“Seeking Shalom” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, October 9, 2016, FPC Holt

“Seeking Shalom”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-9-slide-1-richmond-hillWhen I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

2016-10-9-slide-2-prayerEvery day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers. On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness. Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants. Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

2016-10-9-slide-3-meal-prayerAs a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

2016-10-9-slide-4-seek-the-welfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

2016-10-9-slide-5-fpc-holtWhen I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:

2016-10-9-slide-6-aaOne man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.

2016-10-9-slide-7-medical-equipmentOne of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.

When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.

2016-10-9-slide-8-food-bankOther people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.

One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. 2016-10-9-slide-10-kalin The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.

2016-10-9-slide-11-walk-to-schoolThis past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.

2016-10-9-slide-12-mission-handsThis is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about sharing what you can with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

2016-10-9-slide-13-jeremiah-29-11 Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

2016-10-9-slide-14-james-howellIn my preparation for this sermon I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “

2016-10-9-slide-15-crosshandsThese plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

2016-10-9-slide-17-welfare-of-the-cityWhile God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.

“Sow What?” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; July 13, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Sow What?
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Gardening, to my mother, is not a chore. It is a passion. While some dread mowing the lawn, she sits on our back porch, iced tea in hand, plotting out some elaborate pattern she will mow in the grass.Slide02 She knows which flowers need sun, which need shade, which she needs to coach to climb along the trellis. Her gardens are fed mulch, water, and sunshine. My mother has shown me the care, nurture, and love that go into maintaining a garden.

Slide03With that in mind the image of the sower is initially a strange one. Here this man known only by his function, “the sower,” and yet he doesn’t seem very intentional about the way that he cares for his seeds. Some fall on the path, some on the rocks, and only some on the good soil. He likely wasn’t a rich man, but rather a tenant farmer working from his scarcity to make life grow. As many of you know firsthand, the role of the farmer is not a passive one, but rather requires a working of the land, intentionality in where things are planted, attention given to make sure that the plants get enough water, but not too much.

SLIDE 4 - Christ as Sower2So why then does this sower seem to scatter this seed so broadly? In this parable God is most often cast in the role of the sower as God is the source of life and the origin of the good news, but I’d say for me I see God as more likely being the seeds. God in Christ took root in the world, grew so we might receive the harvest of his grace. Slide05As we read in the first several verses of the Gospel of John: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”[1]

Slide06“The Word was with God and the Word was God,” this means that the Word that was being sown was God. The Word that was being spread was God. And God is famous for being everywhere, even the unexpected places: scorched in the heat, picked apart by the birds, in the rockiest of places. God shows up.

What from the outside looks like the sower’s wastefulness, is God’s uncontainable abundance. If what you’re spreading is an extension of God’s own self it’s bound to go everywhere.

Slide07There’s a lot of talk at this church about scarcity: not enough money, not enough volunteers, not enough time. Even when we look at the less tangible qualities like welcoming and graciousness and politeness it may seem like we need to hold some in reserve, only welcoming those who can offer something to our church in a way that will help it be the church we want it to be, or perhaps we go the other way only being gracious and polite to strangers, but not to the ones we see everyday, treating those familiar faces as only as valuable as what they can do for us. It seems we have a sense that the only way to be stewards of the goodness God has extended to us is to guard it carefully, protect it with our lives and our egos and our checkbooks.

When we are focused on the ways that our church and the people around us and even ourselves are lacking, we’re bound to be anxious and discontent. And when we’re living in that sort of space it’s hard to access the kind of imaginative and life-giving vision that energizes us to live into God’s plan for us individually, as a church, and as God’s larger church in the world.

When we seek to point out the inadequacy in our community and in one another over God’s abundance we miss out on God’s Good News for us:

SLIDE 8 - Romans 8-15-17“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”[2]

It can be both painful and convicting if we stop to consider what sort of environment it is we provide for God to grow in and among us.

Slide09Maybe we’re the path, hard packed into a set pattern of how we’ve always done things, entertaining the presence of new growth from time to time, but more interested in staying together than in being changed by something new in our midst.

As Protestants we affirm the adage “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” but change can be hard, especially when we feel like we have everything all figured out. A path is by definition a comfortable route, worn down over time by person after person deciding that that is the way to go. While it can be a comfort for those who travel have helped to travel that path, new growth in that space would require a rerouting, a disruption of what is known for the sake of the unknown. A new seed has no chance on a hard packed path unless one will make a space for it to take root, and will water the dirt that has become dusty from it’s barrenness. And as we see in the parable, an exposed seed is vulnerable and easily snatched away by the bird that will consume it.

