Home by Another Way; Matthew 2:1-12; January 3, 2016; FPC Holt

Home by Another Way
Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - Family PictureLast Sunday a few of you met my aunt Karen, as she came up here for worship. On Monday she was to head back to her home in Plano, TX, via the Detroit airport. SLIDE 2 - Airplane in ShowWell if you’ll remember Monday’s weather, that was when the ice storm was hitting Michigan while Texas was recovering from tornadoes and getting hit by snow. My aunt went up to Detroit in the hopes that her flight would take off as planned. Everything seemed to be going smoothly up until a few minutes before the flight, when they shared the news that their flight crew did not make their flight in from Chicago. Not too long after the flight was cancelled. After standing in line for several hours to get her bags and trying to get a new flight she learned they didn’t have anything available till Thursday. She decided to go to a hotel for the night, but after trying six different hotels, none had any room, she rented a car and drove back to Toledo. Hoping to get home sooner than Thursday so as to not leave her shift uncovered as a neonatal nurse practitioner, she called the airline and saw what airports had any flights available, and ended up finally flying out of St Louis on Wednesday, connecting in Charlotte, NC and finally heading to Dallas.

SLIDE 3 - Bethlehem Inn

 In our scripture today we hear a story not entirely dissimilar from the travel woes my aunt experienced. We’ve all heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus’ fateful delivery in a manger after there was no room at the inn. SLIDE 4 - Wise MenBut we rarely pay quite as much attention to the latter half of the journey, when they are told by the wise men to travel home by another way. The trip there was already difficult, so to take the long way home was likely a tremendous inconvenience, and then added onto it the reason why they needed to go this way it must’ve been a very frightful situation. More frightful even than flooding and ice blizzards.

SLIDE 5 - HerodWhen the wise men first met with Herod they were meeting with him in the hopes of getting direction, perhaps even to placate him in his own authority. Herod even tried to make the wise men believe that he too wanted to come pay homage to Jesus, but things were not as they seemed. The reason why they needed to take this long way home was the wise men had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who was fearful of what a king of the Jews would do to his power.

SLIDE 6 - Return Trip Joseph too is visited by an angel in a dream who says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” This was not an idle threat. In the verses following our passage today we are told, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” New parents as they were, I can’t imagine the horror that Mary and Joseph felt at hearing of so many children’s death due to their actions, and the simultaneous relief for their own son’s safety.  The divine rerouting of this dream altered the course of history, saving Jesus to live into adulthood.

The great modern theologian, James Taylor summarizes the story in this way: He writes, “Steer  clear of royal welcomes, avoid a big to-do.  A king who  would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you … Time to go home another way.  Home by another way … Me and you can be  wise guys too and go home by another way … We got this  far to a lucky star but tomorrow is  another day.  We can make it another way …”

SLIDE 7 - PathWhat are your own stories of a divine rerouting? A time in your life when you thought you knew the path ahead of you, maybe you even had a boarding pass in hand ready for a specific trip, or for a specific educational path, relationship, or career. When those things we’ve planned for change it’s hard to know what to do next. Often in the moment being rerouted does not feel divine at all, rather it feels much more like being inconvenienced, or worse, being misled.

The Bible has many examples of this divine rerouting. Jonah thought he had things all figured out when God told him to go to Nineveh, when he resisted God went as far as scooping him up in a big fish to get him turned in the right direction. Joseph, son of Jacob, is deceived by his brothers, thrown in a well, and unjustly imprisoned, but he ends up becoming a trusted advisor to the king in the midst of drought and famine.  In their exodus, the Israelites thought that praying to an idol would get them out of the wilderness, but Moses showed them that they would only survive by God’s provision of manna and quail. Ruth thought she knew what lay ahead of her, marrying into a good family, but then her husband, brother in law and father in law all died in quick succession and she and her mother in law Naomi were able to find a way forward by staying close to one another. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the son thought he had everything figured out of how he would be happy in life, but in humility he ends up returning home and is joyfully received.

SLIDE 13 - Five Stories It doesn’t feel good to be inside of a fish, betrayed by your family, reprimanded by a tablet wielding Moses, encounter a succession of tragic deaths, or slinking home after squandering the family fortune, but God shows us over and over again, that in seeking God’s guidance we are able to make it home again, home to God’s will for us, which may look nothing like where we started. As Joseph says when he forgives his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” To be clear, I am not saying that God causes the harm, but rather that God can work through our adversity for good.

SLIDE 14 - Mary and JosephMary and Joseph also had plans for what their lives would look like. They were engaged to be married, had lived piously and now their lives were uprooted by a pregnancy that was hard to explain to their families or community. But God had revealed to them that Mary would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and bring Jesus, the very son of God into the world. This change from what they thought they wanted changed their lives and the entire world for the better.

SLIDE 15 - Cradle to Cross This child, come into the world through difficult and extraordinary circumstances provided the divine rerouting that changed all of us. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for all of our sins, and was resurrected so that all of us may experience eternal life. Jesus made it possible for every one of us to go home by another way.

We don’t know all that  awaits us on the path in front of us, we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but if we keep our eyes and ears open to God’s direction, we can have hope that even the long way will lead us home in the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Palmassion;” John 12:12-16; March 29, 2015; FPC Holt

“Palmassion”
John 12:12-16
March 29, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 3 29 Slide02“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” The crowds shouted and threw their coats at Jesus’ feet, making a way for him to come into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, hosanna!”

I remember as a kid, reading the Palm Sunday scripture and acting this out, walking up and down the aisle of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio, waving our palms. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” Not knowing the word, “hosanna,” I assumed that it was similar to shouts of “hurray” or “yay” or “welcome.”

