] at its highest level since before the Depression.”[2]

Slide04Our scripture today begins, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19)

Picture this man: he was a man of great wealth. With that wealth came political capital, people wanting to associate themselves with this man, to support him so they might gain power for themselves. These followers, these cronies and “yes men”, likely surrounded him so that he didn’t have to be alone. This would allow him to make decisions in the community, to impact what would happen to all those less wealthy than him. This man’s wealth was reflected in bank accounts and material possessions. It was invested in favorable relationships and that which he deemed “important.”

Slide05Verse 20 tells us that, “at [the rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

Picture this second man, who keeps him company? What does his day-to-day life look like? Certainly he was unable to get the care of doctors, his sores would keep others at a distance. He keeps the company of dogs who would lick his sores, likely providing some comfort, but mostly adding to his distress and worsening his situation.

Slide06Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. There is no doubt that this man could’ve had Lazarus escorted from his property and cleaned away from his doorstep if he wanted. No, the rich man lets Lazarus stay there, but he stays utterly uninvolved.

Slide07Elie Wiesel author of “Night,” about his time in a concentration camp, wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of sacred is not profane, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

The rich man was not actively harsh towards Lazarus, he was simply disconnected. He was indifferent to his plight, ignorant to his pain, but later on when he is in torment, the rich man is able to identify Lazarus by name. Lazarus is not a stranger to the rich man, which makes this ignorance even worse. He notices him, knows him by name, and still ignores his plight.

Slide08In verse 22 our passage continues, “22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ Slide0925But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

God does not care for the world economy, or earthly definitions of who is supposed to receive the attention of the powerful.

Slide10In Matthew 25:41-46, Jesus offers a harsh sentence for those who do not follow the will and motivations of God, saying: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Slide11You don’t have to be the richest man in town to carry his sorts of regret, all you have to do is place your values in the wrong things. What is lasting? What is worthy of your dedication, your life? When have you had misplaced priorities: popularity over kindness, quantity over quality, occupation over rest, the world over God’s kingdom.

I know when I read this story I tend to place myself in the shoes of the rich man. While by average American standards I would not be considered wealthy, when you look at the scope of the greater picture of the world, simply by having running water, a car to drive, and a home to live in, I am considered wealthy. And so, when I think of someone working to do well in this world, and being happy in what I have, I tend to look at myself as this rich man. I tend to look at my own regrets, my own missteps.

Slide12What if we look at this parable from a whole different angle? What if we think of ourselves as Lazarus?

“At the [rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21)

In the world, Lazarus was what Jesus called “the least of these,” he was outcast and disenfranchised. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that would make you feel to be the “least.” Maybe you’re not waiting for table scraps, but you’re waiting for something that will help you get out of the rut you are in, the cycles of trying to make it on your own. Maybe you are simply refusing to support the powers of this world, seeking instead a life apart.

Slide13 “Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 1625)

How different does this sound when we consider ourselves as Lazarus? If in this story we are Lazarus, there’s an amazing promise that can be discovered here. The promise that the pain of this world is temporary, that salvation comes after our suffering on earth. That oppressive power structures are only of this world, and not a part of God’s economy.

Slide14In verse 27 we read “[The rich man] said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house-28for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In the Gospel of Luke, the story ends right here, with a frightening and condemning declaration, that the brothers of the rich man, and all who have miss-prioritized their lives, are simply doomed. If they won’t listen to all the leaders of the faith so far, why would they be convinced in one rising from the dead?

Slide15We know that this is not that ending of the greater Gospel story. That we are not left in condemnation by a God from on high, but that God comes near in the person of Jesus Christ to be a living and breathing manifestation of God’s love. When he was killed for his radical message of brazen equality and justice for all, he went to hell and suffered the torments of death so that he may overcome it on our behalf. He was risen from the dead to offer to us, over and over again, God’s great message of love and forgiveness.

Slide16In Luke 16: 26, Abraham, speaking down from Heaven tells the rich man in torments of hell, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

That was the task of Jesus. To overcome that great chasm, to bridge the worlds of those deserving and those underserving, to bring all close to a great God who loves each and every one of us and wants to spend eternity with us.

Slide17In Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Maybe you came here day with deep regrets, maybe you have a hard time thinking of how to move on, how to get out of your own mistakes. Christ comes to meet you in all of your imperfections, exactly as you are, and desires to give you rest for your souls.

Slide18May we consider today all those who are still waiting at the gates of the powerful for someone to care; still waiting to be noticed, to be brought in. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide19May we also consider who are those sitting high off in their comfort, in the promises of the world; investing in that which does not last, surrounding themselves with only those who say yes. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide20We are called to bring about Christ kingdom here on earth. We are called to bring Christ near to all those who feel far off. Those who don’t know they’re far off. We are called to tell everyone, and remind ourselves that the chasm of sin created by regrets and fear and ignorance has been bridged by the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior. May we be empowered to set aside our regrets and build a new way forward, always sharing the love of Christ. Amen.

“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.

“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.

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.

“What’s in a Name?”, Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22, September 16, 2012, FPC Jesup

“What’s in a Name?”
Exodus 3:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22
September 16, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When you meet someone for the first time, what do you say to them? More often than not you likely say something along the lines of, “Hello, my name is Kathleen. What’s your name?” Names are often the very first thing we tell one another about ourselves, and the very first thing we ask to know about someone else. We want our names known and we want to know the names of others.

Many of you are probably familiar with the TV show, “Cheers,” that was on in eighties and early nineties. Even if you aren’t too familiar with the characters you could probably sing the chorus to the theme song with me, “Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.”

