“Hide and Seek,” Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27, July 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hide and Seek”
Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27
July 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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“Peek a boo!” If you’ve spent any time around a young baby, this is a pretty good go-to for entertaining them. Something is there and then it’s not and then it’s there again! Like magic!

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, tells us that this is because of object permanence, which is a fancy phrase for understanding that objects exist even when we’re not experiencing them. A slightly older exploration of this is hide and seek, the joy coming from the anticipation of when you’ll be found.

Martin Luther and other theologians of his time used their own hide and seek language in relation to God. Deus absconditus, which literally translates to “hidden God.” It’s defined disparagingly to describe God as being so remote that God doesn’t seem to be able to effect any change.

Luther however, couches it in terms of the things that God tells us about God’s own hiddenness in scripture. Luther refers to Exodus 33, which we read today. Moses asks to experience God, but instead sees only God’s backside.

Luther writes, “Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei (backside of God) revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.”

While some would define this as God turning away from God’s people, Luther frames it in terms of opposites. Moses, and by extension all of God’s people, experience God in reversed expectations. God who is invisible, becomes visible in Jesus. God who is all powerful shows God’s self in the humility of the cross.

In a similar reversal, our New Testament passage speaks of God being revealed to infants, but not to the wise. While I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about the simplicity of thought in a sermon in which I quote Luther’s use of a Latin phrase, I believe our New Testament passage isn’t calling for ignorance, but for looking for God on the margins, in the unexpected places of humility and meekness.

Where do you expect to see God? God’s glory is indeed revealed in glowing sunsets and rollings hills,  but also in the small dandelion that makes its way through the concrete. God’s omnipresence is revealed in the vast twinkling sky and in the intricacies of a mosquito’s wings.

Might you come to know God better through that person in your life who has hurt you as you are moved from bitterness to empathy? Could God show up not in spite of your pain, but within it, the ways your relationships have been formed in the wake of your greatest loss or deepest suffering?

Columbia Seminary professor, Stanley Saunders wrote, “We are most likely to experience God’s presence and power in the company of the humble and vulnerable, the people who are usually found at the margins… They may be children or strangers, people who are not sure whether or how they fit. They may be poets or artists, who are trained to look at the world differently. Whoever they might be… they will always be people who see what others do not, and thus help the rest of us deal with our blinding arrogance and entitlement. They may be people whose lives challenge the ideals over which we argue and divide.

The empire of heaven, after all, is not an ideal, but a reality made known through real acts and experiences of judgment, repentance, and redemption. The church that banishes the marginal, the vulnerable, and the humiliated does not prevent itself from being subject to the judgment of God; to the contrary, it is precisely through their eyes and voices that we can most clearly discern God’s judgment and mercy, through which our ongoing repentance is made possible. Judgment is a tool God uses to open our eyes and ears, to draw us toward repentance — not to induce brokenness but to uncover and heal what is broken. “

To believe only in God’s philosophical attributes, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, without knowing God’s willingness to enter into our existence, is to know only one side of God. And I’d go so far as to say, not the most compelling aspects of God. God’s love for us as creator and spirit are deepened through God’s love for us as the person of Jesus Christ. God literally put God’s skin in the game of humanity by being born as that helpless baby in Bethlehem.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph playing peekaboo with their little boy? Even in his infant cries and giggles he was the embodiment of the divine… not very intimidating as deities go! As he grew he played his own game of hide and seek, staying behind his traveling group to remain at the temple. That was a terrifying game of hide and seek for his parents! In a role reversal of those early games of peekaboo, that time they were the ones not sure where he had gone.

But this is how God operates, showing up over and over again, in the most unexpected places. Even when we aren’t directly experiencing God’s presence, God is indeed there, waiting for us to open our eyes again.

How has your sense of God’s permanence been shaped as you’ve grown in faith? Does God disappear from your life, when you aren’t immediately experiencing God?

It’s not unfaithful to feel like God is hidden during a season of our lives. In fact, all throughout scripture God plays hide and seek. Throughout Deuteronomy God hides from the children of Israel in response to their selfish sinfulness. In the book of Job, Job has a whole series of losses and pain that would make anyone question where God had gone. In the Psalms, God’s seeming hiddenness is an undercurrent in all the laments.

It is very human to become frustrated and unsure when we don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives. Recognizing the permanence of God is part of our spiritual development.

One of the tools that helps children in their understanding of object permanence is the use of words. To this end, the accounts of God in scripture are a tremendous resource towards our understanding of God’s permanence.