2015 3 29 Slide03When I later learned what all was going on in this Holiest of weeks, I was confused. In Holy Week Jesus comes to Jerusalem, but it is not a party or celebration. He is walking towards the place where he will be hurt, where he will be mocked, the place where he will die on a cross.

2015 3 29 Slide04We’re told that the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” and we think of this as a shout of excitement and joy. It was that to be sure, but the actual word carries a bit more with it. The Greek word hosanna, comes from the Aramaic, meaning “save us.”

2015 3 29 Slide05“Save us!” they cry. They are excited because they have heard about this man who has preached about a new kingdom, one where the last are first and the first are last. This is a man who has performed miracles, creating healing and hope. They see this man, who is so much more than a man, and think, could he be, might he be, the messiah they’ve been waiting for?

2015 3 29 Slide06“Hosanna!” the crowd cries, as they throw out their coats to greet this man they have heard so much about. “Save us!” they shout, not knowing how this salvation will come about, but eager for a new way forward. They tear branches from the palm trees surrounding the road and wave them in front of this man named Jesus. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!”

2015 3 29 Slide07This is a strange day in the church, even the prescribed lectionary texts aren’t sure what to do with it, giving preachers the option to choose whether it will be cast in worship as “Palm Sunday” or “Passion Sunday.” It seems bizarre that the option is given. Choose Palm Sunday, leaving the Passion for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and any who aren’t at these Holy Week services will skip right over this gruesome death-on-the-cross-business and move right on to Easter baskets, bonnets, and egg hunts, going from one celebratory day to another. Skipping straight from the parade to the joy of the empty tomb. No use putting a damper on the joy of Easter, right? Or, if you choose “Passion Sunday,” excluding Palm Sunday, you’re choosing, voluntarily to enter into the death and darkness of Christ’s death before the season necessitates it. Why would anyone want to hurry their way into the horror that awaits? Who would choose that?

In approaching this Sunday I find myself in the tension between these two Biblical narratives, joy and sadness, light and darkness, celebration and mourning. It seems like the weather agrees with me, not being able to choose between new life of and frozen ground of winter.

In this tension I came across a poem by, called, “Palmassion,” by Thom Shuman. It’s a blending together of both the Palm and the Passion. Shuman writes,

“joy dances down
the street,
grabbing us by the hand,
twirling us round
and round
as glad tears and songs
make a carpet
of welcome
for the one who comes.
but later…

we’ll strip the branches
to weave
a cross;
stones that echoed
‘hosanna!’
will bloody the knees
of the stumbling
servant;

we’ll dust off
our cloaks
and swaddle ourselves
to ward off
the cold breath
of death
sweeping down
from the Skull.

and when we
look back at everything
we could have
done
it will be
too late.”

2015 3 29 Slide12I appreciate the way Shuman sets the scene, stones echoing ‘hosanna!’ and scraping Jesus’ knees; cloaks laid out in welcome, softening the ground for the donkey’s feet, picked up again as protection against the cold reality of Jesus’ death.

2015 3 29 Slide13We are a Christian people, following a resurrected Christ, but the truth that is difficult to deal with, is there is no resurrection without death. There is no Easter without Good Friday. The shouts of “hosanna” of Palm Sunday turn to shouts of “crucify him” by Good Friday.

Why do we wave the branches of this heartbreaking procession? Why do we allow ourselves to play a part in this story when we know it’s inevitable end?

2015 3 29 Slide14We echo the cries of the people of Jerusalem, shouting “save us!” We desire salvation from the pain of this world: from terrorism, from hunger, from poverty, from loneliness, from pain. We want to be freed of the heartache of the sin of this world. We want Jesus, His presence in our world, and His intervention in our distress. “Save us!” we cry.

2015 3 29 Slide15Throughout the 40 days of the Lenten season we’ve been slowly approaching this week, this Holy Week. It’s a time of reflection, fasting, self-examination. Hopefully you’ve been able to join us for some of the mid-week Lenten communion services, participating in the contemplation inherent in this season. Hopefully you have taken the chance to walk the labyrinth, to write down what you believe and place it in the time capsule for the years to come. I pray that this season has been one of deepening your faith and strengthening your connection to God’s will for your life.

2015 3 29 Slide01In the midst of this contemplative season, all of a sudden taking up palms and waving them about seems out of place, incongruous with where we’ve been and where we’re headed. When we’re walking towards the cross, why are we throwing a parade? In celebrating Palm Sunday, are we trying to lessen the tension of what is to come? Simply prolonging the inevitable?

2015 3 29 Slide17We join the parade, joyous for the salvation that we see coming on the other side of this week. We are excited by God’s gift of grace through salvation. But we don’t want what comes with it. We’re eager to shout “hosanna,” but reluctant to finish out the week, knowing “crucify him,” is what comes next.

2015 3 29 Slide18We can’t have resurrection without death. We can’t have the parade and the empty tomb, without all that comes in between. Taking up the palm branches is easy; taking up the cross is so very hard.

Jesus says in Matthew 16:24-26:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

There is no life without our resurrected Christ, and there is no resurrection without death.

2015 3 29 Slide20Following Jesus means joining in the parade, acknowledging the depth of joy in our salvation, but it also means seeing Jesus through this week, following the steps that lead all the way to the cross. May we follow Christ in joy, in truth, and in hope. Amen.

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

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

Listen to the audio recording of the sermon here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of Chaos;” Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12; September 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Out of Chaos”
Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12
September 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio Available Here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/9-14-14.mp3

As I preach today, I’d invite you to consider two questions:

W2014 9 14 Slide02here in your life do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you experience the most emptiness? We’ll reflect on this a bit later, but for now I’d like you to hold on to those two questions as we dig into our texts together.

