“Made for This;” Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14; July 30, 2017; FPC Holt

“Made for This”
Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14
July 30, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I was little, I always struggled with this question because I’ve always been interested in so many things. If I could’ve been a professional horseback riding, opera singing, francophone playwright, I might’ve ended up somewhere else entirely!

In eighth grade in the midst of confirmation and career research paper, God pointed me to a way that I could live a life of being totally and utterly myself, by becoming a pastor. It’s as though God was pointing to each part of my personality and character and saying, “I can use that.” My listening ear became pastoral care, my singing became praise, and my storytelling became preaching.

Our Psalm today tells us God’s knitting us together and I imagine each of these passions and traits being woven into a complex design. It’s incredible to think the level to which God knows us and the intricacies God has placed within each of us. Thinking of God as a knitter I think of how the act of knitting establishes connection, not just between the stitches in the garment, but also between everything that brought that item into creation from grass eaten by the sheep that is sheared to the spinning wheel or factory that formed the wool into yarn. From where the yarn was bought to where and when the item was knit. Each part of the journey impacts how the item turns out, reflecting the quality of the grass, the life of the sheep, the expertise of the spinner, and the temperament of the knitter.

There are items that I have knit in Bible studies, on planes, with friends, by myself. When I see the knitted garment I know where the yarn came from, the pattern that was selected or designed, where I was at each part of the item’s creation, and how much work went into all of it. Because of this, I am connected to that item. This connectivity means that I care about what happens to it.

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

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

One of the greatest joys of ministry is discovering over and over again how God takes whoever we are and whatever gifts we bring and transforms it all to God’s glory. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in this congregation: You’ve got skills in construction? God has a call for you to maintain the building where God’s people meet. You’re able to create stained glass pieces? God can use those talents to teach others about the depth and breadth of God’s teaching over time. You know how to organize people, food, or equipment? You can serve God through helping others with the Food Bank and medical lending closet. You feel most alive when your hands are creating art? Your art can be a worshipful practice for you and inspire others.

What’s hard however, is when you feel like the multiple calls God has placed on your life are pulling you in different directions at once. Sometimes we want to say, come on God, can you be a bit more clear in your “searching out our path?”

One of the most profound and annoying things I have ever heard about discernment came from a professor at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was there for a prospective student visit and we were in a session talking about the ordination process. I don’t remember quite who it was that was meeting with us, but I remember distinctly that he said that when we are discerning where to go or what to do, God sometimes just says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to go to Pittsburgh or Louisville or Richmond for seminary and God says, “yes.” We ask if we’re supposed to be a pastor or a playwright and God says, “yes.” Not that God doesn’t care what happens to us, but God will work through whichever choice that we make, and so sometimes there really isn’t a wrong choice to be made.

Recently in my own life, I have found myself pulled in several directions at once. Those who have been involved in the life of this church during my three years serving here will not be surprised to hear me describe this past year as challenging. From the myriad health concerns to the loss of both of my grandmothers, and all the typical stressors that come with being a new parent, I have said over and again, “I don’t know that I can take anything else,” and then something else came along. I remember I was talking to someone at my sister’s baby shower and she said, “remember, your car was also in that accident?” I figure life’s gotten pretty crazy if I couldn’t remember a car accident.

And so I found myself asking: do I serve the congregation? address my own health? care for my family? I heard God saying, “yes.” Over and over again, the answer was, “yes.”

Many of you have described my news of me leaving as bittersweet and I need you to know that that is absolutely the reality for me as well. In my time here I have loved you all, deeply and truly. My life is so much richer for having known you.

It is possible that one could look at a three-year pastorate as but a small dot on the 152-year timeline of this congregation, but to do so would be to disregard the incredible ways that God has been moving in our midst while I have been blessed to serve alongside you:

God’s newness among us, through baptisms, new life, Christmases, and Easters. God’s grace filled grief among us, through the valleys of death and loss, through Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays, through the meals of bread and juice. I will not forget God’s presence in the baptismal water dripping from my fingers or the crumbs of the bread broken in remembrance. This life we have lived together was God’s great, “yes,” to this season for each of us.

