“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats, Matthew 5:38-48, February 19, 2017, FPC Holt

“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats
Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

Alright, we’re going to play a game, Let’s call it Matthew 5. When you hear something that applies to you, raise your hand:

Who out there has given clothing to a friend?

Who has gone the extra mile to help someone out that is close to you?

Who has given money to someone you care about?

Now, who has given clothing to someone you really don’t like?

How about going the extra mile, who has gone above and beyond to help someone who has gone out of their way to be unkind to you?

What about money, who has given money to someone who they don’t trust at all?

Okay, now raise your hand if you are perfect.

When we really think about the practical applications of this text, it’s a hard one to follow.  It’s made harder by the fact that we probably don’t name those around us the same way this text does.

2017-2-19-slide-2-enemyWho is your enemy? Perhaps someone popped into your head immediately. If so you may be thinking, guess I’m really failing that, “be perfect,” test? Or maybe not. I’d like us to think about this for a minute. Who is your enemy? You might be sitting there thinking, “oh, this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have any enemies,” but let’s really think about it. Who is it that has caused you pain? Who has acted unjustly in your life? Who has caused pain to those you love? Whose actions diminish your way of living?

2017-2-19-slide-3-jesus-preachingJesus does something interesting in this text. He doesn’t say “don’t have enemies,” or “avoid evildoers,” in fact Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer,” and “love your enemy.” Because it’s in the past we can fall into thinking that it was a simpler time. I know those pictures I’ve seen of Jesus preaching have everyone in rapt attention. No one questioning, no one doubting. Everyone on his side. 2017-2-19-slide-4-jesus-crucifixion I remember hearing about the crucifixion when I was younger and thinking, “why on earth did they kill Jesus?” “what did they think that he had done?” “wasn’t he nice to everyone?”

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ll likely always be trying to understand, is that if you are nice to some people, there are others who won’t like you very much. And if you profess loyalty to God’s kingdom of justice through equality, those who benefit from being on top really don’t want you around. There really aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys that we may boil things down to for the sake of Veggie Tales and children’s books. There are so many more nuances in between, and perspective is everything. How can we love those so against who we are and what we are?

2017-2-19-slide-5-karoline-lewisLuther Seminary professor, Karoline Lewis wrote, “Loving your enemies will not sit well with most… First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects… Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think… We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, ‘Do you really know who they are?’”

2017-2-19-slide-6-fear-of-the-otherI know there have been times in this current political climate where I have felt wary of those around me with symbols and clothing that have designated them to be of a different ideology than me. Though never threatened directly, I didn’t feel entirely safe to be who I was, where I was. And if I feel this way as a Christian, white, cisgendered, heterosexual American female citizen with european ancestry living in a small town, you know there are many in other demographics who feel exponentially less safe than I do, those whose demographics place them automatically on the “other” list for a majority of the people they interact with every single day. Many have enemies, not of their own choosing, but who are self-identified by their proclamations of xenophobic opposition and hate.

2017-2-19-slide-7-boyd-bookIn his challenging book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” Gregory Boyd writes, “While people in the kingdom of the world usually do good to those who do good to them, followers of Jesus are called to do good even to those who harm them (Luke 6:34-35). When struck on the cheek, we are to offer up the other (Luke 6:29). When asked by an oppressive Roman guard to carry his equipment one mile, we are to offer to carry it two (Matthew 5:41). Understood in their original context, these teachings do not tell us to allow people to abuse us, as though we are to love our enemies but not ourselves. To the contrary, Jesus is giving us a way by which we can keep from being defined by those who act unjustly toward us. When we respond to violence with violence, whether it be physical, verbal, or attitudinal, we legitimize the violence of our enemy and sink to his level. When we instead respond unexpectedly—offering our other cheek and going a second mile—we reveal, even as we expose the injustice of his actions, that our nemesis doesn’t have the power to define us by those actions. (p. 39-40)”

2017-2-19-slide-8-mlkThis is the very principle that spurred Martin Luther King Jr. to found a movement of nonviolent resistance, and the very thing that made it so powerful. Hate is the expected response to hate. Confront pain with peace and it is thrown off balance. Are we really to love our enemies? What would that love even look like?

2017-2-19-slide-9-buechnerPresbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too. You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.”

2017-2-19-slide-10-confrontationToo often we believe conflict avoidance is the way to be a Christian, but avoiding our enemy gets us no closer to being able to love them. Our scripture says “do not resist an evildoer,” no, instead Christ invites us to draw closer to them, to offer our other cheek, and our cloak, and to walk that extra mile. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about a movement of nonviolent resistance. It wasn’t violent, but it was still confrontation.

How can we faithfully confront hate without allowing ourselves to reflect that same hate? How can we use our opposition to unmask our enemies rather than drive them further away? What would it mean to really and truly know your enemies?

2017-2-19-slide-11-accidental-courtesyAfrican American musician Daryl Davis has spent his life working to figure this out. I recently saw his story in an incredibly thought-provoking documentary, “Accidental Courtesy.” He seeks out members of the Klu Klux Klan and asks over and over again, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” His passion is meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to change their minds and forge racial conciliation.

2017-2-19-slide-12-davisIn the documentary, Davis says, “Let’s say you and 20 other people have this group that is anti-racist and all you do it talk about how bad racism is, what good is that group doing? All you’re doing is preaching to the choir. If you and I agree, I’m not accomplishing anything by trying to convince you of which you already know. The way you resolve that is you invite somebody to the table who disagrees with you and so you can understand why they have that point of view. Then, perhaps, you will figure out a solution to dissuade our fears.”

His words echo that of Jesus in our text, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

2017-2-19-slide-13-davis-handshakeDavis most certainly practices what he preaches, going out of his way time and time again to come alongside members of the KKK and learn what it is that motivates their white supremacist beliefs. He told a story of helping the family of a klansman to visit the man in prison and the way that his care for them, even and especially in the face of their hate, enabled him to change their minds and hearts.

2017-2-19-slide-14-mlk-quoteMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Let’s think about that “enemy,” that you identified earlier. Let’s use some different questions this time. What pain has your enemy experienced? What has shaped their sense of justice? How is their life diminished by the absence of your story and experience?

2017-2-19-slide-16-compassionI’ll admit, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m still figuring out what this radical vulnerability in the face of an enemy would look like in my life, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe wholeheartedly, that our efforts to show love and compassion in the face of hate are not in vain.

2017-2-19-slide-17-perfectionBe perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We hear these words and feel inadequate, but this word that we have translated in the text as “perfect,” can also be translated as “complete.” 2017-2-19-slide-18-puzzleWhen we seek the wellbeing of those who do not seek the same for us, we do come closer to the completeness only found when two sides meet to form a whole. May we ever seek to bring about the perfection God desires for us, so it may be on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

Here is a trailer for the documentary I reference:

The full-length film is available here till the end of February 2017.

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“Seeking Shalom” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, October 9, 2016, FPC Holt

“Seeking Shalom”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-9-slide-1-richmond-hillWhen 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, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. 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.

2016-10-9-slide-2-prayerEvery 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.

2016-10-9-slide-3-meal-prayerAs 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.

2016-10-9-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.

2016-10-9-slide-5-fpc-holtWhen I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:

2016-10-9-slide-6-aaOne man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.

2016-10-9-slide-7-medical-equipmentOne of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.

When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.

2016-10-9-slide-8-food-bankOther people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.

One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. 2016-10-9-slide-10-kalin The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.

2016-10-9-slide-11-walk-to-schoolThis past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.

2016-10-9-slide-12-mission-handsThis 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 sharing what you can 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.

2016-10-9-slide-13-jeremiah-29-11 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.

2016-10-9-slide-14-james-howellIn my preparation for this sermon 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. “

2016-10-9-slide-15-crosshandsThese 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.

Reinhold 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.

2016-10-9-slide-17-welfare-of-the-cityWhile 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.

“Table Grace” Luke 17:11-19, October 2, 2016, FPC Holt

“Table Grace”
Luke 17:11-19
October 2, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-2-slide-1-healingUnclean! Unclean! No, this isn’t about the new parent plight of struggling to take a shower, rather it’s what these 10 men in our story today were required to shout when they got near to anyone, lest they expose others to this terrible and infectious disease. Unclean! Unclean! Each shout creating a boundary, putting oneself at a distance.

Often when I read the miracle stories I have trouble connecting them with our current reality. But this one? 2016-10-2-slide-2-divisionsIt’s a scene of divisions: racial divides, religious separations, and health as a barrier to relationship. There’s nothing foreign about those concepts in our world today. We know what lines drawn in the sand do to our understanding of “us” and “them.” We know what fear is capable of when used as a weapon to divide and denigrate.

2016-10-2-slide-3-lepers-at-a-distanceWhat is unfamiliar, however, is the healing practices surrounding leprosy, and how that plays into the divisions in this story. We know it is an undesirable and contagious condition, but the disease had further implications in society. Social and religious convention of that time dictated that once leprosy was contracted those who had it were unclean, medically and ritually. The duality of their uncleanliness meant that even once they were healed medically, they needed to be healed ritually as well, with sacrifice and the priest’s blessing.

