“The Power of Vulnerability”; Jeremiah 11:18-20; September 20, 2015, FPC Holt

“The Power of Vulnerability”
Jeremiah 11:18-20
September 20, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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SLIDE 1 - Internet CommentsSometimes when I read scripture I’m taken aback for a moment: “evil deeds,” “lamb led to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “retribution upon them;” these are not phrases we are used to hearing. To 21st century ears they sound hyperbolic, a dramatic misconstruing of the situation. The type of thing that if left as a comment on an internet post would likely be disregarded as the ranting of someone out of touch with reality, if not deleted entirely. But if we allow ourselves to enter into Jeremiah’s context a bit more, perhaps we can see why Jeremiah was using such strong language, and what it was that he was striving to oppose.

SLIDE 2 - JeremiahJeremiah is known in tradition as the “weeping prophet,” ever lamenting for the pain of his people. Here Michelangelo depicts Jeremiah in evident distress. Situated in Judah around 600 BCE, Jeremiah saw his society fall apart around him as the Babylonians took over the area. In order for his people to have any sort of future, he pleaded with them to submit to the Babylonian authority. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, but not before Jeremiah was imprisoned, accused of treason, and nearly executed.[1] His prophetic text is filled with the pain of his people.

SLIDE 3 - Temple DestructionMy mind can’t help but draw a parallel to the modern day dire situation in this very same region, with places of worship again being destroyed and refugees being forced to flee their homes upon threat of death. 2015 9 20 Slide04Or in our own country the way that conflicts over racial and sexual identity have led to horrifying acts of violence. When the sacredness of life and livelihood are so disregarded, lament is a tremendously faithful response.

2015 9 20 Slide05Religious Studies Professor Amy Merrill writes, “Part of what makes the lament such a powerful artistic medium is that it can give expression and structure to chaotic and overwhelming experiences… The structure of the lament works to name the sorrow without ensnaring the individual in unrelenting grief. Thus, the lament moves from grief toward some kind of resolution. In the case of Jeremiah, the lament transitions to an expression of trust. Jeremiah asserts with confidence that God knows what is hidden from others and will judge evil deeds with righteousness (v. 20). God will set the world to rights.”

2015 9 20 Slide06This shift from pain to action is what makes lament so powerful. Lamenting is not the same as complaining. It is not an expression of mere frustration or an assigning of blame, but of anguish demanding justice. Lamenting is an act of vulnerability, surrendering to God’s tremendous presence and power. When we lament, we confess to the limits of our own abilities as individuals and humankind all together. We are created beings in need of our creator, with solutions lying outside of what is possible on our own.

2015 9 20 Slide07Lamenting dares to ask the questions that don’t come with easy or immediate answers: why me? why them? what more can I do? where is God in the midst of this? “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

SLIDE 8 - Holding EarthWe lament not because we are without hope, but because our hope lies in our God who is beyond what we can fathom. When we are surrounded with incomprehensible grief and pain, we lament because going on with business as usual would be to be out of touch with that which makes us human, separated from the breath of God that brought us into being from the beginning of creation. We are not called to be callous in the face of injustice, rather to follow the call of Romans 12:15 and “mourn with those who mourn,” even and especially when we are the ones who are mourning.

This brings to mind the movie “Inside Out.” In this movie the main character, Riley moves away from everything she knows and her identity is rocked by the shifting reality around her and within her own mind. The movie itself functions as a lamentation of coming of age. Wanting to make the best of things she struggles with the lack of joy she feels in changes her life, and worries that her inability to be happy is a betrayal of who she is and what her parents want of her. How can she be who she is when she doesn’t feel this joy?

The audience is shown that the beauty of her life comes from the very complexity we might initially view as problematic, that in darkness the light shines most brightly.

2015 9 20 Slide11As followers of Christ we have ingrained in the fiber of our community the knowledge that God is not finished with us yet. We experience pain and we experience healing. We experience emptiness in our grief and wholeness in our mourning. We witness death, but know resurrection is coming. We’ve seen the horrors of the cross, but our hope is in the emptiness of the tomb.

