Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

This service of lessons and carols is based on the wider narratives surrounding the Christmas story, encompassing the stories of the Three Wise Women[1], Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna. This service was assembled by Rev. Kathleen Henrion for worship at First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI on December 28, 2014.

All poetry, songs, and scripture belong to the attributed authors and publishers.

Three Wise Women: A Service of Lessons and Carols

Call to Worship: “First Coming,” by Madeleine L’Engle [2]
Leader: God did not wait till the world was ready, till…the nations were at peace.
People: God came when the heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
Leader: God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
People: God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait till hearts were pure.
Leader: In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
People: To a world like ours of anguished shame God came, and god’s light would not go out.
Leader: God came to a world which did not mesh, to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
People: In the mystery of Word made Flesh the Maker of the stars was born.
Leader: We cannot wait til the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
People: God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Carol: “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout,” Verses 1 &4 [3]

Prayer of Illumination: Emmanuel, ever-present God, open our ears and our hearts to your presence here among us today. May we come to know you better through the scriptures read, the old and new poems shared, and the feelings evoked in own personal reflections. Amen.

Carol: “For All the Faithful Women,” Verse 1[4]

First Lesson: Luke 1:5-20 NRSV

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

A Reading: “Zechariah” by Craig Joseph[5]

My silence speaks volumes:
Speaks of hollow reverberations in an empty womb,
Of my beloved’s muffled cries, hopeless, late at night,
Of unbroached topics between man and wife,
Isolated in their grief.

Speaks of a mute God
Who would not stoop to answer
The cacophony of impotent noise made by the righteous,
Striving to keep his commandments.

All this – echoes of despair, lost faith, abandonment.

My silence is God’s silence.

The lack of sound then resounds:
With the rustle of angels’ wings,
The gentle roar of a majestic announcement,
The metallic ring of a sword drawn in anger
Upon a fearful gasp
(An inrush of air
That cloaked a more resounding unbelief:
Faith as barren as a womb).

My silence is God’s answer, disbelieved.

But now I, mute and wildly motioning,
Fill the air with your laughter and endless queries,
Hearing what you cannot be aware of –
That to which divinely-imposed silence has bent my ear:

A distant cry from the beginning of time – from Creation –
Declaring that God will make the hearts of his people fertile again.
Yelled through the prophets (though most were deaf to this meaning),
Hollering through my son (hear that, and do not scoff,
Lest you be considered, Like I,
the town clown),
To announce itself shortly in a Bethlehem stable,
Calling to God’s people in stereo-surround sound.

My silence, alas, is God’s provision
That will not be silent for long.

Hymn: “You are Mine,” Verses 1 & 2[6]

Second Lesson: Luke 1:26-38 NRSV

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’* 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’* 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

A Reading: “Liturgy” by Irene Zimmerman[7]
All the way to Elizabeth
and in the months afterward
she wove him, pondering,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Beneath the watching eyes
of donkey, ox, and sheep
she rocked him, crooning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

In the moonless desert flight
and the Egypt-days of his growing,
she nourished him, singing,
“This is my body, my blood!”

Under the blood-smeared cross
she rocked his mangled bones,
remembering him, moaning,
“This is my body, my blood!”

When darkness, stones, and tomb
bloomed to Easter morning,
she ran to him, shouting,
“This is my body, my blood!”

And no one thought to tell her:
“Woman, it is not fitting
for you to say those words.
You don’t resemble him.”

Carol: “On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing,” Verse 4[8]

Third Lesson: Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:46-54 NRSV
Leader: And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
People: and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Leader: for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
People: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Leader: for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
People: and holy is his name.
Leader: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
People: He has shown strength with his arm;
Leader: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
People: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
Leader: and lifted up the lowly;
People: he has filled the hungry with good things,
Leader: and sent the rich away empty.
People: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
Leader: according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
People: to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

A Reading: “Visitation” by Mary Southhard[9]
Each woman listens
Each speaks:
Ah! the life within you, within me –
a new revelation:
God’s saving love
impregnates the universe
in woman…
in joy…
Magnificat!
Again today
women tell their
stories to each other –
magnificat!
Listen sisters, listen brothers,
A new outpouring.
This time: resurrection!

