(Un)predictable, Matthew 24:36-44, November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

(Un)predictable
Matthew 24:36-44
November 27, 2016, FPC Holt

2016-11-27-slide-1-calendarThink of some of the most life changing days of your life. So many of these days we can’t see coming: when you were downsized from the job where you’d worked for many years; when you happened to be in just the place at just the right time and met your significant other; when you wake up in the morning to find your beloved pet isn’t acting quite right and then suddenly you have to say goodbye; when you found out that you were expecting a baby;  or the moment you received the call with a frightening medical diagnosis. Times when, for better or for worse, your life is suddenly altered, your daily patterns are askew and you move forward in a different direction than you predicted.

That is the type of occurrence that we read about in our scripture today. It describes how everyone is simply going about their day, eating, drinking, marrying, planting, cooking, and then all of a sudden God incarnate shows up and shakes up everything.

2016-11-27-slide-2-noahFirst Jesus references Noah and the flood. A terrible and frightening occurrence, that has some surprisingly cheery depictions in some children’s curriculums. What about the other animals? What about the other people? It’s a grim tale of God’s creation being swept away in God’s wrath. And yet, in those paired off animals and rainbowed sky, we are given the hope that this is the worst there is and will ever be.

2016-11-27-slide-3-cross The second account in this passage is that of the coming of the messiah, a new way to save the world from the blight of sin. This time God doesn’t erase that which God has created, but rather erases that which separates the people from God: the pain of sin and death. They’d likely heard the story of Noah and knew how frightening that all turned out, but the coming of the Messiah was an unknown.

2016-11-27-slide-4-awaitingBack in this time they had no sort of Advent calendar counting down the days to Christ’s birth and we can be quite certain that Mary wasn’t given a due date. What they do have are instructions to “keep awake.” A call for vigilance was all they received for an itinerary, with what may seem like dismissive direction they are told to go about their business, and to do some knowing that at any moment God’s presence will be among them and the reign of heaven will come to earth.

2016-11-27-slide-5-jesus-preachingThese were a people who’d heard the prophecies of a messiah coming to bring salvation for humankind, so these stories Jesus was telling weren’t news exactly, but more of a clarification of how things were to come about. What they didn’t understand was that God’s own presence was before them: the God, “who is, who was, and who is to come.” And yet, God’s incarnate self in Jesus wasn’t just letting them off the hook because he had arrived. God’s realm continues to be revealed, as God’s people seek for God’s kingdom to come and will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

There’s a huge difference between knowing that something is coming and knowing when. Even many of the anticipated events in our lives don’t come with a known time and date.

2016-11-27-slide-6-pregnancyMany of you know the sort of anticipatory energy I had for an event that happened in my life four months ago to this very day. For nine months previous I had been living in both fearful and joyful anticipation of my dear son Calvin’s birth. At the end there it was truly such a strange season: I felt a bit like a ticking time bomb. I knew that at any moment Calvin would come into the world and shake everything up. It made it tricky, to say the least, to plan our preaching schedule, let alone buy too many groceries for fear that Calvin’s birth would prevent me from preaching or allow our food to spoil. People would tell us, “your life is about to radically change,” and I would respond, “I sure hope so!” I knew he was coming, and that pregnancy wouldn’t last forever, but when he was nine days overdue it did become hard to believe that was the case.

2016-11-27-slide-7-martha-and-kathleenAnother event happened in my life recently that I also knew was coming, but in a much more general sense. Friday, September 16th I received a message from my mother: My beloved Grandma Martha had had a stroke and the prognosis did not look good. I knew on a base level that she would not live forever. No one does. But she was such a presence in my life, and the lives of those around her, that it seemed impossible to imagine her gone. Upon receiving the news we got in the car and drove straight to Toledo to be with her. 2016-11-27-slide-8-martha-handThough she was only occasionally responsive, I held her hand and told her many of my memories with her, family vacations every summer at Higgin’s Lake, the road trips the two of us had, our bi-weekly phone calls on my commutes to or from church. And then just a few days later, she was gone.

2016-11-27-slide-9-no-regretsIn both life and in death, we want to live without regret, doing all we can for the safety and well being of not only ourselves, but those around us. This very desire is what keeps insurance companies and estate lawyers in business.

2016-11-27-slide-10-missionKnowing that something is coming doesn’t mean we’re prepared for it. We prepare for our predictions, what we think will happen, for the direction we anticipate our lives taking, but ultimately we are not the ones in control, God is. But knowing that God is in control and even surrendering our own will and praying for God’s will to be done doesn’t mean we lose agency or responsibility. We are called to work as we wait.

2016-11-27-slide-11-searching There’s a song that came to mind when I read this text, called “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The words go: “True love will find you in the end This is a promise with a catch Only if you’re looking can it find you ‘Cause true love is searching too But how can it recognize you Unless you step out into the light? Don’t be sad I know you will But don’t give up until True love finds you in the end.”