2016-10-2-slide-4-one-leperThis story draws our attention to the Samaritan. He, like the other nine, is healed of his leprosy, but unlike the nine, his status as a foreigner means that even though he has received that same medical healing, he is unable to receive the ritual healing of the priest’s blessing. He comes to Jesus, and because he has been healed physically he is able to come close. His healing moves him from experiencing Jesus at a distance, to being able to truly know him face to face.

He is overcome with gratitude and Jesus says to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

2016-10-2-slide-5-lepersJesus draws his attention to the other nine, wondering why they don’t display such thankfulness. A big part of gratitude is acknowledging that there is actually something outside of yourself that is making things happen, improving your life in perceptible ways. If you believe that your health and wellness are solely your own doing, why would you express gratitude to one beyond yourself?

These nine were taking the steps they needed to take, like following through on a prescribed workout plan and diet. I guess one could see that as the upside to legalism. If things are so straightforward and dualistic: healthy and sick, broken and whole, and you believe that your move from one side of the coin to the other is determined by your actions, then you are indeed the one to be praised. Way to go, you! But the independence exercised by these nine, reveals an ignorance of God at work.

2016-10-2-slide-6-one-leper-shadowThis tenth man saw things a bit differently. He didn’t fall within the bounds of Jewish culture, and therefore was not privy to the benefits of their legalism. When he experienced healing he knew it not as his own doing, but as an act of grace from God. In his great need, he was able to see his lack of control, and thus was more receptive to God at work in his healing.

Gratitude is fundamentally an acknowledgement of our limitations and a humble response to our interdependence.

2016-10-2-slide-7-calvin-hospitalIn this recent season of life, welcoming sweet Calvin into the world, I’ve been surrounded by many moments of great need and humility. When you are in great need and have those needs met it can’t help but spur gratitude. So many of you saw me through many months of morning sickness, that was certainly not contained to the morning. Try as I might to find my own ways out of it, I instead was required to find ways through it, accepting the help of others, surrendering to my need for God’s presence.

In the midst of those first few days with Calvin, there were many opportunities to learn this lesson over and over again, through my inability to walk, climb stairs, or drive. I was utterly dependent on the help of others and on the peace and comfort God’s presence. Little by little I regained some semblance of health, but the interdependence in that time of utter need stayed with me.

As we sought to figure out this parenting business, so much was new and unfamiliar. In one specific instance I was trying to figure out how to sterilize bottles. What do you know, that very day we received a package from the Lloyds with another set of bottles and a steamer to help clean the bottles! The generosity was the Lloyds’, but the timing had to be God at work.

2016-10-2-slide-8-praying-around-tableOne of the first implicit lessons I was taught about faith was the importance of acknowledging need and interdependence through praying before eating a meal. In these prayers we were naming our need, naming the needs of others, naming our gifts, and thanking God for what we had.

2016-10-2-slide-9-prayerUCC pastor, Rev. John Thomas reflects on how our gratitude shapes our prayers. He wrote, “Saying a prayer before meals quietly or with others acknowledges that my life depends on God’s bounty and on a host of people who grew, processed, distributed, prepared, and served the food that gives me nourishment and delight. Saying a prayer by a hospital bed admits that my health rests in God’s love as well as the skills of scientists and physicians and nurses and a host of people who maintain these places of care. And, yes, even sending a thank-you note… is far more than social convention, but an awareness that the best gifts and thus much of the joy of life are not things we can give ourselves but come from beyond us as an alluring expression of love, even an invitation to love. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are weaned away from the myth of entitlement and the arrogance and isolation of independence. Each thank you becomes a way to practice gratitude so that more and more our lives are shaped by the truth of our belonging to others, even to Christ.”

2016-10-2-slide-10-communion-table Today we have the opportunity to acknowledge the healing we’ve experienced through Christ and to draw near God in gratitude, coming to the communion table. In communion we are fed by the body and blood of Christ, a meal of unmerited favor, that is to say, grace.

Just as we are drawn close to Christ in this sacrament, we are also drawn close to Christ’s universal Church. When we come to the communion table we are all eating a common meal, bread and juice, but it is indicative of a much larger and more varied table. We come to this table in the midst of fellow Christians all over the world and all throughout time. At this table we offer up ourselves, our own ideas of how to be healthy and whole and good. We forgo our independence to be enveloped in the beauty of our interdependence, so that we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we may fully partake in Christ’s grace.

2016-10-2-slide-11-hands-on-arms Seminary professor of mine, Beverly Zink-Sawyer had this to say about the teaching enacted by the Samaritan, “It is his actions that are exemplary for us as a community of faith. Recognizing the healing that has occurred, he turns back to praise God and falls at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. The verbs “praise” (doxazo) and “thank” (eucharisto) echo references to worship frequently used by Luke and other New Testament writers. Luke seems to be connecting the practices that mark Christian worship with the restoration of health. We are reminded by the leper’s action that the ultimate place where we can cry out to God, receive mercy, and be transformed is the church, the place where we gather to offer our thanksgiving and praise.”

So as we are gathered today, in our worship, and most especially at this table of grace, may we remember that we are not our own, but we belong to one another and to God in blessed interdependence. May we respond with the utmost gratitude. Let all thanks be to God. Amen.

Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Palm Cross Prayer of Confession

Liturgy first led in worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt on March 29, 2015 at our Upstream Service. The liturgy is designed so that the responsive confession is happening while the palm frond is being folded. I recommend letting the congregation know this before the invitation. Also, take your time and be sure to show them your frond you are folding (and/or project images of the folds close up – feel free to use my photos for this) so that the congregation can follow along. I did provide the written directions alongside the liturgy when I used it in worship. Since different people receive information if different ways, I recommend having the directions visually and in written form.

Invitation to Confession: The palms don’t wave for long. Just moments later and the people were picking up their coats, cleaning them off, and going about their day. So, too, we are quick to move on, pass the joy of welcoming our savior, into our own concerns in day to day living. Together, we transform celebration into ignorance, and our ignorance is transformed into pain. As we confess our sins together, we fold palms into crosses, symbolizing the journey of Holy Week. Together let us pray:

Prayer of confession

IMG_0686_2

Holding palm frond

Holding palm frond

Leader: We come knowing the way we ought to live

People: The path of righteousness laid before us

 

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Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Bending 2/3s of frond over to back

Leader: But we bow before so many idols

People: Ego, status, wealth

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Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here's what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece (here’s what that looks like if you are not holding on to it)

 

Folding long end of frond perpendicular to the right at half way down front piece

Leader: Offered the guidance of the Holy Spirit

People: We turn away

 

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Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding perpendicular side of frond inwards

Leader: Offered God’s boundless love

People: We draw boundaries around those we will love

 

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself

Folding frond in on itself (here's what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself (here’s what it looks like if you are not holding on to it)

Folding frond in on itself

Leader: Offered the peace of Christ

People: We join the crowd in demanding for his crucifixion

 

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Holding cross formed from palm frond

Leader: For all of these things we ask forgiveness

People: When our “Hosannas” turn to “Crucify Him!”, we know not what we are doing.

 

Here are a few finishing steps to tie them. I did not put them in the liturgy itself simply for timing, but the end of the last piece folded can be tied around the back as shown below:

Folding end around the middle

Folding end around the middle

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Tucking the end into the middle back

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Pulling the end tight. I then ripped off the loose part, but it could be looped through again so it will lie flatter

Learn more about FPC Holt’s Upstream Service here:

Presbyterian Resources on the Web

As part of an Exploratory Gathering at FPC Holt, I was tasked with putting together a list of online resources. After crowd-sourcing other PCUSA leaders I discovered some new resources as well. Feel free to check out the FPC Holt specific resources to see what we’re up to (and what God is up to in our midst) or the broader resources to connect with the PCUSA:

Presbyterian Resources on the Web

FPC Holt Website: http://www.fpc-holt.org/

Web presence for our church with weekly Chanters, bi-monthly newsletters, and past sermons.

FPC Holt Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/fpcholt

News, updates, and resources for our church and wider community

FPC Holt Twitter Page: https://twitter.com/fpcholt

News, updates, and resources for our church and wider community, with further opportunity to engage in live experiences.

FPC Holt Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/155759854487131/

A forum for prayer requests and other information for our church family

“I’ll ChicaGO Where You Send Me”: http://chicagowhereyousendme.weebly.com/

Blog of FPC Holt member, Teresa Larson, serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in Chicago.

ACT Uganda: http://actuganda2014.blogspot.com/

Blog of our church’s ministry with Agape Community Transformation (ACT) in Uganda.

Camp Greenwood: http://campgreenwood.org/

The PCUSA camp that our church is affiliated with.