Carol: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Verse 1[10]

Fourth Lesson: Luke 1:57-66 NRSV

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Responsive Affirmation of Faith: Luke 1:67-70 NRSV
Leader: Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
People: for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
Leader: He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
People: as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
Leader: that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
People: Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
Leader: might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
People: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
Leader: to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
People: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Leader: to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
People: The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A Reading: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by So Elated[11]
Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of Creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes.

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
in alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes.

Carol: “Blest Be the God of Israel,” Verses 1 & 3[12]

Fifth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7 NRSV

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

A Reading: “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton[13]

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all alright.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast
His hair was like a star.
O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” [14]

Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:8-19 NRSV

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

A Reading: “Let the Stable Still Astonish” by Leslie Leyland Fields[15]
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place.” ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here —-
in this place.”

Carol: “Away in a Manger” [16]

Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:22-24,36-38 NRSV

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

36 There was…a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child* to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

A Reading: Selections from “Anna” by Mary Lou Sleevi[17]
Exuberantly, Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.

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.

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.

Carol: “Still, Still, Still” [18]

Prayers of the People

Offering: A Reading from Bernard of Clairvaux who lived from 1090-1153; “You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”[19]

May we respond to this greatest of offering with our own offerings of our times, talents, and tithes.

Response: “What Child Is This,” Verse 3[20]

Charge and Blessing: “Christmas Poem,” by Jim Strathdee[21]
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the magi and the shepherds
have found their way home,
The work of Christmas begins
to find the lost and lonely one,
to heal the broken soul with love,
to feed the hungry children
with warmth and good food,
to feel the earth below,
the sky above!
to free the prisoner from all chains,
to make the powerful care,
to rebuild the nations with strength of good will,
to see God’s children everywhere!
to bring hope to every task you do,
to dance at a baby’s new birth,
to make music in an old person’s heart,
and sing to the colors of the earth!

Carol: “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Verse 3


[1] Inspired by Dandi Daley Mackall, Three Wise Women of Christmas (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006).

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, “A First Coming,” in A Cry Like a Bell, Wheaton Literary Series (Wheaton, Ill.: H. Shaw Publishers, ©1987), 57.

[3] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[5] Craig Joseph, “Zechariah’s Poem,” Plan A :: it all started in Ethiopia stories from our family of five (blog), December 12, 2009, accessed December 29, 2014, http://planaethiopia.blogspot.com/2009/12/zechariahs-poem.html.

[6] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[7] Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary, ©1992).

[8] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[9] Mary Southhard, “Visitation,” in Julia Ahlers, Rosemary Broughton, and Carl Koch, eds., Womenpsalms (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1992), 10.

[10] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[11] Ben Thomas, Zechariah and the Least Expected Places, So Elated, Ben Thomas B001LJVXNC, CD, 2008.

[12] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[13] “A Christmas Carol” by G.K. Chesterton. Public domain.

[14] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[15] Leslie Leyland Fields, “Let the Stable Still Astonish,” Leslie Leyland Fields (blog), December 2012, accessed December 29, 2014, http://www.leslieleylandfields.com/2012/12/can-stable-still-astonish-and-6.html.

[16] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[17] Mary Lou Sleevi, Sisters and Prophets: Art and Story (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1993).

[18] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[19] Bernarrd of Clairvaux, in The Harper Collins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 64.

[20] Glory to God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013).

[21] Jim Strathdee, in response to a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman, 1969, quoted in Ruth C. Duck and Michael G. Bauch, eds., Everflowing Streams: Songs for Worship (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1981), 33.

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“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

“The End?”; John 13:1-17; April 17, 2014, FPC Jesup

“The End?”
John 13:1-17
April 17, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - spoiler_alertI think that this scripture should begin with a spoiler alert. It tells us from the very start that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world. Like when my Dad asked why I was going to see the Titanic when I already knew the boat was going to sink, we’re all gathered here tonight to hear this text again, draw close to the story of Jesus’ last days, last supper, so many lasts.

