“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.

“Live for Righteousness,” 1 Peter 2:19–25, May 7, 2017, FPC Holt

“Live for Righteousness”
1 Peter 2:19–25
May 7, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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Have you ever been reading the Bible and you’ve thought, “I’d really like to cut that part out?” Or, “following God would make so much more sense if we just skipped over this verse.” If so, this passage which says God approves of enduring suffering unjustly, would certainly be on the chopping block.

In the case of Thomas Jefferson, this was quite literally what he did.  The Smithsonian reports, “Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents.

So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument… to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called ‘the corruption of schismatizing followers.’” Being a very pragmatic man he cut out anything that seemed “contrary to reason,” including miracles and even Christ’s resurrection.

“Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.’”

And then theologians throughout time immemorial rolled over in their graves. Or so we can imagine.

Interpreting scripture can be a very dangerous thing if we, like Jefferson, take away every bit that makes us uncomfortable to we manipulate the text to cater to our own biases and presuppositions.

This passage in particular is a dangerous one as has been used time and again to silence victims and to embolden abusers. There are some who have twisted these verses to mean that domestic abuse is something they simply have to endure, a byproduct of living the Christian life. I want to say upfront that that is not what this text is about.

Seminary professor, David deSilva writes, “I must especially stress that domestic violence and abusive marriages are not ‘sanctioned’ in some way by this text.. [it] has led to such problematic applications, with the result that some pastors or other Christian friends will advise a spouse to remain in an abusive relationship because this is God’s will. Physical abuse between spouses, however, was not sanctioned even by Greco-Roman statutes, and so persevering in an abusive relationship cannot have been an aspect of the witness to the unbelieving spouse…

the author is speaking very specifically about suffering endured for ‘doing what is right’, for ‘doing good,’ ‘for the name of Christ,’ and for ‘bearing the name’ of ‘a Christian.’ Suffering ‘in line with God’s will’ is quite explicitly limited by this author to suffering encountered because of obedience to Jesus’ call.”

In 1 Peter there are two different Greek words for used for suffering. One of them is path’-ay-mah. This word speaks of the things that happen to us, a trial we have endured. In our particular passage today the word for suffering is paschko. Paschko is slightly different. It refers to our experience, “a sensation or impression.”

The suffering of pain is apart of the human condition, but our vulnerability to fully experiencing suffering is more deliberate. Path’-ay-mah is inevitable, paschko is not.

Paschko, the suffering highlighted in our scripture today, is the type of suffering that stays with us, that makes us able to give and receive compassion. It is the beginning of empathy.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, best known for the five stages of grief she describes in her book, On Death and Dying, writes, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

This call to enter into the suffering of Christ, is a call to become beautiful through vulnerability. Every one of us is shaped by the pain and suffering in our lives. We can choose to shoulder the burden, stuff the hurt inside and never let it see the light, allowing it to embitter us. Or, we can invite the peace that Christ embodied, even and especially, as he surrendered his earthly life on the cross.

Parker Palmer wrote about this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness. He says that there are two kinds of broken hearts: the first is one that is “an unresolved wound we carry with us for a long time, sometimes tucking it away and feeding it, sometimes trying to “resolve it” by inflicting the same wound on others.” The second is a different way to consider what a broken heart might mean. He says, “Imagine that small clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into the largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” He then shares a Hasidic tale where a disciple asks the rabbi, “”why does Torah tell us to place these words upon our hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

It is not a comfortable thing to know that Christ died for us, that Christ’s pain brought about our freedom. Right after speaking of Christ’s suffering we are told by the author to follow in Christ’s example. This is not a call to sadistic self-depreciation, but an invitation to embrace the reality that Christ died for us, Christ rose for us. Christ reigns in power over us and Christ prays for us. That there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace, but everything we can do to respond to this great sacrifice.

This is the call to discipleship: knowing to our core that God cares so deeply for us, to allow that love to fall into our broken hearts, and then to live as the loved and liberated children of God we are. Amen.

