“The Power of Vulnerability”; Jeremiah 11:18-20; September 20, 2015, FPC Holt

“The Power of Vulnerability”
Jeremiah 11:18-20
September 20, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

SLIDE 1 - Internet CommentsSometimes when I read scripture I’m taken aback for a moment: “evil deeds,” “lamb led to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “retribution upon them;” these are not phrases we are used to hearing. To 21st century ears they sound hyperbolic, a dramatic misconstruing of the situation. The type of thing that if left as a comment on an internet post would likely be disregarded as the ranting of someone out of touch with reality, if not deleted entirely. But if we allow ourselves to enter into Jeremiah’s context a bit more, perhaps we can see why Jeremiah was using such strong language, and what it was that he was striving to oppose.

SLIDE 2 - JeremiahJeremiah is known in tradition as the “weeping prophet,” ever lamenting for the pain of his people. Here Michelangelo depicts Jeremiah in evident distress. Situated in Judah around 600 BCE, Jeremiah saw his society fall apart around him as the Babylonians took over the area. In order for his people to have any sort of future, he pleaded with them to submit to the Babylonian authority. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, but not before Jeremiah was imprisoned, accused of treason, and nearly executed.[1] His prophetic text is filled with the pain of his people.

SLIDE 3 - Temple DestructionMy mind can’t help but draw a parallel to the modern day dire situation in this very same region, with places of worship again being destroyed and refugees being forced to flee their homes upon threat of death. 2015 9 20 Slide04Or in our own country the way that conflicts over racial and sexual identity have led to horrifying acts of violence. When the sacredness of life and livelihood are so disregarded, lament is a tremendously faithful response.

2015 9 20 Slide05Religious Studies Professor Amy Merrill writes, “Part of what makes the lament such a powerful artistic medium is that it can give expression and structure to chaotic and overwhelming experiences… The structure of the lament works to name the sorrow without ensnaring the individual in unrelenting grief. Thus, the lament moves from grief toward some kind of resolution. In the case of Jeremiah, the lament transitions to an expression of trust. Jeremiah asserts with confidence that God knows what is hidden from others and will judge evil deeds with righteousness (v. 20). God will set the world to rights.”

2015 9 20 Slide06This shift from pain to action is what makes lament so powerful. Lamenting is not the same as complaining. It is not an expression of mere frustration or an assigning of blame, but of anguish demanding justice. Lamenting is an act of vulnerability, surrendering to God’s tremendous presence and power. When we lament, we confess to the limits of our own abilities as individuals and humankind all together. We are created beings in need of our creator, with solutions lying outside of what is possible on our own.

2015 9 20 Slide07Lamenting dares to ask the questions that don’t come with easy or immediate answers: why me? why them? what more can I do? where is God in the midst of this? “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

SLIDE 8 - Holding EarthWe lament not because we are without hope, but because our hope lies in our God who is beyond what we can fathom. When we are surrounded with incomprehensible grief and pain, we lament because going on with business as usual would be to be out of touch with that which makes us human, separated from the breath of God that brought us into being from the beginning of creation. We are not called to be callous in the face of injustice, rather to follow the call of Romans 12:15 and “mourn with those who mourn,” even and especially when we are the ones who are mourning.

This brings to mind the movie “Inside Out.” In this movie the main character, Riley moves away from everything she knows and her identity is rocked by the shifting reality around her and within her own mind. The movie itself functions as a lamentation of coming of age. Wanting to make the best of things she struggles with the lack of joy she feels in changes her life, and worries that her inability to be happy is a betrayal of who she is and what her parents want of her. How can she be who she is when she doesn’t feel this joy?

The audience is shown that the beauty of her life comes from the very complexity we might initially view as problematic, that in darkness the light shines most brightly.

2015 9 20 Slide11As followers of Christ we have ingrained in the fiber of our community the knowledge that God is not finished with us yet. We experience pain and we experience healing. We experience emptiness in our grief and wholeness in our mourning. We witness death, but know resurrection is coming. We’ve seen the horrors of the cross, but our hope is in the emptiness of the tomb.

2015 9 20 Slide12Questioning the presence of God in the midst of horror is not a sin of insubordination, but an act of honesty, a willingness to be vulnerable with our emotion towards our creator in whom we are called in Acts 17:28 to live and move and have our being. The fact that Jesus himself questions God’s ways shows that questioning is not incongruent with belief, or with Christianity itself.

2015 9 20 Slide13Our God is a God of empathy, so desiring to enter into the joy and pain in of our world that God came to earth in the tremendously vulnerable form of a human, Jesus Christ. We are created us in God’s own image and charged with the fundamental call to love one another, to empathize with each other’s joy and pain.