When we think of it, the whole ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar SLIDE 2 - liturgical calendardoesn’t hold much in the way of surprises either. At Christmas we expect to hear about Mary’s pregnancy announced by Angels, the trip to Bethlehem, and Jesus’ birth attended by animals and shepherds. When we get into this season of Lent we expect to hear about Jesus’ time in the wilderness, the company of the disciples, Palm Sunday, the last supper, the crucifixion, and without any hesitance or surprise, we greet Easter morning secure in the knowledge that Christ will indeed be risen, and the tomb will be empty.

Slide 3 - Last supperEven though we know how it’s going to end, we are drawn into the narrative of Jesus and his disciples, gathered at the table. It’s a common scene. They’ve been traveling with each other for a while now, accompanying Jesus as he speaks to crowds, brings healing, shares loaves and fish, turns tables, and challenges the establishment.

SLIDE 4 - Jesus Washing FeetAnd now at this common table, Jesus begins washing their feet. Peter is uncomfortable with this act. It seems so out of line that Jesus would be the one to wash their feet. When he resists Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter balks at this and says “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Given the denials that are to come before the dawn, it seems like a bit of anticipatory guilt in the way Peter so heartily desires to be washed so that he might fully commune with Jesus. After he is done washing their feet he tells them that he has done this as an example to them, telling them that they will be blessed by the service they give to others.

SLIDE 5 - DisciplesIt’s the end of the road for this band of followers, and Jesus knows that not one of them will last the night with their allegiance in check. Jesus being fully God knew every bit of what was to come, but also being fully human he was not immune to fear. Over the three years of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples he taught them a great many things and yet over and over again they showed through their actions that they didn’t quite get what was going on here. How could Jesus have full confidence that this band of misfits would carry his Good News into the entire world? But time was running out from what Jesus could teach them, and so he had to trust in the new beginning that would come from the ministry they had shared.

Slide6Roman Philosopher, Seneca is quoted as once saying, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” If you haven’t been studying Roman philosophy and that sounds familiar to you it might because Slide7it was quoted in the one hit wonder, “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

After this meal of service, this night of betrayal, and the day of horror to follow, a new beginning was coming: the beginning of a world no longer beholden to death’s power, the beginning of a time when the disciples would be tested to share all they had learned from their brief but intense time in the presence of God’s incarnation. With God no longer dwelling on earth in the person of Jesus, God’s dwelling would need to take root in all who would come to believe. God’s kingdom would need to be brought by these confused, sometimes fickle, human disciples. What a message of hope that is for us, thousands of years later as we seek to know, follow, and share Christ with others.SLIDE 8 - Start Finish

SLIDE 9 - HearWe’ve heard it all before, and so often times we stop really listening to what all of this means, and what it could possibly have to do with us, here and now. Though our story doesn’t change, our response to it can. Will we let these words wash over from our comfortable view on the sidelines of salvation? Or will we take Jesus’s actions to heart, using our place at the table to welcome others, to invite them to the cleansing healing that we’ve found in the company of Christ? May you invite the presence of God in this world to begin again through you, this Holy Thursday and always. Amen.

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right;” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; November 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Do Not Be Weary in Doing What is Right”
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1Today we have the incredible blessing of being able to celebrate the two sacraments of the reformed church in one service: baptism and communion. It is an exciting thing to be united in the sacraments, coming to table and font together as the community of Christ.

The Directory for Worship the Presbyterian Church USA’s affirms that we celebrate both baptism and communion as sacraments because they were “instituted by God and commended by Christ.” and it says that “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” We affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

What an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service.

How does that impact you? Are you daunted by such a lofty connection and responsibility? Are you overwhelmed by the incredible scope of God’s goodness? Or once you’re brought into these sacraments do you feel like you’re off the hook? If your sins are forgiven and your life is redeemed through Christ, what do you have left to worry about in your own living?

The Thessalonians in our passage today were just beginning to learn how Christ’s promises played out in their lives, and what their response to God’s redemptive action should be.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Slide3Our scripture today can be a controversial one, it’s message having been distorted throughout time in political arenas. This passage has been misconstrued to lift up a puritanical work ethic and to question social services such as welfare. But in the context of Paul writing to the Thessalonian community, that was not at all the case. Paul was not confronting people crushed by their socio-economic situation or those unable to find a job.