2015 9 20 Slide12Questioning the presence of God in the midst of horror is not a sin of insubordination, but an act of honesty, a willingness to be vulnerable with our emotion towards our creator in whom we are called in Acts 17:28 to live and move and have our being. The fact that Jesus himself questions God’s ways shows that questioning is not incongruent with belief, or with Christianity itself.

2015 9 20 Slide13Our God is a God of empathy, so desiring to enter into the joy and pain in of our world that God came to earth in the tremendously vulnerable form of a human, Jesus Christ. We are created us in God’s own image and charged with the fundamental call to love one another, to empathize with each other’s joy and pain.

2015 9 20 Slide14When our reality is incongruent with God’s desire for us, it should make us uncomfortable and cause us to seek God’s love and justice. The fullness of God’s love for us and the love we are charged to share with one another, means we are called to care, to be vulnerable, to truly desire God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. May the injustices of this world cause us to lament with hope for the world to come. Let all God’s children say: Amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2630

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

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

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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

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness;” Matthew 25:14-30; November 16, 2014

“Faithfulness in the Outer Darkness”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014

Listen to the audio recording of the sermon here

Slide02Have you ever looked at something so long you stop seeing it? The way a week in the mountains will make you marvel at it’s beauty, but five years makes it seem ordinary. Slide03Or a green leafed tree in your front yard, which is always more noticeable as it newly buds in spring or changes to bright yellow or orange in the Fall. Or artwork long hung in your living room that is really only seen when you really take the time to notice it.

Slide05In my experience, the same happens with scripture. Scripture that I have heard over and over again can seem, well, ordinary. It ceases to have the sort of impact intended If we allow the very first reading of scripture to be our only real hearing of scripture we miss out. We fail to see the dynamic nature of our scripture, the way it can shape and color our experience in it’s re-reading, in our interpretation throughout our lives.

Slide06This parable is one of those passages. When I began this week I thought I knew exactly what God had to say to us with this text. With so many parables that have to deal with God in the seat of power, I thought, well of course, the master is Jesus, we as Jesus’ disciples are the servants. God gives us each talents and then we in turn are responsible for being good stewards of those resources. Simple enough, right?

Peter Dunne first wrote the phrase: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, as one of roles of journalism, but it certainly fits within the role of the Biblical scholar as well. And since I was so comfortable in this interpretation, I felt that I needed to seek out something in this text that would challenge me, that would allow me to see this words anew.

So, I started to unpack the text a bit more, as well as read what some others had to say on this text, and the more I looked at these words, what is being exalted, what is being diminished the more uncomfortable I became with the parable as I had previously understood it.

Slide07With the Greek word [talenta] translated simply as “talent,” it loses the Greek connotations of a specific sum of money, measured in weight. One talent is about 73 pounds. In today’s gold prices, one talent would be worth about $1,230,083.25, two talents $2,460,166.50, and five talents $6,150,416. That is a truly incredible amount of money.

Often though, we make the quick leap to modern vernacular and view this monetary sum instead as the talents or abilities with which God has gifted us. It’s possible to view it that way, and certainly many a faithful preacher has, but I do think something is lost when we remove [talenta] from its monetary context into a more generalized context.

Slide08It’s one thing to open ourselves up to allowing God to use all that we are and all the abilities we have been given to glorify God. Doing so enables us to expand our reach for God’s kingdom and to fully live into the joy that is ours in Christ. It is quite another thing to double a crazy large amount of money to raise the profit margin of our employer.

Slide09In his article “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents,” Richard Rohrbaugh points out that at the time of this text’s writing the highest legal interest rate was around 12 percent; and so this extreme margin of profit was likely less an act of thoughtful stewardship, but rather an act of deceit and exploitation. By contrast there’s no way that that third servant could, or would even want to, keep up with that rate.

Reading this through the lens of Biblical context, rather than a modern lens, we are to be reminded that in Luke 12:13-21 the man who accumulates for accumulation’s sake is deemed a fool, and in both Mark (10:25) and Matthew (19:24) we are told, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Sitting here in our 21st century lives it seem straightforward to assume that capitalism would be the greater good of this story.

Slide 10 - man with coinsI know for many years I have seen that third servant as the least desirable role of this parable’s cast of characters. How dare he squander the investment opportunity of this amount he has been given? How could he be idle when the other two had clearly worked so hard to double their master’s resources?