Presbytery of Lake Michigan: http://www.lakemichiganpresbytery.org/

Resources and contact information for the churches of our presbytery.

Theocademy: http://www.theocademy.com/

Drawing on the vast gifts of our denomination, Theocademy wants to provide members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the finest theological education they can get short of attending one of our 10 seminaries. Free videos on the website with DVDs available for purchase as well. There are videos particularly designed for new members as well as for ruling elders and deacons.

D365: http://d365.org/

Provides daily devotions online written especially for youth and young adults

Presbyterian Daily Readings: www.presbyterianmission.org/devotion/

Provides the two-year Daily Lectionary from the Book of Common Worship and the three-year Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sundays and festivals.

The Thoughtful Christian: http://www.thethoughtfulchristian.com/

Offers downloadable resources for study groups and individuals at affordable prices with new studies added weekly.

Mission Yearbook: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/yearbook/

Stories of the PCUSA throughout our country and world, organized with one entry for each day. Engage in ministry alongside them by praying through the Mission Yearbook.

What’s Next What’s Now: http://whatsnextwhatsnow.org/

Equipping young adults for the journey of faith. What’s Next What’s Now is a central hub connecting young adults to their passions and interests and helping others connect better to young adults.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: http://pda.pcusa.org/

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance enables congregations and mission partners of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to witness to the healing love of Christ through caring for communities adversely affected by crises and catastrophic events.

All PCUSA Blogs: http://www.pcusa.org/blogs/

Through the Bible, the cornerstone of our faith, we know the stories of God’s efforts to communicate with creation and of creation’s response. God communicates through rainbows and burning bush, through earthquakes and fire, and through the still small voice. We pray that God will speak through us as we tell new stories of the faith, life and mission found in Christ’s church.

“Worthy of the Call;” 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; November 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Worthy of the Call”
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
November 3, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When was a time someone told you they were proud of you? What was it for? What did it feel like for them to tell you?

In our scripture today we read in verse 4 that Paul and his coworkers in mission, Silvanus and Timothy, write to the community of Thessalonica saying, “we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.”

They boasted of the community of Thessalonica and the way it has maintained faith and increased in love.

Slide03How do you speak of this church and the community formed here?

A few weeks ago when Hospice hosted a Memorial Service at our church I was quite proud of the praise that our church received. One of the women who worked with Hospice told me that even before people were in the building it felt comfortable and it felt like home. What an incredible thing, that our building would feel like home to someone who had never been here before!

When people ask me about this congregation, I say that you are a loving church, a family church that loves to hug one another. I’m proud of how you have worked to tithe 10 percent of the church budget to missions. I lift up the WOW program and how it has now created a legacy in this community of kids who have come to experience the love of Christ. In short, I’m proud of you.

What does it feel like to hear that? I hope it’s not too big of a surprise. But I also hope that this encouragement doesn’t just remain in this room, in this hour, but that it motivates the mission and work of this church.

How may we respond to the blessings of this community?

First, and foremost, we can echo the prayers of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy who write, “we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Slide05How often do you pray for this church? I know some in this congregation are prayer warriors with a steady habit of praying for those around them and I commend you for that. For others of us, myself included, we need a good deal of direction in our prayer. We need prayer lists and reminders.

I would encourage you to take home your order of worship each week and post that prayer concern list on your refrigerator. Pray the names listed there not just on Sunday mornings when that insert falls out of the bulletin, but all throughout the week. Pray for this congregation, for the work of the session, that they may make sound decisions for our church and for the deacons, that they may be strengthened in their ministries of helping this community. Pray for Sunday School leaders and WOW volunteers. And please, please pray for your minister, that I may live healthfully in ways that allow me to be strengthened to preach, pray, and care for this church and community.

In praying these prayers our awareness of God’s hand in the work of our church and community increases and we are open to what God has yet to reveal. Our deacons are reviving a way for us to be in prayer for one another, by participating in our church prayer chain calls and e-mails. I hope that you will consider adding this to your practice of prayer.

Slide06The second way we can respond to the blessings of this community is to contribute to the future of the church. In a few weeks, on November 24th, we will be having a congregational meeting following worship. In this meeting our elders on session will be presenting several needs in our church building.

If you are not excited by the prospect of spending money on a new roof, I’d ask you to think about all the things that will be happening underneath that roof. All the lives that are touched in worship, all the children who will be ministered to by WOW, all the baptisms, weddings and funerals that will take place beneath it. By keeping up this building, we continue to make a home for all who will come in the future.

Beyond financial contributions, we can also contribute our time, through participating in Bible studies, providing music for worship services, leading children’s Sunday school or WOW. Taking the initiative to welcome a new visitor, or welcome someone who may has been in worship for a while to spend some time together outside of the church, extending our community beyond these walls.

Third, we can strive to respond to this prayer, by working to live lived worthy of the call we have received in Matthew 28:19-20. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are disciples tasked with allowing God to work in a through our lives to glorify Jesus Christ. Are you living a life worthy of that call? It’s a strange thing to think about, the worthiness of our lives as followers of Christ.

Slide08It is important to understand that God does not demand us to be worthy of God’s love, in fact the gospel message tells us that as sinful people we are not capable of perfection, but are able to attain it through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. However, when we receive this gift of God’s grace we are compelled to respond.

Working towards worthiness is also how we, as followers of Christ, might reflect Christ’s light into the world; how we might respond to grace with gratitude. When we proclaim ourselves to be Christians we are proclaim that we are Christ’s disciples. That is a bold claim and one that we are to take seriously through living lives of love and grace.

So, how will you uplift this church? How will you enable this community to grow in love and faith?

I echo the words of Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus, “[I] always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” May it be so. 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

“Lost and Found”; Luke 15:1-10; September 15, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Lost and Found”
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - NYC SubwayTwo weeks ago the New York City subway system in Brooklyn was shut down for an hour and a half. As crowds gathered and commuters became frustrated, they certainly guessed at what it could be, what could shut down their subway travel so completely? It turned out that the reason was not some mechanical issue or political threat, but two kittens. Everything was stopped so that these two kittens could be rescued when they were spotted down on the rails below. Everything was stopped so that their two little lives could be saved.[1]SLIDE 2 - Kittens on rail

I know when I first heard this story my reaction was an incredulous, “really?” Though I am an animal lover myself, it just seems… unusual, bizarre, and disproportionately inconvenient. However, after being reminded of our scripture lesson this week, I realized that this story of extravagant care and compassion while being so odd is simultaneously a manifestation of the Gospel message.

This story is rather close the parables Jesus gives us in our scripture today.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

????????????????????????????????????????This passage just leads to more questions, why would Jesus advocate such a bend over backwards approach to caring for that one lost sheep? What is he seeking to accomplish by leaving all the rest of the sheep and just going after one?

Our understanding of Jesus’ parable, and our response to it, depends on our perspective. Those 99 sheep could be like those subway travelers, frustrated with the circumstances, not happy with being left unable to move forward. Those sheep in that group likely pulled closer together. Those subway travellers were likely tapping feet, sighing deep sighs, and grumbling among themselves.

SLIDE 5 -Stranded SheepNow imagine instead that the lost one is one that you specifically care about, a loved one, a spouse, a family member, a child. Of course you would want everything to be stopped, and you wouldn’t mind if you were left with the rest of the group, because it would be to search out for your loved one. “Whatever it takes,” is the mantra of a parent of a lost child, and the response of our heavenly parent to all lost children.

It’s a strange and scary picture for anyone to be left in the wilderness, but even harder if you are one alone in the wilderness. Wilderness doesn’t feel so wilderness-like when you’re in community. Though yes, there were still dangers to these 99 sheep, there were even greater dangers for that one sheep out by itself.

SLIDE 6 - RighteousI’m also bothered by the idea in this passage that Jesus doesn’t pursue the well being of the righteous. What a strange thought. We think that by coming to know God better we reach some sort of inner circle where we have direct access to Jesus Christ, but this passage points to a strange and challenging message. Once we have achieved righteousness, whatever that may look like, we are no longer Jesus’ top priority.

1 Timothy 1:12-17 says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Jesus is not worried about the righteous; he’s worried about lost. While Jesus came to be our example and friend, he came most explicitly to be our savior. He’s not about buddying up to us, he’s about caring us in our brokenness and about seeking the restoration of our sinful souls.

By extension, we are tasked with worrying about the lost, rather than about the righteous. We are called to reach out of our own comfortable pew and group of church friends to those who are searching for God. We are called to reach out to those who don’t even realize that it’s God that they are searching for.

There is a baptismal prayer in the tradition of the Uniting Church in Australia, that sums up God’s desire to seek us out of our unperceived brokenness: “Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, has lived, has suffered; for you, he has endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary; for you, he has uttered the cry “It is accomplished!” For you, he has triumphed over death; for you, he prays at God’s right hand; all for you little child, even though you do not know it. In baptism, the word of the apostle is fulfilled: ‘ we love, because God first loved us.’”

