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

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

Listen here

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.

Advertisements

“Feast of Faith”; Luke 14:1, 7-14 and James 2:1-6; September 6, 2015; FPC Holt

“Feast of Faith”
Luke 14:1, 7-14 and James 2:1-6
September 6, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon here

2015 9 6 Slide01I’d like you to imagine this scene, for some of you it might take thinking ahead to this upcoming week, for some it might take looking back a few decades: It’s the first day of school, you walk into the cafeteria and look around, try and gauge where your friends are sitting, or at least people who look like they might be friendly, and take your place. Why do you sit there? What happens when you can’t figure out your place? What would happen if you sat somewhere else? What happens if you sit with people who are higher up the social ladder than you see yourself to be? What happens if you sit with people who are lower down the social ladder than you see yourself to be?

Both of our scripture lessons today give us stories of seating arrangements.  In James we hear of seating arrangements as a form of judgment, “2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus offers this parable: 8″When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:8-11)

2015 9 6 Slide06What would it mean for these ideologies to to play out in the cafeteria? For you to ignore the superficial markers that set people apart? For you to purposefully pick a less desirable table? For you to refuse to care about the social ladder? What would happen to your own standing? How would that impact the school year for you?

Particularly in high school these social orders can be quite apparent, but that doesn’t mean they disappear when we leave high school. It happens in workplaces and social gatherings and who invites who to a party and unfortunately, even in the work and worship of the church.

What does it look like to allow others to have a better place than you? What does it look like if on a Sunday morning you show up and someone has taken your seat? What if we sat somewhere else?

Jesus also questions who is invited to the table, challenging hosts to expand their guest lists: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 12-14)

2015 9 6 Slide09Luther College Professor, Rolf Jacobson had this to say about our scripture today, “In Urban Roman culture, patronage and the idea of status is everything. From how you’re dressed to how you present yourself there’s a clear demarcation of where you belong. So if you’re invited to a party it’s not like you’re going to look at all the chairs and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder where I’m going to sit.’ You know right away based on who you are and who everyone else in the room is, you just do. And to try to upset the balance of that threatens to shame you and shame your host… It sounds kind of weird to us and really calculating and maybe it was, but it’s just the way it works. So if you start to overturn that, and to mess with that and say ‘I’m going to invite people who could never ever pay me back or who could never return the political favor or the generosity or whatever,’ some people are going to start to get in their minds they don’t have to pay attention to those rules. So those who guard the social order, or those who are simply trying to find their way in the world soon find this is a dangerous thing. You don’t give hope to certain people. You don’t upset the balance… this isn’t just nice, that ruins the entire system for everybody else potentially… There’s an edge to this, there’s a threat to this depending upon how it’s carried out.”[1]

Changing the status quo threatens the powers that be and threatens the value of social currency. Inviting everyone to the table will absolutely change what sort of meal happens there, but it will also allow for a richness of diversity, a wealth of gifts, and a breadth of fellowship. Such a banquet may be chaotic, but it will be a life giving reflection of the Kingdom of God to come.

2015 9 6 Slide10One winter, while I was in seminary we experienced our own sort of haphazard banquet. We were snowed in for several days right before Christmas break. Being here in Michigan, especially in the midst of a hot and humid couple of weeks it’s hard to imagine all of that snow or a community unable to deal with all of that snow, but that was how things went in Richmond, Virginia that December day. It hit Richmond late on a Saturday night and then of course the next day was Sunday morning, the morning most in the seminary community would spread out over Richmond, attending and leading worship throughout the 30 plus Presbyterian churches in the city. That morning, however, nearly every church had cancelled services.

And so, on that wintery December day we sent the word out that anyone who could get there would gather together for worship on campus. We put on our snow boots and walked across the quad to the campus chapel. Our service had a call to worship that was intended for a rural church 30 minutes outside the city, music from a praise bandleader who usually played in a suburban church, and a sermon from another church in the heart of Richmond. We cobbled together our prayers and praise and carefully prepared words and worshipped God in a very unusual sort of service.

Afterwards we gathered for a potluck. Since people had been getting reading to get out of town, each person’s cupboards were nearly bare. It was the strangest potluck I’ve ever attended. There was canned fruit and Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese. There was half of loaf of bread and half a jar of jam. Someone brought some hot chocolate packets. It was weird, but it was also wonderful, because though none of us had a lot of food, or even food that made much sense all together, we were all fed by the meal and nourished by the company. It was communion.

2015 9 6 Slide11Preacher and teacher Sharron R. Blezard wrote this, “Serving God and neighbor is more like a community potluck than a gourmet meal in the finest restaurant. It’s less about perfection and more about improvisation. It’s less about form and more about function. It’s less about looks and much, much more about love. It’s has something to do with rubbing elbows with strangers and kin alike; after all, both can present challenges. Instead of a guest list carefully crafted to reflect our wishes and wiles, Jesus crafts a “grace list” that is an open invitation to the party. The point is this: At Jesus’ banquet table there is room for everyone. Great Aunt Mabel’s lime Jello salad can exist peacefully with vegan Valerie’s fresh green bean vinaigrette. Homemade mac and cheese can sit side-by-side with a bag of store-bought potato chips. Hamburgers and tamales and sno-cones co-exist and complement one another in delightful ways. When everyone brings his or her best offering, when we all show up, the banquet table groans with the goodness of God”[2]

2015 9 6 Slide12Our congregation has had our own experience of this throughout this summer as we worship with our Wednesday night Open Cloister services. As we entered into our time of worship each week we would frame the service itself as it’s own sort of potluck, “a coming together of different flavors and recipes, with various levels of preparation, various histories behind the offerings of food and the offerings of spoken word and song.”

These services were tremendously life giving to me, because of the open format, they both challenged and enabled me to be fully attentive to the Holy Spirit, to get out of the way, as it were, and hear what God was saying to each person gathered together. It was a tremendous gift to get to know those who attended in that way, each of us daring to be open to God’s movement among us. There were times when we had no idea what to say, there are times when we had mostly desserts at our potluck beforehand. But at every service we were indeed fed in body and spirit. We brought what we had and it was enough.

2015 9 6 Slide13This comic reflects the beauty of this radical kingdom banquet where all are invited. In this first picture the one sheep says “Jesus has good intentions, but really! what sort of party would you have if you just invited these down and out people.” And the other sheep says “uhh – you’d have the Eucharist, the offering of forgiveness and anticipation of heaven!” then the first sheep says “Huh! So Jesus does know how to party!”

2015 9 6 Slide14When we come to the communion table we are all eating a common meal, bread and juice, but it is indicative of a much larger and more varied table. We come to this table in the midst of fellow Christians all over the world and all throughout time. At this table we offer up ourselves, our own ideas of who we think we should be, what we think we deserve. We forgo social conventions and pecking orders so that we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we may fully partake in Christ’s grace.

