“Beginnings and Endings,” Acts 2:1-21; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Beginnings and Endings”
Acts 2:1-21
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I love home makeover shows. I love seeing the before and after, I love seeing how things come together, but my favorite part? The moment the family finds out that they are getting a home makeover.

In my favorite home makeover show, Slide02 Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, we saw Ty Pennington and crew come running into the family’s life, bullhorn in hand. I loved watching how the family reacts, knowing that their lives are going to be changed. In several episodes, people have explained their reaction as a “weight being lifted.” Most people just screamed and jumped up and down.

This is not unlike what happens in our Pentecost narrative today. Slide03The Holy Spirit rolls into where the disciples are gathered and changes everything. The Spirit comes not with a bullhorn, but with a sound like rushing wind. In Greek, the word for Spirit can also be translated as breath, and in this Pentecost action, the Divine Breath is breathing into the assembly. This raw and electric energy ignites the people assembled, giving each the ability to be heard and understood by the others, even though each speaks a different language. The people are beside themselves, prophesying, dreaming dreams, and seeing visions.

Slide04When watching these makeover shows, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the stories. The way we come to care about these people and their reactions is that these TV shows don’t just start out with showing up at someone’s door. We hear their story, many of all varieties of heartbreak and hardship. We hear specifically how getting a new home, one built to their needs, will make their lives better. We learn how a new home like this is not something they can build on their own.

Slide05The disciples too have had their own heartbreaks and hardships. These people have been following a man that they knew to be the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who gave them guidance, instruction, and purpose. When he died, they knew why, he died to save humankind from sin. However, this knowledge surely did not protect them from sadness at missing day to day breathing contact with this man.

Back even farther into the Judeo-Christian community’s history, was another heartbreak: Babel. SLIDE 7 - Tower of Babel In Genesis 11:1-9 we read of this story:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Slide06The builders of this city and tower were building not so that they might have a home that would meet their needs, but rather, that it might help them to “make a name for themselves.” They were trying to reach God, not for relationship or connection, but for dominance. And so God came into the story, and muddled their language so that they might not be so self-assured. They were scattered so that they could relearn how to be together.

SLIDE 8 - TrinityThroughout the Biblical narratives, we discover that when the Trinity enters into the human narrative, it’s to restore balance. In Babel, what the people needed was humility and diversifying their language created that. It made them reevaluate, reconsider, regroup. It forced them to work more on their relationships than their conquests.

SLIDE 9 - Pentecost PeopleBy the time we get to Acts 2, the people desire to understand one another, not for the sake of dominance, but for the sake of relationship. And so, to restore balance, the Holy Spirit enters in and allows the people to understand each other. Pentecost changes not the result of Babel, for we are blessed to be part of a diverse world, but rather it changes the impact of Babel. As the people were scattered following Babel they went out into the world forming their own communities, identities, and cultures. Now as they come together at Pentecost, though everyone is speaking in different languages, they are able to understand one another. They are able to relate within and through their diversity through the power of the Holy Spirit. Within this moment, the foundation of the Christian church as we know it today is established.

Slide10Pope John Paul II explained this well saying, “According to the text of Genesis 11, the builders of Babel had decided to build a city with a great tower whose top would reach the heavens. The sacred author sees in this project a foolish pride, which flows into division, disorder and lack of communication. On the day of Pentecost, on the other hand Jesus’ disciples do not want to climb arrogantly to the heavens but are humbly open to the gift that comes down from above. While in Babel the same language is spoken by all but they end up not understanding each other, on the day of Pentecost different languages are spoken, yet they are very clearly understood. This is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.”

Slide11There’s another thing that I can’t help but want to see on makeover shows, but that is not featured on too many of them: when they follow up a few months later. When a makeover show ends with someone receiving a home, achieving record weight loss, or now having the perfect wardrobe, we know that at this moment, things are good. At this moment there is hope of sustaining this transformation. However, months or years down the line, things might not be quite that way.

A child may have outgrown their highly thematic room, the doctor’s bills may be accumulating once again, the weight may be regained, or the cancer that had been in remission may come back.