Searching for the one over caring for the many is a strange and disorienting gospel message. When worked out in a real life situation it seems foolish. Of course no one wants to harm kittens, but are the lives of these two little kittens really worth all of that inconvenience? That day, that transit authority worker said, “yes, yes they are.”SLIDE 7 - Kittens

A colleague of mine brought up an interesting point with the kitten story, she said, “I bet the New York City subway official who made the decision to shut things down was a pet owner.” My first thought to that was: well, probably because than they would have more of a soft spot for the welfare of all animals, but then by second thought was: oh, of course they are, but they’re not just worried about those specific animals, but thinking of their own animals and what great care they would want to be shown to their animals if they were in similar circumstances.

SLIDE 8 - Jesus GriefJesus is not just a person worried about that sheep lost in the wilderness. This parable points to bigger concerns: he’s worried about all of us who feel lost in whatever way we are lost. He’s worried about all of us that don’t realize we’re lost. Which brings up another question, did the sheep know they were lost? The sheep probably didn’t know they were lost until they ran out of food. Those kittens probably didn’t know they were lost until they were able to experience home again. The whole wildness world can seem like a great adventure, until we become hungry, spiritually, physically, or relationally. When we discover we are being starved from community and wake up feeling this deep sense of loss in the midst of our lives.

SLIDE 9 - Lost and FoundKeep in mind, the categories of “lost” and “righteous” are not permanent assignments. Psalm 14 provides a rather bleak view of what we think we know about our own justification.  It says, “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”

If you believe yourself to be righteous, I would ask you to look to your brokenness and seek God there. If you believe yourself to be lost, I would ask you to look to the places you feel whole and seek God there. Maybe you think you have things figured out, and maybe you are doing alright, but God has placed within you a deep desire for “home,” both in God’s eternal kingdom, and in God’s kingdom here on earth, and until that “home” is sought you will have a hunger within you. Trying to do it all on our own is just plain exhausting. and it was never God’s intent for our lives. We were meant to be walking this journey of life and of faith alongside one another.

SLIDE 10 - Welcome MatI am so glad that you made the decision to come today. Each and every one of you. And while I’d like to support our regular members as much as I can, I have to tell you, I’m going to follow Jesus on this one, I’m going to spend more time with those who feel lost than with those who are doing just fine. If you feel like you’re disconnected or lost or unsure or uncomfortable, you are the person I want to sit down and have a conversation with. If you feel like you are stretched so thin in trying to get everything “right” that you are no longer able to receive the joy and love of a personal relationship with God, I pray that this church will be a place of respite. You are the person that I want all of us to make a home for here in this flock.

Because this congregation, this fellowship, and this church body are better for you being here. Each of you. When that one in one hundred is not here, we are not fully able to be who God calls us to be. When you are not here, that change is felt, the dynamic is changed, and we miss you. It may feel strange being back after being gone for a long time, or being here when you’ve never been before, but I urge you to push past that strangeness and into the embrace of that fellowship, because God and this community want to welcome you home.

SLIDE 11 - MosaicWhen we are all together, we rejoice, and as our scripture says, “there is joy in heaven.” One of my favorite images of the church is a mosaic. There’s something incredibly beautiful and powerful to how a great many broken parts all come together and create beauty. These broken parts are much more than they would be by themselves even if they were one whole piece. Each of us coming in brokenness with or own raw edges makes a beautiful image of God’s love.

God desires to seek you out in your brokenness, to place you on his shoulders, carry you home and to throw a party with all of the neighbors. “Rejoice with me,” Jesus says, “rejoice!” Amen.

“Belonging to Christ;” Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7; June 23, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Belonging to Christ”
Galatians 3:23-29
June 23, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today is recognized in the Presbyterian Church as Disability Inclusion Sunday. While I hope every single Sunday is a day of inclusion for all people, I do think this scheduling gives us the opportunity to highlight the importance of people of all very abilities as members of the household of God, with gifts that contribute to the building up of the entire church.

Slide2While I was at the Festival of Homiletics (Preaching) a few weeks ago I heard a very compelling sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber examining issues of disability. She’s a Lutheran pastor who leads a congregation called “A House For All Sinners and Saints,” a very non traditional sort of church that uses very traditional liturgy in Denver, CO. In her sermon in Nashville she framed disability and ability in a way I had never quite thought of before.

Her message was from Mark 7: “Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

Slide4Nadia then spoke of famous Evangelical Christian, Joni Eareckson, who Nadia describes as a hero of hers. As a teenager Joni became a quadriplegic from a diving accident and wrote a memoir about her story and relationship with God. Slide5Having lost the use of her arms she eventually learned to paint by holding a brush in her teeth. Nadia was watching 24 consecutive hours of Christian television for a project she was doing and saw Joni on the 700 Club. Here’s what Nadia said about this interview:

“A whole lot of well meaning and enthusiastic “prayer warriors” often offer to pray for Joni to be healed of her quadriplegia… but [on the 700 Club] from her wheelchair Joni Eareckson says to them, ‘I would love some prayer, but could you instead please pray for healing from the times when I cherish inflated ideas of my own importance … the times when I fudge the truth … the times when I manipulate my husband to get things my own way…sin…’mam, if you want to pray for me pray that I receive the power of  resurrection to put to death the things in my life that displease God.’”[1]

To Nadia, and to me, this provides a powerful witness as to what it means to be healed and what it means to be transformed by Christ. A lot of the times when we think about disability and ability we think about physical differences and medical issues. In Mark 7, Jesus takes the man away from those who are pleading for his healing, and offers healing. The problem with this, is no one asks the man what he wants, and while all of these people are pleading for this man’s healing, none of them are focusing on their own need to be transformed.

As I was preparing for this Disability Inclusion Sunday I came across a video that speaks to this message much better than I can, about what ability and disability truly look like.

[We viewed “One Question”]

Our scripture today tells us that in Christ we are all children of God, heirs to the promise of God. If we were surprised by the answers to the question on the video that might be an indication of our own desire for a specific sort of change in others. Often the changes that are most needed are not the ones we perceive from the outside, but the ones that come up in relationship, in ability to have empathy, in ability to love as Christ would have us love. What would you change about yourself? Perhaps it is a physical affliction, but more than likely it is something that creates distance between yourself and others or yourself and God. May we push aside our desires to change or transform one another’s physicality and rely instead on Christ’s ability to transform our hearts. May we see the intrinsic value that every single person holds by being our siblings in the household of God. Amen.

“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen

Prayer for Boston

My sister is a runner. Two years ago I was her “media correspondent” as she completed her first marathon at the Cincinnati Flying Pig. We followed her all along the race. I was so excited that I got to see here six different times throughout the 26.2 miles. As she came in my dad was above the race on a bridge and I was below along the side of the race, both of us taking so many pictures you could’ve made a flip book. The mood at the end of the race was celebratory. So many people coming in with stories being told of people who were cancer survivors, war heroes, pregnant women and all of them were now marathon runners. We were so excited for my sister and loved hearing everyone else’s stories too. People coming over the finish line were sweaty, worn out, tired, but filled with joy at their accomplishment.

I can only imagine that the finish line at Boston Marathon today was filled with that sort of sense of celebration and excitement.

And then there was a giant boom. People looked up. Surely it was firework, right? Then they looked ahead at rising smoke and horror. Then there was another boom.

Two explosions causing 2 deaths and dozens of injuries.

I can’t even fathom the joy turned to horror that was experienced by so many in that moment. While I am lacking in words to accurately express how horribly frightening and sad this is, I ask that you pray with me:

God of grace, we pray to you in our horror, in our sorrow, in our grief. We pray for comfort, for peace, for healing. We ask that you bring swift protection to those who may still be in harm’s way. We ask for your hand on the police, emergency crews, firefighters, doctors, and nurses. Give them wisdom in their investigations and their work for healing. We pray for so many who are without answers right now: those searching for family members, those in hospital waiting rooms, those terrified at continued violence. Envelope this world with your love, and as the hymn says, “stop your child’s warring madness.” We ask all of these things in the hope of your kingdom of peace. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition; Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1; February 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition
Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today we are continuing our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices with a practice that we engage in together every Sunday. “Prayers of Petition.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Prayers of Petition”?

In our worship service “prayers of petition” are part of our “Prayers of the People.” Simply put, prayers of petition are when we ask God to do something for us or for someone we care about. These prayers are also called “prayers of intercession,” as we are asking for God to intercess, or intervene, to change the outcome of our situation.

SLIDE 3 - Test PrayerThese are also the sorts of prayers that are quite common surrounding big tests at school or pleading for that green light to hold when you’re running late to a meeting. We pray to win the lottery. We pray that our chores would do themselves. We might intercess on behalf of our GPS and pray for help with directions.

In worship on Sundays we ask for God’s intercession in our community and world. We pray for the comfort of those who are lonely, for the healing of those who are sick. We pray for wisdom of leaders, for guidance of the Holy Spirit in important life decisions. Sometimes we’re not sure what to pray. We have the anxiety, stress, and grief, but not the words to make any sense of them.