2015 9 6 Slide15At the communion table we celebrate the unconventional sacrifice of the ever-worthy Christ, for the perpetually unworthy sinners. We are fed and nurtured and renewed and valued in a way that has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with our own perceived worth, but has everything to do with the way God sees us and loves us and values us. We are an honored guest at this feast of God’s grace, not because of our bank balance, occupation, or social popularity, but entirely because of God’s love for us.

2015 9 6 Slide16The message of the gospel is learning to see yourself as God sees you, learning to see that the systems of worldly standing don’t matter to God and your ability to break out of them isn’t the measure of who you are as a Christian, but it’s the way in which you actually can see the Gospel and can tangibly experience it in our presence.[3]

This is a table for the last, the lost, and the lonely. If you feel like you don’t belong, you’re in the exact right place. If you feel like you have fallen short, here you are more than enough. All of us and all of them, whoever the them of your life may be, are welcome to this table, and welcome to God’s larger kingdom. May it be so. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=432

[2] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/08/invited-and-inviting/

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=432

“Who’s Invited?” Matthew 22:1-14; October 12, 2014; FPC Holt

“Who’s Invited?”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen to the sermon by clicking here.

2014 10 12 Slide01Imagine this, one day you go out and open your mailbox. Inside is a beautiful, thick envelope. Upon opening it you are astonished to see that you have been invited to George Clooney’s wedding, or for those of who that would not be so exciting perhaps imagine it were William and Kate’s royal wedding, or your favorite athlete, actor, or politician. What would you do with such an invitation? I know if it were my mom she would likely gasp, yell, dance around the living room, and then proceed to call everyone she knows and tell them the exciting news. 2014 10 12 Slide02Given that I have not yet received such a call from her, I don’t think she was in Italy with the Clooneys, though she certainly would’ve been there if the invitation had shown up.

SLIDE 3 - InvitationHowever, our scripture today presents a very different picture. When the king sent out his wedding invitation everyone who received it simply went about business as usual. They certainly did not jump up and down with glee. Then the king sent out his servants again, and the messengers of this exciting news were thrown out, abused, and in some cases, even killed.

The king reacted even more strongly, sending troops to avenge the death of his slaves who were killed and to burn their city, which is presumably also the king’s city. Upon reading this text my first reaction was, “huh, that escalated quickly.” Such a horrific way to react to a party invitation.

2014 10 12 Slide04With the remains of his city still smoldering in the background, the king insists there was still a party to be had. His oxen and fat calves had been killed and there was his son’s marriage to celebrate. And so he tries again, reprioritizing who it is that will be invited. The king says to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

2014 10 12 Slide05This time around, everyone is invited. The doors are flung open and what could mostly certainly be described as a motley crew is assembled. And so our story ends, right? Not quite.

2014 10 12 Slide06One of the guests, who we don’t need reminding had just dropped everything and came into this gathering right off of the street, is fiercely reprimanded for not wearing a wedding robe. Which had me thinking, perhaps the first guests were justified in not showing up if this was the sort of reception awaiting them?

2014 10 12 Slide07This mess of a party is compared to the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly a comforting thought. People are being thrown out for dress code violations and having their houses burned down for refusing an invitation.

It’s fair to say that even for a parable, the logic of this one is tricky to follow from a literal view, so let’s unpack it a bit before we like the original guest list, disregard this event as something to be avoided.

2014 10 12 Slide08More than the tale of a strange party, this story provides a framework for how we are to respond to the urgency of our own invitation into the kingdom of God. It ‘s not so much about this particular wedding feast, but about the party to come, that is eternal life with God.

Some parties are made more significant by the exclusivity of the list, those whom you are put in a class with simply by being invited. The kingdom of God is not that kind of party. We are told in verse 10, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Both good and bad.

2014 10 12 Slide09Those who you were just sure would be there are no where to be seen, and those who you cannot imagine sharing a bus seat with, much less the kingdom of God, are at that banquet table right beside you.

Ultimately, our own worldly calculations of worth and value, our naming and classifying are ours, not God’s. Our job is to help extend the invitation. With the parable in mind, that does not seem like the best thing we could be doing either, as puts us in the role of the slave who faced rejection, persecution, or at the very least, being ignored.

But that is the call that we are given, passed down through the disciple’s commission just 6 chapters later as Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Instead of receiving an invitation to George Clooney’s wedding imagine this much more likely situation: You’re sitting at your desk at work or in a classroom and a friend of yours comes up. They say, hey I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve just got to tell you about my church. I’ve been going for a while now and being among all these people who are living their life for God, well, it’s really changed me. I’ve been noticing more of God’s goodness in the world and I have a great deal of peace with what I’m going through. It would really mean so much if you’d be willing to join me this Sunday for worship.

How would you respond to that person? Would you scoff in their face and go about your business? Would you react aggressively or even violently? Or would you see the passion and joy in their face and take them up on their offer?

SLIDE 10 - Each One Bring OneWhat would it take for you to be that person extending that invitation? What would it take for you to share what you’ve experienced here with someone in your life? Today is the first Invite a Friend Sunday and since you are here today and not sleeping in or off at brunch somewhere, clearly you believe it is worth your time to be here. Hopefully you have taken that opportunity already and there’s a friend sitting beside you right now, but if not, the good news is today is the first of seven Invite of a Friend Sundays all leading up to Easter Sunday and our 150th anniversary celebration. Though of course you are welcome to invite a friend any time we are together, we hope that you will use the intentionality of these special Sundays for your own opportunity to extend this invitation.

As great as our own experience of God is, there are some who have yet to have received their invitation to the feast. There are those out there who still don’t understand how much God loves them, or what sort of church family is available to them. We are urged, tasked, called, and commissioned by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to invite others to this feast and to this place of worship.

Perhaps you’re just sitting there, arms crossed, scoffing at the idea. Why should we invite people? Aren’t things fine enough how there are? I like these people, why would I want to invite others? Why should I take that awkward step of asking someone to come to this church?

2014 10 12 Slide11The question I would ask you to think about is why are you coming to this church? What makes you keep coming? I would hope it’s because you find something of value in our life together. I pray it’s because someone has made you feel welcome in this space.

I heartily believe that what we do here together each Sunday is worthwhile. If I didn’t, I simply wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have spent the past 12 years of my life working towards this job, this life, and this specific church. I feel called to serve this community and I feel that what we do here each week makes a difference to this community, to the furthering of the Gospel of Christ, and to the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Do you?

I’d like you to honestly consider that over these next several months. And if you do truly believe that none of us are wasting our time here, I would invite you to count the blessings that you have received from this church, from worshiping together, from living life among these Christians. And out of that gratitude, I ask that you open your heart and your mind and your arms to invite someone else to experience this church.

So who is invited to this party of eternal life with God? The good, the bad, and everyone in between. May we ever strive to extend the invitation to all we know. Amen.