In the Pentecost story in Acts, the Breath of all breath breathes into these disciples. The church is made alive by Pentecost fire. The people are linguistically reconnected to brothers and sisters separated by thousands of years of division. And now, 2000 years later, where are they now? By the grace of God and the work of millions of missionaries, the Gospel has been spread to nearly every country, and continues to be spread throughout communities around the world. Within the tradition of the Church we are the inheritors of hundreds of years of teachings and liturgy. A cloud of witnesses who have come before us surrounds us. But, with such gifts, also comes a history of deep division. Wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. Lines have been drawn for the sake of polity. The unity achieved by the Holy Spirit in Pentecost seems to have faded away. We are Pentecost people, but we are living like we are still suffering the consequences of Babel.

Slide12Galatians 3:26-29 tells us: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus came to this world to end division, give us hope, and like those home makeover recipients, lift our burdens. On this Pentecost day, know that the Holy Spirit is still breathing in and through this community. God is still yearning to be present in all that we say and do. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“Knit Together” Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 September 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Knit Together”
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
September 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Close up of knitted pink yarn with a pair of knitting needlesAs a knitter, I can’t help but love the imagery of Psalm 139, verse 13, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Eleven years ago when my family was together for Thanksgiving, my sister sat down with me and taught me how to hold the needles just right, how to wrap the yarn around the needle in a way that would make a knot that would connect to another knot, and then another. I may have had quite a bit of practice with it at this point, but I still get excited to see how these small little actions can be transformed into something much more than the yarn that composes it.

Those of you who knit and those of you who have knitters in your life will know knitting a sweater, afghan, scarf, or even a hat can take a long time. I’ve had friends of mine try to argue the logic of knitting. Why knit something when you can go out and buy it in the store? Buying something in the store can often cost less than knitting it, and will surely involve less time, but these days anyone knitting simply for an efficient way to have clothes probably won’t be knitting for very long. Rather, knitting is about intentionality of a design; customization through color, pattern, and texture; the joy of breathing life into a bundle of string, or skein of yarn for you knitters out there.

Slide 2 - Knitting SweaterKnitter, author, and spiritualist Deborah Bergman writes about this. She says, “Fact: it is going to take you longer to knit a sweater than it would take you to open a tasteful mail-order catalogue and order one right now. It is probably going to take you longer to knit a sweater than to go to the store and by one, even if you have to try five different stores on three different weekends. It takes a wild kind of patience to be a knitter. Not that it’s so difficult or challenging to be this wildly patient. When we knit, we become patient almost by accident. Almost despite ourselves, because we also want to finish and wear whatever we are making in the next five minutes, and this is part of what keeps us going, we notice that even as we hasten towards the next stitch, the next row, the next decrease, the end of the collar, we are also entering the deep warm sea called slowing down. We are surrendering to this obvious but odd sort of alternate universe where waiting is not only acceptable, but pleasurable.”

Thinking then of God as a knitter knitting us together in our mother’s womb, I can sense that energy: the frenetic joy to have creation come to its fullness paired with a deep patience.

Slide 3 - Creation of WorldThe first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days through a series of commands and affirmations; the work of a creator excited to see what has been created. Genesis chapter two slows things down a bit. God enters into relationship with Adam, taking care not just for his physical needs, but also his relational needs. God forms Adam from the dust and Eve from Adam’s rib, crafting them into being.

From what we’ve learned of creation scientifically and through the Genesis narratives, God’s act of creation is very similar to how we know God as a knitter, eager for fullness, but filled with patience.

Slide 4 - Big BangEven the big bang theory speaks of this frenetic energy bursting into being and then slowly putting piece after piece together until the circumstances were precisely right for life to exist. Creation was and continues to be an unfolding of God’s hope and purpose.

Moyra Caldecott writes of this saying, “Our being is the expression of God’s thought. We contain the love of God and God contains us and as we unfold on the earth through shell-creature, fish-form, reptile, bird, and mammal – through ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs, and ape – we are learning step by step what containment means. The circles are still widening – still evolving the mighty concept – the magnificent Idea. Six days, Seven, a million years, a thousand million. The count is nothing, the Being – All.” We are a part of a magnificent idea, creation.

Genesis 1:27 also tells us that we are created in God’s image. God is a creator God, therefore we are created as creative people. As such, we also possess this energy and desire to create. The act of creating itself can be a way of connecting to God, a spiritual practice.