2015 9 20 Slide14When our reality is incongruent with God’s desire for us, it should make us uncomfortable and cause us to seek God’s love and justice. The fullness of God’s love for us and the love we are charged to share with one another, means we are called to care, to be vulnerable, to truly desire God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. May the injustices of this world cause us to lament with hope for the world to come. Let all God’s children say: Amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2630

“At the Well;” John 4:5-30, 39-42; March 23, 2014, FPC Jesup

“At the Well”
John 4:5-30, 39-42
March 23, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide20I think the modern Christian Church owes the woman at the well an apology. Jesus said she had five husbands, and that the man she is with now is not her husband. For this reason it is cast as a moral tale, the story of Jesus converting this woman from a life of sin to one of repentance. We’ve been told that here is a woman of ill repute, a woman of brazen sexual immorality that flaunts her indiscretions in the public square. People think that if she had five husbands and the one she is with now is not her husband, that it would surely be some moral failing on her part.

Slide21I do believe there is a transformation that takes part in our text, but not necessarily the conversion of a repentant sinner. What if, instead, it is a story of Jesus inviting this woman out of a life of earthly bondage into a life of divine freedom?

Slide22What if we considered this story from a different perspective: that of a first century Samaritan woman. No one sets out in life wanting to have five husbands. It was not an easy time to be a woman. Women were treated like property. Marriage was more of a business contract than anything having to do with love. A woman alone was impossibly vulnerable.

Slide23She likely entered each marriage with little knowledge of with whom she was about to be spending her life. As friends and relatives around her also entered into marriage contracts she probably witnessed some loving marriages, some not so loving, and was hopeful for the marriage that was arranged for her.

Slide24Maybe she was unable to conceive and was cast aside for her infertility. There could’ve been violence and the relationship covenant broken by her father’s desire for her protection. Maybe she was blessed by a happy marriage, and maybe they were separated by death.

Slide25Perhaps with the death of one husband, she was made to marry his brother according to law. This might have been what Jesus meant by the one she is with now. That she might be with someone that she did not choose, who also did not choose her, throw together by law and sorrow-filled circumstance of a deep mutual grief. She might be seen as a drain on resources, a financial burden to bear.

Some have suggested that the one she is now with, who is not a husband to her, could be because of his unkindness and possibly even abuse towards her; a “husband” who does not give her any respect or deference. One whom by law and social contract she is incapable of leaving by her own will.

Slide26Regardless of specific circumstances, a woman with five husbands would have sorrow upon sorrow compounded in her life. With each separation, each loss she was shuttled from home to home like property, shrouded in the dark cloud of lost hope. No doubt she felt tremendously disempowered by her circumstances.

I want you to hear something that you might have never heard before, that I have come to discover in this text: it is very, very, very likely that it was not this woman’s fault. She did not anticipate or invite this life of uncertainty and disappointment.

Slide27And here, into this place of disenfranchisement and sorrow, she meets a different sort of man. She meets Jesus. She recognizes almost instantly that he must be a prophet because he sees her for all that she is. Aside from the fact that Jesus provides an account of the number of husbands she has had, it is astounding that Jesus is even talking to her at all. She is a Samaritan woman, after all. The very water she could offer from that well would have been seen as unclean to an Israelite person of that time simply because she was the one giving it. Yet none of that stops Jesus from speaking with her.

Slide28He sees her. She is not treated simply as property or as the other to be ignored. Jesus sees her many, many sorrows.

What would it be like for Jesus to truly see you? Not to point out your faults, but to point out all the things that have brought you down in this life; all the things from which you need rest, and freedom.

Slide29A common Lenten practice is to take on a spiritual practice, a way of connecting with God. I addressed many of these last year through my Lenten series of spiritual practices.

One of those spiritual practice is fasting, limiting something in order to create space for a closer experience of God. Another is practicing Sabbath, engaging in purposeful rest one day a week. Slide30I have been engaging in a different sort of fast this Lent, avoiding both internet and television on Fridays as a means of reclaiming a sense of Sabbath in my life. You see, Fridays are supposed to be my days off, but all too often they end up being sermon-writing time at the end of a busy week. If you remember the Ten Commandments, honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy was not just a suggestion, but a requirement. By avoiding the internet and television I am purposefully seeking to be just a bit out of touch with the world, so I can be better in touch with God, and God’s purpose for my life. For one day a week, I need to be free from the feeling of needing to be on top of every communication and news story.

Slide31Where in your life do you need rest and freedom? How can you seek to reclaim the life giving freedom that Christ offers?

Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink, in turn, he offers her living water. With all the burdens she carries, Jesus does not need to convince her even for a moment that this is something she needs. Slide32She knows she is thirsty and asks how she may get this water and how she may worship the God who provides it. She meets Jesus and he makes himself known, and in turn she cannot help but overflow with his life-giving message of hope to all she meets. Through her testimony, many come to believe and trust in this God of living water, of freedom, of hope.