“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

“Great Expectations” Luke 2:22-40 February 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Expectations”
Luke 2:22-40
February 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

New Years Eve I was delighted to count down the New Year with David, my best friend Claire, her husband and their son, sweet 2-year-old James. This past week I was able to spend a bit of time with former interim pastor, Christine and her dear son Jacob. I remember hearing the news of each of these pregnancies was quite exciting. There were baby showers, advice given, well wishes, and I’m sure their stomachs were rubbed more often than they could count. Ever since the babies were born they’ve had visits from excited family members and friends, countless memorable family photos, and birth announcements of all sorts.

Slide03Over 2000 years ago, Isaiah prophesied Christ coming into this world. Angels told Mary she would be a mother and Joseph that he would be a father. There was even a Heavenly birth announcement in the form of a bright star in the sky. But aside from a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary had no real baby shower. Jesus’ birth happened in a crowded manger heated only by the warmth of barnyard animals. They were visited not by family and friends, but by wise men, shepherds, and angels. I’d like to see that odd crew try to bring their frankincense and myrrh past hospital security these days.

Slide04It’s strange to be talking again about the birth of Jesus, but our church calendar brings us today to the “Presentation of Jesus,” celebrating Jesus’ introduction into their community, into the world he had come to save.

Slide05Galatians 4:4 tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” The fullness of time means that Christ’s birth was not intended to be a surprise, Christ came exactly when and where and how and to whom He was meant to come. Yet, the world was not ready. Just as the inns of Bethlehem were occupied, the people’s thoughts were occupied by their own schedules and census travel plans.

Slide06Pregnancy carries it’s own “fullness of time.” There is a set amount time that a woman is pregnant. If she gives birth any earlier, it is cause for concern, any later and most doctors will induce the labor to help the mother and child along. Knowing of the pregnancy, one can begin to prepare, decorate a nursery, and celebrate with family and friends. It is an exciting time of anticipation and hope.

Imagine how different a pregnancy is without this sort of preparation. There are pregnancies that carry more fear than hope: The couple who has suffered a miscarriage and is wary to expect that this time, things will be okay; a young unmarried mother who just wants to hide what is happening insider her, and doesn’t dare speak it out loud; or a woman who doesn’t know she is pregnant, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but just often enough that there is a series on TLC about this experience. Each of these circumstances carries it’s own fear, pain, and yet still, hope.

Slide07Ever since Isaiah’s prophecy the Judaic world had been looking for a messiah. But over time it seems the anticipation inflated expectations. A savior for the world had to be a great king, right? Surely he would be born in a fortress, or castle, or temple, or at the very least, a nice home. Excited for the messiah, they forgot how God works. Since God created all things, God does not place a value system on a person based on how the world sees potential. In fact, more often than not God picks the least and the last and the meek.

Slide08It seems people forgot that Abraham who became the father of many nations, was first cowardly about his marriage to Sarah and so unsure of how God was going to give them an heir that he had a child with his wife’s servant. Slide09They didn’t remember that Moses who led the people out of Egypt was also a murder and poor public speaker. Slide10 They forgot the long list of faults David carried with him even while becoming a great king. So while we can look at first century Bethlehem with clear hindsight and see that of course God would chose to become incarnate as a meek and humble infant to serve the humble and meek, this was not so clear to the people of that time.

Slide11So when Jesus showed up in the midst of a census, in a town with no vacancies, the bright star in the sky seemed to be no more than coincidence to the devout religious scholars. They were so busy trying to follow God as they had been told through stone tablet commandments and wound up scrolls of Torah law that they were unaware that God incarnate was living and breathing in the world. While the world was given many signs of Christ’s birth, they were not throwing baby showers, keeping an eye out for young pregnant women, or looking towards young children, looking in their eyes for a savior. Rather they react more like a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant. When they hear of Jesus’ birth they react, not by worshipping their savior, but with disbelief and fear.

Slide12One of my favorite characters surrounding Christ’s birth is Simeon, who Joyce read about in our text today, and who was acted out by Rich Bucknell on Christmas Eve. Simeon has been waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his own death. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much about the character of Simeon, but early Christian folklore provides some interesting stories on this “righteous and devout” man.

Slide13One such story, places Simeon as one of 70 original scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. In this story, Simeon was assigned to translate the scroll for the book of Isaiah, and as he worked, he came to a verse we hear often in our Christmas scriptures, Isaiah 7:14, which says “and the virgin shall conceive, and she will bear a son…” and Simeon hesitated, questioning the believability of this statement. Simeon concludes that somewhere along the way someone must have written this wrong, so he decides to correct the error himself.

But just as Simeon’s is about to write out his new translation, an angel appears to him, telling him the prophecy is correct as written, a virgin will indeed conceive and bear a son. Simeon questions the angel, who then promises him he will not die until he has seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in the form of a Messiah. Now, historians tell us the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was finished somewhere around 132 BC, so if this folk tale is to be believed, it would mean Simeon would be somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth.

I still like this story. I can imagine Simeon as a young scribe, excited about this unbelievable miracle that he is going to witness. A messiah is coming to save his people. I like to imagine this man walking among the people, smelling of the burnt offerings of the temple, praying for peace for those he passed. Well, time passes, and Simeon grows older. I can’t imagine him keeping the story of his interaction with the Holy Spirit a secret, so there might be others waiting with him, for a while at least. Maybe they question the believability of all of this as well. Maybe they question his sanity. But, finally, so many years later the Holy Spirit comes to him again and guides him to the temple.

It is now eight days after Jesus’ birth and as Mary and Joseph enter the temple, Simeon approaches them excitedly. The Holy Spirit helps him to recognize the child and he takes him in his arms saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Then he turns and says, specifically to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” So much for a happy birth announcement.

The angel told Mary earlier in Luke’s gospel that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” but was not really given much detail about what else would happen to this infant, “Son of God,” child of hers. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel comes to Joseph and says, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But there isn’t much more instruction to that either. What will this saving son look like?

Slide16Simeon fills in a bit of the details and at first they seem exciting, “a light for revelation and glory.” This would make a great bumper sticker.  Can’t you just see it on their donkey cart now? But then he continues: “falling and rising of many,” “a sign that will be opposed,” a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Now this is not something a mother would like to hear.

Previous to this encounter we read of angels coming to Mary telling her of Jesus’ birth and  “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” An angel has to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid. Later we read of the shepherds and that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, Simeon tells them of the pain that comes with being the earthly parents of the messiah. I’m sure this terrified them too.

Every new parent dreams of what the future will hold for their child. If a child kicks their feet we may predict a future of soccer or football, if they point their feet, maybe ballet. If a child has long fingers we may say they will be a musician or an artist.

