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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Known and Unknown;” Genesis 29:15-28; July 27, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Known and Unknown
Genesis 29:15-28
July 27, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacOur scripture today comes to us not too long after our scripture from last week. Our main character, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, taking his brother, Esau’s inheritance. His brother vows to kill him and so Jacob runs off to Haran, to the family of his mother, Rebekah. In the scripture we read last week he had a dream where God extended the covenant of Abraham on to him, that is to say he is promised to be the father of many nations. With this promise of God in mind, he continues his journey towards Haran and he comes across a cousin of his, Rachel.

SLIDE 3 – Jacob and ShepherdsWhen Jacob was still a bit away from Haran he comes across a group of shepherds, and we read in Genesis 29:7-14 as Jacob days to the shepherds, “‘Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.’ But they said, ‘We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.’ While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Slide04 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.”

It’s hard to imagine from our perspective, but in that time many family’s engaged in “intermarriage,” that is they preferred their children to marry their relatives’ children. And so, Rachel would be an ideal wife for Jacob, made even more ideal in their interaction. He wept aloud, presumably overcome by his attraction to Rachel.

Slide05And then we find ourselves at our scripture for today: “Now Laban had two daughters,” the story begins simply enough. Rachel we are told, is graceful and beautiful, more than that she is the one that Jacob was so overwhelmed by on their first interaction.

Slide06Then we are told there’s something strange about Leah’s eyes. In the Hebrew they’re described by the word rahke, but there’s much disagreement about what this word means. Depending on the translator it is translated as, “ tender,[1]” “weak,[2]” “lovely,[3]” “delicate,[4]” or “nice[5].” Whatever it is about her, she is placed as the inferior of the two sisters, though she is older.

Slide07 Their father Laban strikes a deal with Jacob, he will work the land for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Then we hear the lovely phrase, “so Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”[6]

You can ask David about how quickly the last nine months have passed as we’ve been preparing for our wedding.

Slide08Then there is a wedding, but when Jacob wakes up, we read in the scripture, “When morning came, it was Leah!” In the Hebrew there’s the exclamation hinneh! in the middle of this sentence. It holds the meaning “behold!” or “lo!” but it in a modern translation it might carry the same meaning as throwing an explicative in the middle of this sentence. It is certainly a statement of surprise, and not a welcome one.

And so, in a karmatic turn of events, Jacob who had deceived his father in the darkness of his father’s blindness, is deceived by Laban in the darkness of the night. Jacob then goes back to work for another seven years so that he may indeed marry Rachel, his beloved.

Slide09 It is not lost on me that this passage on marriage comes in the lectionary less than a week before David and I are to be married. Over the past weeks and months we’ve heard well wishes for our wedding day, and cautions about how hectic of a week and day it will be. While I understand that all of these thoughts come from experience, I might recommend a reading of this section of Genesis to any apprehensive wedding couples, firm in the knowledge that any logistical slip ups of the day pale in comparison to the chaos of this story.

There are so many questions in this strange tale of two deceptions, two weddings, and two wives, and things don’t become particularly smooth for Jacob and his family following this story. One of the questions that stood out for me the most in my reading of the text this time around, was how Jacob could possibly not be aware that it was Leah he was marrying and not Rachel.

Slide10Biblical scholars offer all sorts of suggestions, the heaviness of the veil, the heaviness of the alcohol consumption at the wedding festivities, but even with all of those things in mind it’s really hard to imagine how Jacob could be so mistaken. We are told there is something strange about Leah’s eyes, but in reality it seems that Jacob’s eyes are the ones that are unfocused.

Though I will be wearing a veil at our wedding, it will certainly not be nearly as dense as that of Leah’s, not leaving any room for a mistaken identity at the altar. And though I am the younger of two sisters, I am also sure my sister and her fiancé would have something to say about any last minute changes in the bridal party, particularly in terms of the bride or groom.

Slide11So what can we learn from this strange story? What does a mistaken identity thousands of years ago have to do with us? While hopefully we do not have family members who would seek to manipulate our love in such treacherous ways, there are deceptions in which we willingly engage as we approach those we love. We’ve heard the adage, “love is blind,” and if we don’t seek to clear our eyes long enough to truly know the person whom we love, we are stuck in this blindness, which can be helpful in some situations, but debilitating in others.

Slide12When I was at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching festival held in Minneapolis this past May, I heard Princeton seminary professor, Craig Barnes speak about this strange story of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s love and Laban’s deception. In a sermon on the same topic Craig Barnes writes, “Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. Rachel is the one you love, and you’re sure that she will be the blessing to your life. But you can’t have Rachel without taking Leah, who you don’t love and you didn’t think you were getting. Not long after you are together, you discover you didn’t get just Rachel. You’re also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel.”[7]

Slide13 There is always both known and unknown going into any relationship. What is known can be idealized, what is unknown can be troubling, but we will have to come to terms with both if we want that relationship to flourish. It’s easy enough to put this same equation in play with nearly any relationship in your life: the parts of your job that you love and the parts you tolerate; the experiences with your family that bring you deep joy and the issues that you deal with; and even the parts of your experiences with Christianity that excite you and the parts that seem frustratingly unattainable.