To look at each of us individually you might not see the connective threads between us, but they are there, knitting us, one to the other.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince of the story describes his relationship with the rose he has cared for to a garden of other roses:

“An ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you–the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe… because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

Then a fox says to the Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

The reality being, all that work was no waste whatsoever, but a cultivation of love.

You, my brothers and sisters in Christ, have been my rose, and I have loved you all the deeper through our work together. I have been honored to care for you in times of vulnerability, to listen to you in times of joy and struggle. My life is blessed through the ways we have sheltered and cared for one another these past three years. Not one moment of this ministry has been a waste and you have been deeply important to me.

I have been honored by this invisible bond between us, the unity we find in our love of God. For we read in 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”

May your heart know the truth that God has formed each one of us and called us good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Remember Your Baptism”; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; January 10, 2016, FPC Holt

“Remember Your Baptism”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016 1 10 SLIDE 1 - BaptismI’ve always loved baptisms: the words of promise, the words of covenant, the words of welcoming. It is always an honor and a privilege to perform a baptism. Every one of them is different: I’ve seen wonder and innocence in the eyes of small babies, a range of joy and vulnerability among adults and youth. There were some babies who were calm and happy in the waters, others who squirmed and cried. Each time I’ve made the trip down the aisle with the newly baptised, telling each of them how all of this congregation had just promised to watch out for them. How we as a big Christian family promise at each baptism to nurture each other in the family of faith.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 2 - Infant BaptismWe say the words “remember your baptism,” and for many, myself and many of these babies 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.”

2016 1 10 SLIDE 3 - Remember Your Baptism“Remember your baptism.” The echo of those words across the years are more than just trying to recall the specific event of the sacrament of your baptism. They are truly about remembering the covenant of 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.

[Story omitted in text for privacy]

“Remember your baptism.” Especially because remembering your baptism is not just about remembering your baptism, but remembering everyone else’s too: the promises we make to one another, the interconnectivity brought at these waters, the ongoing covenant that we inherit…together.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 7 Baptismal FontThe Directory for Worship of the PCUSA affirms that our sacraments, including baptism, “are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action.” It also says that “The body of Christ is one, and Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ. As they are united with Christ through faith, Baptism unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. Barriers of race, gender, status, and age are to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome.” And we affirm that,  “through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.”[1]

2016 1 10 SLIDE 9 - Sealed Renewed MarkedWhat an incredible claim that is! We are sealed in redemption, renewed as people of God, and marked for service. We are called to be united in that baptism, in equality throughout time and beyond all earthly demographic divisions. We remember our baptism by living into God’s call on our lives, individually and as the body of Christ.

How do you remember your baptism? How do you fulfill God’s call to equality through the promises of baptism? How do you seek to be the body of Christ? What are the ways that we as a church can better live into the baptismal promises we give to one another? What is a way that we can reflect the love of God we have received, to this broken and hurting world?

Some of you do this through teaching church school classes, coming together for bible study, leading our youth groups, participating in Faith Forest for all or VIPS. Some of you do this through mission work in Mexico or Uganda, working with Global Family Fellowship, or helping out at the food bank. Some of you do this by sharing your own peace and joy in the redemptive waters with your friends, coworkers, and family.

In our baptism each one of us is called into new life, and at every baptism all of us together are called to live into this new life together, to embrace the covenantal promises of our God.

2016 1 10 SLIDE 11 - Waters of CreationThe Directory for worship says, “In Baptism, the Holy Spirit binds the Church in covenant to its Creator and Lord. The water of Baptism symbolizes the waters of Creation, of the Flood, and of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, the water of Baptism links us to the goodness of God’s creation and to the grace of God’s covenants with Noah and Israel. Prophets of Israel, amidst the failure of their own generation to honor God’s covenant, called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24) They envisioned a fresh expression of God’s grace and of creation’s goodness, a new covenant accompanied by the sprinkling of cleansing water. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water. So, Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s grace and covenant in Christ.”

2016 1 10 SLIDE 12 - Jesus BaptismThrough our baptism every one of God’s children enveloped in the promises of God, each one of us named and accounted for, sharing in God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, that each of us is beloved, and in each of us God is well pleased. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“But Wait, There’s More!”; Acts 2:1-21; May 24, 2015, FPC Holt

“But Wait, There’s More!”
Acts 2:1-21
May 24, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Pentecost Drum Circle:

As our call to worship in our Upstream Service We created rhythms utilizing the different names of the groups present at Pentecost in Acts 2 and then put them all together to experience the movement of the Spirit among the people, bringing them together in one voice.