Slide19In Korean culture, there is a tradition along these lines called Doljanchi. This Korean tradition celebrates the birthday of a one-year-old baby. The most important part of the dol is a ritual in which the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, books, brushes, ink and money. Family and friends gathered watch the child to see what object they will pick up. This object is said to foretell the child’s future. If they pick up the brush or book they are destined to be a scholar; if money, they will be wealthy; if cakes, they will be in government; if a sword or bow, they will be a military commander, if the thread, they will live a long life. Over time, the objects have changed based on societal perceptions of successful occupations. Nowadays there might be a computer mouse for success in a technological field, a toothbrush for a dentist, or a gavel for lawyer.

I imagine the type of table Mary and Joseph would set up at Jesus’ dol. They would likely put a hammer, wanting Jesus to be a carpenter like his father. They might place a scroll, hoping him to be a temple scholar. They might put a fish, so he might be a fisherman, and a string, hoping also for a long life. However, nothing in Simeon’s prediction would likely be on that table.

Slide20In a few minutes Olivia will sing “Mary Did You Know?” This song is a beautiful but haunting song that speaks of the daunting reality awaiting Christ, this tiny baby resting in Simeon’s arms. The works of his ministry, the impact of his faithfulness, the implications of what it will mean for him to be the savior.

If Jesus’ heavenly Father were to set up a dol,  it would have fishing lure, so Jesus would fish for people. There would be sheep’s wool, for leading. Next to those would be things no earthly father would set on the table, nails and a crown made of thorns. God knew Jesus would pick up all of these things.Slide23

The nativity story is not the story of a birthday party. Yes there are guests and gifts, but it’s also a scary and complicated time for this young family. It was not an easy journey to Bethlehem. It was not easy to find a place for Jesus to be born and shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod is already trying to find and kill him. Simeon further complicates things by singing one of the oddest birthday songs you will ever hear; a song filled with joy, gratitude, and pain.

This is indeed a strange birthday, because this baby comes not to receive gifts, but to give them. Jesus comes into our lives Christmas after Christmas, as an infant, but lived in our world as a Messiah. Today we celebrate his entrance into this community, his introduction into the world he had come to save. He is eager to share in our every complication and joy. Jesus comes to give us the gift of life everlasting. We are welcomed to this birthday to receive. May you, as Simeon, be open to the Holy Spirit and eager to experience God in your own life. Amen.

“Grandmothers of the Faith;” 2 Timothy 1:1-14; October 6, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Grandmothers of the Faith”
2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 6, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

What is your earliest memory of church or of worship?

SLIDE 2 - Washington CongregationalMy earliest memory is sitting between my Mom and Grandma in church at Washington Congregational Church in Toledo and asking for gum. My grandma always had gum in her purse. I’ll be honest, even though I I don’t remember a whole lot about what was said or all that was going on in the front of the church, but I know what was going on in the back, and that was me, sitting at church each Sunday morning with people who loved and cared about me, and that it was important to them that we were there.

SLIDE 3 - FPC MaumeeMy family started going to First Presbyterian Church of Maumee when I was five and my earliest memory there comes from our very first Sunday attending, when I went to Sunday School. I remember walking up to my now best friend, Claire, and asking her if she would be my friend. Twenty-two years of friendship later, I’m still glad she said yes. It was in that Sunday school room and throughout that church that I really started to figure out who this God everybody was talking about was all about. In that church I felt God’s own call for my life and was nurtured by so many Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School leaders, youth group leaders, and pastors.

Who are some of the people who have helped you to form your faith?

SLIDE 5 - TimothyIn our scripture today we hear about Timothy’s influences. Timothy was a follower of Paul, traveling with him as a messenger and support for newly forming congregations. He was instrumental in the founding of the early Christian church and is known as the first Christian bishop of Ephesus. After his death he was canonized as a saint.

SLIDE 6 - Young TimothyBut before he became all of those things, he was a child and a grandchild. In 2 Timothy 3:15 we read that from childhood Timothy knew the sacred writings of scripture, taught to him by his mother, Euince, and his grandmother, Lois. Here we see a picture by Rembrandt of young Timothy with his grandmother. Timothy was surely taken to worships each week to sit with his family and come to know our great God. I know he wasn’t given pieces of gum to keep his attention, but certainly he was fed by that same feeling I had as a child, that he was with people who loved and cared about him, and that it was important to them that he as there.

SLIDE 7 - Wiggly WorshippersI’m not sure I can say often enough how important I think it is that the children of this church are here, and how equally important it is, that we’re all in worship together with one another. Our hope of our Wiggly Worshippers room is for our children to be able to be present in worship, but engage with it on their own level. Each and every parent that brings a child into this space is engaging in an important act of passing on the faith. And as a congregation it is vital that we support all who come to into this space looking to grow in faith, from our youngest members to our most established members.Print

SLIDE 9 - GrandmaAs we celebrate World Communion Sunday today, it’s an amazing and slightly overwhelming thing to think about all the great many grandmothers of the faith all over the world that are bringing their children to worship, striving for so many to hear the words of God’s great love for them, and to claim this faith as their own. SLIDE 10 - Children in WorshipBut the act of welcoming others into faith is not only an action passed down by grandmothers to grandchildren. It’s an act we’re all invited into. As people who have understood and claimed God’s love, we are also tasked with leading others in the faith.

SLIDE 11 - World Communion SundayWhen we celebrate World communion Sunday, we are called to consider that the Church is so much bigger than the building we are in right now. It is so much bigger than all the churches around Jesup, so much bigger than all of the Presbyterians out there, so much bigger than all the congregations who worship in a language we understand. The Church stretches across all cultures and communities, to places where it is a dangerous thing to call yourself a Christian, to places where Christ is only just becoming known. When I think of all of these countries all of the world I think about how that original Gospel word reached each one of them, what missionary set off to tell that community about the beautiful promises of God. I pray for missionaries around the world, and I think that we all should, but it’s a mistake to get stuck thinking about these people in abstract way, in worlds beyond our own experience. Missionaries aren’t superhuman people assigned to do some impossible task. They are simply people who have followed the call to share God’s love with others.

SLIDE 12 – MissionariesA friend of mine from college told a story once about how her younger sister asked what a missionary was, and she said, “it’s someone who tells other people about God.” I remember it struck both of us how profound and simple this call is, how in fact, all of us are called to be missionaries. You have the opportunity to influence someone else’ faith. You have the opportunity to be one of those grandmothers or grandfathers of faith, to come alongside someone as they are growing in their faith. They don’t necessarily have to be a child, but merely someone who is growing in their faith.

SLIDE 13 - Timothy and Paul In our scripture today we saw modeled for us the relationship of Paul and Timothy. Paul was a mentor to Timothy, someone devoted to seeing Timothy grow in faith, invested in Timothy’s personal future as a Christian, as well as in his future as a leader of the church. Throughout their relationship Paul made sure that Timothy was ready to take on the challenges of being a Christian.