Jesus knows those burdens in your life from which you need freedom and rest. May you allow God to transform you through the living water. Amen.

“Having a B-Attitude,” Matthew 5:1-12; March 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Having a B-Attitude”
Matthew 5:1-12
March 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01My plan for today was to preach about having an attitude acknowledging our blessedness, an assignment that has proved to be both challenging and convicting. With this sermon still uncompleted yesterday afternoon, sitting snowed into my house stewing in frustration at this seemingly endless winter, I did not have exactly what you could call an attitude of blessedness. In fact, I was angry. Last night I had tickets to an event in Cedar Rapids that I had bought David as a Christmas present, thinking hopefully by March we wouldn’t have a problem getting around. And then it snowed, and snowed some more, and that plan just did not work. I was stuck at home.

SLIDE 2 - A Tree Full of AngelsSometimes when I get really frustrated I need to get out of my own mind for a bit and read the words of much calmer authors. I turned to a beautiful book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” by Macrina Wiederkehr and read these words, so very fitting to what I needed to hear:

She writes, “I always say that winter is my fourth favorite season. It is not first, to be sure, yet there is something in it that I favor. I need the scourging that it brings. I need its toughness and endurance. I need its hope. I love the way winter stands there saying, ‘I dare you not to notice my beauty.’ Slide03What can I say to a winter tree when I am able to see the shape of its soul because it has finally let go of its protective leaves? What do you say to an empty tree? Standing before an empty tree is like seeing it for the first time… “

SLIDE 4 - Sorrow She continues“…Are our lives so very different when we’re empty? When we’ve turned loose our protective coverings, is our beauty any less? In the seasons of life, suffering is my fourth favorite season. I could not place it first, yet like winter, there is something in it that has my favor. It is not easy to be praying about suffering while the sun is rising, but I try not to turn away from what God asks me to gaze upon. My sunrise is someone else’s sunset. My cry of joy stands beside someone else’s cry of sorrow. They are two seasons of the same life.”

Slide05When we only look at the world solely through our experience, through our own season it is quite possible to only see the winter, or only see our own season of sorrow or frustration. And as much as I did not want to admit it yesterday, that snow is gorgeous. The way it sparkles, the way it covers all the grit and dirt that has a way of mixing in. There’s a gentle beauty to ice frosted trees.

Slide06It’s a dangerous beauty, of course. We only need to drive down 20 to see the account of how many drivers’ lives this winter has already taken. It’s frightening to fishtail, to spin out, to try and find the edge of the road by the grooves of the tires of those who have come before you, or by aiming to drive parallel to the headlights coming at you. If you can avoid traveling at all in this weather I’d highly encourage safety over any other obligation.

We live in the promise that this winter will not last forever, even if it’s hard to believe it on a snowy March 2nd in Jesup, IA.Slide07I remember when I first learned that Australia was having summer when we were having winter. It blew my mind a bit. Also, I decided I wanted to perpetually chase Fall since it was my favorite season and also when my birthday happens. I didn’t quite get that two Falls did not mean two birthdays. But still, it made me think of the world in a whole different way.

SLIDE 8 - Upside Down ChurchI’ve had similar revelations while reading the Bible. Sometimes things just seem so completely upside down. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, many of the value systems of this world will be reversed.

Favorite author of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this in an interesting way—God’s Ferris wheel:

Slide09“Jesus makes the same promise to all his listeners: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the worlds’ lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

I love this image, each of us having a chance to touch the stars. Each of us simply being on our own part in the journey, our own journey around the sun. I also like that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of how this movement around the Ferris wheel is not one of judgment, rather that God our creator loves every one of us and desires goodness for all of us.

Lutheran preacher, Brian Rossbert spoke these words about the beatitudes:

“Instead of hearing Jesus’ blessings from atop a mountain as an encouragement to become meeker or poorer in spirit or to have more mourning in our lives, perhaps what those blessings were about, perhaps what Jesus was speaking about on the mountain was an invitation, an invitation to prayer and an invitation to take notice of where God’s blessedness had already arrived.”[1]

Slide11Acknowledging our blessedness is not about placing ourselves into a new context or into a new season, it is about recognizing the blessedness that already surrounds us. As much as being snowed in yesterday frustrated me, I can acknowledge even in the same scene, the same season that I am so blessed to have a house with a working furnace, food to eat, and Bailey to keep me company. I don’t need to be more meek or poorer in spirit, but Jesus reassures me even if I were, and even when I am, I am blessed. This blessedness may look different in seasons of meekness and spiritual poverty, but it is still there.