“But Wait, There’s More!”

Listen to the sermon here

2015 5 24 Slide01Do you ever feel like things are just a bit… noisy? You just have so many thoughts, so many ideas, that you can’t quite settle your mind down? Or you’re at a big gathering for a meal and there’s so many different people talking that you’re really not sure what conversation to tune in on? Or, you’re at one of those sports bars that seem to have one TV per person and they’re all on different channels and you just can’t seem to focus?

2015 5 24 Slide02This is the feeling I’m imagining at the very beginning of the Pentecost gathering. So many different people all drawn together, speaking in their own languages about their own thoughts and issues, everyone is buzzing about wondering what’s going to happen next. I like this picture of it… because it seems just messy enough to be accurate.

2015 5 24 Slide03Since the Holy Spirit has a great sense of humor, this very buzzing about is what was going on in my own brain as I tried to figure out what message this text could have for us today: We could talk about the correlation between Babel and Pentecost. We could explore the modern geography of the nationalities present at that gathering. I could attempt to deliver a sermon in Hebrew or Greek to see if the Holy Spirit shows up in the same particular way as in Pentecost so we’re all able to understand Hebrew and Greek perfectly, a miracle I would’ve been really grateful to have happen while I was in seminary. We could explore the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot as the setting for Pentecost, correlating the 10 commandments to the Spirit’s presence. We could talk about how the word for spirit and breath are the same or how the disciples had a similar reaction to the resurrection as they did to Pentecost.

2015 5 24 Slide05This text is overflowing with theological, ecclesiological, and eschatological meaning, but for today the message I know I needed to hear the most, the miracle in this text for me this time around, was the way the Holy Spirit calmed all of this madly buzzing chaos and brought clarity.

In a whoosh of wind and fire the Spirit transformed the community from frenetic into faithful, from cacophonous into melodious, from fearful into empowered.

2015 5 24 Slide06 In the midst of a busy season at the end of a busy year in my own life, I know I need that message. As a congregation freshly emerging from a big year of many celebrations, I believe this is the message we could all use: That when the Holy Spirit moves among us, we can better understand what God wants us to do next, because by the Spirit we can better understand God and each other.

2015 5 24 Slide07At the time of Pentecost, the disciples were under instruction from Jesus himself that they are not to leave Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes among them. But what will that look like? How will they know? In scripture we don’t hear them asking this question, but if they did I could imagine Jesus saying something along the lines of, “oh, you’ll know.”

After three years of ministry among them, his crucifixion, and then resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven. Jesus is no longer there among them to answer their questions, to wash their feet, or to feed them loaves and fishes. And so, they are likely fearful, afraid that they are on their own, that God is no longer in their midst, since the primary way they have experienced God, so far, is through Christ.

After all that has happened in their lives with Jesus, he gives the disciples the divine version of, “but wait, there’s more.” So at Pentecost they are awaiting the Holy Spirit to come among them.

2015 5 24 Slide08And as the disciples are gathered with “devout Jews from every nation,” the Holy Spirit rushes in with a violent wind, and “tongues of fire,” resting on each of them. And in their bewilderment they draw close together and inexplicably can all understand each other, even though they are speaking different languages.

Imagine actually being in this crowd at that time and how it would make you feel: a strong and angry wind, fire all around you. It would certainly be terrifying. Loud noises and fire are usually not an indication of positive things, rather of an attack or hurricane or tornado. Keep in mind it was a packed crowd in that temple, with lots of unfamiliar faces, perhaps even people in the room who looked like the type of people you had been taught to mistrust. But you’re in this together, whatever bad or good may come of this strange situation.

2015 5 24 Slide09And then all of a sudden comes the moment I love in this passage, where the people in their fear draw closer to one another, and what was initially cowering in fear is transformed into gathering in unity. Their shouts of personal bewilderment aren’t just their own, but those of a common language and voice. They’re terrified, but in their terror they’re able to understand one another and the joy of that newfound clarity turns their panic into relief, discomfort into joy.

