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

“Living Alive”
John 11:1-45 and Romans 6:1b-11
June 25, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
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Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

It was a matter of life or death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Jesus in all of this?

Martha and Mary were angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is such a strange story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Live for Righteousness,” 1 Peter 2:19–25, May 7, 2017, FPC Holt

“Live for Righteousness”
1 Peter 2:19–25
May 7, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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Have you ever been reading the Bible and you’ve thought, “I’d really like to cut that part out?” Or, “following God would make so much more sense if we just skipped over this verse.” If so, this passage which says God approves of enduring suffering unjustly, would certainly be on the chopping block.

In the case of Thomas Jefferson, this was quite literally what he did.  The Smithsonian reports, “Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents.

So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument… to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called ‘the corruption of schismatizing followers.’” Being a very pragmatic man he cut out anything that seemed “contrary to reason,” including miracles and even Christ’s resurrection.

“Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.’”

And then theologians throughout time immemorial rolled over in their graves. Or so we can imagine.

Interpreting scripture can be a very dangerous thing if we, like Jefferson, take away every bit that makes us uncomfortable to we manipulate the text to cater to our own biases and presuppositions.

This passage in particular is a dangerous one as has been used time and again to silence victims and to embolden abusers. There are some who have twisted these verses to mean that domestic abuse is something they simply have to endure, a byproduct of living the Christian life. I want to say upfront that that is not what this text is about.

Seminary professor, David deSilva writes, “I must especially stress that domestic violence and abusive marriages are not ‘sanctioned’ in some way by this text.. [it] has led to such problematic applications, with the result that some pastors or other Christian friends will advise a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship because this is God’s will. Physical abuse between spouses, however, was not sanctioned even by Greco-Roman statutes, and so persevering in an abusive relationship cannot have been an aspect of the witness to the unbelieving spouse…

the author is speaking very specifically about suffering endured for ‘doing what is right’, for ‘doing good,’ ‘for the name of Christ,’ and for ‘bearing the name’ of ‘a Christian.’ Suffering ‘in line with God’s will’ is quite explicitly limited by this author to suffering encountered because of obedience to Jesus’ call.”

In 1 Peter there are two different Greek words for used for suffering. One of them is path’-ay-mah. This word speaks of the things that happen to us, a trial we have endured. In our particular passage today the word for suffering is paschko. Paschko is slightly different. It refers to our experience, “a sensation or impression.”

The suffering of pain is apart of the human condition, but our vulnerability to fully experiencing suffering is more deliberate. Path’-ay-mah is inevitable, paschko is not.

Paschko, the suffering highlighted in our scripture today, is the type of suffering that stays with us, that makes us able to give and receive compassion. It is the beginning of empathy.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, best known for the five stages of grief she describes in her book, On Death and Dying, writes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

This call to enter into the suffering of Christ, is a call to become beautiful through vulnerability. Every one of us is shaped by the pain and suffering in our lives. We can choose to shoulder the burden, stuff the hurt inside and never let it see the light, allowing it to embitter us. Or, we can invite the peace that Christ embodied, even and especially, as he surrendered his earthly life on the cross.

Parker Palmer wrote about this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness. He says that there are two kinds of broken hearts: the first is one that is “an unresolved wound we carry with us for a long time, sometimes tucking it away and feeding it, sometimes trying to “resolve it” by inflicting the same wound on others.” The second is a different way to consider what a broken heart might mean. He says, “Imagine that small clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into the largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” He then shares a Hasidic tale where a disciple asks the rabbi, “”why does Torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

It is not a comfortable thing to know that Christ died for us, that Christ’s pain brought about our freedom. Right after speaking of Christ’s suffering we are told by the author to follow in Christ’s example. This is not a call to sadistic self-depreciation, but an invitation to embrace the reality that Christ died for us, Christ rose for us. Christ reigns in power over us and Christ prays for us. That there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace, but everything we can do to respond to this great sacrifice.