Macrina Wiederkehr in “A Tree Full of Angels,” continues saying, “there is something about suffering that is ennobling. I’ve seen it recreate people. I’ve seen the mystery of suffering unfold people in a way that is sacramental, giving them the face of Christ. I have watched people suffer and wondered…what it is that gifts people with the courage to suffer so well. What is it that makes some people able to embrace suffering in such a way that they are lifted up rather than crushed?…Why is it that some of us learn how to embrace suffering in a way that makes us beautiful? And why is it that some of us allow it to embitter us?”

Slide13Well known author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called “The Irrational Season,” about the season of Lent, which we will be entering this week on Ash Wednesday. In it she writes, “I am too eager for spring… fields need their blanket of snow to prepare the ground for growing. In my heart I am too eager for Easter. But, like the winter fields, my heart needs the snows of Lent….Each one of the beatitudes begins with Blessed, and translated from the Greek blessed means happy….Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to be truly happy, we are so conditioned to look for instant gratification. Thus we confuse happiness with transitory pleasures, with self-indulgence.”

As each of us passes through our own seasons of life may we be ennobled to see the blessing God has for us and live into that hope. Amen.

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30 April 21, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Being Jesus’ Sheep
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18; 22-30
April 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Our Psalm today, which we read together at the beginning of the service, is arguably one of the most well known passages in all of scripture. At funerals I have seen people recite this alongside the minister. I have seen people with dementia that have a hard time with the names of their own children, but who can clearly remember this passage. This passage is shared as peace in present grief, and as a comfort in death for one dying, or for those in grief at the loss.

Slide02How eerily fitting that this passage would come in the lectionary schedule on a week when the news is filled with grief and tragedy.

I have to be honest, I’m not really sure anything that I can offer will be any sort of solace in a world where such terrible things have been happening. As just another Christian trying to figure things out, I feel like the most authentic witness I could bring to the hurt of this world would be just to stand up here and weep, I believe that God weeps alongside us in our grief.Slide03 As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord has been so near throughout this week.

Slide04However, as someone called to preach the word of God, I am not speaking on my own behalf. Thanks be to God. And so today I strive once again not to speak my own message, but to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, in the midst of everything that is what I will do.

Slide05Our scripture today says: 1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

These verses bring up images of rest and peace: green pastures, still waters, restoration. This Psalm claims God as provider, as sustainer, as life giving force.

Slide06This week I know that I am in the need of still waters and green pastures. When so much of the world has become “ground zeros,” tangible reminders of pain and loss, I am in need of spaces of stillness, of provision, of hope. My heart yearns for restoration, for escape from the pain of this world.

SLIDE 7 - Smart GirlsI saw a great video by Amy Poehler this week. Amy is well known for her comedic acting on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation,” but she is also part of an online-based show called “Smart Girls at the Party,” that lifts up important character lessons for young women.

In her video this week she said, “In light of recent events, I’ve …been looking at photographs that have been really hard to take. I’ve been thinking about what these images do to our brains and to our heart and how we should look at them, and when we should look at them.”

She continues, “What do I want my eye to see? How can I keep myself informed and connected without exploiting people and harming myself? Slide08 I kind of feel like my eyes need a break. Don’t you? And if you do, then my encouragement to you and to myself would be to take it. That it’s okay to not be looking at what everyone else is looking at all the time… to be okay with letting some things rest in peace.”[1]

I would say the same goes for us as Christians as we try and understand the grief of this world. The twenty-four hour news cycles and frequent “breaking news,” can break our hearts if we allow ourselves to be inundated with them. Why can’t we, as Amy suggests, “let some things rest in peace”?

Slide09Why is it that we pay so close attention to these stories? I know I have been guilty of watching more than a healthy amount of television coverage in the face of tragedy. I tell myself that watching these stories is helpful, that somehow I will be more useful for knowing the details. I think of how each individual story is important. Christ knows them by name, so shouldn’t we?

Rev. Lisa Horst Clark writes, “The true horribleness of any tragedy cannot be held by us. The depth of feeling required to fully contemplate any tragedy, let alone the big ones, is not the kind of thing a mortal can do. At least for me, emotionally, it breaks me. Thinking of all of that fear, and horror, and violence. The depth of sin in this world, and all of those broken hearts, are held by God—and even the tiniest fragment, could be too much for any of us to bear. I do not believe that contemplation of violence is redemptive unless it seeks to heal a wound—to sit beside those in pain.”[2]

It is easy to get swept up in the lament, to get stuck in the sorrow of the world, to grieve the many losses of innocence worldwide. But to do so may be to disregard the hope of the resurrection, the hope of eternal life. Even Psalms often quoted in times of death and darkness, bear messages of hope and restoration.Slide11

The middle of our Psalm says in verses 4 and 5: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

Slide13This Psalm does not say that we will never encounter darkness or that we will never have enemies. It does say that God will be with us in the darkness and among us when we encounter enemies.