As a brand new resident of Jesup, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of naming in this town. When you hear the name of someone who has lived here for most of their lives, you can likely tell me a bit of history about that person, who their relatives are, perhaps where they worked and who else they worked with.

Naming is an important part of how we relate to one another. We want to be known, to be recognized, and have people remember our names. Our names are important to us, for to be named is to be known, and in this knowing there is story and relationship.

This is not a modern idea, but rather stems from the very beginning of human history. In Genesis we read of God creating a creature in God’s own image. This creature is called “Adam,” also the word for “humankind.” Adam calls his wife, “Eve,” which is the word for “living,” stating that she is so named because she will be the mother of all the living.

God separates sky from land and land from water and creates living things to populate each place. Once everything has been created God turns it over to Adam for him to name. Genesis 2:19 tells us, “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. “

In our Old Testament passage today we read another important story of naming. Exodus 3 tells us that Moses was out beyond the wilderness taking care of his father in law’s sheep. If you’re familiar with the Exodus narrative, or have seen the cartoon film, “Prince of Egypt” a couple of times, you’ll know that this story comes to us shortly after Moses had killed an Egyptian. The Egyptian was beating a Hebrew man, and Moses could not stand idly by, so he killed the Egyptian. The man that Moses killed had been working on behalf of the Pharaoh, so when Moses killed him, the Pharaoh was quite upset. Now in our story we read of Moses out alone, out beyond the wilderness, trying to escape the place where everybody knew his name. He didn’t want to own up to the responsibilities that came with being found out.

How strange it was then, out here, out beyond even the wilderness, that he should hear his name shouted, “Moses.” And his name didn’t come from a fellow wanderer or fugitive, it came from a bush that was on fire but somehow, was not burning up. I can imagine him staring at this bush, head to the side, wondering if he were imagining things. But he hears his name a second time, “Moses!”

This strange bush-on-fire was calling out his name. The voice tells him not to come any closer, but to take his shoes off for he is on holy ground. The voice identifies itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God does not identify God’s self by a name, but rather by a relationship.

God continues, saying that God has seen the misery of God’s people and has come to deliver them. And God has plans to do these things through, of all people, Moses, the fugitive.

It is not quite enough for Moses that this voice knows Moses’ name, or that the voice has identified the relationships of being God to all of these great men, Moses wants to know God’s name.
In Exodus 3:14-15 we read: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

God cannot be contained to a simple one-word name, even in naming God is a God of relationship. God is “I am.” God is eternal. God is forever the God of people. God has no desire to exist outside of relationship.
Jewish practice encompasses some of the weight of the significance of this in the way that they treat God’s name.

The Hebrew alphabet is made up of consonants, but give it’s pronunciation by vowel markers. Some texts are written without the vowel markers, and people are usually able to infer the pronunciation based on context.

But one word that is never given vowel markers is the word for God. God’s name is purposefully unpronounceable. When reading scripture, Jewish readers will instead say Lord, or Adonai, instead of trying to pronounce the unpronounceable. However, in Christian reading of Jewish scripture we have taken the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vav Hey and translated them to Yahweh.

Also in the Jewish tradition, the name of God written out becomes holy. This stems from the commandment not to take God’s name in vain.  If God’s name is written on even a scrap of paper, it is not to be erased, defaced, put on the ground, ripped up, or destroyed in any way. Anything containing God’s name is to be respected, and if need be, ceremoniously buried by a rabbi.

However, it’s good to note that this slide up here would not be in violation. Orthodox rabbis have ruled that since writing on a computer is not a permanent form, typing God’s Name into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and delete files with God’s Name in them does not violate the name of God.
All of this is the way that Jewish tradition recognizes God as one who cannot be contained by human conventions, but who is inextricably a part of human experience. God is a God of the people. God is a God of relationship.

Though we most often introduce ourselves by our given names, there are other names we answer to as well. These names are not given at birth, but acquired along the way. Some of you are called mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, or son. These names do not exist in isolation, but tie us together, framing our relationships.

These names indicate a way we are supposed to treat each other. In some cases they indicate a vow, as between spouses, or household rules established by our parents. Relationship carries expectation. Being known requires a response.

I received a new name this week, the name of “pastor.” I am excited by this name and motivated by what such a name means, but upon reading some definitions perhaps also a bit daunted. Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop, described a pastor’s job: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”

Wow. What a list of expectations that is! I will try, as much as any one person can, to do those things, but it will help us all to recognize, that none of those things can or should be done in isolation. A pastor exists only in relationship. That is why I am not quite yet ordained, one can only be ordained when there are people that will be served by that title. At my ordination and installation services next month we will both make promises to one another about what that relationship is to look like, and how we will serve God together.

God desires to name us as well. Though we do have the names our parents have given us, God also gives us the name of child. In our New Testament passage today, we read of the relationship granted to us by God coming to earth and living among us as Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:19-20, we read, “[we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] 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”

To be called stranger or alien is to be unknown, to be isolated, to be disconnected. Through Jesus Christ we are all joined together and claimed as Christ’s family members. We are members of the household of God.
We too have responsibilities in this household of God. First and foremost we are commanded in the last couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We are tasked by Jesus over and over again to build up the Kingdom of God, by putting God first and foremost in our lives, showing special care to those who feel disconnected. We are responsible to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, let us know each other by name, but let us also know each other as family. And as I am learning my way in time of new beginnings and new relationships, you may need to remind me several times over of your given names, but I promise to always strive to know you first and foremost as brothers and sisters in the household of God. Amen.