2015 5 24 Slide10It reminds me of a story from my favorite artist, Brian Andreas. He writes, “this is a machine that’s supposed to make people good & true & kind & the funny thing is that it works best when it’s completely broken down so everyone has to stop what they’re doing & get together & figure out how to fix it.”[1]

Their unification was initially out of fear, but in surrendering themselves to their astonishment, the Holy Spirit breathes restoration and new beginnings in their midst.

2015 5 24 Slide11As they drew together in fright the Holy Spirit transformed them into people of one language. As they were able to hear one another and Peter’s preaching they became people of one purpose, the beginning of the church of Jesus Christ.

The flames and wind and spontaneous ability to hear in one language were undoubtedly miraculous, but the part of this that I think speaks best to me today, was the way that the Holy Spirit enabled them not just to hear the words that each other were saying, but that the Holy Spirit enabled them to listen to the heart of one another, that they were each laid vulnerable before the other and truly understand God’s prophetic word for all of them.

2015 5 24 Slide12Author Mark Nepo writes of the ways the Holy Spirit can transform our own fears and misgivings into life-giving unification, “The moment we speak from the truth of compassion, we speak the same language always waiting underneath our differences.” Continuing on he says, “in a moment of vulnerability, in a moment of suffering or acceptance, in a moment of letting the truth of things rise within us, in a moment of risking to be who we are in front of others, we can feel the life of others wash over us as we slip back into the sea of compassion. And in that…moment, there is only one tongue.”[2]

2015 5 24 Slide13Through the Holy Spirit we experience clarity, a freedom from all of those things that we thought divided us, all those human-created conventions that we thought were necessary steps to accessing God. This freedom can and should shake up our lives, compelling us to reprioritize our own lives, and perhaps even our church to better reflect the priorities of God’s Kingdom.

2015 5 24 Slide14Particularly in our upcoming Summer of Sabbatical, may we be mindful to silence any voices in us that are not of God, ever pursuing God’s call for each of our lives.

Whether it be through flames of Pentecost or a look of familiarity in the eyes of the stranger, thanks be to God for every time that the Holy Spirit helps us to get out of our own way so that God might be more mightily at work among us. May we ever open our eyes to the ways God is in our midst. Amen.

[1] http://www.storypeople.com/2013/12/16/broken-down/

[2] Nepo, Mark. The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life. New York: Harmony Books, ©2005.

“Of One Heart and Soul”; Acts 4:32-35; April 12, 2015, FPC Holt

“Of One Heart and Soul”
Acts 4:32-35
April 12, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to audio here.

2015 4 12 Slide01Do you ever read scripture and think: “Really?!” “Really?!” was my first reaction when I read this text. I thought, whoever wrote this first line of this passage must be the type of guy who writes greeting cards and inspirational posters filled with empty platitudes. No way could any group unequivocally say that they are of “one heart and soul.” Even one of the commentaries I read this week said, “there is little doubt that our author paints a rather idyllic scene.”[1] Indeed!

But then my second thought was jealousy. I’d love to live in a society that was that incredibly united and without any needs. A culture where “great grace [is] upon [us] all.” Could it be, might it be possible?

2015 4 12 Slide02This reminds me of a sermon on the feeding of the 5,000 that I heard by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor of “House for All Sinners and Saints,” a Lutheran church in Denver, CO. She speaks about the possibilities of what happened at that tremendous miracle, and the disciples’ perceived inadequacies.

2015 4 12 Slide03She writes, “I started to wonder what was going on with [the disciples] that they would see the scene in front of them as they did. I wondered why they wanted the crowds to go away and fend for themselves and why, when Jesus asked what they had, they said “nothing. Nothing but 5 loaves and a couple fish.”

And with that offering, that meager offering, which they thought was “nothing,” a whole crowd was fed.

She continues saying, “the disciples must have learned… that there was more available to them than what they themselves were bringing to the table…Maybe [Jesus] didn’t want the disciples to send the people away because Jesus knew that those people had what the disciples lacked. Maybe the disciples, like us, need to be reminded that even when we do not have what is needed, what is needed is still at hand…it’s just [going to] come from God or others, because in God’s economy, that’s how it works.”

And then she preached this line that buzzes around in my head, and I plan to cross-stitch for my office wall one of these days:

2015 4 12 Slide04“What you have is enough because it’s never all that there is.”[2]

For me that has been a tremendously profound thought.