For me this song speaks to the paradox faced when anticipating something, both patiently waiting and anxiously working towards transformative love.

2016-11-27-slide-11-manger We are called to wait for Christ’s coming, but it is not a passive act. While we wait, we work. We eat. We drink. We marry. We plant. We cook. Knowing that God’s reign is coming doesn’t preclude us from seeking to make God’s kingdom manifest while on earth. This Advent Season may we live in this tension: ever waiting for and working towards God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition; Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1; February 24, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Cry Out to God;” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Petition
Psalm 27 and Philippians 3:17-4:1
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Today we are continuing our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices with a practice that we engage in together every Sunday. “Prayers of Petition.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Prayers of Petition”?

In our worship service “prayers of petition” are part of our “Prayers of the People.” Simply put, prayers of petition are when we ask God to do something for us or for someone we care about. These prayers are also called “prayers of intercession,” as we are asking for God to intercess, or intervene, to change the outcome of our situation.

SLIDE 3 - Test PrayerThese are also the sorts of prayers that are quite common surrounding big tests at school or pleading for that green light to hold when you’re running late to a meeting. We pray to win the lottery. We pray that our chores would do themselves. We might intercess on behalf of our GPS and pray for help with directions.

In worship on Sundays we ask for God’s intercession in our community and world. We pray for the comfort of those who are lonely, for the healing of those who are sick. We pray for wisdom of leaders, for guidance of the Holy Spirit in important life decisions. Sometimes we’re not sure what to pray. We have the anxiety, stress, and grief, but not the words to make any sense of them.

Slide05There are times when we are sitting in hospital waiting rooms or waiting for a phone call from a loved one in times of war or natural disaster and we feel utterly helpless. Prayers of petition are the prayers of someone waiting, waiting for a change, waiting for resolution, waiting for comfort. Waiting on God to reveal whatever is going to happen so that we can wrap our minds and hearts around whatever may be. Sometimes these prayers are not quite as polite as our communal prayers on a Sunday morning. These prayers might be loud shouting at God. They might be an angry litany of muttered frustrations.

Romans 8:26 says:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I have always liked that phrase in Romans 8:26, “sighs too deep for words.” I have uttered those sighs and I imagine you have too. It gives me comfort knowing that the Spirit comes beside us even when we can’t form our concerns in words. Prayers of petition are prayers in which we offer up the concerns of our hearts and minds in one big sigh. We admit that we don’t have control, and we give it up to God. That’s the important part of a prayer of petition that is often missed in frustrations or anxieties of our lives: surrendering our concerns, admitting our powerlessness, and trusting that God will work things our however they are to be.

 Romans 8:27-28 continues saying:

“God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Sometimes I love that verse. It gives me peace in God’s greater plan, comfort that God will work through my circumstance, and hope for a happy ending.

Sometimes, I hate that verse. I want to tell God, “if this circumstance is things working together for good,” I don’t want any part of it. Sometimes I blame myself for the outcome, thinking, “Well if God works good for those who love God, I guess my love for God is just not strong enough.”

SLIDE 8 - Soul FeastAnnoyingly and fortunately, God’s plan is beyond human comprehension. I do not believe that God causes pain, suffering, or death, but I do believe in the midst of all of the minor disappointments and larger horrors of this life, God comes alongside us and holds us in our distress. God’s goodness ultimately wins over any evil the world may offer.

If things seem so out of our control, why do we bother to pray? What is the point of all this praying? The Bible gives us many possible explanations. In the book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,” Author Marjorie Thompson offers seven scriptural perspectives:

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Writer and spiritual director, Teresa Blythe writes: “It’s popular in Christian circles to say that prayer works. Yet no one knows how prayer works or what exactly constitutes and answer to the many requests we make of God on behalf of our families, friends, and loved ones. It’s a matter of faith. We pray because we trust that God precedes us in caring about all aspects of human life. We pray because we know prayer changes how we think, feel, and act. And sometimes we pray because we don’t know what else to do – we’ve exhausted all human action on behalf of the one we are praying for. We have no choice but to leave the concern in God’s hands.” [2]

Prayers of petition require a certain amount of helplessness: admitting that what can be done by our own will, by our own hands, in our own human capacity will not be enough. Placing our helplessness in God’s hands, seeking God’s response and action and trusting that regardless of what we would like the outcome to be, God’s will will be done.

Our New Testament passage today calls us to take confidence in the promises of Christ, calling us out of our present distress through an eternal perspective:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:20-4:1)

When I am stuck in a wordless state with my personal prayers of petition, I enjoy looking to the Psalms. Our Psalm today offers up a prayer that is simultaneously hopeful and helpless, spanning from “the Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) to “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:10c) And in the last few lines of the Psalm we hear echoed throughout the millennia the prayer of exhaustion and confidence of one waiting for God’s long sought answer, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

That is my prayer for you today as well, in whatever circumstances are filling you with sighs too deep for words: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Amen


[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: an Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 38.