2014 9 14 Slide03Chaos. It’s a word that’s used quite a lot. Maybe you’ve used it in reference to your own life: in the business of work, the start up of a new school year, or in the midst of a time of upheaval or transition.

I’m sure I’ve used the term a time or two in the last few months as I’ve transitioned from my last ministerial position, planned a wedding, and moved to a new state. The way we usually refer to the word “chaos” we mean overly busy or disordered. While this is certainly a valid definition for this word, it takes a different meaning when we look at it in Hebrew.

2014 9 14 Slide04In our passage in Isaiah, what we read as “chaos,” is the Hebrew word “toehoo.” “Toehoo” carries meanings of formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness. It also can be a figurative negative attribute as in being morally empty or purposeless.

It is the tenth word in the Hebrew Bible, setting the scene for the start of all creation. In Genesis beginning at verse 1, we read:

2014 9 14 Slide05“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos provides the raw ingredients from which the entire creation came into existence.

2014 9 14 Slide06We read in our text from Isaiah (45:18) today, “the LORD, who created the heavens did not create it a chaos, [but] formed it to be inhabited!”

Our world and our lives have not been created for emptiness, but for formation and transformation in the fullness of God. Through God’s creative acts, the toehoo of Genesis is transformed into the fullness of creation: water and land, fish and birds, people and plants. In the same way, God desires to fill our lives with joy and peace, hope and love, grace and redemption.

2014 9 14 Slide07I came across an interesting historical study of this word, “toehoo” in an article by Professor of Theology, Catherine Keller called, “The Lost Chaos of Creation.” In this article she details out the history of translators’ exclusion of this word in the Genesis narrative for hundreds of years, with it virtually disappearing from theology by the fourth century, because it was thought to negate the theological understanding that God created all things from nothing. Those translators wanted to run from the chaos present at creation, from the mess that is so integral to our beginning. As the verse was added back into translations as late as the early 20th century it was confrontational to the theological scholars of that time.[1]

SLIDE 8 - DistortedIt is hard to hold in our heads the knowledge that we can both be created in God’s image and created out of chaos. It does not seem that God would choose to make this entire creation that God calls “good” out of what was chaotic, but yet, God takes all that is chaotic and unformed and transforms it into a beautifully ordered universe.

Similarly it can be hard to hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are both imperfect sinners and redeemed children of God.

As part of the Presbyterian pastor call process we’re required to write a statement of faith. And your Associate Pastor Nominating Committee was in turn required to read many a statement of faith. In mine I wrote:

2014 9 14 Slide09“Our Creator desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives. God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, yet waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.”

If our beginning place as God’s creation is chaos, that is emptiness and lack of purpose, our fulfillment means being full of life and energized with purpose.

And so let’s revisit my questions from before.

2014 9 14 Slide10 First, where do you experience the most emptiness? What in life causes you to experience this toehoo, chaotic void? Are there relationships or activities that make you feel withdrawn from God’s fullness? Are there places in your life you need to seek healing or forgiveness so that you can better feel the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ? Are there aspects of your routine that have become so routine that you struggle to experience God’s presence in the midst of them? How might you invite God into that experience, those perhaps unacknowledged relationships?

2014 9 14 Slide11And for our other question: where do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you feel the most fulfilled in God’s purposes? What relationships vest enable you to acknowledge God’s presence? How can you nourish and sustain these experiences of God’s fullness? How can you fill your time, your head, and your heart with the goodness God has shown you? How can you expand into the joy that God has in store for you?

While we seek to grow in our faith we can take comfort knowing that while our God created the world, God does not leave us simply to fend for ourselves. 2014 9 14 Slide12In fact, God sent God’s only son, Jesus Christ to come and live in this world among us. Jesus demonstrated how to live a full and purpose-filled life through his ministry and mission on earth, one which we are called to imitate.

Our passage in Romans reminds us of our eternal place in Christ’s care. 2014 9 14 Slide13We read in verses 8 and 9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again.” Christ died so that we may be saved from the chaos of sin and lived again so we might know God’s abundant power.

2014 9 14 Slide14God made us out of chaos, but does not leave us there. May our lives be filled with purpose in the knowledge and experience of God’s great love. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Catherine Keller “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” The Living Pulpit (April – June 2000): 4-5.

“Cornerstone” Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 April 13, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Cornerstone”
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
April 13, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” The crowds shouted and threw their coats at Jesus’ feet, making a way for him to come into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, hosanna!”

Slide02I remember as a kid, reading the Palm Sunday scripture and acting this out, walking up and down the aisle of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio, waving our palms. “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” Not knowing the word, “hosanna,” I was taught that it was similar to shouts of “hurray” or “yay” or “welcome.”

Slide03When I later learned what all was going on in this Holiest of weeks, I was confused. In Holy week Jesus comes to Jerusalem, but it is not all a party. He is walking towards the place where he will be hurt, where he will be mocked, the place where he will die on a cross.

Slide04We’re told that the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” and we think of this as a shout of excitement and joy. It was that to be sure, but the actual word carries a bit more with it.In the Hebrew it means, “save us.” “Save us!” they cry.

Slide06They were excited that this Jesus they’d heard about was coming into their town, but it was more for their own sake than out of praise. They were excited for salvation and redemption, not knowing exactly how all of that would play out, but knowing that Jesus’ presence was for their benefit. He came to give us the final pieces of the story of a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, born in manger, who lived a rabble-rousing yet sinless life. He came to fulfill prophecy.