In the book “Subversive Spirituality,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Words are our primary tools for getting our bearing in a world, most of which we can’t see, most of which we’ll never touch – this large, expanding, mysterious existence that is so much larger, more intricate, more real even, than we are…When I learn the word “God” I am able to deal with a person I cannot see. God uses words to train us in object permanence…. When we discover that God reveals [Godself] by word, we are back in the realm of the sensory again – a word is spoken by a mouth/lips/tongue/throat; it is heard by ears, or n the case of the written word, seen with eyes. But once the word is uttered and hear, or written and read, it enters into us in such a way that it transcends the sensory. A word is (or can be) a revelation from one interior to another. What is inside me can get inside you – the word does it. Which is why language is the major bridge from basic biology to basic spiritually.

And why Christian spirituality insists on listening.

By God’s grace, God’s Word is also written. And that makes Holy Scripture the text for Christian spirituality. Holy Scripture is the listening post for listening to God’s Word.”

As we grow in our faith we are like children learning object permanence, delighting when we sense God once again. After all, God promises never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that if we search for God, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13-14) Thanks be to God. Amen!

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“It’s Alive!”; Hebrews 4:12-16; October 11, 2015; FPC Holt

“It’s Alive!”
Hebrews 4:12-16
October 11, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2015 10 11 Slide01When I was in third grade I received my first Bible. This red “Good News Bible,” with my name printed on the inside cover. I remember standing up in the front of the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Maumee, Ohio and being handed this brand new fresh Bible. I was so excited, beaming from ear to ear, proud that my church was entrusting me with such a very important gift: the word of God!

2015 10 11 Slide02And then, after the service I went up to Sunday school, Bible in hand. A friend of mine grabbed mine to check it out and I’ll never forget this moment, she opened it and I heard a distinct ripping noise. I was horrified. I’m not sure if I started crying or not, but I know I thought about it. Here I had this brand new Bible and now it was ripped! It was no longer new. It was no longer special. I was so upset.

Though it is rational to get upset when something you have is ripped, I was upset for the wrong reasons. I wanted my Bible to stay clean and pure, to stay just like I had received it. I thought that this rip meant that I had messed up God’s word! I thought it meant that I was not responsible enough to have such a holy book in my library.

2015 10 11 Slide03I didn’t understand that though one page was ripped ever so slightly, the words were intact. The importance of this book was intact. God’s promises were intact. The troubling thing with this sort of reaction towards a slight marring of God’s word is that it places the emphasis on the physicality of scripture, as if somehow my copy was the only one, and my “ruining” of this book was messing up God’s message. Thankfully, maintaining scripture was not the sole responsibility of my third grade self.

2015 10 11 Slide04For thousands of years scripture was transmitted from person to person by storytelling. God’s truth was whispered in back alleys, told over kitchen tables, 2015 10 11 Slide05 drawn out in the sand, and shouted from street corners. God’s message of love and hope and redemption and grace and joy can no more be contained to this little red book than God can be contained by our human understanding of God. As a third grader, I didn’t understand that.

I begrudgingly opened my now less than perfect Bible and tried to figure out what it had to say to me. And you know what, even though it was not so perfect in physical appearance it spoke to me a message of grace and truth. It told me that I, Bible-ruining as I may be, was a child of God. It told me that God has a call for my life. It told me that God loved the whole world and that I was a part of making sure that the whole world knew that truth. I was now tasked with whispering this word, writing it in the sand, and shouting it from street corners. These messages of less than perfect disciples and inadequate preachers whom God had tasked with the bringing about of the Kingdom of God leapt off the page and into my heart.

2015 10 11 Slide06 The beginning words of the Gospel of John speak to the enduring timelessness of God’s word throughout time and tradition: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” [1]

The word of God is so much more than the Bible itself, this passage tells us the Word was God. Through the person of Jesus Christ, the living incarnation of God, the holiness of God was lived out in human experience. Through a blameless life and a selfless death Christ lived the Gospel message that love is stronger than hate and life has the final word over death.

The truth of this living word echoes throughout our Biblical texts, breathing life and grace into the written word. When we read this written word we too are welcomed into this eternal story of God’s enduring truth, of the lived reality of grace.

Each and every Bible is a unique sort of book because it is so much more than a work of literature, a book of poetry, or a nice story about the history of people who lived long ago.

Princeton Professor John P. Burgess writes, “The Old and New Testaments offer much more than information about God. They set forth the living Christ and invite us into relationship with God. In this sense, the Bible is the word of God – not because it is correct in every historical or scientific detail, but rather because it witnesses to what God has done and continues to do in Christ.”[2]

2015 10 11 Slide08Psalm 119 gives us instructions on how to take in this amazing story, the story of God and of us. In verses 12-16 it says, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes. With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth. I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”

To truly allow God’s word to be alive in us and in the world around us, we need to experience it. We can’t mediate on God’s word if we have not read it. We cannot fix our eyes on God’s way unless we learn about God’s way through scripture. But also we cannot call ourselves followers of Christ, if we allow our devotion God’s word to stop at the reading of scripture.

2015 10 11 Slide09We read in Hebrews 4 today, “the word of God is living and active.” We read the words of Jesus in John 14:12, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” What are we to do with scripture than, if not to let it guide us to “live and move and have our being”[3] in response to God our creator.