Modern culture tells us that doing anything in the midst of our enemies is foolish, possibly even inviting confrontation or violence. But this Psalm is clear that if our confidence is in God, if we truly trust that God has our best interest in mind, we needn’t fear any evil.[3]

Slide14There are so many things in this world that will make us feel unsafe: North Korea, the Boston Marathon, West, Texas, and even Evansdale. There are spaces in this world that evoke images far separated from the green pastures and still waters of our Psalm.

Author and activist Eve Ensler writes about our particularly American perspective of security in her book, “Insecure at Last.” She writes: “All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because now you have to watch out all the time. There are people not like you, people you now call enemies. You have places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit…Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission…Of course you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, contradict your stereotype, destroy the whole structure…. There are evildoers and saviors. Criminals and victims. There are those who, if they are not with us, are against us.”

She continues, “How did we, as Americans, come to be completely obsessed with our individual security and comfort above all else? … Is it possible to live surrendering to the reality of insecurity, embracing it, allowing it to open us and transform us and be our teacher? What would we need in order to stop panicking, clinging, consuming, and start opening, giving— becoming more ourselves the less secure we realize we actually are?”

Slide17There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. Even if evil takes our life on earth, we can still be secure in the hope of resurrection, in the promise of God’s Kingdom, and in the joy of redemption.

The great, good news is this: NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

Slide182nd Corinthians 5:6-7 says, “We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

While we are on earth, while we are in the body, we are not in our ultimate home with God.

Methodist Elder, Catherine L. Kelsey wrote about our passage saying,  “Psalm 23 is the most familiar of the many psalms that reassure us of God’s continuing presence, no matter what is happening to our bodies, our relationships or community, or to our world. It is easy in the midst of trauma to give our confidence over to doctors or leaders as if they hold everything in their hands. They do not. Psalm 23 helps us retain perspective in the midst of trauma, perspective that retains our agency in relation to those who intend to help us. We seek to discern the hand of God in the work of those who help in times of trauma, but we do not expect them to do everything on our behalf….Through it all, God and God alone is our true safety, our true shepherd.”[4]

Our New Testament passage speaks of these other agents in our lives as “hired hands.” There are people in this world who do their best to protect us, but ultimately are fallible, surrendering to their own safety and well being.

Slide20 Jesus says in John 10:11-13 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

SLIDE 21 – Jesus and SheepJesus assures us in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We are called to follow our shepherd, out of grief into redemption. We are called to listen to Christ’s message of hope and restoration over the world’s cries of violence and pain. We are called to be the sheep of Christ, following our shepherd out of the pain of this world into the glory of the next.

Slide22But this is not just a call for our lives after death, this is a call for our lives right now. Our Psalm concludes in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”

We are called to dwell in the Lord right now, right here in the midst of this broken world. We are called to follow Christ in the bringing about of a kingdom of peace, hope, joy, and love. May we allow the tragedies of this world to rest in peace, knowing that our comfort is in our savior who loves and cares for us. Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

Amy Poehler’s video:


[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 434.

[4] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 436.

“Follow Me”: Fishing with Jesus; Psalm 30 and John 21:1-19; April 14, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Follow Me”: Fishing with Jesus
Psalm 30 and John 21:1-19
April 14, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Last week I was in my hometown of Maumee, Ohio. A river, the Maumee River, borders the city of Maumee. Maumee was formed in the early 1800s and it grew as the Erie Canal was built up in the middle of the town. Water as a means for commerce and fishing made Maumee into the city it is.Slide02Last week as I traveled about town, I saw hundreds of fisherman lining the banks of the Maumee river. It was quite a sight to see, especially from a distance: all the people gathered along that river.

Fisherman will tell you that there are ways to fish, and ways not to fish. There certain types of baits and lures that will attract different types of fish.

The fishermen on the river were all hoping to catch walleye. Walleye have become somewhat of a mascot for the area.Slide03 The local hockey team is the Toledo Walleye.  Maumee has giant statues of walleye around town painted by different artists and groups.Slide04

Fishing could also be said to be a mascot for Jesus’ ministry. In fact, in the early church when Christians wanted to connect with each other they would draw out the symbol of a fish on the ground to identify themselves.

Slide05Jesus’ ministry was surrounded with fishing. Jesus’ discipleship recruitment began by the sea, in the well known story in  Matthew 4:18-23:

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”SLIDE 12 - Jesus on Shore

Luke’s version of this story in 5:1-11 foreshadows our New Testament story with an overabundance of fish that nearly sinks their boat.