Slide07When we read through the Old Testament prophecies we have the 20/20 hindsight to know how the story turned out, to know that they were pointing to Jesus, to know what the “festal branches” in the scripture we read today meant. But what if we didn’t know those things, how then would we read this scripture today?

Slide08“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever!” This phrase is so important to the composer of the Psalm that it’s at both the beginning and the end of our passage. “Love enduring forever,” is quite the claim. Especially when we know how the story plays out.

“Forever,” means that God’s love endures through all the crowds of Palm Sunday and the crowds of Good Friday. “Forever,” means that God is present even when God’s own son asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Slide09Reading our Psalm is a bit odd too in the way that it speaks in past tense in a scripture we’ve be taught is about Jesus. The psalmist says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The stone that the builders already rejected has already become the chief cornerstone. While we know that Jesus is that cornerstone, this Psalm was written hundreds and hundreds of years before Holy Week. But that’s the thing with prophecy: it’s outside of time. It is important to know that Jesus’ rejection was part of the plan from the beginning, that God knows what God is doing, and that God’s love is enacted even in this strange and heartbreaking plan. After all, God’s love endures forever.

Slide10Jesus came into the crowds on a donkey, preaching messages counter to what all the religious authorities deemed decent and orderly. He didn’t seem important or respectable, just another radical to be brought down. Even those who were expecting a messiah, would’ve agreed that this Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t exactly who they were looking for. We know that Jesus was perfect, but even in heavenly perfection, Jesus did not fit the earthly expectations for a King and savior.

Jesus didn’t fit into the religious authorities’ building plan for God’s kingdom, but fit precisely into God’s own plan. Jesus remains unquestionably central to the action of God, in our experience and in the future of the church. Through this God shows us that however we attempt to package and manufacture salvation, salvation is always through God’s perfect design.

This prophecy of a cornerstone is in the Psalms where we read it today as well as in Isaiah. Isaiah 28: 14-17 speaks of the promises of death and the promises of God. The scripture says, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem. Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with [hell] we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter”; therefore thus says the Lord GOD, See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: “One who trusts will not panic.” And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”

In the time of Isaiah the people of Jerusalem made a covenant with death, by seeking protection from what was not God. God offers the more reliable foundation of salvation through Jesus Christ, one who will come to live beyond the grave. The people can’t fathom such a salvation so they were more inclined to put their trust in that which they have seen, asking for protection from the systems of this world.

Slide12Before we judge these people too harshly let’s think a bit about our own lives. When you think about your life, where are the places where you feel insecure, and not quite whole? What do you think it would take to make you feel that wholeness? Perhaps if you were just able to lose that weight, buy that car, meet that perfect person, have that child, you might feel whole. Chasing after our perceived inadequacy and looking for the affirmations of this world is not what God wants for us.

In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 we read, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

What is your foundation? What unstable parts might need to be reinforced or replaced? What is making you stumble as you work to build your life and God’s kingdom?

 In Matthew 21:42-46 we read Jesus quoting our Psalm from today, “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”

Slide15Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom came for people who were not just looking to their own interests, and to their own salvation, but to those seeking to multiply the kingdom, a fruitful people who were looking to allow Christ to be a cornerstone in all that they are doing, relying not on their own strength, but on his.

In Ephesians 2:13, 19-22 we read, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

 Slide17Jesus was that cornerstone, that last missing piece to salvation, showing us how to live through his life, showing us life beyond our own through his death and resurrection. Jesus was God’s dwelling place on this earth, and empowered us to allow God to dwell in us as well. Jesus came so that this story would not end with his death or with ours. As we enter this Holiest of Weeks, may we look not to our own inadequacies, but to the abundant sufficiency of Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith. Amen.

“He’s Coming…” Isaiah 11:1-10 December 8, 2013, FPC Jesup

 “He’s Coming…”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 8, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - MailboxOn a usual week going to the mailbox you’ll find a mixed collection of bills, newspapers, advertisements, but during December, things are different. Going to the mailbox there’s always the possibility of a Christmas card. SLIDE 2 - Christmas CardsChristmas cards are different than cards throughout the year. They speak of the hope of Christ coming 2000 years ago, and being born again into our reality each year. They wish us happiness, peace, joy, hope, for the whole year, asking God’s blessing on all that will come to pass. And often times you’ll have a Christmas letter that accompanies the card.

SLIDE 3 - Christmas LetterMy family has always had a Christmas letter. When we were younger my mom would write our Christmas letter, but as my sister and I were able to do some writing for ourselves, each member of the family was tasked with writing their own paragraph. This was a fun but daunting task, summing up all of the past years experiences into about 5 or 6 sentences. This sort of letter marks time, tells of the recent past, what is important to us at that time, what has shaped us, what are hopes are for the future. These many years of letters lined up side by side would tell you the story of our family, the twists and turns that have led us to exactly where we are today.

SLIDE 4 - Tree of JesseOur scripture today speaks to the Jesus’ own family timeline, the “tree of Jesse.” Jesus is referred to the root of the tree of Jesse. When we think of trees at Christmas we usually think of evergreens, or artificial trees, or maybe even a Charlie Brown tree. Rarely do we think about family trees, the genealogy of how we came to be. This is the type of tree that the Jesse tree is. It is a tree of the genealogy of Jesus. The New Testament starts in Matthew with this family tree, the history of the family of Jesus.

SLIDE 5 - Advent CalendarIf you’ve picked up our advent calendar you will have seen this tree. There are many familiar names on the tree but also some not so familiar. I hope that you will use this calendar as a resource in helping you grow deeper in your faith with Christ as well as allow you to widen your understanding of what history brought Jesus to us.