This is the call to discipleship: knowing to our core that God cares so deeply for us, to allow that love to fall into our broken hearts, and then to live as the loved and liberated children of God we are. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Abundance;” Luke 12:13-34; August 4, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Abundance
Luke 12:13-34

August 4, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Where in your life do you feel inadequate? For many of us, when asked this question we can probably give a whole list of things: financial instability, health concerns, strained relationships, job insecurity, pain in the lives of those we love, heartache for the pain of the world. It seems like worry is somewhat of a default setting when we are thinking about our world.

Slide02My mind even brings up a scene from “Mean Girls,” in which a group of high school girls are looking at themselves in the mirror and each pointing out their own perceived physical deficiencies. When one of the girls doesn’t say anything negative about herself the other girls stare at her until she comes up with something, insisting through their peer pressure that there has to be something about who you are that is simply not good enough.

Slide03We seem trained to look for inadequacy, to point out our faults, to see where we are lacking. Worrying is such an easy thing to fall into, and when we’re doing it, it seems helpful, productive, supportive even. If we let it, this world will always make us feel that like the man in Jesus’ parable, that we need bigger barns; that what we have or who we are is not enough. The man in this story was not working from a place of true deficiency; in fact scripture tells us that the rich man had accumulated much wealth. But that wealth did not bring contentment, it simply brought about his perceived need for more barns for all of the crops he took in.

Slide04How about we ask another question: where in your life do you experience abundance? I hope we can also write a list for this one: plenty of food to eat, comfort of a roof over our heads, warmth of the company of loved ones, the joy of God’s creation, the love of our great God, and the companionship of a loving church family. I hope we can look into the mirror and share in God’s affirmation that God’s creation is indeed “good.”

SLIDE 5 - ContentmentAcknowledging the abundance in our lives isn’t as popular of a thing to think about. Counting our blessings can seem haughty. Acknowledging the depth of our inherent worth as children of God can seem unfounded since it is something we are unable to quantify. We are taught by this world that contentment is complacency. That being comfortable in our own skin, in our own pay scale, in our relationships, means that we don’t have enough ambition. Contentment, to some, seems like we are giving up on growth. God calls us to live deeply and fully into our lives, into our relationships, into the eternal.

1 Timothy 6:6-10, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Accumulation of things that tie us to our earthly existence is an investment in that which simply will not last. Contentment is the acknowledgement of the blessings that are in our lives and finding joy in what already is.

Slide07There’s a British pop group named, “The Streets,” who have a song called “Everything is Borrowed” which echoes these verses. The music video for this song shows a family waking up in the morning to a knock on their door and the news that their house has been foreclosed. Everything in their home is now the possession of the bank. The video ends out with the couple and young son standing on the sidewalk in front of their house as everything they own is loaded into a moving truck to be taken by the bank’s collectors. As the camera pans out it’s hard to feel hopeful for this family who has just lost all that they own, but then the chorus to the song comes on. It goes like this: “I came to this world with nothing, and I leave with nothing but love. Everything else is just borrowed.”

While this telling of the family’s foreclosure is all too real of a reality in this economic time, our scripture speaks of a security beyond what we can carry around with us in this world, beyond what can be loaded into a moving truck or stored in barns.

Slide09Luke 12:33-34 says, “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If we find our abundance in earthly things, we will be disappointed. If we invest in the stuff of this world, we will find that perhaps our barns are overflowing, but our lives are empty. Emphasis on the quantity in our lives life rather than on the quality will always be evasive.

Slide10This toxic desire for accumulation can even infect our church life. Even as we seek to welcome all who enter into this building with open arms, growing a church just to have more numbers on the rolls is not what we are called to be about. We are called first to grow in the depth of our love for one another, to show more richness towards God, and to fall more in love with the life to which God has called us. Abundance of love towards God and another opens the doors to the kingdom of God here on earth.

Slide11One deficiency that this passage points out as being very, very real, is the fleeting nature of time. While the man in the parable had accumulated wealth so he could live comfortably, in verse 20 we are told that he will lose his life that very night. And in Luke 12:25 we read, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

While all in this congregation will find themselves with different timelines trailing behind them, none of us can know what time lies before us. When we are working with such unknowably finite time, busyness becomes an idol. We want to have some thing to show for our time, some quantifiable measure of our worth.