Slide05There are times when we are sitting in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a phone call from a loved one in times of war or natural disaster and we feel utterly helpless. Prayers of petition are the prayers of someone waiting, waiting for a change, waiting for resolution, waiting for comfort. Waiting on God to reveal whatever is going to happen so that we can wrap our minds and hearts around whatever may be. Sometimes these prayers are not quite as polite as our communal prayers on a Sunday morning. These prayers might be loud shouting at God. They might be an angry litany of muttered frustrations.

Romans 8:26 says:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I have always liked that phrase in Romans 8:26, “sighs too deep for words.” I have uttered those sighs and I imagine you have too. It gives me comfort knowing that the Spirit comes beside us even when we can’t form our concerns in words. Prayers of petition are prayers in which we offer up the concerns of our hearts and minds in one big sigh. We admit that we don’t have control, and we give it up to God. That’s the important part of a prayer of petition that is often missed in frustrations or anxieties of our lives: surrendering our concerns, admitting our powerlessness, and trusting that God will work things our however they are to be.

 Romans 8:27-28 continues saying:

“God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I love that verse. It gives me peace in God’s greater plan, comfort that God will work through my circumstance, and hope for a happy ending.

Sometimes, I hate that verse. I want to tell God, “if this circumstance is things working together for good,” I don’t want any part of it. Sometimes I blame myself for the outcome, thinking, “Well if God works good for those who love God, I guess my love for God is just not strong enough.”

SLIDE 8 - Soul FeastAnnoyingly and fortunately, God’s plan is beyond human comprehension. I do not believe that God causes pain, suffering, or death, but I do believe in the midst of all of the minor disappointments and larger horrors of this life, God comes alongside us and holds us in our distress. God’s goodness ultimately wins over any evil the world may offer.

If things seem so out of our control, why do we bother to pray? What is the point of all this praying? The Bible gives us many possible explanations. In the book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,” Author Marjorie Thompson offers seven scriptural perspectives:

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Writer and spiritual director, Teresa Blythe writes: “It’s popular in Christian circles to say that prayer works. Yet no one knows how prayer works or what exactly constitutes and answer to the many requests we make of God on behalf of our families, friends, and loved ones. It’s a matter of faith. We pray because we trust that God precedes us in caring about all aspects of human life. We pray because we know prayer changes how we think, feel, and act. And sometimes we pray because we don’t know what else to do – we’ve exhausted all human action on behalf of the one we are praying for. We have no choice but to leave the concern in God’s hands.” [2]

Prayers of petition require a certain amount of helplessness: admitting that what can be done by our own will, by our own hands, in our own human capacity will not be enough. Placing our helplessness in God’s hands, seeking God’s response and action and trusting that regardless of what we would like the outcome to be, God’s will will be done.

Our New Testament passage today calls us to take confidence in the promises of Christ, calling us out of our present distress through an eternal perspective:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

When I am stuck in a wordless state with my personal prayers of petition, I enjoy looking to the Psalms. Our Psalm today offers up a prayer that is simultaneously hopeful and helpless, spanning from “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) to “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:10c) And in the last few lines of the Psalm we hear echoed throughout the millennia the prayer of exhaustion and confidence of one waiting for God’s long sought answer, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

That is my prayer for you today as well, in whatever circumstances are filling you with sighs too deep for words: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Amen


[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: an Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 38.

[2] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 121.

Photo a Day Lent – Day 7: Wonder

“Wonder”

2 19 Day 6 Wonder

This is posted a day late, but is a reflection of yesterday’s day. Yesterday I was in the hospital with a family from church. It was a very serious situation and procedure, but had the best of possible outcomes. The day was steeped in prayer, conversation, and more prayer. God’s presence was certainly felt in that place.

As we were gathered in one the waiting rooms of the hospital we heard a lullaby playing over the intercom. Someone mentioned that they do that when a baby is born. There was something quite beautiful about that moment. While so many people throughout the hospital were experiencing a whole scope of emotions as they dealt with the health of themselves and their loved ones, there in that moment we all were made to take a second to take in the miracle and joy that is new life.

Photo by Christy Bindas

Photo a Day Lent – Day 1: Who am I?

This Lent I will be participating in a Lenten practice that is similar to this past Sunday’s sermon on Iconography: Visual prayer and increased alertness to God’s presence.
You can get more information, including a sign-up for e-mail or text reminders here: http://rethinkchurch.org/article/lenten-photo-day-challenge

photo-a-day-lent-final

Here is my photo response for today: “Who Am I?”

2 13 Who I Am

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Ephesians 4:4-5

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography; Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; February 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography
Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
February 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message

For the children’s message I printed Exodus 34:29b (“The skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God”) on glow-in-the-dark paper. I used a flashlight to show how the paper shone much more brightly when it was near to the light. We talked about how Moses shone from being in God’s presence and prayed that God might use us to share God’s light with other people.

“Gazing on God;” Lenten Practices: Iconography

Slide04Today we are starting our Lenten sermon series on Spiritual Practices, which I previewed a bit last week in our sermon on Spiritual Practices as a way to experience God and a way to practice our faith. Lent actually begins this upcoming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, but since the idea of learning these spiritual practices is to give us new ways to encounter God during Lent, I wanted to make sure you were equipped with some spiritual tools before Lent actually begins.

Today we’ll be discussing “iconography.” What do you think of when you hear the word “iconography?

Slide02Historic Christian icons are images of the divine, largely coming from Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikon meaning “likeness, image, or portrait,” and graphia “write, express by written characters or description of.” So iconography is the process of exploring or describing an image. Christian icons ask the iconographer to explore the divine aspects of the image, looking at the artwork in order to experience God.

I know when I first heard it I thought it sounded like idolatry. To me, it seemed like it was asking someone to worship an image of God, which seems like worshiping something other than God, which is against the commandment God gave saying, “have no other Gods before me.” At the very least it seemed like a rather stale Christian practice. Staring at a picture doesn’t seem to be very interactive as prayer goes.

Slide03But iconography is not a practice of idolatry. Even in the Greek roots the essence of the meaning of iconography is to explore something that is pointing to something else, in the case of iconography, that something else is the divine. Icons are not meant to be divine in and of themselves, but rather they are “windows” to the divine, ways through which we may experience God’s presence.

Slide04Our Old Testament passage today speaks of Moses and the Israelite’s experience with God’s presence. Moses interacted with God directly and as it says in verse 29, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”[1] The passage goes on to say how Moses would veil his face when he was not interacting directly with God or transmitting God’s message. Moses’ face radiated God’s presence. For the Israelites, Moses transmitted God’s commands and reflected God’s will for them. Moses was a window through which they could experience God’s power. This proved to be too intense for them, which is why Moses wore the veil when he was not actively transmitting God’s message. They couldn’t handle always being confronted with the brightness of such truth.

Slide05Our New Testament reading is written as a direct response to this story and a reflection as to why this would be. In verse 13 it says that we are called to live a life of boldness, “not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” Paul continues saying that the this veil is only removed when one turns to Christ, that through Christ we are able to fully experience God’s presence.

Since our intangibly great God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, by taking on a human form Jesus made it possible for us to look directly at divinity incarnate. Icons of Christ attempt to make God’s presence known to us through showing the only living breathing true incarnation of God.Slide06

Author Simon Jenkins wrote:

“The point about icons is that they affirm he teaching, to quote the language of the Creed, that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God’ who ‘was made man.’ Simply to paint an image of Christ is to confess that Jesus, the Son of God, truly appeared on earth as a human being – ‘sprung from Mary as well as from God,’ in the words of St. Ignatius. It is to confess that ‘the Word made flesh’ could be seen with the eyes. An conversely, to oppose the making of icons is to deny that confession…[I]cons stand on the front line of the faith: they stand or fall on the truth of Christianity itself.”

Slide09Legend says that Jesus himself made the first icon, asking Ananias, who we see pictured here, (to the left) to paint a picture of Jesus to go to heal a man with leprosy when Jesus couldn’t go in person. Seeing Ananias struggling to paint a picture in the crowd Jesus pitied him. Jesus washed his face, drying it with a square of linen and leaving an imprint of his image on the cloth. Ananias took this image and it brought to the man with leprosy who was immediately healed.[2]

Slide10Throughout early Christianity, much importance was given to the particular history of each icon, each trying to trace the accuracy of these depictions back to someone’s firsthand interaction with Jesus Christ. The idea being, like a big game of historical telephone, the best and most accurate images of Christ would be the ones closest to firsthand experience with Jesus. Since that original icon was able to create healing as an extension of Christ’s power, images that were created the closest to an experience of Christ would be the most powerful.

Slide11Contemporary iconography approaches this practice with a much broader view of what can be deemed an “icon.” Since icons are images that provide a window to the divine, give us a glimpse of God’s presence, icons can be anything that makes us think of God. In a few minutes we will watch a video I put together of different images that in my experience, point to God. Some of these images will look quite familiar, some of them will be unfamiliar, but each has been put together with the idea of allowing us to glimpse God in our midst.