What if, he in fact, he was the one we are to emulate in this story? On first glance this consideration really had me scratching my head. How could it even be possible that this man was in the right? This man, who dug a hole in the ground and simply let this tremendous sum of money sit there. Slide11But then I considered what was being done in by the other servants, how they were likely manipulating their money to profit from the misfortune of others. And I thought about how much good has been done by this very sort of intentional inaction, which we know in other contexts as civil disobedience. Sure, in the ground this money was ineffectual for any purposes, but at the same time, he was preventing it from being used for harm.

In their article “Towering Trees and ‘Talented’ Slaves,” Eric DeBode and Ched Myers shook up my understanding of the passage, and provided a framework whereby I could see this passage anew. “This has been for many an unsettling story. It seems to promote ruthless business practices (v. 20), usury (v. 27), and the cynical view that the rich will only get richer while the poor become destitute (v. 29). Moreover, if we assume, as does the traditional reading, that the master is a figure for God, it is a severe portrait indeed: an absentee lord (v. 15) who cares only about profit maximization (v. 21), this character is hardhearted (v. 24) and ruthless (v. 30).”

Slide14We say in this church, and put on our parade float that each of us are beloved children of God loves us and that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. If we really believe this to be true, how could we give credence to this rewards system?

Slide16To quote Episcopal priest, Alexis Myers Chase, “If the master is supposed to be Jesus, then the vision of God that I hold dear – the vision of God as loving, as grace-filled, as so loving that he sent his only son to die on the cross for us and for our salvation – that God doesn’t exist. The vision of a God that invites us from week to week to confess and be forgiven of our sins and then invites us to this simple table to eat bread and wine together as a community, that God doesn’t exist. Instead I am supposed to be walking around afraid of God, afraid I am not enough, afraid that I am not doing enough, afraid…This god is a vindictive and angry god that only cares about outcomes, not about love. That only cares about accumulation, not grace. That only cares about how much I can give, not how much I worship.”

She concludes, “I don’t like that god. I don’t feel welcomed by that god. My God has set me free to love and serve wherever I find Christ in others.”

And where is it that Christ can be found? Listen to the passage following our text earlier, in Matthew 25:35-36 we read Christ’s words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

Slide19Christ doesn’t demand profit for the sake of profit, but rather Christ demands care for the least and the last and the lonely. The master in our parable may have cast this third servant into the outer darkness of this world, but might it be possible, that that was exactly where he was meant to be? That the outer darkness might not be a condemnation, but a mission field?

How we cast the characters in this parable matters. Faithfulness is only an act of faith, when it is in response to one who is worthy. Our care for God’s people and our own self worth are impacted by whether we view God as gracious or ruthless, whether we view God as absent or present. Whether we believe that we need to earn our place in Christ’s Kingdom, or whether Christ love has done more for us than we could ever do on our own.

Let us approach scripture afresh, listening for the voices of the oppressed, the diminished, the marginalized. May we not be afraid of to be in the outer darkness of this world, because it may be the very place Jesus will meet us. May our eyes be opened to what God is saying to God’s people. Amen.

“A Rich Man’s Regret”; Luke 16:19-31; September 29, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A Rich Man’s Regret”
Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01In today’s scripture lesson we read a story of two men, one rich one poor. This is a tale of wealth disparity, social inequality, and a broken system. They live and operate in an economic state where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer. The rich are the keepers not only of wealth, but also of the political capital that accompanies it. The poor are disenfranchised, voiceless, and looked over.

Sound familiar? One only needs to turn to the news to hear stories of the way this story echoes over the centuries. I do not lift it up to you from a political perspective, but simply in light of the Gospel in the words of Jesus, one who always shook up the establishment.

Berkeley Professor and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, said recently that “The 400 richest people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together.”[1]

Nobel Prize-winning Economist and Columbia Professor Joseph Stiglitz wrote in an editorial earlier this year, “Inequality [is] at its highest level since before the Depression.”[2]

Slide04Our scripture today begins, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19)

Picture this man: he was a man of great wealth. With that wealth came political capital, people wanting to associate themselves with this man, to support him so they might gain power for themselves. These followers, these cronies and “yes men”, likely surrounded him so that he didn’t have to be alone. This would allow him to make decisions in the community, to impact what would happen to all those less wealthy than him. This man’s wealth was reflected in bank accounts and material possessions. It was invested in favorable relationships and that which he deemed “important.”

