“Made for This;” Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14; July 30, 2017; FPC Holt

“Made for This”
Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14
July 30, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I was little, I always struggled with this question because I’ve always been interested in so many things. If I could’ve been a professional horseback riding, opera singing, francophone playwright, I might’ve ended up somewhere else entirely!

In eighth grade in the midst of confirmation and career research paper, God pointed me to a way that I could live a life of being totally and utterly myself, by becoming a pastor. It’s as though God was pointing to each part of my personality and character and saying, “I can use that.” My listening ear became pastoral care, my singing became praise, and my storytelling became preaching.

Our Psalm today tells us God’s knitting us together and I imagine each of these passions and traits being woven into a complex design. It’s incredible to think the level to which God knows us and the intricacies God has placed within each of us. Thinking of God as a knitter I 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. Each 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 item’s 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.

Our 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.

One of the greatest joys of ministry is discovering over and over again how God takes whoever we are and whatever gifts we bring and transforms it all to God’s glory. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in this congregation: You’ve got skills in construction? God has a call for you to maintain the building where God’s people meet. You’re able to create stained glass pieces? God can use those talents to teach others about the depth and breadth of God’s teaching over time. You know how to organize people, food, or equipment? You can serve God through helping others with the Food Bank and medical lending closet. You feel most alive when your hands are creating art? Your art can be a worshipful practice for you and inspire others.

What’s hard however, is when you feel like the multiple calls God has placed on your life are pulling you in different directions at once. Sometimes we want to say, come on God, can you be a bit more clear in your “searching out our path?”

One of the most profound and annoying things I have ever heard about discernment came from a professor at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was there for a prospective student visit and we were in a session talking about the ordination process. I don’t remember quite who it was that was meeting with us, but I remember distinctly that he said that when we are discerning where to go or what to do, God sometimes just says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to go to Pittsburgh or Louisville or Richmond for seminary and God says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to be a pastor or a playwright and God says, “yes.” Not that God doesn’t care what happens to us, but God will work through whichever choice that we make, and so sometimes there really isn’t a wrong choice to be made.

Recently in my own life, I have found myself pulled in several directions at once. Those who have been involved in the life of this church during my three years serving here will not be surprised to hear me describe this past year as challenging. From the myriad health concerns to the loss of both of my grandmothers, and all the typical stressors that come with being a new parent, I have said over and again, “I don’t know that I can take anything else,” and then something else came along. I remember I was talking to someone at my sister’s baby shower and she said, “remember, your car was also in that accident?” I figure life’s gotten pretty crazy if I couldn’t remember a car accident.

And so I found myself asking: do I serve the congregation? address my own health? care for my family? I heard God saying, “yes.” Over and over again, the answer was, “yes.”

Many of you have described my news of me leaving as bittersweet and I need you to know that that is absolutely the reality for me as well. In my time here I have loved you all, deeply and truly. My life is so much richer for having known you.

It is possible that one could look at a three-year pastorate as but a small dot on the 152-year timeline of this congregation, but to do so would be to disregard the incredible ways that God has been moving in our midst while I have been blessed to serve alongside you:

God’s newness among us, through baptisms, new life, Christmases, and Easters. God’s grace filled grief among us, through the valleys of death and loss, through Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays, through the meals of bread and juice. I will not forget God’s presence in the baptismal water dripping from my fingers or the crumbs of the bread broken in remembrance. This life we have lived together was God’s great, “yes,” to this season for each of us.

To look at each of us individually you might not see the connective threads between us, but they are there, knitting us, one to the other.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince of the story describes his relationship with the rose he has cared for to a garden of other roses:

“An ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe… because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

Then a fox says to the Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

The reality being, all that work was no waste whatsoever, but a cultivation of love.

You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have been my rose, and I have loved you all the deeper through our work together. I have been honored to care for you in times of vulnerability, to listen to you in times of joy and struggle. My life is blessed through the ways we have sheltered and cared for one another these past three years. Not one moment of this ministry has been a waste and you have been deeply important to me.

I have been honored by this invisible bond between us, the unity we find in our love of God. For we read in 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”

May your heart know the truth that God has formed each one of us and called us good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9