As we watch this video, you might see your own image. Our passage today in 2 Corinthians suggests something truly shocking, that we can be bearers of God’s presence. It says in verse 17 and 18

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Slide13There are dangers with iconography. There’s the danger of this practice becoming self-worship or devoting our attention to something man-made, but the idea is not to focus on the image itself or the created thing or person themselves, but rather that through that image, through that creation you seek to witness God’s creative brilliance, God’s gifts of love and grace, God’s overwhelming goodness. This is the difference between “adoration” and “veneration.” Adoration is an act of submission and worship that should only be offered to Almighty God.

Veneration is something very different. Tony Jones writes, “Veneration…is how one uses an icon in prayer – not unlike the Bible, which we venerate and respect, but don’t worship. The Bible brings us closer to God, guides us in prayer, and is considered a gift from God, even though it was written and translated by human hands. Similarly, an icon, painted by human hands, leads us into God’s presence…The bottom line is that we use icons to pray, but we pray through them, not to them.”

Slide15In order incorporate praying through iconography into your own devotional life, the first thing to do is to get an icon that you might use to focus your prayers. This image might change from time to time, but choosing one icon for your devotional time will keep your mind from wandering too far. Once you have this icon in hand, find a quiet place where you can be alone. Then, when you are ready, gaze upon the image and look for how God is looking to reveal God’s divinity in this image. What does this image tell you about God? What are the sounds, smells, or senses that this image evokes? How does it make you feel? You can think about all of these things, or if your head will allow you comfort in the stillness, feel free to simply gaze at this image, simply taking it in for however God will have you see it.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Icons… have imprinted themselves so deeply on my inner life that they appear every time I need comfort and consolation. There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.”

It is my hope, that sometime during this week, or at least during Lent, that you would take the time to try this practice. And it is my prayer that God would be revealed in your experience. Amen.

Below is the video shown in worship following the sermon


[1] Exodus 34:29

[2] “The Sacred Way” by Tony Jones, page 99

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

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

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

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

 

“Arise, Shine!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

Prayers for Chengpeng and Sandy Hook

Today was a horrific day all around the world.

This morning as children were arriving at an elementary school in Chengpeng, China, a man stabbed 22 children and one adult. No deaths resulted from the attack, but the horror of this act certainly caused trauma that will be present with these children far longer than the physical wounds they’ve sustained.

Then, half a world away as children were at school in Sandy Hook, CT, a man came in and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life.

The horror of both of these incidents is incalculable. I’m finding myself at a loss for words of how to truly convey any pastoral response to such a violation of innocence. I know no other way to respond than in prayer, so today I offer two prayers that have helped me have any semblance of sense of what to offer up to God today:

The first, a prayer written today by Max Lucado:

Dear Jesus, It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately. These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated. The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation? Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence. Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene. Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us. Hopefully, Your Children

The second, by W. Brueggeman, shortened and edited, in light of the elementary school shooting (posted by fellow seminary classmate, Jenny McDevitt):

Had we the chance,
we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.

We would have paused at that barn and pondered that baby.

We still pause at that barn–
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,

our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed in harm’s way,
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught
in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.

We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
and yet also, like every child, also at risk.

Our world is so at risk,
and yet we seek
and wait
for this child named “Emmanuel.”
Come be with us, you who are called “God with us.”

Amen.

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

“First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle
God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

Prepare/Enrich: Marriages and our Relationship with God

Yesterday I attended a day long training from Prepare/Enrich for premartial and marriage education. It was a very positive experience all around. Though there were only three participants, each of us were coming from very different sorts of calls: a minister in a second call who serves alongside several other ministers, a college chaplain whose chapel sees 50 weddings a year from students and alum, and me, a pastor in her first call. Because of the varying experiences a lot of great questions were asked that I probably would not have come up with on my own.

The Prepare/Enrich curriculum is structured around an assessment that the couple takes that asks questions about many facets of relationship. Based on the results of that assessment there are various exercises the couple and minister can go through to address strengths and concerns about the relationship. I would highly recommend this training to any counselors or ministers looking for a structured foundation to marriage eduction. I found it particularly helpful as it gives me a foundation and resources to draw on when speaking to couples about marriage, since I am single and do not have personal marriage experience to draw from.

Aside from the actual training in marriage preparation and enrichment, the big takeaway for me was how so many of the exercises of the curriculum can and should be applied to our relationship with God:

  • One of exercises encourages a daily check-in, nearly identical of the Examen process we engaged in throughout Project Burning Bush. The P/E check-in involves talking to your spouse about the days highs and lows, and PBB’s Examen involves thinking back on when we feel closest to and farthest from God within the span of a day. Each of these exercises help us to be in touch with how were are affected by the other and requires us to articulate our desires for that relationship.
  • We also talked about active listening skills, and how we need to understand what someone is saying before we respond. Applying that to our relationship with God we can listen to God in scripture, in God’s activity in our lives and the world, and throughout history before we go about the business of asking God for what we want. When we continually listen to God (or a spouse), we become more aware of the desires of God’s (or a spouses’) heart and can tune our hearts to those desires as well.

Letter for November Newsletter

Grace and peace to you,

It is finally official: I am now the called, ordained, and installed pastor of First Presbyterian of Jesup! I am grateful for the Pastor Nominating Committee, my ordination and installation commissions, and everyone who’s been a part of making me feel at home here in Jesup. As Thanksgiving Day approaches, there is so much for which I am grateful, but I’m also acutely aware that for many this move towards gratitude is a hard one.

There are many for whom this is a difficult season. Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, can be reminders of the family members that are not celebrating beside us this year. We have to learn new ways of being family to one another.  We might need to establish new traditions or at least alter our old traditions.

For thousands on the East Coast, this holiday season is particularly difficult in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Many have lost their homes, transportation is difficult, and resources are low. Approaching a holiday based on gratitude, family gatherings, and feasts, can strange in light of their circumstances.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. In Deuteronomy 31:6 we read, “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread… because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” God is always with us and calling us out of our particular circumstances and into hope. So in this time of natural disaster you can:

Give. Provide financial support to aid Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in recovery efforts. You can give $10 now by texting PDA to 20222 or mail your gift referencing DR000187 to P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA.

Read Scripture. The Psalms are a great place to start for songs of praise and a big picture look at God’s faithfulness over time. Luke 12:6-7 and 22-31 are also good verses to remember God’s care for us. When our knowledge of God is rooted in scripture we can see our God present beyond even our current circumstances.

Pray. Pray for families who lost homes and loved ones. Pray as they face power loss and other challenges. Pray for those seek to provide physical, emotional and spiritual comfort. Pray the hope of Christ will be evident in the response in their communities.

May we approach this season of Thanksgiving with gratitude for our great God who loves us and promises to be with us in all circumstances.

Blessings,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Abide in God;” John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30; James York; Installation Service October 28th; FPC Jesup

Today’s sermon preached by James York at my Installation Service:

Abide in God
John 15:1-11, Matthew 11:28-30
James York
Installation of Kathleen Sheets, October 28th
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There once was a grape branch that was very proud of the grapes it produced. The grapes were beautiful, plump and were emitting a delicious aroma. The branch was overwhelmed with pride in producing such wonderful grapes. The branch thought wouldn’t it be great to produce even more grapes I bet if I detach myself from the vine then I can produce grapes from both ends of the branch. The branch had no intention, nor desire, to be anything less than a healthy, productive grape branch. It just thought that it could produce more grapes detached from the vine.

So the branch detached itself from the vine and before long the branch no longer felt strong and vigorous. In fact it felt utterly drained and limp. Its grapes withered and dropped off. Eventually it became just a stick on the ground. The other branches remained attached to the vine and were nourished producing a bountiful harvest. The other branches realized that without the vine, they could do nothing.
Jesus said:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – John 15:1-11

 

Kathleen I am inspired by the way you first strive to abide in God then let God’s blessings flow through you blessing others. In confirmation you made getting to know God through prayer and scripture reading your priority. Your delight in discovering God’s will and blessings produced fruit, an inspiring personal statement of faith.

 

 
As a teenager you founded G.I.R.L.S. group which stands for Grace In Real Life and Service. Your desire was to discuss your faith, share God Sightings and grow closer to God and your peers. The G.I.R.L.S name reveals your passion to abide in God. First you abide in God’s grace, you name and celebrate God’s activity in your daily life and the lives of others. Filled with God’s grace you joyfully, graciously serve. You discipled, helped younger girls perceive God and abide in God. You started the Box City mission by sharing devotions that helped you abide in God filling you with the compassion to serve.
You worship with great passion giving all praise, honor and glory to God. You were so nourished through Taize worship that you came back to church eager to share, to lead a Taize worship service. When I ran the idea past the worship commission they were reluctant. Then you talked to them, a teenager, soaring from your experience of God. Upon hearing you speak about your connection with God their posture straightened, they smiled, and asked. “What can we do to help you lead us in Taize worship?”

 

At Workcamp you did not let the project get in the way of devotions or perceiving God. You were eager to talk about what God was doing, how you saw a facet of God in the person being served, how God was renewing people. You first abided in God, which then fueled your service to get the project done.

 

As North Presbyterian’s summer seminarian intern I marveled in how you have grown in abiding God. Your wonder in God’s creativity inspires you to create all sorts of beautiful things. You saw God in children running through a sprinkler and in a song so with delight you created and shared it as a video. You sense God’s longing to connect with every person so you were inspired to create the “Be Our Guest Ministry”.

 

 

Your awe of God’s joyful playfulness enables you to connect children with God. Your sermons are a reflection of your wrestling with God, your delight in being with God, the nourishment you receive from God. Your time in prayer with God has filled you with compassion and peace that comforts us.

 

 

Your delight in savoring God’s love overflows you with love for all of us. Your awareness of God’s abundance overflows you with generosity.

 

Jesus says that when we abide in God we are filled with joy. Kathleen thank you for abiding in God, for sharing God’s joy through your great sense of humor, upbeat personality, warm smile and contagious laugh.

 

 

God urges us all to abide in God. God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and love in many forms is the fruit. Jesus gives us our top two priorities. Number one to abide in Jesus. Number two producing the fruit of love. If we do these two things in order then we are friends of God, are nourished by God and we will have abundant joy.

There is so much to do, so much clamoring for our attention it is easy to live like the branch who disconnected himself from the vine in hopes of bearing more fruit. It is easy to switch priority 1 abiding in God with priority 2 producing the fruit of love. If we are not intentional in daily abiding in God we will dry up, burnout, become exhausted and overwhelmed.

The dilemma for us is if we focus to much on producing the fruit rather than nourishing ourselves by abiding in God then we have nothing to give. One can easily fall into this downward spiral. It starts subtle with a busy season of urgent demands. One shaves some of the ways they abide in God to complete the tasks. With less nourishment from God one has less energy, love, creativity and inspiration resulting in the person needing to spend more time completing these tasks taking even more time away from God. Now the person becomes fatigued, a little under nourished with love, therefore they say a harsh word, they regret, which causes damaged relationships which now will take time and energy to heal and soon the downward spiral spins out of control. Without Jesus we burnout. Jesus said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus was well aware of our human dilemma and stressed the utmost importance of abiding in God.

The word abide appears eleven times in the scripture reading. Other translations use remain in God, be in God at all times, live in God and be joined to God. Our number one priority is always to abide in God. We are productive and thrive when we are firmly joined to Jesus.
Half of the abides in our scripture are reciprocal; Jesus abiding in us. God is doing 99.9% of the work. God is the vine grower providing everything for abundant growth the soil, rain, sun, seed, and nutrients just as God has created everything and given everything to us as a blessing. Jesus is the vine the source of all love and nourishment. God knows we will have bad days, do bad things and get our priorities all mixed up but if we can just hang onto the vine even by the smallest thread, even if all we can do is just pray, “God help me”, then God will forgive us, nourish us and infuse so much love into us that we will become vibrant and joyful again.

 

Kathleen my hope and prayer for you, for all of us, is that we make abiding in God our priority. I will confess that there have been seasons, as a pastor, when I have failed to adequately abide in God. Times when I cut my time with God to attend to to many well meaning people’s good, loving ideas. Gradually I became fatigued and my entire ministry suffered. This is a really, really, hard part of ministry, it is a hard part of life, prayerfully with God’s help we all must prune some wonderful aspects of our life so we can abide in God.
Thankfully God has filled my life with a wonderful family, a spiritual director, a great personnel committee and a faithful congregation. Since I regularly share with them ways I abide and am nourished with God they lovingly help me abide in God. The congregation knows that when I ride my bicycle I am praying, being nourished by God through the beauty of creation.

 

My Spiritual Director often tells me to go on a date with Leslie and play with the kids. Leslie tells me to get out into the woods. Two years ago the congregation sent me to the Presbyterian Credo Conference.

 

 

They paid for me to go a week early to climb Mount St Helens and Mount Rainer. My time abiding with God on the mountain inspired a series of sermons. After one of them one of the personnel committee members told me that they knew the whole congregation would be blessed by sending me into the mountains to abide in God.

 

 

 

I believe I have been called to be a lead listener, to hear each person’s story, to listen until we are able to see how God is inviting them to abide in God. I keep listening to their story and whenever I hear that they are becoming worn out I encourage them to abide in God.

As a family of faith all of us need to listen to each other and encourage each other to abide in God. Kathleen I hope you will share with these people how you abide in God, how you are pruning to nourish your relationship with God.

How you are searching for a spiritual director, pray through knitting, are rejuvenated by family, friends, music, art, media, a coffee shop, and sunsets.

 

Kathleen I hope you will listen to their stories and encourage them to abide in God.

 

 

You listened to your mom’s story how she experiences God’s joy by playing with Abigail and Spencer so on Mother’s Day you paid for an airline ticket to send your Mom to be with the York family because you knew it would rejuvenate your mom.

A man was working in a remote jungle and had a portable generator that ran a single light that hung from the ceiling. The native people marveled at the light and begged for a light bulb. Communication was difficult therefore he was unable to explain the need for electricity for the bulb to shine. They persisted in their desire to have a light bulb so he reluctantly gave them a bulb.

 

It became a great source of frustration for the native people as they hung the light bulb by a variety of strings but it never shined.

 

 

If we are to shine we must be connected to God. When others enjoy our light may we always point them to God the source of all light, joy, hope, peace, grace and love.

 

 

God’s renewing grace, desire to nourish us and love for each of us is amazing. Jesus knows even with our best efforts, even with the support of family and friends even with our entire family of faith encouraging us to abide in God there will still be times when we become exhausted, make mistakes and overwhelmed with some burden.
Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” -Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be in your skin. Jesus is eager to partner with you, not for you to take the lead and try to do it yourself, neither to hold back and relay on Jesus to do all the work. Rather to live, play, work and rest in harmony, a partnership with God. God created all of creation with rhythm. God created you with a unique rhythm that Jesus is eager to match as Jesus walks with you. Jesus is inviting you to discover the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus is inviting you to let go so you can let come. Jesus is inviting you to enjoy time with God so that you will recover your life and overflow with joy.

All of us are called to show the world how to abide in God, to partner with Jesus, so we can bear sweet, abundant fruit, so we can fill the world with God’s renewing love. Amen

“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey,” Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41; June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Even the Wind and the Sea Obey”
Genesis 1:1-10, Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

The other day I went for a hike on Mount Greylock, on the Bradley Farm trail. This trail is a “self guided trail,” with markers every once and a while. The numbers on the markers correspond with numbers on a brochure and each has information about that specific site.

One of the sites drew my attention to a big rock in the pathway. I looked at my brochure and it said, “The Mount Greylock range is made up of mostly grey-colored metamorphic rock (changed through heat and pressure), as in this boulder. According to geologists this rock here was created from what was once part of a muddy sea bottom hundreds of millions of years ago. Bands of translucent, white colored quartzite, formerly sand, are found here too.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh, you see, as I was driving up the mountain I was thinking about our scripture passages today, how to bring light and life to two very different passages. One, which we heard read from Genesis, discussing the formation of the world, and another, which we read together, speaking of a short narrative moment in Jesus’ ministry, both having to do with God’s ability to control the ocean.  And then my car stereo started playing a favorite song of mine, Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.”

The chorus to this song goes, “Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”[1]

And now, here I was, about 3,400 feet above sea level, being told that I was much closer to being in an ocean than those 3,400 feet would have me believe.

Thinking of these large shifts in the ocean over a long period time I tried to picture the land around me in a new way. That the nearby butterflies were not butterflies at all, but rather they were seahorses, flitting about in a familiar way. And the fern along the path, bent in the wind as seaweed moved by a slight current in the ocean.

How different things seem when we look at them through the long lens of history. Amazingly, this is the very vantage point that God brings to creation and to our lives.

In our New Testament passage today, we read that Jesus and a group, widely assumed to be his disciples, are traveling across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, when a great windstorm arises and the water laps over the sides. While the disciples were frantic, Jesus was asleep on a cushion. They awake Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind stops and it is entirely calm. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Nowadays the body of water they were traveling across is called Lake Kinneret. It’s a large, shallow body of water, prone to very sudden violent storms. West of the lake are mountains that form a funnel around winds blowing in from the Mediterranean, creating volatile weather over the lake.[2] By their nature, these storms don’t last for long.

Let’s be clear, this storm was frightening, and no one could fault the disciples for feeling threatened by this seemingly all-encompassing storm, but by Jesus’ reaction we see that this fear was greater than that. Pastor and author David Lose offers this perspective, he writes: “maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, ‘Teacher, we need your help,’ but rather come already assuming the worst, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.’ This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.”[3]

God has the bigger perspective, has seen the other side and knows that this storm will end.

I am reminded of a slogan that arose out of a tragic string of suicides particularly among LGBT youth in the late summer of 2010. In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry Miller to inspire hope for young people facing harassment. They wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, “It gets better.”[4]

“It gets better.” What I appreciate about this slogan is that it does not seek to diminish the current pain that anyone is feeling, but rather strives to instill hope for the future. Living with bullying and harassment is indeed a very violent storm, all encompassing when it is around you. And when it is around you, you’re not sure that it will end. But Dan Savage and a great many people following his lead speak out from the other shore, beyond the crashing sea, saying, “It gets better.”

In Hebrew there is a phrase that I feel encompasses this all surrounding stormy-ness: toehoo vahvohwho. In a literal translation it means chaotic void. It is found in the second verse of Genesis, which was read for us today. Beginning at verse 1, we read:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo vahvohwho and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos, of desperation is our starting point. It is the raw ingredients from which our entire world came into existence.

Through God’s creation, this toehoo vahvohwho mess is separated out, dark from light, sky from water, land from sea. Creation, is inevitably an act of separating what is to become one from what is to become another. Even at a microscopic level we see this act, cells separating, particles pushing away from one another.

There is a story told that the great artist Michelangelo was once asked how he created his famous statue of David. He responded that he simply started with a block of stone and then chipped away everything that wasn’t David. And perhaps this is how we can view our own creation; our experiences sometimes chipping away at us, other times smoothing the rough edges, so that we can become fully who God created us to be.

Now, I am not going to stand here and say that our God is a God who would intentionally inflict pain to makes us better people, or to test us, or because we can handle it. But, I do believe that when we are in the midst of the storm we are to trust that it will indeed get better and to have faith that God’s will will be enacted by how we react to the storms of our lives.

There is an interesting moment in our Mark narrative today, where the disciples’ perspective is changed. In the midst of the storm they cry out to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Once he has calmed the storm they are filled with great awe and say to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

In Jesus’ transformative act they are moved from one type of fear, that of panic and fright to another type of fear, that brought about by the awe and reverence of encountering something greater than ourselves.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s a good question. Why would the wind and the sea stop at the command of a man? Well, we know that Jesus was more than a man, he was part of the Trinity, He was God incarnate. The wind and the sea obey God because God was the one who created them.

In our passage in Genesis, starting in verse 9 we read, “And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.”

The ocean became ocean by being separated from the dry land.

The hymn we will sing at the end of this service, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” expounds on the meaning of these verses in Genesis. While I won’t read you all the lyrics, the first verse paints a good picture of the text, “God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.”

As we know all to well, the seas have borders, until they don’t. Tsunamis have killed thousands, wiped out villages, crippled countries. Levee walls have burst, taking homes and lives in the wake. And we don’t even need to look beyond the borders of this town to know the devastation caused by flooding.

Why couldn’t Jesus ask the wind and seas to stop then? Were our prayers not strong enough? Why do such disasters seem to affect the people and places that can least afford such destruction?

We’re not given those answers.

We are, however, given these words in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…The LORD of hosts is with us.”

“The Lord of hosts is with us.” These are not empty words, but a promise lived out through the redeeming life of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. God is present in the midst of our suffering. God’s promise of salvation is an ever echoing, “it gets better,” “it gets better.”

Perhaps instead of being chipped away like Michelangelo’s David we could see ourselves like the ocean depth turned purple mountain range that surrounds us here in Williamstown. Maybe what we are undergoing is not a refinement, but a revelation. When we are able to trust in God’s greater perspective, God’s desire for good in our lives, we are able to see the possibility that though we may feel buried by oceanic depths, we are simultaneously a mountain range yet to be unveiled.

In both the joys and toehoo vahvohwho of our lives, all the raw ingredients of faithfulness are there. We must look to God’s creative hand, guided by eternal perspective to help us separate out what is to be from what is not to be. The words of Paul Simon might be right to call God’s great and beautiful act of creation, “Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.” Glory be to God. Amen.


[1] “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean,” by Paul Simon

[2] “Mark 4:35-41, Commentary on Gospel” by Sharon H. Ringe, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/21/2009&tab=4

“The Sunday after Easter,” Celtic Daily Prayer

“The Sunday after Easter,” Celtic Daily Prayer

Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ But many of us are much heartened by His special appearing to Thomas, who in his integrity, needed to question in order to firmly believe. In a sense he is the true apostle of the ‘heretical imperative.’

The disciples were assembled behind closed doors when suddenly You entered, O Jesus our almighty God. You stood in their midst, and gave them Your peace; You breathed the Holy Spirit on them. You commanded them to wait in Jerusalem until they would be clothed with power from on high.

And so we cry to You: Glory to You, our resurrection, our light, and our peace!

Eight days after Your resurrection, O Lord, You appeared to Your disciples in the upper room. You greeted them: Peace be with you! You showed Your hands and feed to the doubting disciple. Then in faith he cried to you: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!”

Thomas, called the twin, was absent when you came to Your disciples through closed doors, O Christ. He refused to believe what they told him; but You did not reject him for his faithlessness. When he saw Your side, and the wounds in Your hands and heed, his doubts vanished and his faith was confirmed.

After both seeing and feeling You, he confessed You to be neither an abstract god, not merely a man. He cried: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!”

After Your resurrection, O Lord, Your disciples gathered behind closed doors. You appeared in their midst, and gave them Your peace. When Thomas saw Your hands and side he believed. He confessed You to be his Lord and God, the Saviour of those who trust in You.

Though the doors were locked, Jesus suddenly appeared to the disciples. He calmed their fears and have them peace. Then He said to Thomas: Why do you not believe I am risen from the dead? Bring your hand here. Thrust it into My side and see. Your doubt will teach My passion and resurrection to all, and everyone will join your shout:

‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God.’

Oh, most strange wonder! Doubt has given birth to faith. Thomas said: ‘Unless I see, I will not believe.’ But when he touched the Savior’s side, he understood. He realized that God has suffered in the flesh. He cried to the risen Lord with joyful voice: Glory to You, my Lord and my God!

Oh, most strange wonder! Grass was not scorched by touching fire: Thomas thrust his hand into the fiery side of Jesus Christ our God; he touched Him, yet was not consumed.

Stubbornness of soul was changed to fervent faith. He cried from the depths of his soul: ‘You are my Master, who rose form the dead. Glory to You, my Lord and my God!’

Oh, most strange wonder! John the apostle leaned on the bosom of the Word, but Thomas was made worthy to touch His side.

Glory to You, my Lord and my God!

How great and boundless is the multitude of Your compassions.

Give us understanding, that with Thomas we may cry to You: ‘Glory to You, my Lord and my God!’

Praying in Color

Today I offer a spiritual practice that I have found helpful. A way of praying when my mind is wandering and it’s hard to be silent.

From “Praying in Color,” by Sybil Macbeth

“Praying in Color is an active, meditative, playful prayer practice. It is both process and product. The process involved a re-entry into the childlike world of coloring and improvising. The product is a colorful design or drawing that is a visual reminder of the time spent in prayer.”

This practice is essentially intentional doodling. There is a process for it, but don’t worry too much about following it exactly, as long as you are expressing your thoughts prayerfully, you are doing it correctly.

The steps:

  1. Draw a shape on the page – a triangle, trapezoid, squiggly line, or imperfect circle. Write the name of a person for whom you want to pray in or near the shape.
  2. Add detail to the drawing. This might be dots, lines, circles, zigzags, or whatever your hand wants to do.
  3. Continue to enhance the drawing. Think of each stroke and each moment as time that you spend with the person in prayer
  4. Keep drawing until the image feels finished
  5. Add color to the picture. Choose colors that will stay in your memory, that you particularly like, or that remind you of the person for whom you pray.
  6. When the drawing and praying for the person completed, move to another space on the page. Draw a new shape or design to create a place for the name of a different person.
  7. Repeat the process of drawing. Add detail and color the same way you did with the first person.
  8. Add a new person to the prayer “list.”
  9. Add another person to the drawing.
  10. Draw with pen and colors until you have created an image or icon for all the people for whom you want to pray. Linger with the page in front of you. Let the names, images, and colors imprint themselves on your brain. Spend another moment with each person in silence or say a short verbal prayer or “Amen” if that seems appropriate. Take your page with you. Place it on your desk, refrigerator, or someplace where your eyes will scan it during the day.

1 Corinthians 12 Prayer of Confession

Prayer of Confession for March 18th

Together, we make the Body of Christ, but we are more inclined to act alone. Apart: one may see, but may not hear. Apart: one may reach out, but may not walk. We confess that we have not always cared for one another. We confess that have belittled our own expressions of faithfulness in light of another’s. Strengthen us in who you, our Creator, have created us to be so that we may function as the Body of Christ in this world. Amen.