He was confronting people who, in response to God’s message of Christ’s second coming decided to stop working all together, and simply wait for Christ’s coming. They thought if Jesus is coming soon, any work that they were doing was pointless.

Paul is quick to correct them, pointing to work as a way to lessen the burdens of the community, a way that they can be fed to do the kingdom work they have been called to do.

Slide4Victor Pentz, a Presbyterian Pastor in Georgia related a story about a woman who was joining a church. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” she said, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ secretly disguised as a legal secretary.” [2]

We are all called to await the second coming of Christ, but in the meantime, we are called to work. Working towards God’s kingdom in whatever way we make our living. Our calling in our baptism and through the communion feast is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Our job provides a mission field and a way to be fed on earth even as we await the heavenly feast.

In verse thirteen we read, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Living with faithfulness even in the mundane aspects of our lives can be tiring, but it is part of our call as followers of Christ. Our day-to-day work can glorify God if we approach it with a right spirit.

Khalil Gibran was a Lebanese artist, poet, and writer who once wrote,

“And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.”[3]

Through prayerful attention to the work of our lives, we demonstrate our love for God and the blessings of God’s work and provision. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and then work alongside God to make that happen.

Slide7Today we will witness the baptism of Aria, Karsidee, and Amanda. They will take vows as followers of Christ, but this call is not for them alone. We are not to stand idly by, but we will also be called to make vows, “to help them know all that Christ commands, and by [our] fellowship, to strengthen their family ties with the household of God.” There is work for us to do in their lives as this community, as children of God. You are called to uplift these newly baptized as they navigate Christ’s plan for them. You are called to support and uplift them whether they be your family by blood or by being fellow members of the household of God.

May we embrace the call and the promises of our sacraments, being strengthened by this renewal and recommissioned to do the work to which you have been called. Amen.

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing; Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8; March 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing
Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout our Lenten series we have been studying many different practices, iconography, fasting, prayers of petition, walking a labyrinth, and prayers of confession. Though many of these practices have the concerns of others in mind, most of those practices can be done just fine alone. Today’s practice however, requires interacting with others in a way that might not be the most comfortable thing.

Slide02The practice is “foot washing.” Within the context of our worship service today we will translate this to hand washing. But for now I’d like to stay with the image of foot washing.

Have you ever watched the TV show, “Dirty Jobs?” In this show the host, Mike Rowe takes on some of the dirtiest jobs that there are out there. And boy does he get dirty. From trash, to sewage, to tar, to animal carcasses, Mike Rowe has dealt with all of these things, and given the outside world an often-nauseating look into each of these worlds.  I know there are some of you in this congregation that have experienced your own dirty jobs, working with manure or animals or other such things in ways that would make your suburban-raised pastor faint.Slide03

What I’m trying to get at here is that one of the dirtiest jobs in Jesus’ time was that of a foot washer. In Jesus’s time traveling primarily involved walking. There was no plumbing of any kind, there was no pavement, no real regard for sanitation. People’s feet were very, very, very, dirty.

Slide04How strange is it then that when Jesus comes to Bethany, Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. Her hair! The thought of it grosses me out. Her concern was clearly not for her own vanity, but for worship of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 5 - Jesus FeetIn the dirt and in the grim of those road weary feet of Jesus there was also beauty. These feet weren’t the feet of someone who kept at a distance. They were the feet of someone who walked among the people. Jesus was both God and human, and in his walking he was very human. If you have the power of heaven and earth, why would you choose to limit yourself to being constrained within a body? And if you must be in a body, is it really necessary to do all of that walking? Couldn’t he fly or in the very least, ride a donkey?

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this, “The four gospels are peppered with accounts of [Jesus] walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”

SLIDE 8 - Pedestrian CrossPart of Jesus’ ministry was being very present, very human, and in every definition of the word, “pedestrian.”