SLIDE 7 - AnskarIn the ninth century there was a monk named Anskar who became Archbishop of Hamburg and then later was sainted. He was an ascetic, who placed great importance on prayer and fasting, but not at the expense of useful activity, and so he was often seen knitting while be prayed. The phrase “ora et labora,” “pray and work” refers to the monastic practice of striking a balance between prayer and work and is often associated with the Benedictine order.

By working while he prayed, Anskar served as an example of how these things needn’t be separate, that prayer and work can happen simultaneously. In his knitting, Anskar was offering a creative response to our creator God.

God has indeed gifted us with a purpose, knitted us together. God knows each stitch of how we are put together and calls it good. John Calvin wrote, “When we examine the human body, even to the nails of our fingers, there is nothing which could be altered without felt inconveniency… Where is the embroiderer who, with all industry and ingenuity, could execute the hundredth part of this complicated and diversified structure? We need not then wonder if God, who formed humankind so perfectly in the womb, should have an exact knowledge of us after we are ushered into the world. “[1]

SLIDE 9 - EarWhittaker Chambers, who initially an avowed atheist started towards conversion in a creator God when when he had his own experience of the divine in examining his daughter’s ear as she was sitting in her high chair eating. He writes, “She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life…My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. They could have been created only by an immense design’.”

Our existence, our intricate design provides a witness to the care of the creator who made us. Thinking of God as a knitter we can think of how the act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation, from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit.

SLIDE 10 - Sheep and knittingEach part of the journey impacts how the item turns out, reflecting the quality of the grass, the life of the sheep, the expertise of the spinner, and the temperament of the knitter. There are items that I have knit in Bible studies, on planes, with friends, by myself. When I see the knitted garment I know where the yarn came from, the pattern that was selected or designed, where I was at each part of the items creation, and how much work went into all of it. Because of this, I am connected to that item. This connectivity means that I care about what happens to it.

There have been a few times with this connectivity has been hard: a hat made with specialty yarn, knit from a new pattern with a complicated technique was lost in the mail as I tried to send it to a friend; a backpack that I designed the pattern for, and learned how to crochet so that I could make drawstring straps turned out not to be sturdy enough to hold much of anything; and a hat made from five different beautiful yarns all cabled together turned out to be much too small. In each of these instances, it was hard to know that this item that I had spent so much energy on, were not able to be utilized in the way I had intended.

SLIDE 11 - CreationOur creator, who knows us so intimately, desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives.  With a knitter’s energy, God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, but God also waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.

SLIDE 12 - PredestinationOne way we can talk about this theologically is through the doctrine of predestination. This is one of the big theological words associated with Presbyterianism, but I’d hazard a guess that not many Presbyterians really get what it means.  Fundamentally, Presbyterians get their association with predestination from Calvin whose theology established the Presbyterian denomination.

Donald McKim explains the doctrine of predestination and its association with Presbyterianism in his book, “Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers”: “Calvin came to the doctrine from a very pastoral concern: Why is it some people respond to the Christian gospel and others do not? His answer, as he studied Scripture, was the God had elected or chosen (‘predestined,’ as Romans 8:28-30) those who believe. This is a gift of God’s grace, because humans are sinners and do not deserve the salvation God gives as a free gift in Jesus Christ. For Calvin, predestination should lead to gratitude and joy! It means that when we believe the gospel, we believe because of God’s powerful Spirit in our lives, and that God has elected us out of God’s free grace. When Presbyterians talk about predestination, we are talking about the actions of the God of the Bible. God is not the blind laws of nature or an impersonal force (like ‘fate’). God here chooses to enter into relationships with sinful people (covenants) and to provide the gift of salvation by sending Jesus Christ into the world (John 3:16-21). This is a God who cares and loves and gives grace to undeserving people like us. So predestination is a comforting doctrine, since it assures us that our salvation rests in God’s work, not our own.”[2]

SLIDE 13 - PredestinationUnderstanding God’s give of predestination should bring gratitude because it allows us to experience the loving power of God. As it says in Romans 5:8-11: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

God formed you and called you good. God claims your life in baptism, dying for your sins before you even asked, loving you beyond your own limitations of love. God has placed worth on your life and is eager to see how it will unfold. You are a treasured creation of God. May you live with gratitude for God’s great love of you. Amen.


[1] Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V: Psalm 139

[2] Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers: Exploring Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2004), 9.