Slide10 Perhaps we’re the rocky soil, binding ourselves to those we are comfortable with and in doing so creating an impenetrable rocky border between ourselves and all that are on the outside. We leave room for others to come near, but like the rocky soil we don’t allow for roots to form among us, and those who are not of us are unable to stay long enough for any stability or lasting growth.

SLIDE 11 – ThornsI would hope that we would not be the thorny patch! Lack of growth on the part of the thorns is not the issue here, they themselves are growing, but their growth serves to keep others out, and chokes the other plants that grow there. Thorns are focused only on their own agenda and growth, but do not seek to serve others, rather they curl in on themselves in a tangled mess.

Slide12Ideally, of course, we would be the good soil, the most hospitable of the parable’s environments. The good soil provides nourishment and support. When the seeds fall on it they help each other to grow abundantly, providing stability to the soil, shade in turn for one another. By growing together these seeds each only bear a little bit of the burden of the outside environment. And as our parable illustrates, these seeds multiply in their growth yielding abundance!

Slide13Why does God waste God’s time being out among the rocks and the path and laid out as food for the birds? Because there is an abundance that springs forth wherever God takes root. This is the promise of our text and the prophesy of Isaiah:

Slide14“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”[3]

Slide15When the seed we are sowing is God’s own self, we can be secure in the knowledge that it will grow beyond our wildest expectations. God seeks to bless us richly, to take root in our church, in our homes, in our lives, and in our very hearts. By commissioning all who follow Christ as God’s disciples, as “joint heirs with Christ,” each of us are entrusted with that which is most precious, God’s own self. But unlike many precious resources, God’s goodness is multiplied when shared, the hope of Christ expands in the hearts of those who receive it. God’s word can only bear fruit when we scatter it broadly in all places, even and perhaps especially those who do not seem deserving.

SLIDE 16 - Christ as SowerWhile we should treat the love and care of Christ as precious, it is not scarce, but limitless. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”[4] Christ died for all to extend grace to all. Might we share this grace so that others may grow in this truth. Amen.

 

[1] John 1:1-4

[2] Romans 8:15-17

[3] Isaiah 55:10-13

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:14-15

“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

“Dwell”; John 14:1-14; May 18, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Dwell”
John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today, I give you full permission to doodle during my sermon, in fact. I encourage it. What I would like you to draw is how you envision heaven. If you’re stumped then be sure to listen for how heaven is described in our scripture passages today. Following the sermon I would like whoever is willing to share their picture with all of us.Slide02This week I went to see the movie, “Heaven is For Real.” If you are unfamiliar with it, it is based on the real life story of a Nebraska minister’s family, the Burpos whose three year old son, Colton has an emergency appendectomy and then afterwards tells his family that during the surgery he floated above his body and went to heaven with Jesus. It’s a fascinating account and the book in particular gave me chills from time to time with the accuracy of how Colton’s portrayal matched up with more obscure Biblical texts. I had read the book a few years ago so I was intrigued to see how they could possibly attempt to depict some of the visions of heaven. It was interesting to see how the filmmakers interpreted Colton’s experience. Not quite as surprising was how everyone reacted in the film to this then four-year-old’s stories about his trip to heaven. Most people were fascinated on some level, but many were resistant, event hostile towards the idea that this boy could’ve possibly gone to heaven.

Slide03While we’re comfortable with the idea of heaven in the abstract, getting into the particularities can be divisive. In our passage today we hear a description of heaven given by Jesus and written down for us by the John, Jesus’ disciple.

Slide04This passage is often used at funerals to speak of the home God prepares for us in heaven. It’s a message of God’s care for us, preparing a place for each of us, for all. This is the place where God dwells and to where God invites us to come home. Here is a picture I came across this week done by a child to show what they think God’s house will look like. Each room a space of joy and celebration. One room with a giant birthday cake, another underwater, one with animals and sunshine, one with looks like what might be a ball pit, and another a person with a big drum. Looking at this picture at first I thought perhaps it was not completed since one of the rooms is empty, but the way I’d like to interpret that is that there is a room waiting just for you, for all the joys and delights of your heart.