Slide14Perhaps there are places in our lives where we experience the reverse, ways that we feel we were held up to such high expectations that disappointing the other was inevitable. It’s hard when you feel like someone has failed you, but it can be even harder to feel like you yourself are that failure.

Slide15While scripture never tells us how Leah feels about any of this, I can’t imagine she appreciated her life, passion, and capacity for love being set aside so that her father could get fourteen years of work out of her cousin. I can imagine Leah in a Brady Bunch-esque way saying, “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel!” Having the strangeness of your eyes held up as your primary identifying characteristic is humiliating, yes, but being offered in marriage in the place of your sister is horrifying. And with Jacob expecting Rachel, beautiful and gracious Rachel, Leah was forced into the role of being the disappointment.

How do we go forward from this place of unattainable expectations, this place of disappointment? How do we redeem our relationships? When given the choice of how we view the flaws in our selves and in each other we can choose grace.

There is a difference between the words weak and lovely, even though they point to the very same eyes. With so many ways to translate our perceptions of each other, might we choose the most gracious?

Slide17This is after all, what God chose. Given our track record of sin and deception from the start of humanity, it seems the sensible thing would be for God to write us off as the human being we are, but God loves us in and beyond our flaws. As if loving us into creation wasn’t enough, God loved us enough to redeem us from our sin and deception through the death of his own son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ every flaw, every imperfection is made perfect.

God loves us not because we’re blameless, but because God deems us worthy of love and worthy of redemption. When we are given the same choice in how we view one another and especially ourselves, may we forever choose grace. Amen.

[1] BHS-W4

[2] NIV, ESVS

[3] NRSV

[4] NKJV

[5] The Message

[6] Genesis 29:20

[7] http://day1.org/1105-the_problem_with_two_spouses

 

“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

“Our Turn Now;” John 17:1-11; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Our Turn Now”
John 17:1-11
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide02There are times when the events in the world line up so incredibly with the lectionary scripture that it’s impossible not to notice God’s hand in things. When Maya Angelou passed away this past Wednesday her son, Guy B. Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”[1]Slide03The official day celebrating Jesus’ ascension was Thursday. There is something powerful and unsurprisingly poetic about Maya Angelou’s son employing the language of the hope of resurrection and ascension granted to all of us through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Slide04 The ascension of Jesus Christ is a story that is often forgotten in the larger narrative of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. After Easter we tend wrap up the story of Jesus’ live on earth and slide quite comfortable into what the church calendar calls, “ordinary time.” But, as many liturgical nerds will remind you, Easter is not just one day, but fifty! The official church season of Easter doesn’t end until Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday in worship.

Slide05Ascension is a strange sort of day to acknowledge, because if we really think about it, it’s rather frightening. After Jesus’ death and resurrection Jesus comes back to be with the disciples; he comforts them in their sorrow, he demonstrates his grace. But then when the time comes for Jesus to rejoin God in heaven, that means that Jesus leaves this world in our hands.

SLIDE 6 - Ascension Holy Spirit The good news is we are certainly not alone. Jesus leaves us with the Holy Spirit. Our scripture on Sunday two weeks ago affirmed this promise. In John 14:15-17 Jesus says to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Slide07The Holy Spirit remains with us so that we may do all that Christ has commanded, and live into the joy and the promise of unity with God. In our scripture today we read Jesus addressing our creator God in John 17:11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Slide08Christ prays to God for unity, so that we may together serve God’s people. How is that working out for us? Our world today is filled with division after division, limiting us from coming to a full knowledge of God’s love for all of us. In John 17: 3 Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When we stop acknowledging the others in our world as fellow created children of God, we limit ourselves from experiencing God’s grace fully.

Slide09As is befitting this scripture lesson and this day, I will quote Maya Angelou once again with a quote I posted to our church Facebook page this week upon the news of her passing. She said, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

Slide10Christ’s ascension leaves us as caretakers of this world. With all of its flaws and beauty, or as John Legend would put it, “perfect imperfections.” We are created in God’s image and commissioned to serve God’s people, or in other words, everyone.

If you want to overthink the whole thing, feel free to look up philosophical discussions of paradoxes of perfection, but one that stuck out to me was the baroque esthetic of art which says, “the perfection of an art work consists in its forcing the recipient to be active—to complement the art work by an effort of mind and imagination.” We are perfect in the way God intends for us when we respond to God’s presence in our lives, God’s desire to be active in this world through our activity: taking up Jesus’ call to discipleship.[2]

Slide11In our scripture today Jesus says to God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

Slide12Could we still say that this is true about us? Do we seek to know God through Christ? Do we seek to serve this world as caretakers of creation and of one another?

We affirm in our recitation of the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “ascended into heaven,” but we are not and will never be alone. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us, and together may we be bold enough to work towards bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-poet-author-dies-86

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection#cite_note-TatarkiewiczSu1980p120-16