“Christ Alone,” Galatians 2:15-21; June 16, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Christ Alone”
Galatians 2:15-21
June 16, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 2 - FPC MaumeeAs a Presbyterian pastor, some people find it strange that I do not personally have strong roots in the Presbyterian Church. When searching for a church, my family historically has picked churches based on the community found within the church. The church I’ve spent most of my life in, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, was chosen by my parents because of the children’s programs it provided, as well as fellowship for my parents. I grew up in and into the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian tradition, confessions, customs, and processes shaped how I experience God and specifically, God’s call for my ministry. But here’s something shocking, I do not believe that we as Presbyterians have everything figured out. And here’s something even more shocking, I think that’s okay.

30459-Least Still Christian_pThere’s a book that came out January of 2011 called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian.” I like the concept of this book, a getting back to the basics of our faith.

SLIDE 4 - LutherIt is certainly not a new idea. When Martin Luther wrote up his famous 95 theses his main desire was to take the Christian faith back to the beginning, back to the core elemental beliefs that makes people Christians.

SLIDE 5 - FormingIf we hold to the Presbyterian tenant of being “reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God,” these institution shaking ideas of going back to the basics should excite us. But of course there are things that we very much enjoy about our tradition. We like the stability of history, the comfort of the way we’ve always done things. There is nothing inherently wrong in any of these things. What becomes troublesome however is when we believe that we’ve got it all figured out and that these man made rules of how to go about being faithful are the one and only way.

SLIDE 6 - LeviticusSometimes when I read Paul’s letters to all of those early Christian communities it sounds like he is simply giving them a talking to for a lot of things we don’t even do anymore. It’s tempting to read this simply as Paul scolding the Jews for their desire to maintain salvific legalism even after Jesus’ death and resurrection superseded the old law. Yes, that is in there, and I don’t know about you, but I’m under no temptation to return to all of the laws given in Leviticus. I have no desire to give up shellfish or cheeseburgers or try to figure out what fabrics I’m allowed to wear. And I’m not tempted to believe that any one of these practices will bring me closer to God, let alone will bring me salvation.

SLIDE 7 - SplitsBut that’s not the only legalism we’re dealing with. There are so many theological conventions, liturgical rituals, and sociological assertions that have developed over years and years of Christian faith, reformations, and denominational splits. In this cartoon it shows a membership class and the presenter has a chart that says “Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History.” The presenter says, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And one of the people in the class says, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.” While I value the history, wisdom, and community found in our denominational structure, the splintering of denominations throughout time points to the very religiosity that Paul railed against, saying, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:18-19) Paul tells us that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ. Period. The end.

Presbyterian pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong writes, “Salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else: not Jesus and certain cultural practices; not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective; not Jesus and a particular income level; not Jesus and a specific denominational brand; not Jesus and one political party; not Jesus and being good enough. Just Jesus. If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died for nothing” (v.21)”[1] The community of Galatia used to depend on the law to bring them to salvation. If they just followed all the rules they would be saved from their sinfulness. Jesus came about to bring another way, a new path to salvation.

SLIDE 10 - Shrek Jesus is a burner of old bridges. Like Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, and so many action movies where the pathway crumbles behind the person who steps on it, as we follow Jesus, the old pathways fall away. Any way we try to access salvation apart from Jesus is like Wile E. Coyote trying to run on air. We are not left midair. Christ makes a new pathway, one designed for the forgiveness of all.SLIDE 11 - Midair

Emory professor, Wendy Farley wrote, “If we begin with faith, we can inhabit our traditions more lightly. We can enjoy the formation our particular community provides without insisting that it is the only way. Our faith can allow us to be nourished by tradition without assuming that those who practice differently have not knowledge of God. Faith gives us the confidence to honor our heritage, while recognizing the new things God is doing in other people’s lives.” [2]

I love the idea of inhabiting our traditions lightly. I think it helps to place the emphasis on our elemental faith in Jesus Christ, while allowing our traditions to compliment and support our faith, without overshadowing it.

SLIDE 13 - FeetThis passage also brings up a beautiful image, allowing Christ to live in us. We affirm that Christ came for all, and so might Christ live within all for whom He died, that’s to say, everyone.

Farley continues, “Through death and resurrection Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions but on love. This community should reflect our common human situation as recipients of grace and bearers of the Divine. The Divine dwells in Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. This indwelling reveals the essential intimacy that exists between humanity and its creator, an intimacy that even we cannot neutralize, because it does not depend on us but on the graciousness of the living God. Faith allows the indwelling of Christ to become more transparent. Free from the logic of a social world built on the oppression of others, we are able to recognize others as bearers of the Divine. Faith is the sire of unity, where God’s desire for us and our own desire are woven together.” [3]

When we acknowledge one another as bearers of the Divine we are compelled to treat each other differently, to open up our eyes a bit wider to recognize Christ in our midst. And once we do recognize Christ in the other, we must make room for all to experience Christ’s great love.

SLIDE 15 - Communion TableMaking room for all at the table of Christ may mean we get a little scrunched. We belong to a faith that affirms, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” We may approach the table as the last and then become the first, but what will we do from that position? At a certain point we need to cede our place as “first,” in order to allow others to come close.

This was also a concern of the Jews in Galatia. The first line of this passage could probably even be read with a bit of sarcastic bite: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (Galatians 2:15) The Galatians were concerned that if even Gentiles could be a part of this new covenant, could access salvation, that all of their law-abiding had been for nothing.

Slide17Why should they get to be a part of things when the Jews had done the hard work of establishing the community? You see, the idea of equality in the eyes of God is not so appealing when you think you’ve got the upper hand or the moral high ground. It’s tempting to think, what’s the point? The point is such equality expands the Kingdom of God. The second you perceive yourself as more worthy of salvation because of your great life or your good works you are missing the point. Your salvation comes not in spite of but because of your inadequacy. All are justified by faith in Christ. All of us, all of you, all of them, whoever the “them” is in your life. Those “others,” are also bearers of the divine image. They are also beneficiaries of grace.

Slide18In the time Paul wrote his letter to the community at Galatia the observant Jews would avoid eating with Gentiles, not because of any specific law, but because it would help to maintain purity of their faith. After observing the many dishes required to maintain a kosher kitchen I would imagine part of this avoidance was probably simply because it was easier. Christians who had been Jewish since birth and still desired to maintain these practices had a hard time sharing a table with Gentile Christians. It was difficult to bridge the difference between the old law and the new, and harder still to welcome others on equal standing to a table where they would always seem “the other.”[4]

SLIDE 19 - DenominationsIt can be tricky and strange to explain to people in other denominations why we do the things we do, especially when many of our practices are based on tradition or what we’ve found works best for us. What is important is to make sure people know that these practices are not what brings salvation, Christ is. We too are tasked with welcoming these “others” to the table.

SLIDE 20 Baptism and CommunionWe approach the table and the font not because we’ve got it all figured out, but because we are so in need of God’s redemption. The sacraments are not about getting right with God, they’re about getting honest with God. They’re about being vulnerable. They’re about showing up. And since we are all sinners, we all approach the table at an equal footing.

God through the Holy Spirit makes us able to receive the waters of baptism. God through the Holy Spirit turns bread and juice into a life-giving feast. Christ’s presence is forever renewed in our midst when we acknowledge Him, seek Him out, and put our faith in His redemptive power.

May you approach the table today seeking Christ’s redemptive power for you and for all, even those you never might’ve thought we’re invited. Amen.


[1] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[2] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[3] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[4] Gregory H. Ledbetter, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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