Favorite preacher of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the danger of preferring time with the written page over enacting God’s lived out word. She writes, “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.  Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.”[4]

2015 10 11 Slide12Being a part of bringing about God’s living and active word in this world is certainly more complex than simply listening or reading scripture, and so it can be hard to know where to start. An overwhelmingly present example in our world today is the care and wellbeing of refugees, particularly in Syria.

Throughout history Jewish and Christian tradition have placed emphasis on hospitality towards refugees, with repeated reminder that God’s people have so often been the stranger. Exodus 23:9 says, “Don’t take advantage of a stranger. You know what it’s like to be a stranger; you were strangers in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:34 we read, “When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt.” In total, there are 36 biblical warnings against the mistreatment of strangers; 36 Biblical warnings.

And yet we sit overwhelmed both by the present situation of international distress and the overwhelming Biblical mandate to do something about. What are we to do? How can we enact God’s word in this story still taking shape?

Stated clerk of our denomination, Grayde Parsons wrote this week,  “Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. … Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.”[5]

Through supporting these efforts of our denomination, and joining our voices with those speaking for justice we enable God’s word to speak hope to those in need of hope.

2015 10 11 Slide15In this very church and community there are many opportunities for you to extend God’s love and welcome to those who are seeking home and sanctuary through relationship with Global Family Fellowship. I’m sure Lazara, Gary, and Trudy would be delighted to find ways to connect you with those in need of the very welcome and connection that the Bible urges us to provide.

When we open ourselves to proclaiming God’s word in our actions, relationships, and livelihoods, we can share in the confidence of the prophet Isaiah who said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” May we indeed accomplish God’s purpose. May God’s word come to life in us and through us, as we seek to speak and live God’s word into being. Amen.

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

[5] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/10/2/clerk-issues-letter-trump-refugees-immigrants/

“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.

“Who’s Invited?” Matthew 22:1-14; October 12, 2014; FPC Holt

“Who’s Invited?”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon by clicking here.

2014 10 12 Slide01Imagine this, one day you go out and open your mailbox. Inside is a beautiful, thick envelope. Upon opening it you are astonished to see that you have been invited to George Clooney’s wedding, or for those of who that would not be so exciting perhaps imagine it were William and Kate’s royal wedding, or your favorite athlete, actor, or politician. What would you do with such an invitation? I know if it were my mom she would likely gasp, yell, dance around the living room, and then proceed to call everyone she knows and tell them the exciting news. 2014 10 12 Slide02Given that I have not yet received such a call from her, I don’t think she was in Italy with the Clooneys, though she certainly would’ve been there if the invitation had shown up.

SLIDE 3 - InvitationHowever, our scripture today presents a very different picture. When the king sent out his wedding invitation everyone who received it simply went about business as usual. They certainly did not jump up and down with glee. Then the king sent out his servants again, and the messengers of this exciting news were thrown out, abused, and in some cases, even killed.

The king reacted even more strongly, sending troops to avenge the death of his slaves who were killed and to burn their city, which is presumably also the king’s city. Upon reading this text my first reaction was, “huh, that escalated quickly.” Such a horrific way to react to a party invitation.

2014 10 12 Slide04With the remains of his city still smoldering in the background, the king insists there was still a party to be had. His oxen and fat calves had been killed and there was his son’s marriage to celebrate. And so he tries again, reprioritizing who it is that will be invited. The king says to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

2014 10 12 Slide05This time around, everyone is invited. The doors are flung open and what could mostly certainly be described as a motley crew is assembled. And so our story ends, right? Not quite.

2014 10 12 Slide06One of the guests, who we don’t need reminding had just dropped everything and came into this gathering right off of the street, is fiercely reprimanded for not wearing a wedding robe. Which had me thinking, perhaps the first guests were justified in not showing up if this was the sort of reception awaiting them?

2014 10 12 Slide07This mess of a party is compared to the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly a comforting thought. People are being thrown out for dress code violations and having their houses burned down for refusing an invitation.

It’s fair to say that even for a parable, the logic of this one is tricky to follow from a literal view, so let’s unpack it a bit before we like the original guest list, disregard this event as something to be avoided.

2014 10 12 Slide08More than the tale of a strange party, this story provides a framework for how we are to respond to the urgency of our own invitation into the kingdom of God. It ‘s not so much about this particular wedding feast, but about the party to come, that is eternal life with God.

Some parties are made more significant by the exclusivity of the list, those whom you are put in a class with simply by being invited. The kingdom of God is not that kind of party. We are told in verse 10, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Both good and bad.

2014 10 12 Slide09Those who you were just sure would be there are no where to be seen, and those who you cannot imagine sharing a bus seat with, much less the kingdom of God, are at that banquet table right beside you.