So who is it that God has place in your mission field? Who is it that you are called to take under your wing, to sit beside in the pew and let them know that you love them, God’s loves them, and it is important that we’re all in this together.

SLIDE 14 - Mission FieldAs Paul urges Timothy, I will urge you: “rekindle the gift of God that is within you. You have a sprit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of Paul his prisoner, but join with Paul in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. …Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from Paul, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May we share this good treasure of the Gospel with all those growing in the faith. Amen.

“Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship”

Yesterday I attended a seminar put on by the Presbytery of North Central Iowa called “Taking Your Worship to the Next Level: A Seminar on the Meaning & Practice of Christian Worship” led by Rev. Dr. Thomas K. Tewell & Rev. Dr. Gray Norsworthy. Here are some of the highlights:

“Passionate Worship is not restricted to any particular style; it can be highly formal, with robes, acolytes, stained glass, organ music orchestral accompaniment, and hardwood pews with hymnals on the rack in front. Or, Passionate Worship can take place in an auditorium, gym, or storefront, with casually dressed leaders, images on screens, folding chairs, and the supporting beat of a praise team. Authentic, engaging, life-changing worship derives from the experience of God’s presence, the desire of worshippers for God’s word, and the changed heart people deliberately seek when they encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians. Worship leaves people challenged, sustained, and led by the Spirit of God, and it changes how they view themselves and their neighbors. An hour of Passionate Worship changes all the other hours of the week.” Robert Schanse, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Pg. 39

Worship is not about style it is about connecting with God. Worship is about remember what God has done (Deuteronomy 6:4-12). Worship is about experiencing forgiveness and being transformed (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Three Spiritual Principles of Worship

  1. People are starving for authentic experience of the worship of God. Our worship should connect to the lives of people.
  2. Worship is the central act of the people of God, everything else flows from worship. We need to take time and effort to prepare for worship because it impacts all in the worshiping community.
  3. In worship we remember that God is sovereign and we are not. Worship is not about us it’s about God. Worship is about getting our will in tune with God’s will. The point is not to evaluate, it’s to be transformed. When we experience God our world becomes bigger

“People have a point of view, God has view” – Madeleine L’Engle

“We need to remind ourselves that even when Christian worship is at its best… it is always the work of amateurs, people who do this for love” – Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Quotations from The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton, 2007

“Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”

Bibliography of References at Seminar

Mark Labberton, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”

Thomas Long, “Beyond the Worships Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship”

Robert Schanse, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”

Craig Barnes, Sermons at Princeton Seminary

Shannon Kerschner, Sermons at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church

Gray Norsworthy, Sermons at Johns Creek Presbyterian Church

Christmas in July; “Emmanuel: God With Us;” John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28; July 21, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Emmanuel: God With Us”
John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-20, 28
July 21, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - CalendarThis Sunday on the church calendar is called the “15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.” Sounds exciting, huh? The Christian calendar has a total of 33 weeks of ordinary time,” time that is not defined by Lent or Advent or Pentecost or any other liturgical celebration. The trouble with ordinary time in the church is it can lull us into a liturgical rut. While churches all over see decreased attendance due to vacations and busy summer plans, calling this “ordinary time” doesn’t exactly encourage excitement in worship either. Worshiping in ordinary time doesn’t carry the anticipation of Advent, the loneliness of Lent, or the joy of Easter. Compared to fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the horror of Christ’s death at Good Friday and the joy of resurrection on Easter, this in between time can seem, well, ordinary.

SLIDE 2 - Ordinary TimeBut even in our ordinary time, we profess a faith that is much more extraordinary than we often give it credit. Which is why today as we crank up the air conditioning, walk about in shorts and skirts, and fan ourselves off with the order of worship, we are traveling back to the manger, drawing close to the story of a baby born into the world to save us all. We are celebrating Christmas in July not because it feels particularly Christmas-y out in the world, but because even in a week where we’ve hit 90 degrees almost every day, we are called to recognize and bring about Christ’s presence in this world.

SLIDE 3 - NativitySo what can you tell me about Christ’s birth?

[Received responses about Jesus’ birth]

We are used to the story of Christ’s birth and so all of these very extraordinary circumstances seem quite ordinary to us.  Our two scripture lessons today tell us that this could not be farther from the truth. This quaint story of a manger birth in Bethlehem was not just what we see at first glance.

SLIDE 4 - WordOur Gospel lesson tells the story of Christ’s birth not in the story we’re used to hearing on Christmas specials in December, but rather in scope of all of time. Through poetic language John’s Gospel emphasizes the theological implications of Christ coming into the world. In this passage, the manifestation of God is identified as “the Word”: “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.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - FootWith Jesus’ simple birth, a greater mission was brought to fruition. Jesus united heaven and earth, by being both God and human, both eternal and temporary. Jesus experienced human pain, happiness, hunger, and certainly the discomfort of 90 degree plus days. He also carried within him the love of a God willing to get his hands dirty.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul’s letter to the Colossians also describes Christ with a long term lens as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[2]

While we often think of Christ’s birth as something that happened about 2000 years ago, these two poetic and somewhat complicated passages remind us that Christ is without time and that the Savior who would come to redeem us all was set into motion from the very beginning of creation. Christ as an incarnate living and breathing walking about man was always intended to be a part of how we experience God.

SLIDE 7 - JesusColossians describes Christ as both “firstborn of all creation”[3] and “firstborn from the dead.”[4] While I could probably do a whole sermon on the many times Jesus is described like a zombie, today we can just recognize that Christ was in the beginning with God at creation and also made a way for us to have eternal life with God. Through living a perfect life and enduring the cross Christ brought life to all people.

SLIDE 8 - LightAs John 1 affirms saying, “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… to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

SLIDE 9 - Gods ChildrenJesus, God’s only begotten son, was born into the world and died in this world so that we might also become God’s children. So that we might be drawn into the covenant of God’s providence and covered by God’s grace.

Colossians 1:19-20 says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”SLIDE 10 - Fullness of God

“The fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” I love that phrase.  At the great commissioning Jesus passed along the joy and the burden of this calling unto his disciples, and by extension, on to us.

SLIDE 11 - God within“Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[6]

SLIDE 12 - God With UsWhen we gather in worship we are strengthening ourselves for this mission, immersing ourselves in this hope. Since we carry such a powerful message of hope and restoration calling even these in between times in our year “ordinary time” seems a bit inconsistent with this great story we are called to be a part of.

SLIDE 14 - Nativity SetI was reading a story this week by Erin Newcomb, an English professor and author, about her own experience of ordinary time. She writes: “I was struggling with ordinary time this year. Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a brutal heat wave followed by days of downpours that kept us confined to the house for far too long. Our time was getting a little too ordinary, so I rummaged through the basement and brought up some of our Christmas things — a small, artificial tree, a play Nativity set, a box of miniature decorations…We’re listening to Christmas hymns and reading Christmas stories… My daughter and I are talking about what Emmanuel means, and why Jesus bears that name…”

SLIDE 15 - Baby JesusThere’s something about Christmas — the animal stories, the mama and baby — that make it innately more appealing and tangible for small children than the abstract and gruesome theology of Easter. I know the Incarnation is incomplete without the cross and the Resurrection, but sometimes in ordinary time we need a reminder of the vulnerable child who came to live among us.”