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SongsIn 1 Samuel the first king in Jesus’ line of ancestors is identified. When tasked with appointing a king for Israel Samuel initially goes along with the usual expectations for a leader, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

SLIDE 6 - Jesses SonsSamuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

In Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

SLIDE 8 - DavidWhen the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” This is the one, the one who God has chosen to fulfill God’s promises. The unexpected, the imperfect, the chosen.

Two centuries after King David’s death God spoke through the prophet Isaiah as we read in our scripture lesson today: “1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 1:1-2)

SLIDE 9 - StumpThe tree of Jesse is described as a stump. Over the years since King David’s promising beginning, the Davidic line grew weaker, more corrupt. It seemed that it would nearly die out. But even when it seemed cut off, there was life in it yet. When many had thought the lineage of David wouldn’t lead to anything, God made a way, drawing humanity once again out of chaos through Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Book of Isaiah we read many other references to the promised King in David’s line, the king who will be messiah and savior. The other prophets make the same promise: God is drawing near, a savior is coming.

SLIDE 10 - God is nearOur entire story of faith speaks of this arch from a people lost in sin, to a people redeemed. This is the great story of God that unfolds throughout the narratives of the Old and New Testament. In the very first paragraph God pushes reality out of formless chaos into light and darkness, water and sky, sky and land. What will be come our own existence is spiraled into motion. God can certainly do a lot more with a paragraph than I can!

SLIDE 11 - God and ManIn the first pages of our Bible Adam and Eve disobey God and the need for salvation is established. In the story of Noah we see the need for newness and redemption. In Moses’ mountaintop conversation in the wilderness, God provides commandments to try to set people about the business of living right. Throughout every story is the promise, God is drawing near, salvation is coming.

SLIDE 12 - Foot of CrossAt Advent we celebrate the coming of a savior, the fulfillment of a promise. The big and small ways God’s plan is unveiled, person by person, story by story, year by year: God continues to draw near.

Maybe your family will write a Christmas letter this year, maybe not, but either way I’d like you to reflect on your own location in time and space this year. What has happened to shape you? How might you be a part of this greater story of God’s amazing love? How might you share the incredible news we anticipate and celebrate at Advent: God is ever drawing near in God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Who is My Neighbor?” Luke 10:25-37; July 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Who is My Neighbor?”
Luke 10:25-37
July 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Mr RogersThis song sung by Mister Rogers at the beginning of each episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood welcomes us into a familiar, comfortable and slow moving world of love, understanding, and community. Mister Rogers asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” as an invitation, a desire for relationship and connection.

SLIDE 2 - who-is-my-neighborIn our scripture today we hear another question about neighborliness, coming from a very different place. “Who is my neighbor?” This is the question of the lawyer in our story today, trying to figure out what exactly is required of him to attain eternal life. “Who is my neighbor?” This is a question that seeks boundaries: If you can tell me who my neighbors are, then I can also know who my neighbors aren’t. The lawyer desires to place limitations on whom he should love. The lawyer invites Jesus’ help in identifying his neighbor. This means that there is a category of “nonneighbor.” The lawyer wants to draw a line.

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborAs your pastor tasked with bringing God’s word to you each week I carry the blessed duty of letting the Sunday’s scripture color the rest of my going about as I think of what God has to say to us all in worship. This week was a particularly interesting one putting the text and life side by side. All week I’ve had this question of “who is my neighbor?” buzzing about in my brain.

SLIDE 4 - who-is-my-neighbor“Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I encountered others in travel plazas as I traveled back from Massachusetts last weekend. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I had dinner with Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity on Monday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked when I learned that my favorite knitting store in Cedar Falls was closing. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked at our Community Celebration Service on Wednesday. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as rides and food stands were set up for Farmers Day. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as the streets became filled with people walking about to enjoy the festivities. “Who is my neighbor?” I asked as I read the news of the George Zimmerman trial. All of these experiences have made me examine who my neighbors are and think about how I can be a neighbor.

SLIDE 5 - Passing ByJesus shares his own such story, a familiar one: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

SLIDE 6 - Samaritan33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”

SLIDE 7 - ThreesIn the storytelling of Jesus’ time and in the Goldilocks storytelling formula we are used to, audiences expect that series of three will create a pattern in the first two actions of characters that is broken by the third. In Jesus’ time the expected sequence would be a priest, a Levite, and then an Israelite. Jesus often brought into question the relevance of the law in the scope of God’s greater kingdom and so such a sequence would uplift the common person rather than the leaders of the temple pointing out that an ordinary Israelite would do what the priest and Levite would not.

However, our story shows us that it is not an Israelite, but a Samaritan that comes to the aid of the injured man. Jesus makes an unfamiliar and uncomfortable comparison, placing the two Jewish characters as inferior to the Samaritan. In Jewish culture of this time, Samaritans were seen as not only unclean but antagonistic. In this story they would be more assumed to be the robbers than any other character, and certainly not the hero. The neighborliness of the Samaritan therefore, would not be attributed to his being a Samaritan, but rather because someone was in need of a neighbor.

SLIDE 9 - ManInterestingly, in a story where we are provided with the nationality of the majority of the characters, the lead character is not given any identifying characteristic. He enters the story as a “particular man,” is abused, and then identified only by his need. He became a neighbor because he is in need of a neighbor to help him. Through these two characters in this story Jesus shows us that it is not class, social status, nationality, or ethnic identity that defines us, but rather we are defined by our actions. Someone’s need makes them our neighbor and our acts of love make us a neighbor in return.