“Much Forgiveness, Much Love;” Luke 7:36-8:3; June 12, 2016; FPC Holt

“Much Forgiveness, Much Love”
Luke 7:36-8:3

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2016 6 12 SLIDE 1 - Woman at Jesus FeetIn our scripture today, the primary character of our story is given a strange introduction, “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Reading that this week I thought, “hm, well that narrows it down.” Growing up in faith with the understanding of Romans 3:23, that is that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” to me this distinction is a funny one, basically just saying she was human, not divine. But in this specific account her status as “sinner” is different from the general sense of humanness that we all carry around with us, it was part of this woman’s identity, part of what made her very presence and actions towards Jesus unwelcome by the Pharisee who was hosting Jesus that day.

However, her interaction with Jesus is not an extension of her sinfulness, as the Pharisee seems to believe, rather it is a response of abundant joy and love. Jesus tells the Pharisee, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

2016 6 12 SLIDE 2 - Sin One of the criticisms I’ve heard about Christianity in general and worship in particular, is that we spend too much time dwelling on our sins, on our failures, on the ways that we have fallen short of the glory of God. To me, I find the time we spend in worship focused on the confession of sins to be one of the most life giving parts. When else in our daily lives do we stand up in a crowd and confess that we have been wrong? Where else do we receive such complete forgiveness? How are our lives changed by receiving God’s grace in this way?

2016 6 12 SLIDE 3 - Journal Historically confessions of sin have taken place throughout one’s community and personal life. Puritans wrote extensively detailed private diaries to allow them to confess their sins to God. These diaries were so thorough and so personal that they were most often burned at the time of the person’s death. Before there was a professional priesthood, Christians would gather together and confess their sins to one another to pray for each other’s healing. In the Catholic tradition priests use confessional booths to hear the confessions of their parishioners.

It seems our society these days is filled with opportunities for confession. 2016 6 12 SLIDE 6 - Reality Show Confession One-camera “confessionals” are part of nearly every reality show misconstruing the term “confession” as a venting of frustrations with another or rare moments of self-reflection. 2016 6 12 SLIDE 7 - Facebook ConfessionSocial media allows for quick opportunities to reveal our thoughts to whoever will listen.  Many we interact with day to day receive our confessions: hairdressers, bartenders, and strangers in lines.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in this self-reflection, we should be aware of our motivation for these confessions. Are we simply trying to clear our minds? Gain accountability or advice from someone we trust? OR are we seeking forgiveness from God and other’s we have hurt out of a repentant heart?

2016 6 12 SLIDE 9 - Confession It’s often a blessedly strange moment when I’m out in public and people find out I’m a pastor. I have been privy to many a confessional: on airplanes, in coffee shops, grocery stores, and just about everywhere else, just by someone learning my title. People often tell me of their church attendance, or lack thereof, confess their desire to strive to be a “good person,” some might tell me of their works in mission.

Often I want to ask, “Why are you telling me?” But then I remember who this position calls me to be.  Over the centuries the role of clergy has been as a medium to God’s grace. In the Presbyterian Church we uphold a “priesthood of all believers,” which means that each of us can ask for God’s forgiveness directly/ However, it can be a daunting thing to approach God in confession, and so pastors and other clergy become a proxy.

Though these unsolicited confessions can lead to very interesting and insightful conversations, they most often seem like a defensive response, sort of a “making this right,” rather than the thought out contrition of a penitent heart. On the occasion that these conversations become a bit deeper they can lead to some pretty profound views of how those outside a church home view the church and their relationship to God. Many tell me that they don’t go to church because they’re just too busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.

2016 6 12 SLIDE 10 - Corporate confessionConfession has long been one of my favorite parts about being a part of a worshipping community. I love the beautiful vulnerability of standing in a room filled with people of all ages and life stages and confessing our brokenness to God and one another.

Imagine what would happen if we went out to other places and relationships in our lives and confessed this same brokenness. Imagine how the world could be changed if we all admitted our mistakes and the ways we create intentional distance in relationship. What a strange and wonderful world that would be.

2016 6 12 SLIDE 11 - Woman in Church So what is it that we’re even doing when we confess our sin? Do we think that our confessions will surprise God? Do we think that our words undo the hurt that we’ve caused to ourselves or to others? Why do so many of us have such an urgent desire to confess our sinfulness? Why is “making things right with God” such a priority?

Psalm 139:1-3 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”

God knows us intimately; there is nowhere we can go that is apart from God. God surrounds our action and knows our hearts. God is well aware of each and every sin we have committed. God knows when we have willingly chosen other paths.

In 1 John 1:9 we hear, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

When we confess our sins it is not God who discovers our sinfulness, but rather it is our eyes that are opened to the presence of those sins and we begin the journey beyond our sinfulness.

2016 6 12 SLIDE 15 - Washing Jesus FeetThe woman in our story today is overjoyed by the forgiveness she received through Jesus. So much so that she can’t help but have her joy spill out, washing, kissing, and anointing Jesus’ feet, with no regard for how people may perceive her actions. She seems to really get what is going on there, that by being forgiven her story changes, her identity changes. She is no longer shackled by the sin that had so long defined her.

Psalm 32 says “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” But then the Psalmist is turned in verse 5: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Presbyterian Pastor Lindsay P. Armstrong wrote, “Focusing on fault and magnifying its importance is not confession but megalomania, as if we know better than God does that we are undeserving of forgiveness. Such a posture narcissistically keeps the focus on our actions, when what God has done and continues to do is far more important. It involves refusing forgiveness and features failure to follow God’s lead into fresh ways of living.”

2016 6 12 SLIDE 19 - Arms upConfession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It’s not about us knowing what exactly made the woman in our story be so clearly defined as a sinner. Confession is about being drawn to reconciliation, it is about responding to God’s great love and God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Confession is about acknowledging what we’ve done, but then moving past it so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says, “God reconciled us to Godself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.“

What do we do in worship each week after our confession? We are assured of our forgiveness and then, 2016 6 12 SLIDE 21 - Passing Peace we pass God’s peace to one another. When we know we are forgiven, we are compelled to respond, taking that peace that we have received from God and extending that peace to one another.

2016 6 12 SLIDE 22 - Woman CloseupThe woman in our story knew that. Once forgiven she couldn’t keep bear to keep it to herself. Knowing that we have received God’s abundant forgiveness, may be we so compelled to respond. Amen.

“In the Wilderness”; Luke 4:1-13; February 14, 2016, FPC Holt

“In the Wilderness”
Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2016 2 14 SLIDE 1 - LostThink of a time in your life when you felt lost. That will look like different things to everyone of you. Perhaps it was being separated from your parent or from your child in the grocery store, that panic of not knowing where they’d gone. Maybe it was shortly after getting your driver’s license, or coming back to a place you hadn’t been in a long time,  and where you thought you were is not where you are. Maybe it was following the loss of a loved one, when all the dependable patterns of your life seemed to disappear, and you weren’t really sure where to go from there. Perhaps it was in a season of mental or physical illness, when your body or mind were betraying how you were used to looking at the world, redefining what it was you could do, how it was you could go on.

When we are feeling lost, our fear, panic, and isolation transform wherever we are into a wilderness, an unknown place where we are laid bare.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 2 - WildernessPastor and professor Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.  No food.  No earthly power.  No special protection–just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand.”