SLIDE 9 - Loaves and FishesEach of the gospels (John 6:1-15; Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17) tells the story of Jesus and his disciples feeding thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread.

SLIDE 10 - Jesus on BoatJesus preaches from fishing boats, sails on fishing boats, travels with fisherman disciples and chooses fisherman for the important job of spreading God’s kingdom and building the church.

Slide11 Our New Testament lesson today gives us another fishing story. Jesus had died, and his disciples were still traveling about together, likely bonded in their shared grief and distress. And so, in their grief they returned to what was comfortable and familiar to them: they went fishing.

This was not line fishing, but net fishing. Line fishing is about the single fish, the flick of the wrist, the pull of the fish, the design of the lure, the technique. Net fishing is a different story. It isn’t about enjoying a drink out on a boat with your friends with a line in the water. It is labor intensive. It is about hauling and pulling. It is strenuous and persistent action. There’s a comforting rhythm to that sort of work.

The disciples could’ve been drowning their sorrows in busying their hands, but as they worked at this business of fishing long through the night, they weren’t having and luck. Then, all of a sudden they hear this voice from the shore saying: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (John 21:6a).”

I don’t know what Peter thought but I think I would probably be thinking things like:
“Aren’t I the fisherman here? I know what to do.”
“I’ve already tried that side. It didn’t work.”
“I’ve always thrown my net on the left side of the boat.”

SLIDE 13 - CastanetsI love this cartoon representation of one of the disciples mishearing what Jesus’ shouted from the shore.

Even if they may have been confused or doubtful, they were willing to give it a shot. They threw their nets onto the other side of the boat and were overwhelmed by the amount of fish they took in, verse 11 says that their nets were “full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”SLIDE 14 - Net

There’s been some debate over the significance of this number 153. Some says it is indicative of the 153 known species of fish at that time or of the 153 known and recognized nations at the time. All throughout scripture representative numbers like this are used as a way to indicate a whole. So these fish signify that the disciples brought in a metaphorical amount of all the fish or all the people.

These were the same disciples who had been asked to set aside their nets and follow God, but when things had gotten complicated, they picked them up once again. And in that moment, Jesus calls them out of their complacency into an act of faith. Being told to throw their nets on the other side reminds them what sort of fisherman Jesus had called them to be: of people, not of fish.

Slide15After this enormous catch of fish Jesus gathers the disciples around a fire and they cook their fish together. In this community they were reminded of all Christ had taught, multiplying loaves and fish, breaking bread, they are re-commissioned to go out into the world fed and nourished.

This is the beginning of the church, a group of people, getting together, being reminded of whose they are called to be and reminded how they are called to serve.

This is what we strive to do here in worship each week: gathering together in the presence of Christ to be nourished and to be sent.

Matthew 18:20 says:

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

SONY DSCThat means, when we gather together as a worshipping community, when we gather in Bible studies or Sunday School we are in the presence of Jesus Christ! We are gathering ourselves around the same sort of warmth the disciples felt at on that beachside bonfire. What does it mean for us to be in the presence of Christ?

In our time together are you reminded of your great God who loves you and reminded how you are called to serve. Are you listening to the call to throw your nets to the other side? Or are you stuck in the comfortable, in the familiar, in the “we’ve always done it this way”?

Our Psalm today talks of how easy it was for the Psalmist to praise God when things were easy, writing:

“I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” (Psalm 30:6)

It was easy for the disciples to talk about fishing for people when they had Jesus standing right there beside them, guiding them in their ministry, answering their questions.

But when testing comes, things aren’t quite so easy. When the Psalmist was tested he was full of frustration, writing:

8To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication: What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!’” (Psalm 30:8-10)

We see this with the disciples. When Jesus was arrested even Peter, nicknamed, “the rock,” denied Jesus three times. When Jesus was crucified the disciples were thrown into despair.

Our Psalmist gives us our happy ending in verses 11 and 12:

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” (Psalm 30:11-12)

Jesus at the shore side reminded them that his death was not an act of abandonment. Jesus is not stuck in the horror of death; he is resurrected! He walks around breathing grace and emboldening the disciples in all of those teachings he had laid out for him throughout his ministry.

Christ is resurrected; the world has changed! Are we changing too? Is our mourning turned to dancing? Are we clothed in joy?

Jesus is forever giving opportunity for us to seek joy over despair and action over inaction. This is worked out in his conversation with Peter, as Peter’s three denials of Jesus are redeemed in three calls to love, three calls to action:SLIDE 20 - Jesus and Peter

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. After this he said to him, “Follow me.”” (15-17,19)SLIDE 24 - Follow Me

When big changes in our lives happen we need to learn to reframe our challenges to assets. If we get stuck in the hurt that has happened to us or the hurt that we have caused others we are unable to serve in the way God calls us to. Each week we pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This means that we need to seek forgiveness, and we need to give forgiveness so that we can move forward to serve.