Ultimately, our own worldly calculations of worth and value, our naming and classifying are ours, not God’s. Our job is to help extend the invitation. With the parable in mind, that does not seem like the best thing we could be doing either, as puts us in the role of the slave who faced rejection, persecution, or at the very least, being ignored.

But that is the call that we are given, passed down through the disciple’s commission just 6 chapters later as Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Instead of receiving an invitation to George Clooney’s wedding imagine this much more likely situation: You’re sitting at your desk at work or in a classroom and a friend of yours comes up. They say, hey I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve just got to tell you about my church. I’ve been going for a while now and being among all these people who are living their life for God, well, it’s really changed me. I’ve been noticing more of God’s goodness in the world and I have a great deal of peace with what I’m going through. It would really mean so much if you’d be willing to join me this Sunday for worship.

How would you respond to that person? Would you scoff in their face and go about your business? Would you react aggressively or even violently? Or would you see the passion and joy in their face and take them up on their offer?

SLIDE 10 - Each One Bring OneWhat would it take for you to be that person extending that invitation? What would it take for you to share what you’ve experienced here with someone in your life? Today is the first Invite a Friend Sunday and since you are here today and not sleeping in or off at brunch somewhere, clearly you believe it is worth your time to be here. Hopefully you have taken that opportunity already and there’s a friend sitting beside you right now, but if not, the good news is today is the first of seven Invite of a Friend Sundays all leading up to Easter Sunday and our 150th anniversary celebration. Though of course you are welcome to invite a friend any time we are together, we hope that you will use the intentionality of these special Sundays for your own opportunity to extend this invitation.

As great as our own experience of God is, there are some who have yet to have received their invitation to the feast. There are those out there who still don’t understand how much God loves them, or what sort of church family is available to them. We are urged, tasked, called, and commissioned by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to invite others to this feast and to this place of worship.

Perhaps you’re just sitting there, arms crossed, scoffing at the idea. Why should we invite people? Aren’t things fine enough how there are? I like these people, why would I want to invite others? Why should I take that awkward step of asking someone to come to this church?

2014 10 12 Slide11The question I would ask you to think about is why are you coming to this church? What makes you keep coming? I would hope it’s because you find something of value in our life together. I pray it’s because someone has made you feel welcome in this space.

I heartily believe that what we do here together each Sunday is worthwhile. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have spent the past 12 years of my life working towards this job, this life, and this specific church. I feel called to serve this community and I feel that what we do here each week makes a difference to this community, to the furthering of the Gospel of Christ, and to the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Do you?

I’d like you to honestly consider that over these next several months. And if you do truly believe that none of us are wasting our time here, I would invite you to count the blessings that you have received from this church, from worshiping together, from living life among these Christians. And out of that gratitude, I ask that you open your heart and your mind and your arms to invite someone else to experience this church.

So who is invited to this party of eternal life with God? The good, the bad, and everyone in between. May we ever strive to extend the invitation to all we know. Amen.

“Known and Unknown;” Genesis 29:15-28; July 27, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Known and Unknown
Genesis 29:15-28
July 27, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacOur scripture today comes to us not too long after our scripture from last week. Our main character, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, taking his brother, Esau’s inheritance. His brother vows to kill him and so Jacob runs off to Haran, to the family of his mother, Rebekah. In the scripture we read last week he had a dream where God extended the covenant of Abraham on to him, that is to say he is promised to be the father of many nations. With this promise of God in mind, he continues his journey towards Haran and he comes across a cousin of his, Rachel.

SLIDE 3 – Jacob and ShepherdsWhen Jacob was still a bit away from Haran he comes across a group of shepherds, and we read in Genesis 29:7-14 as Jacob days to the shepherds, “‘Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.’ But they said, ‘We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.’ While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Slide04 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.”

It’s hard to imagine from our perspective, but in that time many family’s engaged in “intermarriage,” that is they preferred their children to marry their relatives’ children. And so, Rachel would be an ideal wife for Jacob, made even more ideal in their interaction. He wept aloud, presumably overcome by his attraction to Rachel.

Slide05And then we find ourselves at our scripture for today: “Now Laban had two daughters,” the story begins simply enough. Rachel we are told, is graceful and beautiful, more than that she is the one that Jacob was so overwhelmed by on their first interaction.

Slide06Then we are told there’s something strange about Leah’s eyes. In the Hebrew they’re described by the word rahke, but there’s much disagreement about what this word means. Depending on the translator it is translated as, “ tender,[1]” “weak,[2]” “lovely,[3]” “delicate,[4]” or “nice[5].” Whatever it is about her, she is placed as the inferior of the two sisters, though she is older.

Slide07 Their father Laban strikes a deal with Jacob, he will work the land for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Then we hear the lovely phrase, “so Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”[6]

You can ask David about how quickly the last nine months have passed as we’ve been preparing for our wedding.