Slide05 Artists throughout time have sought to depict the glory of heaven and the majesty of God. Slide06 Since we know we are made in God’s image, most interpretations show some version of God as a person, often wise looking with a beard. SLIDE 6 - Michaelangelo GodOne of the most well known interpretations is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. This painting shows God reaching down to humanity and humanity reaching up to God, but many will be quick to point out that they are not actually touching. There is a separation there. God in heaven and humanity on earth.

Over and over again throughout the Bible we hear stories of God being the one who lives in heaven.  In Isaiah 57:15 we read, “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Slide09 It’s amazing to thing of God as not only dwelling in heaven, but also inhabiting eternity. It’s hard to even wrap our minds around the idea of anyone inhabiting a time that never ends, but God is so far beyond what we can know with our own human understanding and language.

Slide10 In Colossians 3:1b-3 Paul implores the Colossians to, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Slide11Most of us would like to avoid thinking about death, but thinking about heaven is a different matter, as though we forget that death is something we will experience in order to experience heaven. Like the people surrounding Colton Burpo, there is a fascination with heaven, a deep desire to have confidence in the hope of something beyond what we experience on earth.

Slide12Influential Christian writer, C.S. Lewis writes of this desire for heaven in his book, Mere Christianity. He writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water… If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”[1]

Slide13How strange to think of heaven as our “true country,” when it is one we have not yet seen. Still, we yearn for the sort of contentment and simplicity that heaven offers. We long to be reunited with those that we love. Particularly when ones life holds much pain and many disappointments, it can be incredibly freeing to think of what will come afterwards.

Slide14Revelation 21:3-4 is another passage that is often offered at funerals as a message of hope. It says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And so, I will ask the question again, how do you envision heaven? Who is willing to share their drawing?

Let us pray: thank you God for the promise of heaven. May we live in your hope. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/462154-the-christian-says-creatures-are-not-born-with-desires-unless

“Belonging to God” 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 February 23, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Belonging to God”
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
February 23, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - One DirectionIf you’ve turned your radio to a Top 40 station in the last year or two you’ve likely heard the One Direction Song, “What Makes You Beautiful.” If not, I’ll fill you in, the premise of the song is summarized in the lyrics at the end of the chorus: “You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful.”[1]

David and I joke about this song when it comes on because I think it sounds so silly in its circular logic: someone not knowing that they’re beautiful makes them beautiful…but what if they figure out they’re beautiful, does that make them no longer beautiful?

It turns out insisting on linear logic from a boy band’s pop song is as silly as insisting on linear logic from our God who scripture tells us is without beginning and end.[2]

In 1 Corinthians 3:18-20, we read, “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.””

So, if it were scripture according to One Direction it would be something like, “You think you’re wise, so that’s what makes you foolish.”

What a strange thought.

SLIDE 4 - Street SmartsThe important thing to realize is the context of our knowledge. The “wisdom of the world,” is what God considers foolish. Earthly wisdom, perhaps what we would call “street smarts” are often counter to God’s desire for us, shrewdness in business, guarding ourselves from people who might misuse our generosity, using our time and efforts to get ahead at the expense of others, these aren’t God’s priorities. And our scripture tells us not to “boast about human leaders,” for the kingdom of God does not belong to them, but to the people of God, who allow Jesus to be the foundation for how “we live and move and have our being.”[3]

Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Paul writes of the danger about the cult of personality that happens in following human leaders, and how it can lead to divisions over things that do not matter to God and to salvation. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 17-18 we read:

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?  For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Paul references these allegiances again saying in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

We are called to follow the gospel of Christ, be driven by the power of Christ’s death at the cross. All other divisions of the Church are not God’s design have no bearing on salvation.

This building of the kingdom of God brings together all who follow God, which includes a lot of people you and I might not pick out to be among us. In Ephesians 2:13-18 we hear of how this new kingdom will be built:

“13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

SLIDE 10 - Jesus People This passage speaks so of the different people who Christ has come to reconcile, the Jews and the Gentiles. Both groups were “far off” in their own ways. Though the Jews were God’s chosen people from the very beginning, their desire to follow God through adherence to the law had gradually become more about legalism than relationship with God. When they were unable to fulfill all that the law required they felt far off from God. Those who were not Jewish, the Gentiles, were unaccustomed Jewish religious tradition. Though the disciples, particularly Paul, were working to welcome Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, they were still unsure of their place in this new community, feeling far off from God. Through Christ, both are reconciled into the household of God. All are brought near.