Slide05Verse 20 tells us that, “at [the rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

Picture this second man, who keeps him company? What does his day-to-day life look like? Certainly he was unable to get the care of doctors, his sores would keep others at a distance. He keeps the company of dogs who would lick his sores, likely providing some comfort, but mostly adding to his distress and worsening his situation.

Slide06Lazarus lay at the gate of the rich man. There is no doubt that this man could’ve had Lazarus escorted from his property and cleaned away from his doorstep if he wanted. No, the rich man lets Lazarus stay there, but he stays utterly uninvolved.

Slide07Elie Wiesel author of “Night,” about his time in a concentration camp, wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of sacred is not profane, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

The rich man was not actively harsh towards Lazarus, he was simply disconnected. He was indifferent to his plight, ignorant to his pain, but later on when he is in torment, the rich man is able to identify Lazarus by name. Lazarus is not a stranger to the rich man, which makes this ignorance even worse. He notices him, knows him by name, and still ignores his plight.

Slide08In verse 22 our passage continues, “22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ Slide0925But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

God does not care for the world economy, or earthly definitions of who is supposed to receive the attention of the powerful.

Slide10In Matthew 25:41-46, Jesus offers a harsh sentence for those who do not follow the will and motivations of God, saying: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Slide11You don’t have to be the richest man in town to carry his sorts of regret, all you have to do is place your values in the wrong things. What is lasting? What is worthy of your dedication, your life? When have you had misplaced priorities: popularity over kindness, quantity over quality, occupation over rest, the world over God’s kingdom.

I know when I read this story I tend to place myself in the shoes of the rich man. While by average American standards I would not be considered wealthy, when you look at the scope of the greater picture of the world, simply by having running water, a car to drive, and a home to live in, I am considered wealthy. And so, when I think of someone working to do well in this world, and being happy in what I have, I tend to look at myself as this rich man. I tend to look at my own regrets, my own missteps.

Slide12What if we look at this parable from a whole different angle? What if we think of ourselves as Lazarus?

“At the [rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21)

In the world, Lazarus was what Jesus called “the least of these,” he was outcast and disenfranchised. Perhaps there are things going on in your life that would make you feel to be the “least.” Maybe you’re not waiting for table scraps, but you’re waiting for something that will help you get out of the rut you are in, the cycles of trying to make it on your own. Maybe you are simply refusing to support the powers of this world, seeking instead a life apart.

Slide13 “Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 1625)

How different does this sound when we consider ourselves as Lazarus? If in this story we are Lazarus, there’s an amazing promise that can be discovered here. The promise that the pain of this world is temporary, that salvation comes after our suffering on earth. That oppressive power structures are only of this world, and not a part of God’s economy.

Slide14In verse 27 we read “[The rich man] said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house-28for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In the Gospel of Luke, the story ends right here, with a frightening and condemning declaration, that the brothers of the rich man, and all who have miss-prioritized their lives, are simply doomed. If they won’t listen to all the leaders of the faith so far, why would they be convinced in one rising from the dead?

Slide15We know that this is not that ending of the greater Gospel story. That we are not left in condemnation by a God from on high, but that God comes near in the person of Jesus Christ to be a living and breathing manifestation of God’s love. When he was killed for his radical message of brazen equality and justice for all, he went to hell and suffered the torments of death so that he may overcome it on our behalf. He was risen from the dead to offer to us, over and over again, God’s great message of love and forgiveness.

Slide16In Luke 16: 26, Abraham, speaking down from Heaven tells the rich man in torments of hell, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

That was the task of Jesus. To overcome that great chasm, to bridge the worlds of those deserving and those underserving, to bring all close to a great God who loves each and every one of us and wants to spend eternity with us.

Slide17In Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Maybe you came here day with deep regrets, maybe you have a hard time thinking of how to move on, how to get out of your own mistakes. Christ comes to meet you in all of your imperfections, exactly as you are, and desires to give you rest for your souls.