Slide08Then there is a wedding, but when Jacob wakes up, we read in the scripture, “When morning came, it was Leah!” In the Hebrew there’s the exclamation hinneh! in the middle of this sentence. It holds the meaning “behold!” or “lo!” but it in a modern translation it might carry the same meaning as throwing an explicative in the middle of this sentence. It is certainly a statement of surprise, and not a welcome one.

And so, in a karmatic turn of events, Jacob who had deceived his father in the darkness of his father’s blindness, is deceived by Laban in the darkness of the night. Jacob then goes back to work for another seven years so that he may indeed marry Rachel, his beloved.

Slide09 It is not lost on me that this passage on marriage comes in the lectionary less than a week before David and I are to be married. Over the past weeks and months we’ve heard well wishes for our wedding day, and cautions about how hectic of a week and day it will be. While I understand that all of these thoughts come from experience, I might recommend a reading of this section of Genesis to any apprehensive wedding couples, firm in the knowledge that any logistical slip ups of the day pale in comparison to the chaos of this story.

There are so many questions in this strange tale of two deceptions, two weddings, and two wives, and things don’t become particularly smooth for Jacob and his family following this story. One of the questions that stood out for me the most in my reading of the text this time around, was how Jacob could possibly not be aware that it was Leah he was marrying and not Rachel.

Slide10Biblical scholars offer all sorts of suggestions, the heaviness of the veil, the heaviness of the alcohol consumption at the wedding festivities, but even with all of those things in mind it’s really hard to imagine how Jacob could be so mistaken. We are told there is something strange about Leah’s eyes, but in reality it seems that Jacob’s eyes are the ones that are unfocused.

Though I will be wearing a veil at our wedding, it will certainly not be nearly as dense as that of Leah’s, not leaving any room for a mistaken identity at the altar. And though I am the younger of two sisters, I am also sure my sister and her fiancé would have something to say about any last minute changes in the bridal party, particularly in terms of the bride or groom.

Slide11So what can we learn from this strange story? What does a mistaken identity thousands of years ago have to do with us? While hopefully we do not have family members who would seek to manipulate our love in such treacherous ways, there are deceptions in which we willingly engage as we approach those we love. We’ve heard the adage, “love is blind,” and if we don’t seek to clear our eyes long enough to truly know the person whom we love, we are stuck in this blindness, which can be helpful in some situations, but debilitating in others.

Slide12When I was at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching festival held in Minneapolis this past May, I heard Princeton seminary professor, Craig Barnes speak about this strange story of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s love and Laban’s deception. In a sermon on the same topic Craig Barnes writes, “Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. Rachel is the one you love, and you’re sure that she will be the blessing to your life. But you can’t have Rachel without taking Leah, who you don’t love and you didn’t think you were getting. Not long after you are together, you discover you didn’t get just Rachel. You’re also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel.”[7]

Slide13 There is always both known and unknown going into any relationship. What is known can be idealized, what is unknown can be troubling, but we will have to come to terms with both if we want that relationship to flourish. It’s easy enough to put this same equation in play with nearly any relationship in your life: the parts of your job that you love and the parts you tolerate; the experiences with your family that bring you deep joy and the issues that you deal with; and even the parts of your experiences with Christianity that excite you and the parts that seem frustratingly unattainable.

Slide14Perhaps there are places in our lives where we experience the reverse, ways that we feel we were held up to such high expectations that disappointing the other was inevitable. It’s hard when you feel like someone has failed you, but it can be even harder to feel like you yourself are that failure.

Slide15While scripture never tells us how Leah feels about any of this, I can’t imagine she appreciated her life, passion, and capacity for love being set aside so that her father could get fourteen years of work out of her cousin. I can imagine Leah in a Brady Bunch-esque way saying, “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel!” Having the strangeness of your eyes held up as your primary identifying characteristic is humiliating, yes, but being offered in marriage in the place of your sister is horrifying. And with Jacob expecting Rachel, beautiful and gracious Rachel, Leah was forced into the role of being the disappointment.

How do we go forward from this place of unattainable expectations, this place of disappointment? How do we redeem our relationships? When given the choice of how we view the flaws in our selves and in each other we can choose grace.

There is a difference between the words weak and lovely, even though they point to the very same eyes. With so many ways to translate our perceptions of each other, might we choose the most gracious?

Slide17This is after all, what God chose. Given our track record of sin and deception from the start of humanity, it seems the sensible thing would be for God to write us off as the human being we are, but God loves us in and beyond our flaws. As if loving us into creation wasn’t enough, God loved us enough to redeem us from our sin and deception through the death of his own son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ every flaw, every imperfection is made perfect.

God loves us not because we’re blameless, but because God deems us worthy of love and worthy of redemption. When we are given the same choice in how we view one another and especially ourselves, may we forever choose grace. Amen.