Biblical scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes this in his Luke Commentary: “Jesus has turned the issue from the boundaries of required neighborliness to the essential nature of neighborliness. Neighbors are defined actively, not passively…Neighbors do not recognize social class. Neither is mercy the conduct of a calculating heart, nor eternal life the reward for doing prescribed duties. Eternal life – the life of the age to come – is that quality of life characterized by showing mercy for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or region – and with no thought of reward. Mercy sees only need and responds with compassion.”[1]

SLIDE 3 - who-is-my-neighborBy simultaneously identifying the Samaritan and defying the cultural expectations by showing a compassionate Samaritan, Jesus forces us to look beyond outward identity and towards outward action.  True neighborliness is about the joy and inconveniences of being confronted with one another’s reality. It’s about realizing that there is someone in a ditch and not pretending we haven’t seen them. Being a neighbor in the way Jesus calls us to is the difficult commission to allow our own lives and plans to be inconvenienced for the sake of another.

Slide12 Perhaps you experienced some of this inconvenience this week: waiting behind others in line at Farmers Day, having to drive the long way around town in order to avoid construction designed to make things easier for those traveling through town with farm equipment, driving around the parade route. When streets are torn up or Farmers Day reroutes us, we interact differently, we see different things, and in a way, we have a different set of neighbors. And when we do try to go about in our regular ways we are forced to think differently.

We have to think about whether the person we’re visiting lives on the west or east side of 6th street. We have to think of where there are breaks in Young Street. In our detours we learn new ways of traveling. We change perspective. We change routine. We are caused to notice. We have a different set of neighbors. What seems a mere inconvenience is actually an opportunity to follow God’s call to love our neighbor, we just might not have seen them as neighbors before.

SLIDE 13 - ThreeUltimately, Jesus does not directly answer the question of “who is my neighbor?” Jesus instead asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” This reversal asks us to be more concerned with acting neighborly towards the other, than with deciding who is our neighbor. Acts of mercy are not to be done based on our neighbors worth but rather on their need.

SLIDE 14 - QuestionJesus responds to the lawyers questioning with questions of His own. That was one of Jesus’ teaching methods, not giving the answers, but asking questions that cause others to think through things on their own. This can be uncomfortable, annoying even when you are trying to get a straight answer or receive teaching.

Slide15Maybe some of you felt a bit of this a few weeks back when I asked you to respond to the sermon in groups during the sermon, and then went around for responses. You can rest easy, I’m not planning on doing that this week, but think about that moment. I know when I have been asked to respond to sermons within worship my response in the past has been, “wait, you’re the preacher, you want me to work on this too?”

Jesus wants us involved in reflecting, active in the process of understanding who we are called to be. The lawyer wanted to know “what must I do?” He didn’t want something to contemplate he wanted something to do.

SLIDE 16 - StepsThis is the appeal of so many self-help books: the promise of concrete ways forward, tangible steps to take, solid ways to measure progress. Jesus promises no such thing. What Jesus’ stories do, however, is give life to the question. While the lawyer was worried about steps, Jesus was worried about individuals. SLIDE 17 - ManStories make it real. Walking by individuals in our day to life make things real. Learning to know our brothers and sisters in this community gives flesh and blood to the word “neighbor.”

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. He seeks to limit, to check something off his to do list on the way to salvation. Jesus calls us to a much broader definition of neighbor. In fact he calls us to seek to expand our circle of neighbors, to widen the kingdom of God. Slide18So rather than asking “who is our neighbor?” the best question we could as is the one that Mr. Rogers asks? “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?” Amen.


[1] Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.”p. 230

“Christ Alone,” Galatians 2:15-21; June 16, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Christ Alone”
Galatians 2:15-21
June 16, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 2 - FPC MaumeeAs a Presbyterian pastor, some people find it strange that I do not personally have strong roots in the Presbyterian Church. When searching for a church, my family historically has picked churches based on the community found within the church. The church I’ve spent most of my life in, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, was chosen by my parents because of the children’s programs it provided, as well as fellowship for my parents. I grew up in and into the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian tradition, confessions, customs, and processes shaped how I experience God and specifically, God’s call for my ministry. But here’s something shocking, I do not believe that we as Presbyterians have everything figured out. And here’s something even more shocking, I think that’s okay.

30459-Least Still Christian_pThere’s a book that came out January of 2011 called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian.” I like the concept of this book, a getting back to the basics of our faith.

SLIDE 4 - LutherIt is certainly not a new idea. When Martin Luther wrote up his famous 95 theses his main desire was to take the Christian faith back to the beginning, back to the core elemental beliefs that makes people Christians.

SLIDE 5 - FormingIf we hold to the Presbyterian tenant of being “reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God,” these institution shaking ideas of going back to the basics should excite us. But of course there are things that we very much enjoy about our tradition. We like the stability of history, the comfort of the way we’ve always done things. There is nothing inherently wrong in any of these things. What becomes troublesome however is when we believe that we’ve got it all figured out and that these man made rules of how to go about being faithful are the one and only way.

SLIDE 6 - LeviticusSometimes when I read Paul’s letters to all of those early Christian communities it sounds like he is simply giving them a talking to for a lot of things we don’t even do anymore. It’s tempting to read this simply as Paul scolding the Jews for their desire to maintain salvific legalism even after Jesus’ death and resurrection superseded the old law. Yes, that is in there, and I don’t know about you, but I’m under no temptation to return to all of the laws given in Leviticus. I have no desire to give up shellfish or cheeseburgers or try to figure out what fabrics I’m allowed to wear. And I’m not tempted to believe that any one of these practices will bring me closer to God, let alone will bring me salvation.