It also takes a lot of pressure off, refocusing what my life and ministry are about, not about being all things for all people, but pointing to our God who is, and our community, which can manifest God’s goodness for each of us.

By recognizing that we on our own are not enough, and allowing God to work through the places where we are lacking, we open ourselves to receiving grace. When we try to do it all on our own, we are operating as functional atheists, ones who see no need for God’s presence and providence in our lives. When we acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, but still are willing to bring who we are and what we have, offering our lives as contributions to the work of God’s kingdom, all together we have more than enough.

2015 4 12 Slide05It is important to notice that our scripture says that the believers were all of one heart and soul… not that they were all of one mind or body. The believers in Acts experienced abundance not because they were all the same in their thoughts, physical appearance, and background, but because they were different. Through their individual experiences and gifts, they were able to contribute to a more complete community. Each bringing who they are and what they have, none of them experienced need.

2015 4 12 Slide06I would argue that one of the joys I’ve found in Christian community is that the less we have in common in body and mind, the more closely we rely on our common faith in Christ to be what unites us. Some of my most profound moments in ministry have been leading worship among a room of people with dementia, exploring what it is to be God’s beloved child with our X-team kids, or joining together with strangers from around the country to serve God in mission at workcamps during my high school summers. Those experiences are impactful because of our commonality found in Christ.

2015 4 12 Slide07If we decide to spend all of our time together because we’re all the same age, ethnicity, or gender, or because we like that same movies, music, and sports teams, our unification is not one of any depth or substance. But if we come together for worship and service to our God, because of our love of God and our belief in our resurrected Christ, we are indeed of one heart and soul, and privy to God’s abundance in our community and lives.

“What you have is enough because it is never all there is.”

The uniqueness of that community in Acts, is that they understood that. They understood that on their own there was still need; by their own merits there was still sin. The reason they were united wasn’t some common pact to live in harmony or because they liked all the same things. It was because they knew and believed utterly that Jesus was lived and died so that they may have new life, and that they might know a way forward into God’s grace.

2015 4 12 Slide09In our passage today we read, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” That great grace was not upon them because of their own merits, but because of the deference that showed to God, the way that they used their lives to point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is what united them and gave them purpose as they were forming the new church follow Christ’s death and resurrection.

2015 4 12 Slide10Twentieth century theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[3]

2015 4 12 Slide11Might our community be “of one heart and soul”? As idyllic as it sounds, and as incredible as it may be to believe, this unity is possibly through our common belief in our resurrected Christ. May it be so. Amen.

[1] David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown Bartlett, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Feasting On the Word: Year b Volume) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber “Sermon On Lembas Bread, the Feeding of the 5,000 and Why I Hated Pastoral Care Classes,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/, August 6, 2014, accessed April 9, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/08/sermon-on-lembas-bread-the-feeding-of-the-5000-and-why-i-hated-pastoral-care-classes/.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, ©1954).

“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Our Turn Now;” John 17:1-11; June 1, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Our Turn Now”
John 17:1-11
June 1, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide02There are times when the events in the world line up so incredibly with the lectionary scripture that it’s impossible not to notice God’s hand in things. When Maya Angelou passed away this past Wednesday her son, Guy B. Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”[1]Slide03The official day celebrating Jesus’ ascension was Thursday. There is something powerful and unsurprisingly poetic about Maya Angelou’s son employing the language of the hope of resurrection and ascension granted to all of us through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

Slide04 The ascension of Jesus Christ is a story that is often forgotten in the larger narrative of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. After Easter we tend wrap up the story of Jesus’ live on earth and slide quite comfortable into what the church calendar calls, “ordinary time.” But, as many liturgical nerds will remind you, Easter is not just one day, but fifty! The official church season of Easter doesn’t end until Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday in worship.

Slide05Ascension is a strange sort of day to acknowledge, because if we really think about it, it’s rather frightening. After Jesus’ death and resurrection Jesus comes back to be with the disciples; he comforts them in their sorrow, he demonstrates his grace. But then when the time comes for Jesus to rejoin God in heaven, that means that Jesus leaves this world in our hands.

SLIDE 6 - Ascension Holy Spirit The good news is we are certainly not alone. Jesus leaves us with the Holy Spirit. Our scripture on Sunday two weeks ago affirmed this promise. In John 14:15-17 Jesus says to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Slide07The Holy Spirit remains with us so that we may do all that Christ has commanded, and live into the joy and the promise of unity with God. In our scripture today we read Jesus addressing our creator God in John 17:11, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Slide08Christ prays to God for unity, so that we may together serve God’s people. How is that working out for us? Our world today is filled with division after division, limiting us from coming to a full knowledge of God’s love for all of us. In John 17: 3 Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When we stop acknowledging the others in our world as fellow created children of God, we limit ourselves from experiencing God’s grace fully.

Slide09As is befitting this scripture lesson and this day, I will quote Maya Angelou once again with a quote I posted to our church Facebook page this week upon the news of her passing. She said, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”

Slide10Christ’s ascension leaves us as caretakers of this world. With all of its flaws and beauty, or as John Legend would put it, “perfect imperfections.” We are created in God’s image and commissioned to serve God’s people, or in other words, everyone.

If you want to overthink the whole thing, feel free to look up philosophical discussions of paradoxes of perfection, but one that stuck out to me was the baroque esthetic of art which says, “the perfection of an art work consists in its forcing the recipient to be active—to complement the art work by an effort of mind and imagination.” We are perfect in the way God intends for us when we respond to God’s presence in our lives, God’s desire to be active in this world through our activity: taking up Jesus’ call to discipleship.[2]

Slide11In our scripture today Jesus says to God, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

Slide12Could we still say that this is true about us? Do we seek to know God through Christ? Do we seek to serve this world as caretakers of creation and of one another?

We affirm in our recitation of the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “ascended into heaven,” but we are not and will never be alone. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us, and together may we be bold enough to work towards bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/28/maya-angelou-poet-author-dies-86

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfection#cite_note-TatarkiewiczSu1980p120-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“What’s Stopping You?;” James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50; September 30, 2012; FPC Jesup

“What’s Stopping You?”
James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50
September 30, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

There’s this great home video my family has of my sister and I dancing together when we were little. She’s around three and a half years old or so and I’m just about two. This picture is from a few years later, but gives you a bit of an idea about how my sister and I enjoyed dancing. In the video we were probably dancing to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a favorite of ours at the time. I’m sort of moving every which way and she is running around in circles. She stops me and says, “you’re not doing it right… like this!” And I happily follow her, running around in the same direction that she’s been running in.

This is the image that comes to mind for me when I read our passage in Mark. The disciples had a great idea of how to follow Christ. My sister had a great idea of how we should be dancing. And then here comes someone else that’s just not doing it right.

The disciples have been walking with Jesus since the beginning of His ministry. If anyone knows the right way to do things, it would be them, right?

When the new believers of this time began following Christ they were most often responding to an experience they had with Him. A healing they had witnessed, a transformation they had encountered, a sermon that spoke truth to their very soul. Many of the gospel stories end with people believing and going off to share with others. Many of these conversions do not come with a lot of instructions on how to be a Christian, because that word didn’t exist yet. These people simply knew that this man named Jesus had come for the sake of each person. He preached an upside down, backwards is forwards revolutionary message of loving others that society would deem unlovable. And that was enough for many. They decided to follow Jesus, often giving up their own way of life, their families, and their possessions.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the start. They’re the veterans. Anyone who’s ever had a younger sibling or become an upperclassman has a bit of an idea of how these disciples felt. Sure they wanted to bring in new believers, expand the Kingdom of God, but did that have to be at the expense of losing the closeness of the original community surrounding Jesus? These people didn’t really get it in the same way. These people weren’t doing it right!

Our Mark passage today talks about stumbling blocks in faith. The word often translated as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is from the Greek verb skandalizein. This word and its English cognate, “scandalize,” carry a meaning closer to “causing one to be so horrified that they are no longer able to continue in the same direction they’ve been traveling.” This is much more severe than a simple stumble. This is a fall flat on your face and never come back sort of fall.
I know people who have had this sort of experience with church. When they needed a community of believers most in their lives they were called sinful, deemed unworthy, or even just ignored. To them, church is just a place where people will tell them that whatever they are doing, they’re doing it wrong. Being told you are dancing the wrong way when you are two is something that you can get past. Being told that you are an unworthy sinner by the very people you seek out for love can create wounds for a lifetime.