SLIDE 12 - BusyAuthor, Carrie Anne Hudson writes, “Busyness is an interesting god.  It tells us that we are important and needed.  It reminds us that if we keep moving, eventually our existence will be validated.  This idol tells us that if we stop to chat with our elderly neighbor or write a letter to a friend, that someone else will be gaining ground on us.  Busyness becomes such powerful force demanding our worship, that we minimize things like relationships because relating doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Slide13Belief that self-worth is based on time devoted to productivity or solely reflected by paychecks is a lie. I’ve seen friends that struggle with this when making decisions on whether or not to be a stay at home parent. When so much of our life path is structured towards being “productive members of society,” we are not conditioned to see the worth of relationship and the blessing of time invested in the well being of others.

Slide14When reading the parable of the foolish man, it’s important to realize why this man is foolish and how this man is making his decisions. In verse 17 it says, “he thought to himself,” and in verse 19, “and I will say to my soul.” This man was talking to himself!

Slide15In his abundance of crops, he wasn’t taking any time to think about how his abundance could contribute to the lives of those around him. Nor was he taking time to be thankful for the others who had allowed this abundance to be possible. Surely he had help working the fields and surely he could be thankful for appropriate weather conditions that allowed for such a harvest. Wealth in and of itself is not the sin presented in this story or what makes him foolish; it’s the man’s inability to consider others when managing his wealth. It is his investment in his own material happiness, at the expense of others. There are people around him who could benefit from his material abundance, and also from his eternal investment of relationship.

In verse 19 and following we read that the rich man says to his soul, “’Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Slide17What does it mean to be “rich towards God?” Richness in God is acting in ways that enlarge God’s kingdom, welcoming others into the abundant life to which God is calling them. Matthew 25:31-46 tells us how we may to be rich towards God, how we may invest in our eternal inheritance:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Slide18Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘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.”

Slide19We become rich towards God when we are rich towards one another. The prepositions are important here. Being rich towards God is very different from being rich from God. Richness towards God is applying the abundances of our lives in ways that work to bringing about God’s kingdom. It is not simply sitting back storing up the blessings we have received, placing them in our barns and closing the doors. Richness towards God is investing the material wealth, and particularly the meager wealth of time we have, in relationships that bring God glory.

In Luke 12:29-31 we read, “And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for the kingdom, rather than the world, is a radical proposition. This means giving up the twin vices of worry and busyness. It means counting our blessings. It means seeing our abundance as not something to be squandered, but something to be shared.

Slide21As “The Streets” remind us, “We came to this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing but love. Everything else is just borrowed.” May we invest our love richly in ways that last. Amen.

 

 

Here is “Everything is Borrowed,” by “The Streets”:

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30 April 21, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30
April 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Our Psalm today, which we read together at the beginning of the service, is arguably one of the most well known passages in all of scripture. At funerals I have seen people recite this alongside the minister. I have seen people with dementia that have a hard time with the names of their own children, but who can clearly remember this passage. This passage is shared as peace in present grief, and as a comfort in death for one dying, or for those in grief at the loss.

Slide02How eerily fitting that this passage would come in the lectionary schedule on a week when the news is filled with grief and tragedy.

I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where such terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief.Slide03 As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord has been so near throughout this week.

Slide04However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, in the midst of everything that is what I will do.

Slide05Our scripture today says: 1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

These verses bring up images of rest and peace: green pastures, still waters, restoration. This Psalm claims God as provider, as sustainer, as life giving force.

Slide06This week I know that I am in the need of still waters and green pastures. When so much of the world has become “ground zeros,” tangible reminders of pain and loss, I am in need of spaces of stillness, of provision, of hope. My heart yearns for restoration, for escape from the pain of this world.

SLIDE 7 - Smart GirlsI saw a great video by Amy Poehler this week. Amy is well known for her comedic acting on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation,” but she is also part of an online-based show called “Smart Girls at the Party,” that lifts up important character lessons for young women.

In her video this week she said, “In light of recent events, I’ve …been looking at photographs that have been really hard to take. I’ve been thinking about what these images do to our brains and to our heart and how we should look at them, and when we should look at them.”