SLIDE 7 - SplitsBut that’s not the only legalism we’re dealing with. There are so many theological conventions, liturgical rituals, and sociological assertions that have developed over years and years of Christian faith, reformations, and denominational splits. In this cartoon it shows a membership class and the presenter has a chart that says “Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History.” The presenter says, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” And one of the people in the class says, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.” While I value the history, wisdom, and community found in our denominational structure, the splintering of denominations throughout time points to the very religiosity that Paul railed against, saying, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:18-19) Paul tells us that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ. Period. The end.

Presbyterian pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong writes, “Salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else: not Jesus and certain cultural practices; not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective; not Jesus and a particular income level; not Jesus and a specific denominational brand; not Jesus and one political party; not Jesus and being good enough. Just Jesus. If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died for nothing” (v.21)”[1] The community of Galatia used to depend on the law to bring them to salvation. If they just followed all the rules they would be saved from their sinfulness. Jesus came about to bring another way, a new path to salvation.

SLIDE 10 - Shrek Jesus is a burner of old bridges. Like Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Shrek, and so many action movies where the pathway crumbles behind the person who steps on it, as we follow Jesus, the old pathways fall away. Any way we try to access salvation apart from Jesus is like Wile E. Coyote trying to run on air. We are not left midair. Christ makes a new pathway, one designed for the forgiveness of all.SLIDE 11 - Midair

Emory professor, Wendy Farley wrote, “If we begin with faith, we can inhabit our traditions more lightly. We can enjoy the formation our particular community provides without insisting that it is the only way. Our faith can allow us to be nourished by tradition without assuming that those who practice differently have not knowledge of God. Faith gives us the confidence to honor our heritage, while recognizing the new things God is doing in other people’s lives.” [2]

I love the idea of inhabiting our traditions lightly. I think it helps to place the emphasis on our elemental faith in Jesus Christ, while allowing our traditions to compliment and support our faith, without overshadowing it.

SLIDE 13 - FeetThis passage also brings up a beautiful image, allowing Christ to live in us. We affirm that Christ came for all, and so might Christ live within all for whom He died, that’s to say, everyone.

Farley continues, “Through death and resurrection Christ comes to dwell in the human heart and to produce a community based not on social distinctions but on love. This community should reflect our common human situation as recipients of grace and bearers of the Divine. The Divine dwells in Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women. This indwelling reveals the essential intimacy that exists between humanity and its creator, an intimacy that even we cannot neutralize, because it does not depend on us but on the graciousness of the living God. Faith allows the indwelling of Christ to become more transparent. Free from the logic of a social world built on the oppression of others, we are able to recognize others as bearers of the Divine. Faith is the sire of unity, where God’s desire for us and our own desire are woven together.” [3]

When we acknowledge one another as bearers of the Divine we are compelled to treat each other differently, to open up our eyes a bit wider to recognize Christ in our midst. And once we do recognize Christ in the other, we must make room for all to experience Christ’s great love.

SLIDE 15 - Communion TableMaking room for all at the table of Christ may mean we get a little scrunched. We belong to a faith that affirms, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” We may approach the table as the last and then become the first, but what will we do from that position? At a certain point we need to cede our place as “first,” in order to allow others to come close.

This was also a concern of the Jews in Galatia. The first line of this passage could probably even be read with a bit of sarcastic bite: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” (Galatians 2:15) The Galatians were concerned that if even Gentiles could be a part of this new covenant, could access salvation, that all of their law-abiding had been for nothing.

Slide17Why should they get to be a part of things when the Jews had done the hard work of establishing the community? You see, the idea of equality in the eyes of God is not so appealing when you think you’ve got the upper hand or the moral high ground. It’s tempting to think, what’s the point? The point is such equality expands the Kingdom of God. The second you perceive yourself as more worthy of salvation because of your great life or your good works you are missing the point. Your salvation comes not in spite of but because of your inadequacy. All are justified by faith in Christ. All of us, all of you, all of them, whoever the “them” is in your life. Those “others,” are also bearers of the divine image. They are also beneficiaries of grace.

Slide18In the time Paul wrote his letter to the community at Galatia the observant Jews would avoid eating with Gentiles, not because of any specific law, but because it would help to maintain purity of their faith. After observing the many dishes required to maintain a kosher kitchen I would imagine part of this avoidance was probably simply because it was easier. Christians who had been Jewish since birth and still desired to maintain these practices had a hard time sharing a table with Gentile Christians. It was difficult to bridge the difference between the old law and the new, and harder still to welcome others on equal standing to a table where they would always seem “the other.”[4]

SLIDE 19 - DenominationsIt can be tricky and strange to explain to people in other denominations why we do the things we do, especially when many of our practices are based on tradition or what we’ve found works best for us. What is important is to make sure people know that these practices are not what brings salvation, Christ is. We too are tasked with welcoming these “others” to the table.

SLIDE 20 Baptism and CommunionWe approach the table and the font not because we’ve got it all figured out, but because we are so in need of God’s redemption. The sacraments are not about getting right with God, they’re about getting honest with God. They’re about being vulnerable. They’re about showing up. And since we are all sinners, we all approach the table at an equal footing.

God through the Holy Spirit makes us able to receive the waters of baptism. God through the Holy Spirit turns bread and juice into a life-giving feast. Christ’s presence is forever renewed in our midst when we acknowledge Him, seek Him out, and put our faith in His redemptive power.

May you approach the table today seeking Christ’s redemptive power for you and for all, even those you never might’ve thought we’re invited. Amen.