[1] BHS-W4

[2] NIV, ESVS

[3] NRSV

[4] NKJV

[5] The Message

[6] Genesis 29:20

[7] http://day1.org/1105-the_problem_with_two_spouses

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Humbled;” Luke 18:9-14; October 27, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Humbled”
Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

TSLIDE 1 - Reformation Sundayoday is Reformation Sunday, a day that marks the beginning of the Protestant Church as we know it today. It’s a day for celebrating how far we’ve come as a church. Our affirmation of the priesthood of all believers: which means all of us are called to read and interpret scripture, minister to the community, and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The ways that over the generations we continue to be reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God, a principle that has motivated believers throughout the year to stand up for justice for the enslaved, equality of all of God’s created people, and expand the pulpit to women and minorities. So, let’s just pat ourselves on the back! We’re so righteous, so much better than everybody else!

Wait. That sounds familiar. In fact, that first verse of that passage we just read seems to fit it exactly.  “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Hmm. Maybe it’s not time quite yet for a celebration.

Slide3Our Gospel lesson gives us a rather confrontational passage for this Reformation Sunday. One that shows someone so pleased by their righteousness, a Pharisee. Verses 11-12 tells us, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”

SLIDE 5 - Tax CollectorIt’s an uncomfortable comparison to put side by side with a Pharisee. In Luke 7:29-30 we are told, that upon hearing of Jesus’ miracles,  “All the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

Pharisees had confidence in their own goodness, their own ability to follow all the rules, their own efforts to be right by God. In our passage today when the Pharisee is counting his blessings, instead of worry about the salvation of others, he is thankful only that he is not a thief, rogue, adultery, or the tax collector in front of him.

SLIDE 6 - phariseeAndTaxCollectorThis tax collector doesn’t try to defend himself when being bad-mouthed by the Pharisee. He wasn’t working on a list of his good deeds or his exceptionalism, rather he defers to God’s great power. In verse 13 we read, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

The tax collector isn’t trying to be justified by his own doing, but only by God’s great mercy. He declares himself unworthy on his own.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains it this way, “You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition –  If you follow all the rules in the Bible God then will love you and you will be happy.  If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved… The Law is always conditional and it is never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as Gospel there can never be life and happiness and worthiness.”

The Pharisee was caught up in all the “shoulds,” all the ways that he has worked to live up to the law. The tax collector declares his own unworthiness pursing God’s mercy instead of his own self-worth. SLIDE 7 - Luke 18 In verse 14 Jesus tells the assembled crowd, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the [Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

May we approach God with humbleness this Reformation Sunday, and all days. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“Faithfulness,” Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13; September 22, 2013; FPC Jesup

 “Faithfulness”
Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13
September 22, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - ScriptureOur scripture lesson today pairs two difficult passages, one from a conversation with John the Baptist and one with Jesus. In each there is discussion about what it takes to be faithful in our stewardship. Stewardship is often a word congregations become wary of when they hear it in sermons, and pastors often balk at preaching because there is often the presupposition that when we talk about stewardship we’re just talking about money. But these two passages show us the need for faithfulness in our stewardship within money management but also far beyond it.

SLIDE 2 - Parable GraphicEach of our passages is strange in it’s own ways. In the parable preceding our passage in Luke 16 a “dishonest manager” is introduced. When he comes up short in his accounting, instead of shouldering the blame, he goes to all of his debtors and tells them to fudge the numbers a bit so it’ll all work out evenly for him. When he does this his creditor rewards his efforts.

SLIDE 3 - Parable of ManagerAlyie McKenzie explains, “In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. SLIDE 4 - Parable of ManagerThe steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - ParableAnd so, he fudges the numbers and while the manager commends his efforts, we’re not told whether or not he gets his job back, but just that he has helped himself to have some political capital among the other dishonest people and so even if he’s left without a job, at least he has some friends he could fall back on.  Whenever I read this parable I want to ask, really Jesus? You’re uplifting those making friends by dishonest wealth? Are you being sarcastic?

This parable is a bizarre example to come before the moral tale we read here, that God calls for our faithfulness, and that faithfulness in little and in managing the wealth of others allows us to be given much more as our own wealth to manage. Bizarre, yes, but is this the word of God? Well yes, yes it is.

And though the parable is hard to interpret I think there is still a message beyond that parable: God calls us to be faithful, and to be stewards of the gifts we have been given. Perhaps the challenge related through that parable is how easy it is to manipulate the system for our own profit and wealth. While such manipulation may have immediate earthly rewards it leads to the sort of deception that is condemned in our earlier passage in Luke.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist lays out specific directions of how to honor God in our stewardship. In verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

SLIDE 7 - Peter“What should we do?” This is the question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message,  “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While he begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.

“What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question. They were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.

SLIDE 8 - John the BaptistBut the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of every day life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives, and how we operate within our work, choosing at every moment grace over profit.

