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

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

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

Audio of sermon available by clicking here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Immediately;” Mark 1:14-20; January 25, 2015; FPC Holt

“Immediately”
Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

2015 1 25 Slide01Your pulse quickens, you feel your face flush; you are a force of kinetic energy spurred into motion. When is the last time in your life that you responded with great urgency? Was it jumping up for an awaited phone call? Running towards a stack of presents on Christmas morning?  Rushing out of the house following the news of an emergency situation with a loved one?

How’d you feel in that moment? What was it that compelled you forward?

2015 1 25 Slide06What if that phone call instead was someone asking you to do something that would genuinely inconvenience you? What if that gift was a trip with strangers to a foreign place? What if you were called instead to leave your loved ones, without reliable ways of checking in or letting them know how you are?

How would you react then? Would you be compelled with that same urgency? 2015 1 25 Slide08Or would you take a moment, pause and consider the ramifications of what you were being asked, given, and called to do?

I know I’d take some time to weigh the options, consider the situation fully, and take time to prayerfully respond. That’s the rational thing to do, right?

But this is not what we see in our Gospel today.

2015 1 25 Slide09In the first chapter of Mark, William Abraham writes, “Jesus sweeps through Galilee and takes it by storm….the underlying sense is that God is on the march in the ministry of Jesus”[1]. Jesus starts his recruitment with a proclamation, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message “Time’s up!”

2015 1 25 Slide10 But this wasn’t time in the way we usually encounter it, time marked by a clock or a calendar, this is the Greek word, kairos. Kairos is less about linear time and more about timeliness, something happening at the very moment it is meant to happen. Kairos is God’s timing, and in the beginning of our passage Jesus says that that time, that kairos has come, and there is no time to lose.

2015 1 25 Slide11 Immediately, Mark says. Immediately Simon and Andrew left their nets. Immediately James and John left their father. Immediately they were thrown into this new and uncertain role as Jesus’ disciples.

It sounds thrilling. It sounds terrifying. It also sounds freeing.

We’re not told what it was about Jesus that made that strange band of men join him. Jesus doesn’t give them an itinerary of their trip. He does provide a map or a guidebook. He doesn’t even give them packing instructions. All that we are told that he says to them is “follow me.”

2015 1 25 Slide12 In this time Rabbis were never the ones to seek out their students, rather they were approached by students, who were then interviewed and critiqued. This was not Jesus’ approach, he sought these men out and asked them to follow him. As disciples of Jesus they are called to learn and to be in a whole new way. And with so little information and so much uncertainty, this call from Jesus propels them outwards from all that they knew, towards uncertainty, and it happens immediately.

2015 1 25 Slide13Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes this of the disciple’s reaction to Jesus, “I think that ‘immediately’ can be less about marking time and more about describing action. Immediately does not only designate a when but a what. Not only a place in time, but an event that changes the meaning of life. Granted, the disciples have no clue at this point how life has been changed. But we know. And maybe immediately is all we can do, all we can manage. Because, preparation? Maybe it makes faith matters worse. Builds up anticipation, expectations. And then, when things do not go as planned? Maybe a life of faith can only happen in immediately, in the surprising, sudden, profound epiphany of God at work, God revealed in our lives. Because if we think we can adequately prepare for God’s epiphanies, that we can be fully ready for what we will see, well then, God might be less than epiphanous.”[2]

2015 1 25 Slide14Mark is a big fan of the word “immediately,” or ethous in the Greek to mean immediately, next, or suddenly. In fact Mark uses the word “ethous” no less than 40 times throughout his Gospel account. So much so that most translators, including those of our familiar New Revised Standard Version, seem to get a bit bored and switch things up using the words, “just then,” “at once,” “as soon as,” “quickly,” all getting at the heart of this incredibly sense of immediacy throughout Mark’s gospel.

The majority of those “immediately”s come up for us in Jesus’ miracles. As inclined as we are towards a reasoned weighing of options, this is not the way that Jesus operates. Jesus does not hold back, does not drag his feet, but responds immediately.

2015 1 25 Slide15Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor explains that this beachside story before us today is not the story of the disciples making a decision to follow allow with Jesus, but rather Jesus working a miracle among them. She writes “This is a story about the power of God – to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before…This is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as a people who are able to follow – able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives.”[3]

2015 1 25 Slide16In English, “immediately” refers to instantaneous timing, but it also refers to proximity. An immediate response to Jesus’ call to action enables us to be closer, more physically immediate to the way Jesus reveals God’s love for the world.

Who wouldn’t want a closer view to God’s action?

“Follow me.” It’s not just words on page, it’s a call for you and for me to expand God’s kingdom in this world through obedience to God’s call. “Follow me,” Jesus says. May we be transformed by our God who is eager to work through us and will do it, “immediately.” Amen.

[1] The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels

[2] Karoline Lewis, “The Immediately of Epiphany” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3500

[3] “Miracle on the Beach,” in “Home By Another Way,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

It made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed. All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. 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.