She continues, “What do I want my eye to see? How can I keep myself informed and connected without exploiting people and harming myself? Slide08 I kind of feel like my eyes need a break. Don’t you? And if you do, then my encouragement to you and to myself would be to take it. That it’s okay to not be looking at what everyone else is looking at all the time… to be okay with letting some things rest in peace.”[1]

I would say the same goes for us as Christians as we try and understand the grief of this world. The twenty-four hour news cycles and frequent “breaking news,” can break our hearts if we allow ourselves to be inundated with them. Why can’t we, as Amy suggests, “let some things rest in peace”?

Slide09Why is it that we pay so close attention to these stories? I know I have been guilty of watching more than a healthy amount of television coverage in the face of tragedy. I tell myself that watching these stories is helpful, that somehow I will be more useful for knowing the details. I think of how each individual story is important. Christ knows them by name, so shouldn’t we?

Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”[2]

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to do so may be to disregard the hope of the resurrection, the hope of eternal life. Even Psalms often quoted in times of death and darkness, bear messages of hope and restoration.Slide11

The middle of our Psalm says in verses 4 and 5: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Slide13This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.

Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.[3]

Slide14There are so many things in this world that will make us feel unsafe: North Korea, the Boston Marathon, West, Texas, and even Evansdale. There are spaces in this world that evoke images far separated from the green pastures and still waters of our Psalm.

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

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

Slide17There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. Even if evil takes our life on earth, we can still be secure in the hope of resurrection, in the promise of God’s Kingdom, and in the joy of redemption.

The great, good news is this: NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

Slide182nd Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

While we are on earth, while we are in the body, we are not in our ultimate home with God.

Methodist Elder, Catherine L. Kelsey wrote about our passage saying,  “Psalm 23 is the most familiar of the many psalms that reassure us of God’s continuing presence, no matter what is happening to our bodies, our relationships or community, or to our world. It is easy in the midst of trauma to give our confidence over to doctors or leaders as if they hold everything in their hands. They do not. Psalm 23 helps us retain perspective in the midst of trauma, perspective that retains our agency in relation to those who intend to help us. We seek to discern the hand of God in the work of those who help in times of trauma, but we do not expect them to do everything on our behalf….Through it all, God and God alone is our true safety, our true shepherd.”[4]

Our New Testament passage speaks of these other agents in our lives as “hired hands.” There are people in this world who do their best to protect us, but ultimately are fallible, surrendering to their own safety and well being.

Slide20 Jesus says in John 10:11-13 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

SLIDE 21 – Jesus and SheepJesus assures us in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We are called to follow our shepherd, out of grief into redemption. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to be the sheep of Christ, following our shepherd out of the pain of this world into the glory of the next.

Slide22But this is not just a call for our lives after death, this is a call for our lives right now. Our Psalm concludes in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we allow the tragedies of this world to rest in peace, knowing that our comfort is in our savior who loves and cares for us. Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

Amy Poehler’s video:


[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 434.

[4] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436.

Prayers for Chengpeng and Sandy Hook

Today was a horrific day all around the world.

This morning as children were arriving at an elementary school in Chengpeng, China, a man stabbed 22 children and one adult. No deaths resulted from the attack, but the horror of this act certainly caused trauma that will be present with these children far longer than the physical wounds they’ve sustained.

Then, half a world away as children were at school in Sandy Hook, CT, a man came in and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life.

The horror of both of these incidents is incalculable. I’m finding myself at a loss for words of how to truly convey any pastoral response to such a violation of innocence. I know no other way to respond than in prayer, so today I offer two prayers that have helped me have any semblance of sense of what to offer up to God today:

The first, a prayer written today by Max Lucado:

Dear Jesus, It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately. These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated. The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation? Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence. Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene. Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us. Hopefully, Your Children

The second, by W. Brueggeman, shortened and edited, in light of the elementary school shooting (posted by fellow seminary classmate, Jenny McDevitt):

Had we the chance,
we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.

We would have paused at that barn and pondered that baby.

We still pause at that barn–
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,

our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed in harm’s way,
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught
in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.

We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
and yet also, like every child, also at risk.

Our world is so at risk,
and yet we seek
and wait
for this child named “Emmanuel.”
Come be with us, you who are called “God with us.”

Amen.