She continues, “I am loving Christmas in July, a celebration of the joy and hope of the Christ-child without the surrounding cultural commercialism. As much as I appreciate liturgy, this uncharacteristically spontaneous break from the church calendar is lifting my spirits more than the December season usually does, because this time it’s unburdened by a climate of greed, materialism, and social obligations that often exclude Christ. My departure from liturgy reminds me what liturgy is for: it’s not the dates that are significant but the acts of remembrance, not the calendar itself but the continual effort to walk with Christ throughout the year…Christmas in July assures me that Emmanuel is a year-round gift that transcends liturgy and history and makes all time extra-ordinary.” [7]SLIDE 15 - Walking with Christ

Perhaps your ordinary time has gotten a bit too ordinary. Maybe today, this Christmas in July, this singing of carols and celebration of Christ’s presence on earth will help you to continue to walk with Christ throughout the year.

SLIDE 16 - SurrenderEvery Christmas we celebrate God coming into this world walking and talking among us, but through our witness to God’s power in our world and in our lives Christ is still walking and talking among us, through us. May God become Emmanuel through you this day. Amen.

Here is the song that was sung by the Praise Team after the sermon:


[1] John 1:1-3a

[2] Colossians 1:15-17

[3] Colossians 1:15

[4] Colossians 1:18

[5] John 1:3b-5, 12-13

[6] Matthew 28:18-20

“Praise for the Singing” and “Everything That Has Breath” Psalm 150; June 9, 2013, FPC Jesup

Sunday June 9th was a special Sunday in the life of our church with a Hymn Sing in the morning service and a special 6 pm Worship in the Park (that ended up being inside because of a forecasted thunderstorm).

Here are some of the resources I found helpful for these services:

Call to Worship on Psalm 92 and 92

Prayer of Confession for a Music Sunday

I adopted this music based communion liturgy into an Affirmation of Faith utilizing the form of the Apostle’s Creed:

Affirmation of Faith

One: Together let us confess our faith. Do you believe in God, our creator?

All: I believe in God, creator of all things, whose heavenly song sent the planets into motion. Even when we go astray, God calls us back, showing us the fullness of life and giving us new songs of praise for each and every day.

One: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?

All: I believe in Jesus Christ who lived for us and among us, healing the sick, easing the burdens of all people, and teaching us the new song of God’s kingdom. He showed His love for all God’s children in His death and the hope for eternal life in His resurrection.

One: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

All: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of life who sings God’s grace through all time and space. I listen for the Holy Spirit through the history of songs sung by all the communion of saints and through the unwritten songs of all who are to come in the future. I believe that God has a song for my life as well. Amen.

Here are the short reflections on Psalm 150 that I shared in each service:

“Praise for the Singing”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 10 am, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1What a joy it is to sing with you this morning in worship. Singing has been a part of the history of our faith from the very beginning, with the Psalms as the original hymnbook. Our faith is a faith of stories, often sung as a way to pass them on to the next generation.

Slide2There’s a great beauty in the comfort of old hymns, the songs that don’t really require the use of a hymnal. About once a month I lead a service at the Nursing Care centers in Independence and I love seeing how so many of the residents know all of those songs by heart. The hymns of our faith sink into us in a way that even the scriptures do not, reminding us of the larger community faith, over many many years.

SLIDE 3 - Morning Has BrokenOur opening song “Morning has Broken” has been one of my favorite hymns for a long time. When my sister was little, and I was even littler, she danced to it in a ballet recital. I remember her costume red and white with a red tutu.

Slide4One of my favorite parts is the line “Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.” I love how the very ground itself becomes complete through it’s interaction with Jesus’ feet. I can picture the dew. I can picture the flowers coming into bloom opening to the light of God’s own Son. It makes me think of the ways we become sprung in completeness by living a life of interaction with Jesus.

Slide5Mainline Protestant traditions have a bad reputation as being the “frozen chosen” for our love of tradition, our desire for everything to be “decent and in order,” and the value we place on everyone being an informed participant in the “priesthood of all believers.” Somehow in the midst of this we have forgotten the call of Slide6Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Loving God with our heart, soul, and might is allowing ourselves to be enveloped in God’s goodness, to be bathed in the light of God’s joy. How might we become complete in sharing in God’s presence? How might we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might? How might our lives spring into completeness?

Slide7One of the ways is through revealing the joy God brings us, through our own sort of blooming, our own sort of springing into completeness. One way to discover the potential for blooming is to think about the places you feel incomplete. Are there relationships that need mending? Forgiveness that needs to be offered or received? When others are telling the stories of faith, do you stay silent? Is there a family member or neighbor you could share God’s love with?

Slide8For me, I feel like I bloom best when I am able to share the stories of our faith, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through singing, sometimes simply by being in relationship. As we continue to sing together today and go out into the world singing our faith, may each of us prayerfully consider how God is calling us to spring in completeness. Amen.

“Everything That Has Breath”
Psalm 150
Kathleen Sheets
June 9, 2013 at 6 pm, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

When I was in seminary I led a children’s choir called the “Joyful Noise” choir. Each week I would get together with this group of 10 to 15 elementary age kids and we would sing songs, play instruments, do dances, and hand motions. We had a blast and it was a wonderfully exhausting worship filled time. While I can’t always say that we made music per say, we always made very joyful noise.

At some point in our life we stop being willing to make these joyful noises. Our noises get squelched out by others. Self-doubt creeps in about our abilities. Desire to blend in makes us quiet our voices. This is not what God call us to. God calls us to praise, to make loud noises, to lift a joyful noise.

Our Psalm today tells us that everything that has breath, all created beings are called to worship. It also lists many different ways to offer praise, through trumpet sound, lute and harp, tambourine and dance; strings and pipe, clanging and clashing cymbals.

When I look at that list I see that each instrument requires a different sort of skill. Though I can goofily make fake harp noises with my mouth I’d have a tricky time of trying to play a harp. And I’ve tried to play a bagpipe before and could only get it to squawk. We are not all called to play each of these instruments, but we are called to praise God.

When we join in with the heavenly chorus you will likely be picking up a different instrument than the one I pick up, but each of us can use whatever instrument we have to worship God. When we use these instruments in the spirit of love of God we are making a very joyful noise indeed

In the Hebrew Bible the Spirit of God is called Ruach. It can also mean breath or a rushing wind. This breath of God swept over the chaotic waters at the very beginning of creation. This breath was breathed into our lungs and pumps through our veins. We are filled with the very breath of God, that powerful, awe-inspiring, amazing breath. And as long as we have air in our lungs, we are called to breathe it out in praise.