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 52:7 we heard

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

Slide10How beautiful than were the feet of Jesus, the announcer of peace, the embodiment of good news, and the provider of salvation?

This passage in Isaiah exults the feet of ministry. Feet of peace, good news, and salvation are much more than the dirt that may cover them. Their beauty stems from the goodness of the person attached to them, but it also stems from their own work: their ministry of walking on the earth, of bearing goodness as they travel. This ministry will make them dirty, at times will cover them with callouses, blisters, heel spurs, but these feet are beautiful because they are feet that are in motion.

Slide11This is my family with my Great Grandmother, Granny Ruth, who lived to be 101. She used to say “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”

Slide12This is the call also of the disciple. We are not meant to sit around with clean feet. We are meant to be in motion. We are meant to keep our eyes open, our hearts open to those who might cross our paths. We are meant to get our own feet dirty,SLIDE 13 - Mary or in the case of Mary, our own hair. Mary’s act of love for Jesus required a disregard for her own well being both hygienically and financially.

In response to today being St. Patrick’s day, a seminary friend of mine, Rachel Jenkins wrote this lectionary themed limerick: “There once was a woman named Mary. /Though Jesus’s feet were quite hairy, /she opened the jar /and poured out the nard /and foreshadowed that he would be buried?”

Her alternative last line is: “and everyone spit out their sherry.”

SLIDE 14 - MaryThey were indeed shocked and probably would’ve spit out their sherry if they were drinking it at the time. This perfume that Mary was to be used for burials. Though Jesus was frequently pointing to the short life before him, only Mary seemed to understand that perfume for burial was exactly what this situation called for. Jesus’ ministry was not leading to election to a political post or to celebrity status; it was leading to the crucifixion, it was leading to death.

Slide16Mary immediately receives criticism for the wastefulness of her actions.  As if on an episode of “The Price is Right,” Judas readily identifies the 300 denarii that went into purchasing that perfume. He was upset with how much money she “wasted.” As a bit of an aside, the author of this gospel tells us “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6) Judas desire was not for the money to serve someone else, but rather that it might serve him. He was looking not for the humility of service, but for personal promotion.

While Jesus was alive, the disciples never seemed to really understand what Jesus was calling them to do and be in their world.

Luke 9:46-48 tells us:

“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’”

Jesus was always doing things like that, making flipping things on their heads and reordering their expectations.

In Matthew 20:26-28 Jesus corrects the disciples saying:

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And in the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, he demonstrates this service to his disciples in one of the most unexpected of ways. He takes on the “dirty job” of washing their feet:

“[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4-17)

Richard J. Foster writes in his book, “A Celebration of Discipline”: “As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service…. The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or title, but in a towel.” [1]

Contemporary society is familiar Jesus’ call in Matthew 16:24 to deny ourselves, taken up the cross and follow Jesus. We are much less familiar with the call to take up a towel and follow Christ.

SLIDE 23 - Towel and SandalsTaking up the towel involves kneeling at feet. Taking up the towel involves making ourselves dirty in the process. Taking up the towel in the way that Jesus demonstrates involves washing the world clean. Not just the parts that need some light dusting, but the parts that need a deep scrubbing. Jesus washes the feet of Judas. All throughout the story of this last supper Jesus points to his knowledge of Judas’ imminent betrayal, but still he kneels before him and serves him. This is the sort of servant-hood to which Jesus is calling us.

Foster writes about this: “We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.” [2]Slide25

When we choose servant-hood out of love of God and desire for the care for the world that God loves, we are taking up that towel of service. When we go out to share God’s love, our feet become beautiful. May we seek to share God’s love with all we meet in both word and action. Amen.


[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 126, 128.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 132.

“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.

“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

It made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed. All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. Amen.

“Find your Greatness”; Ephesians 4:1-16; August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

“Find your Greatness”
Ephesians 4:1-16
August 5, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

Who has been watching the Olympics? I love watching the competition, seeing those moments where one second can make such a difference; one misstep can change a future. But mostly, I love watching those human-interest stories that are shown alongside the coverage. I’ve never been too into athletics, but I am very much into stories. Seeing how a person’s life is oriented towards an Olympic goal, how they’ve flourished with family support or thrived in the face of adversity. Each story makes me watch a little closer to what will happen for that person in these games. Those stories make us care about what happens. Those teams become more than just a country represented on uniforms, rather they become a multi-dimensional, breathing force of will and intention. When we recognize the individual, we can see the function of the team all the better.