SLIDE 11 - Jesus FoundationIn our passage in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 we read, “10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection pieced together apostles, prophets, Jews, and Gentiles into a temple with Christ as the cornerstone. We are tasked with the building of this temple and this kingdom. We are God’s dwelling place. God dwells in and among us.

Slide12When I read the last line of our scripture passage “all things are yours…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” A scene from the Lion King popped into my head. Simba and his dad, Mufasa the king of the animals are sitting high atop pride rock. Mufasa says to his son, “Everything the light touches is the kingdom.” When Simba questions about the shadowy places Mufasa says that those parts are beyond the borders of the kingdom and that Simba must never go there.[4]

“All things are yours…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” In our passage there is not the same exclusionary markings of Mufasa and Simba’s kingdom. The ruler of our Kingdom is God of all, even the shadowy places. And God promises to be present in all of those places.

At the end of our service today we will be singing the song “When we are Living.” I’d like you to really listen to the words of this song, as it speaks to the all-inclusionary scope of our belonging to God. In the third verse it says, Slide13“’Mid times of sorrow and in times of pain, when sensing beauty or in love’s embrace, whether we suffer, or sing rejoicing, we belong to God; we belong to God.

It’s not enough to simple belong to God by ourselves, since the kingdom of God is not an exclusive club. In the final verse of our song we will sing of how we live into our call of belonging to God. Slide14 “Across this wide world, we shall always find/those who are crying with no peace of mind,/but when we help them, or when we feed them,/we belong to God; we belong to God.” Belonging to God is more than just resting in God’s embrace for our own well being, it’s about expanding God’s kingdom to those who are experiencing shadowy places in life. It is about being the hands and feet of Jesus to a world.

May we fully live into our identity as those who belong to God, by inviting others to do the same. Amen.

“The Welfare of the City;” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; October 13, 2013; FPC Jesup

“The Welfare of the City”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 13, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01When I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

Slide02Every day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers.

On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness.

Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants.

Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

Slide03As a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

SLIDE 4 - Seek the WelfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

Slide05Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve the presbytery on the Ministry and Mission Committee in our yearly consultations with those receiving grants from the Presbytery for the missions of their congregation. It was an impactful morning, hearing how each church is channeling their passions towards the needs of their communities.

Slide06The Presbyterian Church of Grand Junction, a church about half our size, shared how they’ve been able to welcome children of the community into the church, growing their Sunday School and Vacation Bible school to over 50 students by providing transportation and breakfast for children of the community.

SLIDE 7 - ClarionMembers from Clarion Presbyterian shared about their ministry to the Hispanic Community of their area. This ministry allows children and adults of this community to learn English, providing meals and childcare for these students so that they may be fully present to learn.

Slide08A member from Westminster Waterloo talked about their ministry to provide wheelchair ramps for those in need, speaking about how every ramp has a story, each individual to the need and to the availability of resources.

As each one of these members of our presbytery stood in front of the gathered assembly of committee members and others who were there requesting funds, it was exciting to see how their eyes lit up with excitement for the ministry of their church. Each one of these missions meets a need of the community with a passion of their congregation.

Slide10This is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about thinking creatively to solve the problems that you see with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

SLIDE 12 - JamesHowellIn my preparation for this sermon this week I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “[1]

Slide13These plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

SLIDE 14 - Reinhold NiebuhrReinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

Slide15While God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.


[1] “God Has Plans for You,” The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell, UMC; Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC; http://day1.org/5226-god_has_plans_for_you

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday;” Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5; November 11, 2012, FPC Jesup

“Thanksgiving for the Exceptional and the Everyday”
Psalm 95:1-6 and 1 Timothy 4:4-5
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

A few days ago I was walking my dog Bailey outside late at night. With the absence of traffic, I could hear the faint humming of the grain silo and the scratching of tree branches in the wind. The air felt electric. Perhaps it was my imagination but Bailey seemed to sense it too. He sniffed at the air, looking around expectantly. I looked up and the stars were brighter than what I could experience back in my hometown in Ohio, and then all of a sudden a shooting star blazed across the sky. I looked around, had anyone else seen it? Had anyone else witnessed this quick and bright moment of beauty?[1] Standing there in the midst of God’s amazing creation, I remember thinking, “surely God is present.”

In Genesis 28 we are given the story of Jacob having such a moment with God. Jacob was traveling in the wilderness and stopped to rest, using a rock as a pillow.That night he had a dream where God came to him and said,

“I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”Jacob then takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a pillar, pours oil on it and names it Bethel, House of God. In Hebrew Beth means house and El is short for “Elohim,” a name of God.

The space where this dream happened was not particularly exceptional. It was merely a patch of land with a stone. By any outside observation Jacob’s remarkable evening would’ve seemed like a rather mundane occurrence. A man, falls asleep outside with his head on a rock, and then wakes up and pours oil on it and keeps on walking. All in all, it was not a very remarkable experience. It became remarkable through God’s presence, and Jacob’s acknowledgement of that presence. God did not need Jacob’s monument to be present in that space. God was already there. But by drawing attention to that space, Jacob left a reminder of God’s presence and called it the “house of God.”

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor explains her own encounter with God’s presence in her book “An Altar in the World.” After explaining a particularly beautiful scene during a visit to Hawaii she writes, “I knew the name of the place: Bethel, House of God…I wondered how I had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces? When had I made the subtle switch myself, becoming convinced that church bodies and buildings were the safest and most reliable places to encounter the living God?” She continues, saying:

“Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God? The people of God are not the only creatures capable of praising God, after all, There are also wolves and seals. There are also wild geese and humpback whales. According to the Bible, even trees can clap their hands.”[2]

Barbara Brown Taylor’s redefinition of the House of God as the whole world opens up the worship of God to all parts of creation and speaks to God’s inability to be contained in a single building or community. Our uncontainable God is spoken of in this way in scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Before God came to earth in Jesus Christ, God was perpetually being described as One who is unknowable, unnameable, and far beyond the bounds of human convention. This view of God is described in the poetic devices of the Hebrew texts.

Our Psalm today speaks in merisms. Merisms are phrases that list two extremes with the implied, “and everything in between.” Merisms are not foreign to our culture, we still use phrases like, “searched high and low,” “through thick and thin,” and “in sickness and in health.” Merisms are used quite a bit in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. I’m going to read through a few of them and just to help all of us to be aware of what is really being said, I’d like you to say with me, “and everything in between” after each one.

Our passage today says, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And say it with me, “and everything in between”Later in the passage it says, “The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 139:2 says, “You know when I sit down and when I get up.” And… “and everything in between.” Psalm 113:3 says, “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.” And… “and everything in between.” I particularly enjoy this verse because the rising and setting of the sun can be interpreted both in terms of geography and in terms of time. God is to be praised in all places at all times.

God is present in shooting stars, rocky wilderness, Hawaiian vistas, and everything in between. God is present in this building, in the other churches of Jesup, in my home church in Ohio, in the temples of Jerusalem, the cathedrals of Rome, and everything in between.  God is there when we take notice, and there when we don’t. God is there in the exceptional circumstances of our lives and there in the mundane. God is in the everything in between. Our experiences are made holy by God’s presence. And God’s presence is made known to us when we praise God with thanksgiving.

This is what we acknowledge in our sacraments of baptism and communion. Sacraments are a visible sign of the invisible actions of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Sacraments change our experience, making sacred meaning out of secular elements.

Just as with the seemingly everyday actions of Jacob in the wilderness, if an outside observer was watching us today without an explanation of what was going on, they would think that later on in the service as we share bread and grape juice that we are simply having a snack together. It might seem a bit odd, everyone lining up and ripping off bread. But while we outwardly receive bread and juice, “by the work of the Holy Spirit [we] also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal.”[3]

This is what Jesus did too. He was born in an ordinary stable into an ordinary body. He was beyond exceptional, but also lived an everyday sort of life. He is immortal and beyond time, yet He also lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, and died, all in a very real way. He was the shooting star surrounded by the dark night.

John 1:1-5 tells us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus was in the beginning, He will be with us in the end. And in everything in between.

With gratitude towards God’s presence in all of creation and all of our experience, I’d like to close today with a poem by e.e. cummings:

thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

May the ears of your ears and eyes of your eyes be open to God’s presence in every in between of your life. Amen.


[1] I discovered later that this was the North Taurid Meteor Shower.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 9.

[3] Second Helvetic Confession 5.196