Helen Debevoise offers this reflection on our scripture passage for today, “Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”[2]

SLIDE 10 - Burying treasureBurying our treasures keeps it out of the hands not only of those who make take it from us, but also out of our own hands so that we are unable to create good with our use of it. Burying our treasure keeps us from offering it up to others. How often does our own desire for security keep us from opening our hands, our minds, and our lives to another?

John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.

SLIDE 11 - Bearing fruitIf we are living only for ourselves, this call to bearing fruit in our worldly relationships simply doesn’t make sense. If stewardship was about hoarding, those holding on to their treasures to separate themselves from those who they deemed below them would be the one’s getting things right, but that’s not what is being asked here. John is asking this crowd to look beyond their own treasure, into how their treasure can be invested in the lives of others, can be invested in God’s kingdom.

Every one of these acts explained by John have to do with taking from our neighbor what they need. Repentance is not just about the difference between faith and sin within our own being, but it is about living out our love of neighbor, extending the love and grace we have received from God.[3]

SLIDE 12 - luke 3v9Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?

Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”[4]

SLIDE 13 - Bearing_FruitSo, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully?  What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?

You are tasked with being a good and faithful steward, not only of your resources, but of your position in this life. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

Presentation of Bibles

Here’s is a rather belated posting. I have been working on getting past sermon audio recordings onto YouTube and when I was working on the sermon from May 12th I realized I hadn’t posted this part of that service yet. I hope that it will be a helpful resource for others who are putting together presentations of Bibles.

We gave our students the Spark Bible by Augsburg Press. It is a phenomenal Bible for children with accessible explanations of the text and elements for interaction (including stickers…the third graders were excited about that!). Most importantly, it is a full NRSV version, so it can be used throughout their lives. So great!

Below is the script of what was said and done. We did this in the service during the Time for Children.

Presentation of Bibles

BibleToday we have a very special present for our third graders, and I bet you already know what it is. Bibles. Bibles are an extra special present because they are so many things. As we talk about the different parts, I’d like to peel away one layer of paper at a time.

vineOur first layer of paper is this green paper with the vines. John 15:4 says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” God wants us to be rooted in scripture, to go back to it when we’re searching for answers, to grow from learning more about God’s great love for us. Vines also show how we are all connected to one another. Though we can read the Bible by ourselves, it is important to have other people around who can help you to understand it. As a church we are all connected through Christ’s vine, and as you have questions as you read, we hope that you’ll come and ask about it. Alright, let’s pull of that layer of paper.

construction Next we have paper with all sorts of construction machinery and symbols on it. Scripture tells us in Jeremiah 23:29 that the Word is: “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” separating good from bad; like our construction symbols the Bible cautions against the harm that can come from not following God. As the Bible teaches us right from wrong we are built up in our faith and strengthened. Okay, now you can rip off that layer

CupcakesNext we have one of my favorite layers, it is a paper with cupcakes on it. In Jeremiah 15:16 scripture tells us that God’s Word is food for the soul, a “joy and delight.” In Psalm 19:10 scripture is described as “sweeter than honey.” Scripture can be sweet because it carries a message of God’s love for us. Reading it is a celebration of the many ways that God has taken care of God’s people throughout history. Okay, let’s rip off one more layer.

Hologram circle (3)Our next layer is this sparkly gold paper. It stands for the light of scripture. Psalm 119 says in verse 105 that “[God’s] word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In Proverbs 6:23 it says, “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light” In John 1, God is described as the Word, which is a light for all people.  When we feel like we are in darkness, God’s message of hope and love can light up our lives with joy and grace. This is not a light we’re supposed to keep to ourselves, but to share with others. As you read these Bibles and learn more about God, that is something that God calls you to share with others.

Please pray with me by repeating after me: Thank you God for your Holy Word. With these Bibles help us to be connected to the vine of your loving church and be built up in our faith. May we enjoy the sweetness of your joy and share the light of your Word with others. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If We Are the Body;” Psalm 24:4-12 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; January 20, 2013; FPC Jesup

If We Are the Body
Psalm 24:4-12 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
January 20, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01A few weeks ago I broke my new vacuum cleaner. Well not quite broke it entirely, as much as I just rendered it unusable. With a living room full of pine needles from a now absent Christmas tree, I called the Hoover help center. The woman on the phone walked me through the trouble-shooting steps. With her guidance I affirmed that yes, it was plugged in, and yes, it was getting power, and yes, the brush was spinning, but still it would not actually pick things up. Then she talked me through taking apart the hoses and using a broom handle to clear out the hose, which was indeed filled with pine needles. I felt triumphant and useful, but still the vacuum would not work.

So I took the vacuum cleaner to a repair shop and after the technician went through some of the same steps I had taken, discovered that while I had indeed cleared out the hose of pine needles, in doing so the grip of the broom handle had become lodged in the hose, letting through just enough air to make a different sort of noise, but not enough to actually vacuum. I paid him the requisite “user error” repair fee and went about my day.