This multi-dimensional functioning team is similar to the example of the church that Paul gives us in our passage today. 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.”

When 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.

This passage’s example of the church as the body is echoed in another, perhaps more familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For 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.  For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body…. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

The last couple of verses of this passage are particularly important, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Now if you look around at the Christian political climate right now, can we really say that we are consistently giving greater honor to those who need it most?

And do we even need to question whether or not there is dissension within the body and if all are having the same care for one another?

Hebrews 12:1 provides an example of how we may go forward as the universal Church. It is often quoted in an athletic context, as it says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” This verse can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.

When we take the time to listen to one another, to pay attention to what is important to each other, we are better equipped to run this race together. Like the Olympic coverage, we are more motivated to care when we know those human-interest stories. The reality is, every human is interesting in his or her own way, each has value, and each has a role they have been called to fill. When we open our lives and our hearts to taking in the worth of others, we are also better equipped to understand our own worth. We too have been called to serve God in our own unique and particular ways. We are not called to be all things to all people, but we are called to be faithful to the gifts that God has placed in our passions.

Admittedly another thing that I love about the Olympics is the commercials. Actually, we’re going to watch one here together. As we do so, I’d like you to think of the first verse of our passage today. In Ephesians 4:1 we read Paul’s encouragement to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Let’s keep that in mind as we watch this commercial together.

So what is your greatness? Are you a great listener? Are you a great talker? Are you a great musician or vocalist? Are you great at cooking or baking? Are you great at being present in times of need?

In your passions God has placed a purpose for your life, a greatness to which you are called.

Our passage tells us we are to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [you] have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

With this in mind, what is your greatness and how can you use it to point to the greatness of God?

[Walked around with microphone to receive responses from congregants.]

This Wednesday an online devotional called, “The Daily Word,” gave this great message,

“[The] Spirit within is always calling me toward the desires of my heart. I needn’t worry that I’m not ready or worthy to pursue them. When I am willing to be more, do more, and share more, [the] Spirit provides everything I need for success. My joy, excitement and passion tell me I am moving in the right direction.

“I am willing to share my gifts and talents, knowing the world needs every one of us to open to our greatest potential. Even if I do not feel fully prepared, [the] Spirit works within me and others, to synchronize timing and provide resources for the highest good of all. Fueled by my passion, I step into a flow of positive energy that carries me forward and expands my life.”[1]

2 Corinthians 8:12 says, “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have.”

It is my prayer that we may go forth together in eagerness to serve with the greatness we have been given. Amen.

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3

Agape

Tonight at FPC Maumee we had our Agape Meal, a meal designed to reflect some elements of the passover meal, ancient Christian worship, and the way Jesus modeled selfless service in washing his disciples’ feet. This has become a tradition in our church and is one of my favorite things that we do as a church.

Here’s what I like about the Agape Meal:

It’s authentic. In a world with many things competing for everyone’s time it’s tempting, particularly as a church, to try to portray ourselves as different than we are in actuality. This event is not about being catchy or gimicky, it’s about being community. The dinner is surrounded by elements of worship and we sing simple congregation favorite type of songs. Food is passed around the room in a way that feels like great big family dinner.

Everyone has the opportunity to live into their call in the church community. Deacons, called to be the hands and feet of the church, serve the meal. They work with kind diligence to see that everyone is served and cared for. Elders, called to lead and equip the church in worship and service of God, distribute the elements of communion as well as lead the tables around the room in rites of hand washing and eating of bitter herbs. The pastor, called to preach and teach the congregation how to live in service of God, leads worship throughout the evening and explains the rites in which we are all taking part.

As we seek to bring others into our community and connect people with Christ, I hope events such as this annual meal can serve as a touchstone, reminding us how we are called to love one another as Christ loved the world: with agape love.