“Of One Heart and Soul”; Acts 4:32-35; April 12, 2015, FPC Holt

“Of One Heart and Soul”
Acts 4:32-35
April 12, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to audio here.

2015 4 12 Slide01Do you ever read scripture and think: “Really?!” “Really?!” was my first reaction when I read this text. I thought, whoever wrote this first line of this passage must be the type of guy who writes greeting cards and inspirational posters filled with empty platitudes. No way could any group unequivocally say that they are of “one heart and soul.” Even one of the commentaries I read this week said, “there is little doubt that our author paints a rather idyllic scene.”[1] Indeed!

But then my second thought was jealousy. I’d love to live in a society that was that incredibly united and without any needs. A culture where “great grace [is] upon [us] all.” Could it be, might it be possible?

2015 4 12 Slide02This reminds me of a sermon on the feeding of the 5,000 that I heard by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor of “House for All Sinners and Saints,” a Lutheran church in Denver, CO. She speaks about the possibilities of what happened at that tremendous miracle, and the disciples’ perceived inadequacies.

2015 4 12 Slide03She writes, “I started to wonder what was going on with [the disciples] that they would see the scene in front of them as they did. I wondered why they wanted the crowds to go away and fend for themselves and why, when Jesus asked what they had, they said “nothing. Nothing but 5 loaves and a couple fish.”

And with that offering, that meager offering, which they thought was “nothing,” a whole crowd was fed.

She continues saying, “the disciples must have learned… that there was more available to them than what they themselves were bringing to the table…Maybe [Jesus] didn’t want the disciples to send the people away because Jesus knew that those people had what the disciples lacked. Maybe the disciples, like us, need to be reminded that even when we do not have what is needed, what is needed is still at hand…it’s just [going to] come from God or others, because in God’s economy, that’s how it works.”

And then she preached this line that buzzes around in my head, and I plan to cross-stitch for my office wall one of these days:

2015 4 12 Slide04“What you have is enough because it’s never all that there is.”[2]

For me that has been a tremendously profound thought.

It also takes a lot of pressure off, refocusing what my life and ministry are about, not about being all things for all people, but pointing to our God who is, and our community, which can manifest God’s goodness for each of us.

By recognizing that we on our own are not enough, and allowing God to work through the places where we are lacking, we open ourselves to receiving grace. When we try to do it all on our own, we are operating as functional atheists, ones who see no need for God’s presence and providence in our lives. When we acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, but still are willing to bring who we are and what we have, offering our lives as contributions to the work of God’s kingdom, all together we have more than enough.

2015 4 12 Slide05It is important to notice that our scripture says that the believers were all of one heart and soul… not that they were all of one mind or body. The believers in Acts experienced abundance not because they were all the same in their thoughts, physical appearance, and background, but because they were different. Through their individual experiences and gifts, they were able to contribute to a more complete community. Each bringing who they are and what they have, none of them experienced need.

2015 4 12 Slide06I would argue that one of the joys I’ve found in Christian community is that the less we have in common in body and mind, the more closely we rely on our common faith in Christ to be what unites us. Some of my most profound moments in ministry have been leading worship among a room of people with dementia, exploring what it is to be God’s beloved child with our X-team kids, or joining together with strangers from around the country to serve God in mission at workcamps during my high school summers. Those experiences are impactful because of our commonality found in Christ.

2015 4 12 Slide07If we decide to spend all of our time together because we’re all the same age, ethnicity, or gender, or because we like that same movies, music, and sports teams, our unification is not one of any depth or substance. But if we come together for worship and service to our God, because of our love of God and our belief in our resurrected Christ, we are indeed of one heart and soul, and privy to God’s abundance in our community and lives.

“What you have is enough because it is never all there is.”

The uniqueness of that community in Acts, is that they understood that. They understood that on their own there was still need; by their own merits there was still sin. The reason they were united wasn’t some common pact to live in harmony or because they liked all the same things. It was because they knew and believed utterly that Jesus was lived and died so that they may have new life, and that they might know a way forward into God’s grace.

2015 4 12 Slide09In our passage today we read, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” That great grace was not upon them because of their own merits, but because of the deference that showed to God, the way that they used their lives to point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what united them and gave them purpose as they were forming the new church follow Christ’s death and resurrection.

2015 4 12 Slide10Twentieth century theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[3]

2015 4 12 Slide11Might our community be “of one heart and soul”? As idyllic as it sounds, and as incredible as it may be to believe, this unity is possibly through our common belief in our resurrected Christ. May it be so. Amen.

[1] David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown Bartlett, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting On the Word: Year b Volume) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber “Sermon On Lembas Bread, the Feeding of the 5,000 and Why I Hated Pastoral Care Classes,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/, August 6, 2014, accessed April 9, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/08/sermon-on-lembas-bread-the-feeding-of-the-5000-and-why-i-hated-pastoral-care-classes/.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, ©1954).

“From Where Will My Help Come?;” Psalm 121; March 16, 2014, FPC Jesup

“From Where Will My Help Come?”
Psalm 121
March 16, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I spent this past weekend in my hometown in Ohio working on some wedding planning and enjoying a shower thrown by my best friend and her mother. It was a busy but good visit, unfortunately cut short by one of this winter’s many treacherous blizzards. My parents and I kept checking the forecast. There would be snow. It would hit my parents house. They might see anywhere from 6 to 12 inches. And so, I left a day early to get ahead of the storm, but there was still that lurking feeling, “what if the storm takes a different path?” “what if it hits when I’m in the traffic around Chicago?” “What if I need to find a hotel tonight for Bailey and me?” “What are the chances of find a pet friendly hotel last minute?” “What if I get in an accident?”

Slide02All of these “what if”s were circulating around in my brain as I set out that day. With that in mind, I certainly understand the questioning of the traveler in our passage today: “Where will my help come from?”

Slide03I made it back to Jesup safe and sound and the storm I avoided brought upwards of 6 inches of snowfall to my parents home, closing school there for two days. Like it or not, given all the information at hand, I made the right decision.

Slide04Our traveler in the Psalm today was not equipped with a GPS and hour-by-hour forecasts from the Weather Channel complete with radar map, but with prayers and blessings by the sending community.

Psalm 121 is in a very unconventional format compared to most Psalms as it is thought to be a conversation between a traveler and the traveler’s home community. This Psalm looks a bit different when we look at it from that lens:

Traveler: I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

Community: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

Traveler: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

Community: The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Slide07This Psalm is a conversation, but it’s also a statement of faith. Even in the traveler’s uncertainty there is immediate affirmation of faith in God’s presence on the journey: “from where will my help come? my help comes from the Lord.” These phrases are back to back, as it almost said in the same breath. The traveler is simultaneously worried in personal circumstances and confident in our God who transcends all circumstances. There’s a beauty in the abundance of blessings offered to the traveler. While the traveler asks for help in a specific journey, a specific pilgrimage, likely to Jerusalem, the community blesses with confidence in God’s presence “keep[ing] your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” When we ask for a little, God responds extravagantly.

Traveling alone can be rather isolating, even fear laden at times when encountering inclement weather or gridlock traffic, but much more so if you’re traveling towards ancient Jerusalem. While I’m sure the traveler would have loved traffic updates from a smart phone or at the very least a guidebook with maps for water sources, he is blessed with more than supplication for the immediate needs, he is blessed with protection every hour of every day.

Slide08“I lift my eyes to the hills.” This phrase stuck out to me as I read through the text this week and the more research I read about it, the deeper this phrase effected me.

One possible reading of this text is that the hills could point to the hilltops around Jerusalem where the shrines of other gods were located. The affirmation that “my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth,” points to a God beyond any deities that can be contained to a hillside.

Slide09Another way this text was presented was that the hilltops were a frightening place with steep paths and rock formations that robbers would hide behind. When looking to the hilltop the traveler could’ve been filled with apprehension at the unknown hazards on the road ahead.

I’ve come to understand the text in light of all of these ideas. Yes, these hillsides are created by God, but they are also home to the distracting temptations of following other Gods. Yes, God carved out the mountain, but people have used those same beautiful formations to hide behind and inflict pain on those who wish to travel that path.

If you can’t see yourself traveling up through Jerusalem, perhaps you can find yourself traveling in other ways through your life. Through places and stages of life that bring you to both the beauty of God’s providence of creation and the temptations and hurt of this world.

Slide10While Psalm 121 is cast in the Bible as the Psalm of travelers, it has been applied more widely in the thousands of years since. It can be found in hospital delivery rooms and over the cribs of babies as way to affirm God’s presence during baby’s entry into and all through this treacherous journey of life. Hospital chaplains use Psalm 121 before someone enters the operating room, traveling through the fog of anesthetic and the uncertainty of surgery.

In verses 3-4 the affirmation that God neither slumbers or sleeps is not just speaking of God’s steadfastness, but also comparing God’s infallibility to the other deities that dot the ancient Jerusalem hillside. There was a common believe among the neighbors of Israel that their gods either “slept” or died during winter months and came back to consciousness during seasons of growth and harvest. Our God who is maker of heaven and earth is not so fickle.

Slide11The maker of heaven and earthy is present in all experiences, keeping constant watch over all who travel through life. In this short Psalm God is referred to as the keeper of our lives six times! What does it mean to you to be kept by God?

Slide12What would it mean for you to believe that you are surrounded by this blessing of a community of confidence in God’s providence?

What would it mean for our world for us to be that community; to share with other the confidence we have in God’s presence in each individuals’ wilderness journey?

Slide13This season of the church calendar also has us in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, Lent. Lent acknowledges a time of wilderness, when Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced a time of temptation and threats of harm. In Matthew 4:1 we read: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In a parallel account in Luke 4:1 we read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As in our Psalm today it’s important to recognize that Jesus did not travel into the wilderness alone, but was filled with and accompanied by the Holy Spirit.

We will experience wilderness, times of fear and temptation, but we will not go into that wilderness alone. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, and surrounded by abundant evidence of the God who made heaven and earth.

Slide14When we feel lost it is good to look to the hills for affirmation of God’s providence, but we can also find that confirmation by looking down at our feet. God made the heavens and the earth, AND God made us. God crafted together our very beings and breathed the breath of the Spirit into our lungs. God is with your every step, your every journey, your every wilderness. May you hold fast to the promise that wherever you may go “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Amen.