Since I posted a message on Facebook requesting help in finding a repair place, I received a string of comments about how things weren’t made like they used to be, a vacuum cleaner joke, and some advice on what to do. When I posted that it was now fixed, a friend of mine wrote a declaration: “You may now visit your minister. She will have a clean house!”

Slide02As I looked at the pine needles still on my floor and my vacuum cleaner in the corner I thought about this comment: “She will have a clean house!” As someone who can sometimes have a quick wit, and other times thinks about calculated responses and intentional word choices, my brain mulled over this one for a while. “She will have a clean house!”

Since I did not in fact have a clean house, this made me think: having the ability to have a clean house is not the same thing as actually cleaning a house.

Slide03Which then, being a theologically minded person, made me think about the many ways in our world where capacity and realization stand in stark contrast. There are many who are homeless and many who live in mansions. There are many who go hungry and many who have far more food than they could ever eat. How do we bridge these gaps?

In our New Testament lesson today we heard a Biblical message of our interconnectivity and our capacity for action.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

SLIDE 5 - Body of ChristWe are equipped for ministry, but when we do not fully live into being the body, we will not have a “clean house.” God’s Kingdom will not be fully realized. Christ’s body will no longer be living and breathing and moving about in this world.

In order to move forward we must first acknowledge our capacity for action, our gifts for service. This passage in 1 Corinthians has always challenged me to think about what part of the body that is the church I might be at any given moment. When I really feel like I have it all together, I feel that I just may be the brain, leading the other parts of the church body in the way they should go, reacting to the pain felt by any given part, and making decisions to move things forward. Other times, I feel like I might be the hand, doing the work of the church in the world, reaching out, planting, building. And sometimes, perhaps I’m simply a fingernail, providing some support, some comfort, but largely going unnoticed. As this scripture passage tells us, each and every part of the body of the church is important, not in and of itself, but in the way we all work together as a functioning whole.

Slide06 So what part do you think you may be? Are you gifted with the ability to speak God’s word, a word of truth, a word of encouragement? Are you gifted with the ability to fix things with your hands, to create new things, play an instruments? I know that many of you in this congregation have arms that extend God’s love through hugs of fellowship and compassion.

You are not going to be gifted in the same way the person next to you is gifted. You are not the same part of the body as everyone else. You are called to be your own individual, uniquely gifted self. Your task is to recognize how you are gifted, and serve God from the place of joyful capability.

SLIDE 7 - Einstein QuoteAlbert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

You are gifted as your very own self, in your very own body, and called to live out Christ’s body through your own. You may not be called to climb a tree, you may not be called to swim, but you are called to serve God. You are still very gifted, very whole, and very useful to God’s kingdom.

Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave gifts to his people… In verse 11-12 it continues saying: “11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In verse 16, “16from Christ the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

SLIDE 9 -body of christ machineryWhen we each are “working properly,” we are able to go forward, to grow as a community, to grow the Church universal. Notice, each working properly, does not mean each working the same. We each have different gifts and take different roles. When we use these gifts to work together towards a communal vision of service to God, we become “the body” of the church.

Once we have discovered this place of ability, this unique strength we are called, as members of the body of Christ, to use that ability for God’s Kingdom.

SLIDE 10 - St TeresaIn a few minutes we will sing Casting Crowns’ “If We Are the Body,” but for now I would like to lift up to you a poem with a similar message that was written around 400 years before, by St. Teresa of Avila called “Christ Has No Body”:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

SLIDE 12 – Body of Christ PaintingGod was once incarnate on this earth, born by his mother, Mary lived within the skin of a human, sweat, cried, healed, and built. But when Christ died, he transcended human embodiment. He created a path for eternal life and left an example for how to compassionately lead and serve others. Christ lived within human skin so that we might experience God in human terms. In doing so, Christ showed us how to be incarnate in Christ’s body. How we might serve this world as the body of Christ.

SLIDE 13 - Buechner Presbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

 In closing I will share with you a video clip from a beautiful movie that came out last year, “Hugo.” If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re missing out. This is a beautifully crafted film with complex characters and a very original plot. The book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, is also very worth a read, particularly because though it is about 500 pages, most of them are pictures. The story follows Hugo, a young orphan who spends his time maintaining the clocks at a train station in Paris, and is searching for his place in the world.

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here some reason, too.”

SLIDE 16 - 1 Corinthians 12 27Know that Christ has placed a call on your life, and gifted you with unique function and purpose. You are not an extra part, you are here for a reason and God is ever longing to reveal that purpose to you in the service of God’s Kingdom. May we live into the fullness of God’s creative power in our lives so that all may experience the love of Christ. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

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

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

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

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

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

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

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

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

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

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

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

Hers is the Holy City.

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

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

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

Prepare/Enrich: Marriages and our Relationship with God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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