As lose sight and gain hearing, when we suffer personal loses we are more attune to the grief of others. Job loss can create opportunity to reexamine our lives and seek something more life fueling. Age or illness might limit some of the things you might have done previously, but it can also provide a new way of serving others that you were unable to do before.

Bozo fisherman using a net on the River Niger, Mopti, MaliIn our time of offering today we will be doing something new, throwing out our own metaphorical and literal nets to think about ways that each of us can minister in this church. Sara McInerny will be providing instructions of some very specific ways that each of us can serve the congregation and community. I encourage you to prayerfully consider where God is calling you. Note that I did not say “if,” but “where.” There is a call for each of us, but it might require you to shift your thinking, shift your expectations, and throw your nets on the other side.

The disciple’s act of faith, throwing their nets on the other side of the boat, brought enormous results. When we are obedient to God’s will for our lives the results are greater than we can imagine. Sometimes that means doing something different and sometimes it means doing it again.

Know that Jesus is standing on the shore side of your life pointing you to the great catch He has in store for your ministry. Amen.

“Witnessing the Resurrection”; John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43; Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Witnessing the Resurrection”
John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Video shown at the beginning of worship service:

Audio and slides of the sermon:

 Slide01Try to picture the scene: It’s early. The grass is still wet with dew, which darkens the hem of Mary Magdalene’s clothing as she makes her way to the grave. Her sleeve is similarly damp from wiping away the tears that have slipped out as she’s hurried on her way past a few stationed guards and vagrants scattered among Jerusalem’s streets, quiet in a Sabbath rest.

Now she is before the tomb, but things are not as they should be. The stone closing the chamber where Jesus laid is pushed away. She is in shock, assuming the worst: grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body.Slide02

Though an empty tomb was not what she had expected, it makes me wonder what she was looking for. She knew that he had died. She saw him mocked, tortured, and hung on the cross. The man that she loved was gone. She knew, or at least thought she knew, that she would never talk, eat, or laugh with him again. But yet, she came to his tomb.SLIDE 3 - Mary and Disciples

Maybe she just needed to see it for herself for it to be real; the giant stone as a final punctuation to the drama of the past three days. That stone would serve to separate and sever Mary from the man she was never too far away from in life. But with the stone removed and the body gone she wasn’t able to have that kind of closure. Though at this point she surely did not picture Jesus as supernaturally exhumed, she knew quite clearly that the open tomb meant that the story still had not ended.SLIDE 4 - Mary Empty Tomb

In the shock of the empty tomb Mary takes off running towards the disciples. Of anyone, surely they would understand her grief, her confusion, her frustration. She runs to them, likely telling them the details of the situation through panting frantic gasps.  They do not seem to wait to comfort her, or to form a plan of how they might deal with possible grave robbers, or to pause to consider that Jesus might have actually meant all of those things he had said about eternal life. No, they simply run, breaking into a race.

In this way they seem like young boys, propelled, partially by curiosity, partially by righteous indignation, eager to see what has happened. I can also see them in their running, looking over their shoulders, making sure to keep an eye out for any legal authority that may recognize them from the crucifixion three days before.

SLIDE 5 – John and Simon Peter at TombThey arrive at the graveyard, the “beloved disciple” first, who seems to peek into the tomb, but not fully enter. I can see him sheepishly grinning at the door, like a child at a funeral too young to really understand the weight of the day’s events.

He lets Simon Peter go in first. Peter goes in and surveys the scene. The burial cloths are rolled up, which is just enough evidence for him to see that, wherever Jesus’ body is, this was not the work of grave robbers. We are told that the “beloved disciple” enters as well, sees, and believes (though we’re not told exactly what it is that he believes).

Slide06This is enough for the two of them, and they run back to their homes. They do not wait to see what has really happened, they do not try to gather more evidence, or to care for Mary. It seems that their mourning is a sort of selfish grief. As a child too young to understand the scope of grief and loss, they are concerned with simply how the death will affect them in their own individual lives. Things are changed, and that is what upsets them, but the tomb doesn’t hold any more answers than they were able to find at home.

This is not enough, however, for Mary. She still does not have any answers, and now she has lost her support as well. She breaks into tears, overcome by the compounding losses. She looks towards the tomb and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been.

Slide07I imagine that this scene would be shocking: two angelic figures, appearing out of thin air; two figures framing where Jesus had laid. I wonder if Mary knew they were angels. Were her watery eyes blurring her vision? Or maybe she thought they were merely others at the tomb to pay respect, mourn, or indulge their curiosity. Whatever the situation, Mary does not react to their appearance in our text, but the angels react to her.