So what is your instrument? How does God harness your breath into a joyful noise?

The way that we live and work in the world can be acts of worship. Perhaps your instrument is an ability to create a legal brief, which allows justice and care to be shown towards someone in a complicated legal situation. Your instrument may be plumbing for a house: whereby you allow a family to live comfortably. Your instrument may be your ability to teach, managing a classroom, creating curriculum. When we are able to use the instruments God has given us, it is a worshipful response to our Creator. Creativity is the language with which we can speak to God who created us.

You, in your life, in your abilities are called to make a joyful noise. To breathe God’s breath into this world. May we do so with great joy! Amen.

Fireworks: A lived out prayer of illumination

Two weeks ago today I was in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was an incredible week, made all the more incredible by the experiences of reuniting with seminary friends, meeting my cousin’s children for the first time, and seeing my dear friend Sarah preach in her new church. I met with my spiritual director on Wednesday of this week and was trying to explain to her this amazing feeling of spiritual wholeness that I felt that week.

Evan

Meeting Evan

Melora

Meme and Me! (wearing the cupcake hat I knit for her)

The best I could explain to her was by sharing with her the story of coming into the city of Chattanooga with Patricia after meeting my cousin’s children: We were rounding a corner downtown and I was telling her how extremely blessed and full of joy I felt after such a week and then there in the sky all of a sudden were fireworks bursting across the sky. Though I know they were for the baseball game that had finished a few minutes prior, they felt like a physical manifestation of my own joy. Fireworks. Bright, unignorably celebratory lights flashing across the sky. A monumental sort of thing that must be experienced and cannot be contained.

947214_10101192283241828_1934501116_n

Then, also on Wednesday I received the latest installment of the Atlas Project from my favorite band, Sleeping at Last. As they so often speak to my heart and experience, I was only slightly surprised by a new song on there called, “In the Embers,” about fireworks:

We live and we die
Like fireworks,
Our legacies hide
in the embers.
May our stories catch fire
and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.
we live and we die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

May we live and die
A valorous life,
May we write it all down
In cursive light,
So we pray we were made
in the image of a figure eight,
May we life and die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

This Festival of Homiletics, this time of great speakers and deep worship for me felt like an experience of “stories catch[ing] fire and burn[ing] bright enough to catch God’s eye.”

It is my prayer that this might be the experience of all worship of all preaching. Perhaps my prayers of illumination should revise Psalm 19:14 to say, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts catch fire and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.” Amen.

Festival of Homiletics Tweets

I just returned from a wonderful week in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was such an incredible time I’m having trouble summarizing all of it, so I have decided to share some of the highlights from my tweets from the week. Please feel free to read more of them on my twitter page.

Festival of Homiletics Tweets 1Festival of Homiletics Tweets 2Festival of Homiletics Tweets 3 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 4 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 5 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 6 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 7 Festival of Homiletics Tweets 8

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession; Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; March 10, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Journeying Home,” Lenten Practices: Prayers of Confession
Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04As we continue our way through Lent experiencing different spiritual practices, today we have another practice that is very familiar to us; one that we participate in every Sunday in worship: prayers of confession.

Slide02

 

A prayer of confession is a prayer in which we acknowledge the ways that we have failed to follow God. When we pray our prayers of confession in worship we pray first for our own individual sins and then for our sins as a community.

Slide03

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. Slide05In 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.Slide06 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. The boom of social 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.Slide07

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?

Slide09It’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 to busy or haven’t found a church community where they feel at home.Slide10

One of the more reflective confessions I’ve been privy to listen to was a young woman who told me that she didn’t like going to church because it makes her feel too vulnerable. This made me both hopeful and sad. Hopeful that she understands the depth that can be found in a church community and sad that she didn’t want to be a part of it, at least for now.

Slide11Confession 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.

Slide12So 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?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s something I say in worship every Sunday before our confession. Can anyone sum up what I say before we pray together?

“Though God knows our every action, God desires us to confess our sinfulness so that we may be open to Christ’s redemptive action in our lives.”

This is not a traditional liturgy and you won’t find it in any book, but I wrote it to for our community to sum up the Biblical witness as to why we confess our sins together.

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.

Episcopal Bishop, Michael B. Curry writes of the young and rebellious son in our New Testament passage today:

“Jesus uses a marvelous turn of a phrase. Wallowing among pigs, the prodigal ‘came to himself.’ He realizes the profound discontinuity between who he has become and who he truly is. He does not have it figured out, but he knows something is not the way it is supposed to be. He is living a nightmare when he is meant to live his father’s dream. Something inside of him says, ‘You were not meant for this.’”[1]

Slide19We were created to be creatures of Eden. We were created for paradise. The ultimate goal of confession is reconciliation. With the taste of the first sin in their mouths Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise. The paradise was filled with many beautiful creations of plants and animals, but most importantly it was filled with God’s presence. When Adam and Eve were in right relationship with God, God walked with them in the garden. God was tangible and present in relationship with them. Through their sinfulness they willingly sought out a different future, a different path, a life that was apart from the paradise of full relationship with God.

Ever since that moment God has been creating opportunity for us to touch paradise. God became present on this earth once again, walking among us as Jesus Christ. Jesus served as an example to us of how we could live, how we can demonstrate God’s grace and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 says:

“God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. “

Confession is necessary for our life together. Only through the authentic confession of a repentant heart can we begin the work towards reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just saying, “I’m sorry.” It is saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Reconciliation can be the outcome of confession, but it requires action on both parts.

In our prodigal son story we hear in verse 30 that:

“While [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

Once the son even headed in the right direction the father was there to greet him. God’s forgiveness is already there; God is simply waiting for us to come home to grace.

When we are aware of the abundance of grace awaiting us, what keeps us from confessing? What keeps us from seeking God?

Slide23The prodigal son did not feel himself worthy of forgiveness, worthy of coming home. He had struck out on his own, squandered his inheritance, brought shame to his family name. He was caught up in all the wrong that he had done. He did not know what his father’s reaction would be, but he had run out of options in the world outside of his family. He had run out of options in the life of dishonesty, and was forced to seek reconciliation. He did not expect to be restored to his former life, he just hoped to live as a servant.

SLIDE 24 – Perks of Being a WallflowerA favorite book of mine, now turned into a movie, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” encompasses this in a way that has stayed with me since I first read it as a high school freshman: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”[2]

The prodigal son did not feel that he deserved forgiveness, or deserved the love of his family, and so he stayed in a life of sin until this life had left him starving.

Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 32 speaks of this feeling in verses 3 and 4:

“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.”