2016 2 14 SLIDE 3 - Jesus WildernessI remember one of the first times I read this passage and I did a bit of a double take when I heard how Jesus got into this wilderness predicament. Did you catch it?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

He wasn’t there by some accident or some trick, Jesus was in the wilderness because the spirit led him there. But he is not left alone. In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this Jesus’ wilderness time, scripture says that angels waited on Jesus, and were there for him when he emerged from the wilderness.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 4 - Hand UpSo what does this mean for us? It means that God does not leave us in our wildernesses, but that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, strengthening us with the knowledge and the hope to get us through. Perhaps in those times when we thought we were the most alone, we were indeed surrounded by angels.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 5 - Jenny LawsonI recently read Jenny Lawson’s book, “Furiously Happy.” In it she speaks extensively about her struggles with mental illness and how her vulnerability has enabled her to connect with and help so many.  She writes this to the readers of her blog, “When I came out so many years ago about my depression and anxiety disorder I was afraid you’d all run away screaming. But you didn’t. Instead, thousands of you said 2016 2 14 SLIDE 6 - Me too‘Me too,’ and ‘I thought I was the only one,’ and ‘It’s not just me?’ You gave me the strength to be honest about my flaws and the support to realize that I was more than the broken parts that make up me. And you did something else you might not even realize…

In the years since I started writing about mental illness I’ve received so many letters from people who were affected by this community, but there were special ones I kept in a folder that I named 2016 2 14 SLIDE 7 - Folder of 24“‘The Folder of 24.’ – It was called that because it contained 24 letters from people who were actively planning their suicide, but decided to get help instead. And not because of what I said…they did it because of you. Almost every single one explained that what convinced them that depression was lying to them was the amazing response to my posts. They could look at a single person like me and think it was still a rare illness or something to be ashamed about…but when thousands of strangers shout out into the darkness that they are there too, it makes ripples. And those anonymous strangers saved lives without even knowing it. If you ever left a comment or a kind word you may have been the cause of someone’s mother or daughter or son being alive. Being thankful to be alive.

When I was on tour with my last book I’d sometimes talk about the Folder of 24 and how that folder is the best reason I’ll ever have for writing. And then something strange happened.  After a reading people would lean in close and whisper ‘I was 25.’’’

Jenny Lawson’s wilderness of depression and anxiety was wilderness because of how isolated she felt within it and when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to let others into the pain she was experiencing, she felt their “me too”s surrounding her, helping to lessen not only her pain, but also their own. In bringing her story to the light she brought others into the light alongside her.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 9 - EmpathyI believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, transforming wilderness into community, vulnerability into hope, through the empathy of others. Being the beloved community together requires us to be a people of vulnerability, honestly allowing others into the fractured part of our lives, but being in community means that’s not the end of it. A gift of vulnerability offered by another requires response, and it is important what that response will be. If our response is one of judgement or discomfort it can widen our wildernesses and increase our isolation. Vulnerability is an invitation to extend our own “me too”s. Not that we should ever pretend to know the complexities of the hurt of another, but that vulnerability should be met with our own vulnerability, extending empathy rather than sympathy, so that we may meet people in their wilderness and journey alongside them.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 10 - God With UsThis empathetic response is part of the very fiber of our Christian story. Our God is a God with us, a God of “me too”s, not keeping at a distance in our wilderness, but walking through the dark valleys with us. When we kept God at a distance through our sin, God sent Jesus to become one of us to truly empathize with the human experience. When he was on earth he didn’t avoid the wildernesses of this world, but entered right into them, extending a hand to lepers, befriending prostitutes, sharing wells with Samaritans, and going toe to toe with the devil itself. He could have rightly claimed his place as a king among kings, but instead chose to be a human among humanity.

2016 2 14 SLIDE 11 - CrucifixionAnd in the ultimate act of vulnerability Jesus met the brokenness and pain of Judas, Pilate, and throngs of the disenchanted with his willing innocence. He met the brokenness and sins of this world with his very life. In the pain of his death our pain is met, matched, and healed.

Through his life Jesus taught us to be a people of “me too”, to meet people in their wilderness, not as one looking from the outside, but from one in the midst. May we be emboldened by this witness to be vulnerable with our lives and empathetic with our love, ever striving to be God’s beloved community. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/