Slide 8 - Mary Crying“Why are you crying?” they ask. I can see Mary getting frustrated at this. She was at a tomb after all. If one cannot cry there without having to explain it, where can you cry? I can see her nearly yelling her response back at them in between sobs. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Some have translated the Greek phrase in this text “τον κυριον,” which I have read as “my Lord” as “my husband.” Though there’s ambiguity in translation whether her relationship is read as something authoritative like “lord,” or “master,” or temporal and intimate like “husband, “ what is important here is the closeness she felt towards him. Jesus was likely the man to whom Mary was closest. He helped her make sense of the world, and accepted her just as she was. She lived her life in the context of his, not out of obligation, but out of devotion. To see such a man die, and not only just die, but to be crucified had to evoke the deepest kind of grief.

Slide09It is in this moment of overwhelming grief that Mary turns around, away from the tomb. Maybe she too, like the disciples would’ve broken into a run and left this place of sorrow, which, as the dark morning turned to day, was quickly becoming crowded by others who did not, could not, understand the depth of her pain, but there was someone standing in her way.

SLIDE 10 - Mary and JesusIt’s a man. We, the readers know that this man is Jesus. The gospel writer tells us this plainly. Mary however, is unable to see this at first. To her, he is simply another person who disrupts her. She assumes him to be the gardener, and he too frustrates her with his questioning, mirroring the angels’ questioning, “why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?”

Slide11I can see her, at this point quite visibly upset, still wiping tears away with her now deeply tear-stained clothing. The dawn has come, the city is now likely abuzz with the gossip of the weekend’s events as people make their way to the Sabbath worship. Most everyone else walking about on this morning has dressed in their best clothing, washed, and prepared for the day. They may have felt some ripple effect of the crucifixion, but that doesn’t stop them from carrying on with their Sabbath routine.

In the midst of this morning, this Jerusalem, Mary is mess. Perhaps this is why she is unable to recognize the man she knew so closely. He is separate from her experience. He is put together. He is composed. How could he have anything to do with her situation? To her, he is just another suspect. She pleads with him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Albert Edelfelt 1890“Mary,” Jesus says. “Mary,” not “here I am,” not “why could you accuse me?” not “silly woman.” “Mary,” Jesus says. This, she finally understands. I can see her eyes light up, her shoulders relax, and she cries, “Rabbouni!”

I can see her now wanting to collapse into his arms, and Jesus anticipates this too, saying, “Do not cling to me.” It’s hard to imagine her not being hurt by this command. Do not cling to me? Here is a man whom shared much with, whom she thought was dead, now alive in front of her, but yet she cannot be close to him. The relationship has changed. It is still intimate, to be sure, for after all Mary is the first of all of Jesus’ followers to see him in this state and it is intimate as well that he calls her by name, but, still, there is a new distance here.

Instead of enveloping her grief in his embrace, he directs her outwards. Out of the graveyard, out of her grief, to go to tell the disciples that he is ascending to God the Father. And what’s is truly surprising, she goes. The text gives us no sign of any hesitation, there’s no further dialogue between the two. She simply goes. She tells the disciples what she’s heard and seen and all of history is forever changed as a result of it.

This is what shows us the selflessness of her grief. If her tears were for her own loss, she would still be crying, for Jesus’ reappearance at the tomb does not mean a return to life as it was. She will never be close to Jesus in the same way again, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The loss of her relationship with this man is not what matters to her. What matters to her is that in returning to life, Jesus has made real the promise of resurrection. What was once the theme of many confusing parables is now a lived reality. It is in this, Mary is brought from deep grief to deep joyous peace.

SLIDE 13 - Flower at TombNow take a moment to think. Where would you be in the scene? Are you Simon Peter: running to and fro, curiously searching for tangible evidence of what really happened at the tomb? Are you the “beloved disciple”: wary of the tomb, confused by the loss, but believing still? Are you a citizen of Jerusalem: intrigued by the gossip, the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion, but not sure that it has anything really to do with you? Or are you Mary: deeply grieved at the loss of this intimate companion but propelled into the world by the greater news that the tomb cannot contain the Christ?

On this Easter Sunday, I invite you to take a place in the scene with the resurrected Christ. Maybe your place isn’t as close, or as passionate, as you would like it to be. Maybe you’re still standing nervously outside the tomb. Maybe you want simply to run in the opposite direction of all the crucifixion drama. Wherever your place, I pray that you may be close enough to hear and bold enough to listen to Jesus speaking your name as well. We’re all invited to know the joy of our Christ resurrected and to speak that joy into the world. Amen.