Slide27We are called to confess not because we are worthless sinners, but because we are worth so much in God’s eyes that God wants to bring us out of our sorrow and out of our isolation. God wants us to value our lives enough to ask for God to redeem them. To be unrepentant is to be expelled from Eden, purposefully separated from God’s love. To be unrepentant is to be lonely.

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.”[3]

Slide29Confession is ultimately not about us, or what we’ve done. It 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 moving past what we’ve done so that we can be open to what God desires to do through us. Confession is about God.

Through confession we are restored to right relationship, we are restored to paradise. May we strive for this life giving authentic confession. Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.

[2] Perks of Being a Wallflower. p.27

[3] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 106.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly;” Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; February 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly”
Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
February 3, 2013

First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Since Valentine’s Day is coming up next week it may seem fitting that today our New Testament passage today is from the “love chapter” of First Corinthians. This passage is often read at weddings, usually preceded by the rest of the chapter, but today we will be intentionally focusing on the later part of the passage and what it may be saying to us today. This passage is a message about love, but it is more than earthly and relational love. It is about the unimaginably vast love that God has for us. A love that God desires to reveal to us, a love that “now we see in a mirror dimly.”

SLIDE 2 Ancient MirrorThe original intended audience of this text, the community of Christians in Corinth, would’ve understood what was meant by the dimness of a mirror. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors. However, their mirrors were not like ours, but rather were made of hammered copper or brass. The reflection that they showed could give some idea of shape and form, but not exactly a clear image.

SLIDE 3 - Eye Doctor EquipmentA couple of weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for an eye exam. They used that big machine that goes in front of your eyes, and the doctor clicks through on the different prescription, asking “is this one better?” “or this one?” Each prescription changing my view ever so slightly. One might be a little clearer, one might compress the vision sideways a bit. As I have to make each decision, each preference, I come a little bit closer to what is the right prescription for me, the view I’d like to keep for my next pair of glasses.

This is we’ll be doing in worship this Lent. Though our view of God is as in a dim mirror, we will be discussing various spiritual practices that will hopefully each allow us to see God a little clearer, each one allowing us to focus a little bit differently as we seek to see God through each of them.

Unlike this eye exam we are not looking for one set prescription that will give us the way to see God. Our vision of God will only be entirely clear when we leave this earth and meet God in heaven. So, these different lenses of spiritual practices, this different mirrors reflecting God are all tools that may help to reveal just a bit more about God, help us to see God from a different angle.

Slide04 So, what are spiritual practices then? Just as we refer to doctors as “practicing medicine,” practicing our faith is a similar exercise. We can dig deep into the knowledge of God by encountering God through scripture and through shared experiences of God in history and our lives today. The more we get to know God, the more questions we have, but we also grow in our familiarity and comfort in asking those questions. They also seek to prepare us for the sort of encounter with God that Jeremiah experienced in our text today, enabling the Lord to “put [God’s own] words in [our] mouth[s].”

Slide05Today the nation will watch as the 49ers and the Ravens face off in the Super Bowl. These teams have been training for this one event for months, some of them playing football for their whole entire lives. This one game is the culmination of every other NFL game that has happened this season. Fans all over the country, and even around the world will watch with intensity to see what will happen on that football field.

Can you imagine how very different this game would be today if there was no sort of preparation? If there was no work to come to this point? Perhaps if someone like me decided to walk on the field and play today? I can say with certainty it would not go well for me. Best case scenario I would confuse everyone. Worst case scenario I would get utterly crushed. Nothing in my life has been directed towards becoming a professional football player. I am utterly unsuited for such a game and trying to jump in would be a terrible situation for everyone

SLIDE 6 - Spiritually FitThis is not to say that each of us needs to have professional athlete level of understanding of God in order to “get in the game,” but that we should work to be as spiritually “in shape” as we can be in our own lives, in our own time, so that we may be equipped to do the work of God in this world. God desires to meet us just as we are, just where we are, and to change us through the ways we seek God in our world.

SLIDE 7 - Encountering GodSome of the pieces of this spiritual equipment that we will encounter this Lenten season are: iconography, seeking God’s image in this world; fasting, hungering for God; prayers of petition, crying out to God when we feel hopeless; traveling a labyrinth, encountering God on our journey; prayers of confession, admitting our need for forgiveness; foot washing, encountering others with a servant’s heart; and prayers of praise. Each week we will discuss a different spiritual discipline and each week we will add another lens through which we may seek God.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorEncountering our 1 Corinthians passage with today’s mirrors in mind provides another level of understanding what was intended here. Though our mirrors are much clearer than that of ancient Corinth, mirrors only show us one side of things. Even when we use another mirror to reflect an image behind us, we are still only seeing the surface of things. Mirrors only allow us to see what is tangible, not what is intangible. Trying to encounter an uncontainable God in a two-dimensional way will always lead to disappointment.

Richard Foster, theologian and author of “Celebration of Discipline,” writes this of our need for spiritual practices: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to answer to a hollow world.”

Slide10During Lent, many Christians around the world temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in these various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In our passage in Corinthians, Paul says we will know God even as we are known. That is an exciting thing to think about: that one day we will fully know God, and that right here and now God fully knows us. This knowing of God requires us to “grow up” in our faith, as it says in verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

What does it mean to understand God as an adult? Episcopal pastor, Rev. Robert Wright explains that it has much more to do with an attitude of selflessness than with our age. He writes, “The beginning of understanding comes with listening. A grownup love listens.  It listens to God and it listens to the world.  It hears what is said and what is not said.  It hears with the heart.”SLIDE 13 - Lent Child

This message of calling us into adulthood seems contradictory to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10: 14-15: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We are called to live in this tension: to have the faith of children but seek to understand God as an adult. The faith of a child is one of trust but also one of questions. As we study the different spiritual disciplines throughout this season of Lent, I would encourage you to ask these questions, but also to live firmly in the faith that God is seeking to be present in your life.

May we discover new ways to connect with God, so that we may be spiritually fit to bring others into God’s kingdom. Amen.

Arise, Shine!; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38; January 6, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Arise, Shine!”
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12, and Luke 2:22-24, 36-38
January 6, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides

Slide01 Slide02 Slide03 Slide04 Slide05 Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19

 

“Arise, Shine!”

Slide01Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.

Slide02In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.

Slide03This sort of epiphany is not just a light bulb above someone’s head, but a sunrise that lights a whole horizon in never ending day.

As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?

'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.

This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.

Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”[1]:

Slide06 Slide07 Slide08 Slide09

SLIDE 10 - Full MailboxWhenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.

Slide11It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?

In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.

Slide13In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.

There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:

“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time.  I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”

Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again.  Mark 13:32-37 says:

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Slide19This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?

I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.

John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And 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 the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Slide22This hopeful account of Christ’s coming again urges us to choose Christ as our Lord and Savior. The good news is this, by accepting Jesus as Christ, His death covers our sins as well.

And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to  “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.

 


[1] “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee

“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!

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum