“Hosanna,” Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11, April 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hosanna”
Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 and Matthew 21:1–11
April 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

God’s love endures forever. God’s love endures forever. There are times it is easy to echo the Psalmist’s words: when we see God’s beauty in nature, when we experience miraculous healing for ourselves or someone we love, or when falling in love. God’s love endures forever.

What about when the pain of this world seems all too much; when pain, death, and destruction can be found under every headline?

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 so many 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. As it says in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” The Lord is near indeed.

However, 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, by the Holy Spirit, to speak God’s message of hope. I am here to preach God’s word, and so today, as each of us takes a break from the 24 hour news cycle and from our social media feeds, that is what I will do.

Bookending today’s Psalm we hear our refrain: “give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”  In the Hebrew, the word we have translated as “steadfast love,” is “hesed.” “Hesed” is rich with meaning, it has been translated in older versions as “lovingkindness.” It is also used throughout the story of Ruth as the “covenant love” between Ruth and Miriam.  It appears in the stories of the Old Testament over and over as God insists on loving the people of God. It is an ongoing, unstoppable sort of love. It reflects loving acts of God throughout all of history, as well as our own, individual, immediate experience of God’s love and care for us.

Psalm 118 was originally written as a hymn of praise. The Messianic Christ was a hope for the future, but eternal salvation seemed quite far off. However, God’s desire to provide for God’s people was a historical certainty.  With the waters of the flood all around them, God brought a rainbow and a dove to give Noah hope of a new world. Through the faithfulness of a terrified mother God raised Moses from river basket to leader of a nation. In seemingly hopeless circumstances, God brought a child to impatient Abram and laughing Sarah. This passage is regularly read in the Jewish tradition in connection with the Passover as a prayer of praise for God delivering God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

In the New Testament God’s saving power is brought to realization in Jesus Christ.

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

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.”

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 stay in that space of pain makes us frozen to the action we can take. In the often quoted Psalm 23 we hear of the constancy of God’s provision. In verses 4 and 5 we read: “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.”

God is not merely creating comfort in an abstract intellectual way, but is walking alongside, co-creating peace, anointing with oil, and providing protection.

This 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.

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?”

There are very real fears in this world, but we are to keep in mind that they are of this world. 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 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 be conduits of God’s love, so that through us others will know, “God’s love endures forever.” Thanks be to God, today and every day. Amen.

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved;” Galatians 3:23-29; June 19, 2016, FPC Holt

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved”
Galatians 3:23-29
June 19, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

 

SLIDE 1 - Outside PulseIt was early last Sunday morning that the stories started coming in. There was a shooting in Orlando. 20 people were dead, more were injured. It happened at a gay nightclub. When we got to worship on Sunday these were the things I had heard, but no one really knew what all had happened, how many shooters, what their motivation was, or how high the death toll would climb. As the investigation continued, and still does, the numbers rose. 49 people killed, 53 injured, making it the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The story was horrifying to hear, but for a while all of these facts seemed so abstract to me, numbers and demographics. And even the fact that it was a shooting was abstract, living in a country where there are so, so many shootings.

SLIDE 2 - Dark Blurry CrowdThat’s the frightening thing, these people were numbers and demographics to the shooter as well. How else could someone be capable of such horrors? His connection to ISIS is still being uncovered, but it is clear that this man didn’t know his victims names or their stories. He saw them as other, as a threat to what he saw as good and correct.

Our scripture today says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

In these two simple verses the world’s divisive dichotomies are brought down, and a true and full inclusion is offered, people no longer known by their demographics, but as their role as those whom belong to Christ, who are heirs of God’s goodness. Belonging to Christ changes everything. We are no longer the other at a distance, we are siblings in the household of God. When we belong to Christ, we belong to one another. Each of us is God’s beloved, a label that overwhelms and supersedes every other label this world seeks to assign us.

SLIDE 4 - Love HateIt’s easy to hate in the abstract. It’s hard to love in the abstract.

Many acts of hate are done at a distance through bullets, bombs, and barricades. Actions justified through blanket definitions of “those people,” “enemy,” and “other.” Throughout this week this hate has become manifest in homophobia, Islamophobia, as well as both anti-immigrant and anti-hispanic rhetoric and action. Hatred hidden behind many of the labels that our Galatians text would renounce.

SLIDE 6 - LoveLove, however, necessitates proximity. Love is more than just the absence of hate, it requires action. Stepping out from behind the barriers requires vulnerability. It requires allowing yourself to be known and seeking to know the other. And when fear gets in your way, love requires taking the time to see as God sees. Love in the face of this tragedy looks like listening to the LGBTQ+ people you encounter in your life, donating blood, calling out the evils of bigotry, donating to organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they respond to this tragedy, and reflecting the light of Christ into the dark corners of this world.

SLIDE 7 - VictimsAs happens in the wake of every tragedy, we hear the stories of those who are affected. With such a large number of people killed, the list of victims of the shooting came out gradually, name by name, person by person. Each one a family that would never be the same, a story cut short.

SLIDE 8 - Edward SotomayorThe very first name on that list was Edward Sotomayor. A name I hadn’t heard until a week ago, but one that changed everything about this shooting for me. You see, to my friend Tony Letts, Eddie wasn’t a name on a list, he was a dear friend. I’ve known Tony since I was 15 and met him through a program for high schoolers interested in vocational ministry. SLIDE 9 - Eddie and Tony When Tony posted on Facebook about losing his friend Eddie in the shooting, I was shocked. I knew that each of the people killed had those had loved ones, but now knew someone I cared about was one of those people. Just that quickly the world became much smaller.

Throughout the week Tony has shared stories about his friend. Eddie was 34, worked for a gay travel agency, and was known for the top hats he often wore, as well as his quick wit, energy, and kindness. He was so very loved, by his friends, but also, by God who formed him, created him, and called him “beloved.” “Beloved” is the name by which God knows Eddie, as well as each of those affected by this shooting.

I heard a powerful story this week about a synagogue in Washington DC responding to this tragedy by taking the time to support the LGBTQ+ community in their own area, seeking to make their own world smaller, and their love less abstract. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld shares their experience:

“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah…I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.

I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.

We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.

Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.

…As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”

In 1 John 4, we read, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because God has given us of God’s Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Creator has sent the child as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the child of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us…. We love because God first loved us.”

It is God who teaches us to love, and God’s love that draws us towards one another when the pain, fear, and hatred of this world tries to pull us apart. Our love for one another enables God’s love to be perfected in us, making us instruments of God’s love in this world.

SLIDE 13 - Lin-Manuel MirandaSunday night at the Tony awards Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, accepted an award for Best Original Score and shared a sonnet he wrote for the occasion. Here is part of that sonnet:

We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day

This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.

SLIDE 14 - Love is LoveAnd love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.”

We know from scripture that “love never ends.” May we allow God’s love to live in us, that all may know that each of “us” and each of “them,” is God’s own beloved. May we abandon the labels of this world to know the truth of God’s kingdom, that beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Prayer for Boston

My sister is a runner. Two years ago I was her “media correspondent” as she completed her first marathon at the Cincinnati Flying Pig. We followed her all along the race. I was so excited that I got to see here six different times throughout the 26.2 miles. As she came in my dad was above the race on a bridge and I was below along the side of the race, both of us taking so many pictures you could’ve made a flip book. The mood at the end of the race was celebratory. So many people coming in with stories being told of people who were cancer survivors, war heroes, pregnant women and all of them were now marathon runners. We were so excited for my sister and loved hearing everyone else’s stories too. People coming over the finish line were sweaty, worn out, tired, but filled with joy at their accomplishment.

I can only imagine that the finish line at Boston Marathon today was filled with that sort of sense of celebration and excitement.

And then there was a giant boom. People looked up. Surely it was firework, right? Then they looked ahead at rising smoke and horror. Then there was another boom.

Two explosions causing 2 deaths and dozens of injuries.

I can’t even fathom the joy turned to horror that was experienced by so many in that moment. While I am lacking in words to accurately express how horribly frightening and sad this is, I ask that you pray with me:

God of grace, we pray to you in our horror, in our sorrow, in our grief. We pray for comfort, for peace, for healing. We ask that you bring swift protection to those who may still be in harm’s way. We ask for your hand on the police, emergency crews, firefighters, doctors, and nurses. Give them wisdom in their investigations and their work for healing. We pray for so many who are without answers right now: those searching for family members, those in hospital waiting rooms, those terrified at continued violence. Envelope this world with your love, and as the hymn says, “stop your child’s warring madness.” We ask all of these things in the hope of your kingdom of peace. Amen.

Remember Your Baptism

Yesterday I had the privilege of performing my first baptism. I’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. I’m grateful to this dear boy for not crying or fussing. I’m grateful I didn’t mess up the words or drop my Kindle in the font or trip down the aisle. I’m grateful for his dear family and the joy and pride in their faces for their sweet son. But most of all, I am grateful for the way he looked at the water as I said the words and the water washed over his forehead. It was a look of innocence and of inquisitiveness. He was fully engaged. We walked down the aisle together and I told him how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for him. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

We say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and this sweet boy included, we are not able to remember the exact moment we were baptized. I can’t tell you whether the water was warm or cold. I can’t tell you if it had been rainy day or how many family members showed up. But, I can tell you about seeing the baptisms of many others over the years, and hearing pastors say, “remember your baptism.”

“Remember your baptism.”

The echo of those words across the years and from my lips yesterday are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of your baptism. Remembering the promises of your community to support you as you grow into faith in Jesus Christ. Remembering how you too have promised to support others as they seek to know and follow Christ. Remembering how you are part of a Christian family so much larger than all the Christians you could possibly meet in your lifetime. You are brothers and sisters in Christ, siblings in God’s family.

“Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s promise of cleansing us through Christ. Remembering how Jesus, God’s self was baptized by his cousin John. John who was very human. John who endeavored to proclaim God’s desire for relationship over and over again. Jesus submitted Himself to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Him in His baptism. In our baptism we acknowledge that Christ’s story is our story. That Christ came and lived and breathed and cried and died for us. Even as an infant, the water washes us clean from sins we have yet to commit. The water washes our whole lives behind and before us clean because they unite us with the only One who could ever live so sinlessly. His atonement is our redemption.

Remember your baptism.”

Remembering God’s desire for good in our lives even when and especially when we feel removed from the innocence of that font. Remembering that grace trickled down our own foreheads. Remembering that God has promised to be with us always and does not abandon us when the world seems out of control.

Watching the news reports on Friday of a man in Chengpeng, China stabbing 22 children and one adult and then a man in Sandy Hook, CT, shooting 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life, it was hard to remember what grace felt like. The stark contrast of such innocence with such violence seems unfathomable. These are children.To the stabber and the shooter they were nameless. Now these communities and parents cry our their names in prayers, petitions, and eulogies. We know them as children created and loved by God. God’s grace was manifest in Christ for them. As so many parents, relatives, and communities members morn, we draw our families in closer to us, say more “I love you”s, and pray for protection for this hurting world of ours.

“Remember your baptism.”

As hard as it is to recognize, God’s grace also came for these two men. Christ came for the redemption of the evil that took root in the actions they committed. The darkness of mental illness leaves us with so many unanswerable questions as to the “why” to these events. I urge you to read this article on mental illness from a mother’s perspective: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We live in a complicated world with much pain, but if we are to truly remember our baptism, the grace of our own atonement compels us share the grace that we have received. We can and should be angry when there is violence and injustice in this world, but we must also live into the hope that evil never has the final word.

 

The video below is one I created in collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Preaching and Worship Professor, Beverly Zink-Sawyer. The images were collected from various online sources. The song is “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by fellow UPSem students, Laura and Jamie Thompson. We showed this in worship this Sunday before the baptism.

Prayers for Chengpeng and Sandy Hook

Today was a horrific day all around the world.

This morning as children were arriving at an elementary school in Chengpeng, China, a man stabbed 22 children and one adult. No deaths resulted from the attack, but the horror of this act certainly caused trauma that will be present with these children far longer than the physical wounds they’ve sustained.

Then, half a world away as children were at school in Sandy Hook, CT, a man came in and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults before ending his own life.

The horror of both of these incidents is incalculable. I’m finding myself at a loss for words of how to truly convey any pastoral response to such a violation of innocence. I know no other way to respond than in prayer, so today I offer two prayers that have helped me have any semblance of sense of what to offer up to God today:

The first, a prayer written today by Max Lucado:

Dear Jesus, It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately. These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated. The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation? Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence. Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene. Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us. Hopefully, Your Children

The second, by W. Brueggeman, shortened and edited, in light of the elementary school shooting (posted by fellow seminary classmate, Jenny McDevitt):

Had we the chance,
we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.

We would have paused at that barn and pondered that baby.

We still pause at that barn–
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,

our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed in harm’s way,
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught
in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.

We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
and yet also, like every child, also at risk.

Our world is so at risk,
and yet we seek
and wait
for this child named “Emmanuel.”
Come be with us, you who are called “God with us.”

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.