Slide18May we consider today all those who are still waiting at the gates of the powerful for someone to care; still waiting to be noticed, to be brought in. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide19May we also consider who are those sitting high off in their comfort, in the promises of the world; investing in that which does not last, surrounding themselves with only those who say yes. How can we pray for them? How can we care for them?

Slide20We are called to bring about Christ kingdom here on earth. We are called to bring Christ near to all those who feel far off. Those who don’t know they’re far off. We are called to tell everyone, and remind ourselves that the chasm of sin created by regrets and fear and ignorance has been bridged by the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior. May we be empowered to set aside our regrets and build a new way forward, always sharing the love of Christ. Amen.

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40; March 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God’s Love Endures Forever” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Praise
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today is our last sermon in our series on Spiritual Practices. Throughout this season we’ve traveled through the Lenten wilderness of God’s instruction, hopefully growing closer to God’s will for us on the way. Since there are at least as many ways to experience God as there are believers we’ve certainly not exhausted the many ways to get to know God, but I pray this series has revealed at least a few more ways that you are able to connect to God.

Slide02Today in worship we’ve all already participated in today’s spiritual practice! As we watched or walked our processional of palms, sang our songs, and read our call to worship we were engaging in today’s spiritual practice: Prayers of Praise. So we can just check it our your list and I can just sit down, right?

Not quite. Even though “prayers of praise” are something we engage in all of the time, it’s still important to examine what exactly we are doing when we say our prayers, sing our songs, and wave our branches.

Prayers of praise are not an act of going through the motions, checking something of a list, and fulfilling an obligation. Prayers of praise are an act of love responding to love.

Slide03Let’s think about this, if you are talking to your significant other and say, “I love you,” in a monotone voice, once a week, and then go check that off your to-do list, how will they feel? Will they believe you? Will you believe you?

It’s important to know that God’s love of us is not conditional on our response, but we miss out in our own experience of loving God when we fail to notice acknowledge the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. We might even take God’s love for granted.

I know I fall into this problem sometimes, assuming the love of God, rather than joyously celebrating God’s love. When I get into a rut with expressing my love to God, I appreciate reading the Psalms. Like someone in love quoting a sonnet to their beloved, the Psalms give us words we can use to rekindle our appreciation for God’s love. The Psalms are filled with prayers of praise, including our Old Testament reading, Psalm 118.

Slide06Bookending today’s Psalm we hear the refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.

Slide07It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us. [1]

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.

Slide08With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world.

 

Slide09

Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. 

 

Slide10In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

Slide11In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ. Our New Testament passage today also provides an account reflecting God’s immediate presence and presence throughout history. It is the familiar account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This is a story we’ve seen enacted year after year. We’re used to waving palms and celebrating with joy the beginning of Holy Week. This scene of crowds, palm branches, and a donkey carries a history far beyond what we see in this scene. It is a fulfillment of several prophesies from throughout scripture:

One of the prophesies is our Psalm today, Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.” This verse is echoed in all four Gospels as Christ enters Jerusalem.

SLIDE 12 - Triumphal Entry Psalm 118 even gives instruction for the very procession that arises around Jesus’s journey. In verse 27 it says, “Bind the festal procession with branches.” And the crowds do, waving palm branches as Jesus passes.

Jesus’ chosen mode of transportation is identified in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Jesus, himself quotes scripture by reciting Habakkuk 2:11, telling Pharisees who were nervous at the shouts of the crowds that even “if [the disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out.”[2]

All of these references to historical scripture were not coincidences, but were enacted to show the people that Jesus was the Christ that they had been waiting for. He is the embodiment of the God of Hesed. He is the one who carries out the covenant of love. He is the one deserving of praise.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was surrounded by prayers of praise. Luke 19:37 tells us that “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, but not as some celebrity they had only heard tell of. This was not their first experience of Jesus, they were responding to all the amazing miracles of Jesus’ ministry.

It’s also important to notice that they understood that they understood that Jesus’ actions were not only his own, but were an extension of God’s divinity, and they “praise[d] God joyfully.” They were acknowledging God’s “hesed,” God’s everlasting love that was presented to them through the ministry of Jesus. We too are called to praise God for the many ways God enters into our lives.

In Philippians 4:4, the apostle Paul calls us to “rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” When times get difficult this seems like a strange thing to do. There are certainly times that we don’t feel like praising God, but Paul encourages us to draw close to God especially in these difficult times.Paul continues saying, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) By lifting up our concerns and directing them to God Paul tells us that, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

So how do we engage in this practice of prayers of praise? It is more than the recitation of prayers, it is a prayer that taps into a joy brought by love of God. It is an exultation, it is a dancing, a laughing, a forgetting our own selves for a moment so that we can more fully focus on God. It is letting ourselves be giddy in love with our God who loves and created us. Revelation 4:11 affirms our call to praise God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Psalm 150:1-6 gives suggestions for how to praise: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!  Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

This text is not a simple description of what happens in worshiping God. In this text “praise,” is in the imperative sense. We are being urged, provoked, commanded to praise. This is the Psalmist saying, “hey you there, pick up an instrument, jump to your feet, and PRAISE!” We might find ourselves looking around and thinking, well hey, “the praise band does a great job, so they should be praising,” or “wasn’t everyone in the procession of the palms great with waving their branches?” But the Psalmist doesn’t leave this up for discussion, saying, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” This means me, this means you, this means all of us! If we have air in our lungs we have the capacity to praise.

Praise might look a bit differently from person to person. Some may praise God through song, or instrument, some may praise through writing poems or creating art, some may praise God in showing appreciation for creation. The point is, we are all called to praise God, in whatever way we can.

In a few minutes we will sing our Doxology, a call for all of us to praise. May this be our prayer today:

“Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Amen!


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 149.

[2] Luke 19:40

“Hungry,” Luke 12:13-21 and Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; August 1, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

In honor of this evening’s opening showing of the Hunger Games, (Yes, I have read all three books, and yes, I will be at the midnight showing tonight) I am reposting a sermon I preached in 2010 about hunger.

Hungry
Luke 12:13-21 and Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
August 1, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

I’ve never really liked Ecclesiastes. It’s always seemed quite disheartening really. The author of Ecclesiastes goes chapter by chapter talking about the different things humankind strives for, but how each is “vanity” and like “chasing after the wind” or in some translations “feeding on the wind.” This isn’t exactly something you’d see on a motivational poster in someone’s office or hear in a commencement address. Fortunately for us, this is not the only book in the Bible, nor is it the last book. God does not leave us in frustration or hopelessness. This book gives us a diagnosis of the human condition, but it does not give us the prescription. What Ecclesiastes tells us, is that we as human beings are hungry. We are hungry for something beyond what we can we can work to make or go to the store to buy. We are hungry for something real, something tangible, something lasting. We are hungry for fulfillment. We are hungry to stop being hungry. We are hungry for God.

Imagining the hunger of Ecclesiastes I can’t help but picture a scene in the movie Hook. The movie Hook is about Peter Pan after he leaves Neverland, grows up, gets married, and has kids. He is a ruthless and successful businessman who never seems to be able to find time to make his wife, children, and company happy. On a visit back to his wife’s grandmother’s home, Wendy Darling, who is the Wendy that we know from the story of Peter Pan, his life is jolted by a visit from the nefarious Captain Hook, who kidnaps his children and forces him to go back to Neverland to save them. Peter, with the help of Tinkerbell makes it back to Neverland, meets up with the Lost Boys, and gets trained in how to become who he was before, Peter Pan. After a long day of training, the boys sit down at a table full of plates, cups, and silverware and the boys begin to eat. The trouble is Peter doesn’t see any food in front of them. He gets into an argument with the leader of the Lost Boys and finally decides to go along with things and “pretend” to throw his food at the boy. Peter is shocked to see the food materialize, hit the boy in the face, and a food fight ensues. Peter then feasts with the boys and everything changes. This meal feeds him in a way he forgot he was hungry. It helps him to reconnect with his imagination, his hope, his creativity, and eventually his family. For so long he had been striving towards things that weren’t feeding him, weren’t helping him connect with who he was and who he was called to be.

Today we will be celebrating communion. Communion is not the food of the movie Hook. It is not imaginary. We have before us real bread and real grape juice. And, barring any mishaps, we will not be having a food fight here this morning. But the feast before us also requires a bit of imagination on our part. In the Upper Room, Jesus broke bread and poured wine and told His disciples, “This is my body broken for you” and “this is my blood” shed for you. In this Eucharistic feast, Jesus asks us to imagine His body as the bread and the juice as His blood. In doing so, we are able to connect to our very real God. A God that came to earth, lived walked, moved, breathed, and yes, hungered and thirsted.

When we join with one another in communion we eat not for the nourishment of our bodies, for communion will likely not fill up any physical hunger you may have, but we eat for the nourishment of our souls. We eat to taste community. We eat to taste forgiveness. We eat to taste fulfillment.

A lectionary commentary that I like to use in writing sermons is called “Feasting on the Word.” As the series website explains it, this book is made up of many “writers from a wide variety of disciplines and religious traditions. These authors teach in colleges and seminaries. They lead congregations. They write scholarly books as well as columns for the local newspaper. They oversee denominations… they serve God’s Word, joining the preacher in the ongoing challenge of bringing that Word to life.”[1]

I like to imagine its authors sitting at a banquet table, silverware in hand, napkin on laps, and Biblical texts spread out in front of them. In “tasting” various texts they speak to one another, trying to explain how the flavor, texture, and scent of the Word all come together on their spiritual taste buds, to feed their own theological hunger. I imagine that they approach Scripture treating it not as a simple snack of some words strung together but as a feast rich with the flavors of grace, redemption, love, and compassion. They come to scripture expecting to see God revealed, and in their own delicious discoveries of the texts they help others to recognize the taste of God.

As we share in communion we are reminded that Jesus is the “Word that became flesh,” who yearns for us to “consume” Him, to have “communion” with Him in the Eucharist and in the word so that we “may have life to the full.”[2]

There is a book I’ve read about spiritual disciplines, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”[3]

Ecclesiastes tells us of the great hunger that we feel for life, a hunger only satiated by God’s presence in our lives. When these children were hungry, only food could calm their fears and help them to know that they were safe. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To these children, God was in the bread. That was what they ached for and what was provided.

Sharing God with the world means feeding both the physical and the spiritual hunger. The trouble is sometimes differentiating between the two. In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.”[4] In our world today there are famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, God.

There was controversy this past week over a t-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters that had “Eat Less” printed across the front of it. Various celebrities and bloggers responded on how they felt about the message of this shirt. Some said it was offensive and promotes a culture that encourages and glamorizes eating disorders. Others said that it was a witty response to too much consumerism in American culture.

I wonder why this shirt was created at all. Our culture does have issues with consumerism, but this is not any kind of message of healing, compassion or kindness. Wearing this shirt will not promote any positive change or relationship in how we interact with food or how we provide for one another. The reality of this is not that we need to be promoting eating less or eating more, but eating differently. Eating in a way that truly nourishes who God created us to be. Partaking in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Fueling our bodies in ways that create opportunity for others to be fueled.

Society is not structured so that humankind may be fed in the way that it needs. Even when we eat, we are not being truly nourished. Milk costs $3 a gallon, soda is less than a dollar, so many parents are faced with hard decisions about what they are able to provide. The cheaper choice may quench a family’s thirst, but their hunger remains. They consume plenty of calories, but do not get the nutrients they need for healthy growth, development, and well being. They are not nourished.

There are “all you can eat buffets” where even the title states that the goal is not to eat until you are nourished, but to eat until you can eat no more. You may be full, even sickeningly so, but you will not be nourished.

Food is used as a means of power in far too many ways across our society. It is denied from the poor to keep corrupt governments in power. People with eating disorders may deny their own bodies of food to seek power over self-esteem or body image. Food is used as a distraction, a comfort, a crutch, a band aid, a replacement for what we are really hungering for. Far too often it is used as anything but nourishment.

God knows that we are hungry. God knows that what we need is life-giving food. We need this bread and this juice. We need reminders that among all the hungers of this world, when we partake in the forgiveness Jesus gives us, we will never be spiritually hungry again. God is real and present and available. Anything less than God will keep us hungry. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] May you seek this week to be fed and to help others be fed with the nourishment that only God can provide. Amen.


[2] John 10:10

[3] Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Denis Linn, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, p. 1

[4] Amos 8:11

[5] John 6:35