It is a genuine concern to desire for the church to speak not an easy truth, but an authentic witness. It is important for the church to acknowledge the history of those who have gone before. But when our desire for the way things have always been gets in the way of someone experiencing the love of Christ, we are that stumbling block, we are the scandalizing ones.

Sometimes we get so frustrated in the way that others present Christianity that we’d like to tell them, “you’re not doing it right,” and direct them in the way that they should go. I do believe that God calls us to cry out against injustice and anyone speaking a word of hate claiming it is in the name of God.

But, aside from acts of injustice or hatred, those who simply worship Jesus in a different way, are still our brothers and sisters in Christ and we should stand beside them. The image of the church in our community and our world needs to be one of love, not of division. As Christ says in our passage “anyone who is not against us is with us.”

This is a prophetic word for a world of political, social, and religious polarizing. We are told that there’s “them” and there’s “us.” And if you’re not an “us,” then you’re a “them.”

The disciples, too, felt this desire for categories. These new followers were the “them,” the disciples were the “us.” How could the disciples sit idly by while they professed to be driving out demons in the name of Christ?

Listen carefully to the words again: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” They weren’t stopping this man who was doing work in the name of Jesus because he wasn’t doing good work or because he wasn’t doing the work of God, they came because he was not following “us.” He was not one of the in-crowd of disciples. There also may have been a bit of jealousy involved in the disciples’ disapproval of this man.

Earlier in Mark chapter nine we read of another incident, where scribes were arguing with the disciples.  Here’s how Mark tells the story: [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”  Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak;  and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” [Mk. 9:16-18]

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” [Mk. 9:28-29]

So when they are angry with this nameless disciple for casting out demons in the name of Christ they’re not just angry because it might’ve been “unauthorized.” They’re angry because this had been done by a man who wasn’t even a part of the original disciples. Their complaint is based solely on their desire to have exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  And even more frustrating, the disciples were not even successful in stopping this man!  “We tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus.  The work of God went on in spite of the disciple’s interference.

“Jesus said, ‘Do not stop [them]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

Jesus wants to work through this nameless follower, as misguided as the disciples thinks he may be. This is important to keep in mind on several levels. If we seek to do the will of Christ in this world, Christ will work through our efforts. If we invoke the name of Christ in blessing, Christ will indeed bless. When I endeavor to speak Christ’s truth from this pulpit, Christ will be the One to impart truth.

Jesus continues on in his lesson to the disciples, almost in the same way I can imagine a parent talking to a child when a new sibling is introduced to the family or the way upperclassmen may need to be lectured against bullying new students. This is a “don’t mess with the little guy,” type of talk.

Jesus says, “If any of you [scandalize] one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Wow. That seems quite threatening coming from the “Prince of Peace.” Surely as Christ desires peace, Christ desires the strength of the Kingdom even more so. Though the text of this passage seems like a call for physical violence and self harm, we can think of this more in the context of the church as the body of Christ. Separating from those causing harm to the church is like separating out a body part, painful, but necessary if it will allow you to survive. And so, even these very essential, very involved disciples may need to be separated out of the body of Christ if they are causing harm to other believers.

When I first began working on this sermon, I gave it the title, “what’s stopping you?” but these verses also point to perhaps a better question, “who are you stopping?” We are called to be the body of Christ in this world. God’s own hands and feet in this community. We are called to speak the love of Christ louder than we speak of division and politics. We are called to affirm Christ’s claim on each and every life. We are called to empower others to do Christ’s work in this world.

Our passage in James today gives us instructions on how we are to care for one another it says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

In all occasions we are called to pray for one another, for as James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

So who are those that you are called to pray for today? Who are the “suffering?” Who are the “sick?” What is stopping you from praying for them? I would say the first step in knowing who to pray for, is acknowledging those around you. Like in the book we read in the children’s message today, the important time do to things is now, the most important ones are the ones around us, and the more important thing to do is good for those around us. God has called you into this life you are living and desires to work in and through you. This is a work that can only be done when we live lives steeped in prayer. The Kingdom can only be built when we open our doors and our lives to those who we might not recognize as the in-crowd. For Christ came not only for “us,” but for “them” as well. Amen.