[2] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 121.

“A Morning Well Spent”: Poetry of Advent and Anna

This morning I led the devotional time at the Buchanan County Health Center. Leading worship at the various care centers around the area are always, as one resident this morning put it, “a morning well spent.” Since this was the only time I’d be visiting with them before Christmas I shared with them two different poems that bookend the Christmas experience. One speaking of hope and the other of hope fulfilled:

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

“Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi
from “Sisters and Prophets(Luke 2:22-38; Matthew 5:8)
Her laugh is simply happy

The prescribed pair of turtle doves,averse to captivity,
refrain for the moment
from their soft, plaintive moans.

From their perch
they lurch forward
to take in The Occasion.

Exuberantly,
Anna recognizes a child
at his Presentation in the temple.
She talks of him in no uncertain terms!
Her particular words are shrouded,
but Delight registers profoundly
under the veil of widow-black.

A lifetime of focus
is all in her eyes.
Thanks be to God!

The old woman is truly Beautiful
and beautifully True.

Her passage of scripture
the follows the heralded Word of Simeon,
reads:

“There was also a certain prohetess,
Anna by name,
daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher.
She had seen many days,
having lived seven years with her husband…
and then as a widow until she was eighty-fourt.
She was constantly in the temple,
worshipping day and night
in fasting and prayer.

“Coming on scene at this moment,
she gave thanks to God
and talked about the child
to all who looked forward
to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”

Anna comes to Her Moment laughing,
her face the free expression
of all that’s inside.

Her life of late
seems to have staged
an ongoing soliloquy.
That heavenly smile authenticates Anna.

She is the Recognized Prophet
who came and confirmed
the word of a brother who said,
“‘My eyes have witnessed your saving deed
displayed for all the peoples to see…'”

As prophets do,
Anna ensured that the message
would get beyond temple precincts.

She probably heard Simeon speak,
and may have embellished
his Inspiration
by extending her hugs to the Chosen parents.
Very tenderly.

Anna had seen it all.
Grown-ups talk anxiously
about fulfilling the dreams of children.
Anna’s Jesus-Moment
is an elder’s consummate Belief
in a dream come true.

She speaks truth beautifully,
naturally.
The gift of prophecy is backed
by her life/prayer of eighty-four years.

Stretch marks
from solitude and solicitude and solidarity
show in The Wrinkling,
giving her face its certain Lift.

Anna of the free Spirit
is no solemn ascetic.
She talks to the baby,
as well as about him,
She shoulders him closely,
absorbing his softness,
his heartbeat,
his breathing—
experiencing a Benediction of Years
between them.
This is Manifestation embodied.

Solace.
The prophet knows
she has looked at him

Years later,
words of Jesus would Beatify her vision:
“Blest are the single-hearted
for they shall see God.”

Those eyes have twinkled
as she wrinkled.

“Constantly in the temple,”
the temple of her heart,
she became familiar
with every inch of her living space
—including its limitations—
and the Beneficence of Sister Wisdom
dwelling therein.
Anna liked the view from her window.
And a comfortable chair.

In “worshipping day and night,”
she had spent her Vitality
on an extravagance of prayer,
and discovered she was strong.

Life with Wisdom was a trilogy
of faith, hope, and love.
In Anna’s everyday Essence,
love of God and faith in a people—
and
faith in God and love of a people—
were instatiable and inseperable.
And her fasting produced
a Gluttony of hope.

The disciplined disciple,
never withdrawn,
stayed in touch with the world
and kept finding God.

Once
upon his time,
she welcomed The Promised One.

“She talked about the child…”
And talk Anna did.
She is more than prophet:
she is a grandmother!

Because it is the Christ-child she hugs,
Anna, as prophet,
is particularly aware
of the vulnerability of less-awaited children
and parents,
who also have dreams.

Anna.
Dimming eyes,
still forward-looking,
crinkle with joy.
Anna is Anticipation.

She is an Image
of constancy and change…
the progression of peace and purpose
at any stage of life.

Hers is the Holy City.

Solitude
as Anna lived it
lessens fear of the death-moment.
With God, one never stops saying
“Hello!”

I absolutely love that account of Anna. This morning’s assembled congregation of 30 people, mostly women, mostly grandmothers, responded well to it too. After the service I went to the room of a congregation member at the center and read her the account of Anna as well. She said, “I could listen to that for hours.” We both agreed that we love the phrase, “Gluttony of hope.”

It is my prayer that you too may be a glutton for hope in this Advent season!

“Out of Order,” Mark 9:30-37, September 23, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Out of Order”
Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.

Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait.  At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.

In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.

This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?

Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.

 I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”

When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.

Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me.  “Not including women and children.”  But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.

When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.

Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:

“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.

Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.

Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.

This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else.[1] In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.

Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”[2]

Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.