[1] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[2] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[3] Wendy Farley, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

[4] Gregory H. Ledbetter, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Simply Hoping,”Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6; December 2, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Hoping”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 3:2b-6
December 2, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - Journeys of SimplicityThere’s this book I have called, “Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light.” In it are accounts and inventories of many well-known individuals, some historic, some contemporary, including: Thomas Merton, Gandhi, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau. Each account acknowledges a simple collection of possessions.

When someone chooses to live meagerly, what they do have reveals quite a bit about what is important to them. This is choosing to live with your answer to the question, “what would you bring with me when stranded on a deserted island?” Taking what is special, what is precious, what is essential. Things made sacred by intentional scarcity.

Slide02Thomas Merton had a broken rosary and a wooden icon of the Madonna and child. Gandhi had three porcelain monkeys and spittoon. Annie Dillard had bird skeletons and whalebones. Henry David Thoreau had a jug of molasses.SLIDE 5 - Molasses

Many of the contributors held onto words. Books of the movements of Catholic worship, Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Websters Unabridged, and Tolstoy.Slide06

Some of the items are sacred not by their functionality or identity alone, but by their origin: furniture built by husbands, technology gifted by sons.

In the church we acknowledge the season of Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends on Christmas day. There are four Sundays in Advent, no more, no less, every single year. In the liturgical year, the season of expectation is restricted to these four weeks.Slide07

Anyone who has turned on a television in the past two months will have heard: Christmas is coming, Christmas is here, there is shopping to do, there are so many days left, there are only so many of that special toy available, there are only so many of that new gadget in stock. We must hurry, we must rush, we must buy.

In the Church, the season of Advent actually begins today. There’s sacredness to this allotted time. There are things to do this month to prepare, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Black Friday or Cyber Monday or 50% off on Christmas things even before Thanksgiving. They have to do with coming to worship, seeing those without, and living in the hope of a Messiah come to earth who lives on through us even now, more than 2000 years since his birth.

I’m not saying that you can or should turn on and off your excitement for Christ’s presence by looking at a calendar. But let’s treat these weeks as special. Let’s treat this month as more than a to-do list of shopping, baking, and decorating. This time of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of remembering the gift of Jesus Christ, the rarity of his birth, and the exceptionality of his life.

SLIDE 8 - Thoreau2Henry David Thoreau is writer known for his poetry, but is equally as famous for the way that he went and lived out in the woods as a recluse and a hermit. Thoreau once wrote,

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”

I’m not suggesting we should all become Henry David Thoreau, go out into the woods and strike out on our own in order to get right with God. But there is great value in living lives deliberately focused on the hope and expectation of God incarnate in this world. And it is very possible to live deliberately within the lives we currently inhabit.

Holiday dream-3As a young child I remember trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, electric with the excitement that tomorrow would bring and specifically thinking, “tomorrow something could happen that would change my life.” I wasn’t delusional enough to imagine that I would be receiving a pony or a car or my own mansion or anything else extravagant, but I remember the distinct hope that Christmas offered: the chance that something new would enter my life that would make things a little bit more fun, or a little bit easier, or in the very least, something that would make me a little bit more fashionable.

Over the years there were gifts that changed things for me: as an eight year old there was a piano keyboard that allowed me more flexibility in my budding musical skills, when I was eighteen there was a computer printer that allowed me to print my assignments all throughout the school year, two years ago I received a financial contribution that helped me travel to Switzerland and Rome. Each of these things enabled me to live just a little bit differently, made my life just a little bit easier.

Not every gift that we give and receive this year will change our lives, and I don’t think that’s necessary, but it does help us to have perspective of the one gift that always does, Christ’s presence in our lives and in this world.

SLIDE 10 - Baby JesusThroughout the Biblical accounts, prophets speak with excited hope about the coming Messiah: In our Old Testament passage we hear the promise that justice, righteousness, and salvation is coming. In our New Testament passage we hear that when the Lord comes “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Talk about life changing. This amazing gift, the promise of our Messiah come to earth, is far more than the gimmicks of commercials, far more than that keyboard piano to my eight-year-old self. “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”[1] “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] These are not empty promises, these are real and true guarantees of the salvation that accompanies the fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom in this world.

We can make a decision what we bring with us into this Advent season. Will we bring our to-do lists? Our anxiety at failing to meet expectations? Our anger towards disconnected family members? Our fear of what may come in approaching year?

Or will we bring our openness to God’s movement in our worship? Our expectation in Christ’s life changing presence? Our hope in Christ’s power in this world? Our contentment in the promise of God’s grace?

Whatever we bring with us will inevitably shape our experience and color our emotions. We have a choice of what this Advent will be.

SLIDE 11 - Simple GiftsOne tool that our church is giving to each of you this Advent season is an advent calendar called, “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. As we take our offering today, we will also be handing out Advent calendars. There are plenty for each person to have one, so please feel free to take one for yourself and someone else you think would be blessed by it, but if you are able to go through the calendar as a family, you are welcome to take just one for your family.

This is a calendar for your own devotional experience with Christ. Your salvation doesn’t hang on your ability to read each entry on the calendar or accomplish each simple gift action it suggestions, but it just might enrich your experience of God in this Advent season, it just might change your life.

This year, allow yourself to quiet your mind, clear out the clutter of what the world expects you to accomplish this season. Allow yourself to receive the gift of Jesus Christ come into this world. Allow yourself to hope that Christ’s presence in your life will change your life.

I’d like to close today with a poem by an author best known for her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle[3]. Please listen for what God is saying to you today in this message of expectation and hope:

God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…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 the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till 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!
We cannot wait till 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!

Amen


[1] Jeremiah 33:15b

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] This past Thursday, November 29th, would have been Madeleine L’Engle 94th Birthday.

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.