Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lenten Sermon Series - Spiritual Boot Camp: A Redefined Heart

Spiritual Boot Camp: A Redefined Heart
1 Samuel 16: 1-13; John 9: 1-25
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 26, 2017
Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you, and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
- 1 Samuel 16: 1-13

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’
- John 9: 1-25


Alicia remembers that defining moment in her life. Her friend had invited her to compete in a Tough Mudder. It is a military style fitness course spanning with 10-12 miles of mud and 20+ obstacles designed to drag you out of your comfort zone. People compete solo or with a team. It’s a test of perseverance to endure and see what you are made of.

Alicia’s first obstacle was crawling on elbows and knees through a trenched pool of mud and then climbing a fifteen foot curved wall covered in mud and grease. Once she scaled the wall with help from new friends an exploration course of self-discovery was set before her. As soon as she came in contact with the mud she thought, “O Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”

What began as an uncomfortable and crazy situation has now helped to redefine Alicia’s sense of being. She has since competed in three Tough Mudders and they have completely changed her life. With every competition and challenge comes an opportunity for Alicia to overcome with a hidden strength she didn’t realize she had. Sometimes the hardest challenges bring her to tears. They remind her of the fears, trials, and failures she has endured in life and what it takes to overcome them.

Alicia says the Tough Mudder competitions train her mind to pay attention to her immediate surroundings in a way she never has before. They push her to focus on new ways her body, mind, and spirit need to respond in order to overcome the next obstacle. She even has a new motto that now guides her outlook: mud, sweat, and tears are the grit of life.

The disciples were given an opportunity to see a defining moment in another’s life. The twelve were following their Teacher’s lead in their community of Galilee. Jesus was opening their eyes to see and experience things they never had before.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been blind since birth. (Click the link to watch the dramatization of this scene from John's Gospel). Those in the community of Galilee simply saw the man as a beggar and probably walked past him day after day without much notice. But Jesus saw something different. He saw a fellow brother who needed an opportunity to receive the hidden power of God’s grace.

I can only imagine the look on the disciples’ faces as Jesus spat on the ground, made mud, and wiped it over the blind man’s eyelids. And not just the disciples, but also the man. Can you imagine what an uncomfortable and crazy situation this was for him? Up to this point his life experience had been either hearing coins clank into his Dimes for Hunger jar or hearing footsteps pass him by. His encounter with Christ was nothing less than messy and came as quite a surprise to say the least.

As Jesus’ hands touched the man’s face with mud, the very hands of the Creator were reshaping and redefining this man into God’s new creation. And as the man obeyed Jesus’ command to wash in the pool, his eyes were opened to a moment that forever changed his life. That man left the pool of Siloam and was sent to share his story of God’s amazing grace.

This man’s proclamation “I once was blind and now I see” (John 9:25) has become a refrain of faith passed down throughout the generations of our spiritual ancestors. As you and I encounter Christ, the eyes of our hearts become more opened to see in new and surprising ways too.

The gift of grace through faith opens us to see ourselves as more than what we have been before. We notice God taking the threads of our lives and weaving them into the fabric of community. With each stitch we feel the joy of acceptance and being connected to something bigger than ourselves. We experience the muscles of our faith growing stronger as we face each challenge in life. And as our hearts become redefined we struggle to articulate the ways in which Jesus has made a difference in our lives, just like the man who gained his sight.

Our encounters with Christ can certainly be reassuring as God draws near to us. But if we are really honest about it, we encounter Christ in really uncomfortable and messy ways too. And those are the times we recognize that the grit of life really does come from moments of mud, sweat, tears.

Jesus Christ takes us places that move us out of our comfort zones.

They may be places in our households where we are struggling to deal with the unexpected change that splatters in our faces.

Those zones may be the trampled down places in our own community that we have simply passed by. We either don’t want to get dirty or we have passed by the “other side of town” so many times that we never intersect a different experience of struggle from our own.

Those discomfort zones might even be places on a mission trip where a different culture or context begins a hard conversation to honestly struggle and expand our perceptions of poverty, ethnicity, race, and life experience. It challenges us to gain a new perspective to see past our differences and into what we hold in common. We are all sisters and brothers in the greater family of God.

One church member shared with me this week that he has encountered Christ in nudges. Even though those nudges make him uncomfortable, he keeps drawing close to God and coming to church because he knows God will truly open his eyes for him to see his greater purpose at just the right time.

Another church member shared with me that her encounters with Christ have been like drops that slowly fill a bucket to where it reaches a tipping point. As the bucket turns over and floods her heart, her eyes become a little more opened and it makes her go, “Aaaahhhhh! That’s what God needs me to see differently right now.”

Parker Palmer, an author and teacher of faith, says: “[Muddy ground] holds the seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word ‘humus,’ the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to ‘humility.’ It is a [rich vocabulary] in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life – events that leave ‘mud on my face’ or ‘make my name mud’ can create fertile soil that nourishes our growth.”

The season of Lent is training our hearts, minds and bodies to pay attention to our immediate surroundings in new ways. These immediate surroundings are the trenches and seed beds for rebirth. You and I are Jesus’ disciples and he is seeking to lead us into situations where our faith needs to be nourished.

In order to grow, nourishment often comes about in the mud and muck of life. As we follow in Jesus’ steps we might even hear ourselves saying, “O Lord, what are you getting me into?!?”But our hearts need opportunities to be humbled and to respond to trials and challenges with new found obedience and agility.

Jesus Christ is inviting you and me to follow in his steps so that our faith may seek understanding through life’s exploration course of self and communal discovery. God always looks past the surface levels of our lives that we want to look clean, untouched, and perfect by human standards.

But God is not interested in the way life appears or at least in the way we would rather life appear. God is more interested in looking on the heart. And sometimes we have to get neck deep in the muddy parts of life in order for God to redefine our being. After all, that is the heart of the matter.

Jesus Christ looks into our own hearts, our families, our communities, and the wider world and sees his fellow sisters and brothers who need opportunities to experience the hidden strength of God’s grace. And grace is God's love in action which moves through our lives to shape us more into the likeness and the example of Christ. As you and I experience Christ redefining our hearts, the hope is that our encounters with Christ will leave you and I changed – no matter how reassuring or uncomfortable they are.

What is at stake for Spiritual Boot Camp is that we cannot go through the tough mudders of faith with Jesus, wash the mud off, and just go on living the same way we did before.

What is the mud in your life? What uncomfortable situation is Jesus using to touch and change your life? What does Christ want to open the eyes of your heart and mine to see?

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Theme and Title adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 21, Sermon Theme "Boot Camp for the Soul," by Winnie Varghese.

[1] Parker Palmer, “Spring Is Mud and Miracle,” On Being Blog, March 29, 2016

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lenten Sermon Series- Spiritual Boot Camp: Quenching the Thirst

Spiritual Boot Camp: Quenching the Thirst
Exodus 17: 1-7; John 4: 5-29
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 19, 2017
Third Sunday in Lent

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’

Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’

But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’

So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’

Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
- Exodus 17: 1-7

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’

Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’

The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’

Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’

The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’

Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’
- John 4: 5-29

As we enter into the third week of Spiritual Boot Camp, you might notice that getting into a new Lenten regimen is hard. It is best to take each step in stages to build our stamina with the hope of reaching our goal. Remember that goal is to experience God bringing about a new creation in us by Easter Sunday – Resurrection Day.

The hope is to be freed from one of those old excuses or lesser habits in which we have sought to give up during Lent to experience God’s wholeness. Many of you have shared with me that you are becoming more intentional to exercise and eat cleaner. One of the challenges is committing to our modifications. Today we factor in our bodies’ need for water.

Water is one of the main nutrients for us to survive and thrive in life. It takes great effort to consume enough water to hydrate. The average person should consume about 64 ounces of water daily (eight glasses of eight ounces).[1]

Three basic signs that you may not be consuming enough water include being thirsty, feeling fatigued and tired, and cramping easily during physical activity. We cannot reach our potential or go the distance without enough water.

God’s people of Israel were journeying along a different kind of boot camp – the one that led from Egypt’s oppression to God’s freedom. And as they followed Moses’ lead they traveled the journey in stages. Once they hit the third day God’s people hit a wall – there was not enough water for all the people. They were thirsty. They were fatigued and tired. And they were cramping Moses’ leadership with all their quarreling. This happened a number of times on the wilderness journey.

Even through Moses’ own leadership trials, he saw the people’s deep need and lifted his voice to God. The wilderness journey towards freedom was quite a test for the people. It was a test of their spiritual endurance to more fully rely on God. And God’s faithful presence and provision went ahead of the people as water gushed up from the rock to quench their thirst.

The Samaritan woman was journeying through a wilderness too. She was oppressed by her past and could only hope for the day when the Messiah would come proclaiming all things leading to God’s freedom. She was surviving one day at a time from a hard life. She rose above her deep thirst to come to the well to draw water. She came to the well every day at noon when no one else was around. Most people came to the well in the cool of the day either early in the morning or in the evening. She was fatigued with shame and she ached for a sense of acceptance and community. The woman’s thirst was simply becoming a fact of life – until she met Jesus Christ.

Jesus had been journeying back home to Galilee and stopped at Jacob’s well to quench his own thirst. Breaking through the social barriers, he asked the woman at the well for a drink. And in that conversation Jesus saw the woman’s deep need and lifted his voice. “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water” (John 4:10, The Message).

That living water is a gift of God. It is a spiritual truth about God’s generosity. The living water of God’s grace meets us where we are on the journey of faith. No matter how rough the terrain of our wilderness appears God journeys alongside of us and goes ahead of us to lead the way from scarcity to abundance.

The living water of Jesus Christ renews us and awakens our spirits with nothing less than God’s abundant grace. When our spirits are parched and dry, Jesus Christ gives us a cup overflowing with cold water that satisfies our deep spiritual needs like nothing else can.

The living water of Jesus Christ cleanses our spiritual system of what is weakening our spiritual health. It flushes out those toxins of fatigue and fear that say we do not have enough to sustain ourselves. It flushes out those toxins of worry and shame that say we are not enough and we are not worthy of being loved.

The living water of Jesus Christ brings freedom as God’s grace divides what is praise worthy in spirit and truth from the distortions of the world that oppress our lives. It empowers our faith to overcome the hurdles and go the distance.

So where do we get that living water? How are we to quench the deep thirst inside of us?

Spiritual Boot Camp tells us that we cannot allow our hearts to merely survive day by day. Survival means we reach forward with the perception that there will never be enough. And God sent his Son to us so that we may have life in abundance (John 10:10). We must hydrate our bodies and spirits in order to thrive. That means we must be intentional to make every effort to drop our buckets in the well of God’s grace often and daily.

Just think about hydration this way as we parallel our physical and spiritual health.

Set a goal to drink more water and keep your water bottle with you to drink throughout the day. If we need 64 fluid ounces daily then nourish your body in increments. Be mindful of how much you have consumed.

In the same way, set your spiritual goal to drink more of Christ’s living water daily. Keep your Lenten devotional with you through the day. Make a date with God to soak up the Word and hydrate your soul with God’s grace. An ideal measurement of time to spend in devotion to God is thirty minutes daily. You will be surprised at how much more fully alive your heart and mind will feel. At the end of the day reflect on the ways God’s Word guided your steps.

Set a goal to spice up your water to make it taste better. Add some frozen fruit, lemon or cucumber slices to add a little zing.

In the same way set a spiritual goal to spice up your prayer life. Meditate on a word or phrase of your bible devotion as you color. Praying in color decreases stress and anxiety. It also integrates the mind and body as our hearts focus in contemplation.

Or maybe spice up your prayer life with praying in motion. Make time to go on a walk as a break in your day. As you walk share with God what is on your heart. Allow yourself to step in silence too as you listen for God and center yourself within God’s presence. Feel God walking alongside you and ahead of you as you take each step fully relying on God. At the end of the day reflect on what you have heard God say.

Set a goal to challenge your friends to drink more water every day with you. Together we feel empowered to really go the distance into more abundant health

In the same way, gather at the well of God’s grace in community. Find a prayer partner so that you may pray for one another and help hold each other accountable. We feel God’s strength in community and together we are better able to take deeper steps in our faith journeys.

The living water of Jesus Christ allows us to run the race of faith in perseverance. It hydrates our parched souls with God’s covenant promises and steadfast love. Good spiritual hydration renews our weary souls, cleanses the toxins, and brings freedom that flows in the direction of wholeness.

But the greatest power of living water is not so much for our personal benefit but to follow Jesus’ example of proclaiming it.

As our spirits are nourished it is so important to ask God’s Spirit to open our eyes to see those around us who have great need and deep thirsts.

Who do you see in the neighborhood and in the wider world that may not have the resources for life giving water?

Who do you see in your circle of influence that is desperate to hear the good news that proclaims God’s steadfast love and abundant grace?

Who might God be leading you to walk beside and bring about some resurrection hope on this stage of the journey?

If water can flow from the rock and even flow from the well of God’s abundant grace, how much more will Christ’s living water flow from the cross to nourish all God’s children and quench our thirst?

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Theme and Title adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 21, Sermon Theme "Boot Camp for the Soul," by Winnie Varghese.

[1] Mayo Clinic: How Much Water Should You Drink a Day? http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Lenten Sermon Series - Spiritual Boot Camp: A New Start

Spiritual Boot Camp: A New Start
Genesis 12: 1-4a; John 3: 1-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
- Genesis 12: 1-4a

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
- John 3: 1-17


I always say that faith is an adventure so jump in!

Today we take the next step to jump into our Lenten adventure of Spiritual Boot Camp. This entails a willingness to let go of old excuses and lesser habits to discover who God is creating and recreating you and me to be. This is not a one-time deal. Throughout the course of our lifetimes, God’s Spirit is on the move to meet us where we are and to empower us to do a new thing in our lives.

Six years ago Phyllis Rowley received a knock on her front door. The retired seventy-eight year old woman opened the door to receive quite an invitation. The person on her doorstep was a member of a local karate dojo. Phyllis was asked if she would like to take some self-defense classes. Without hesitation she said yes. She thought this new start could be quite useful at this stage of her life.

For the past six years Phyllis has trained in the karate dojo four days a week. She works out with female and male classmates as young as five years old and on into adulthood. Phyllis never felt embarrassed to start karate so late in life. She says, “I have diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and COPD. I am not a fit person but none of those ailments are going to stop me!”

Phyllis has now earned her first black belt. Her new start has given her renewed confidence and she feels so empowered. Phyllis never expected to go this far, but she has inspired many people along the way. Her training has become a new way of life. We are never too old or too young for God to bring about a new start in life.

Abram was seventy five years old when God knocked on his door. But Abram did not receive a divine invitation from God. The Hebrew reveals that the word “Go” (verse 1) bears some thrust and urgency – lek leka – meaning “You MUST GO!” Just like my charge to you after every worship service – “Now GO with the bold assurance that through this gift of faith, our God is certainly able to far more than we can ever hope, ask for, or imagine!”

God told Abram it was time for a new start. He was to GO with a new sense of urgency to follow God’s covenant promises. In doing so, Abram was to leave “his past, everything familiar, and all his previous supports to depend on God alone.”[1] God’s command to Abram was to leave everything which had shaped his existing identity. It was a great sacrifice to leave all he knew in order to follow God’s lead.

What I find amazing about Abram’s story is that he didn’t question God. Scripture does not give us any information about Abram’s relationship with God. All Scripture reveals is that Abram was a descendant from the line of Noah, the only righteous man God knew (Genesis 10:1; 11:10-26).

Abram simply followed God in obedience not fully knowing where this adventure of faith will lead. I can imagine Abram’s human tendencies may have left him feeling unprepared for such a difficult task. But somehow God’s promises were compelling enough for him to take the first step.

Abram’s story is a not just one man’s journey. It is the new start that connects God’s people of Israel to the beginnings of God’s story of redemption. Abram was blessed to be a blessing to all future generations that would come through him. The arch of Scripture reveals that God’s people continued in the journey that God began in Abram.

God’s people today still walk these ancient paths of faith and just like Israel we still veer from the path of obedience. Our human story remains the same in that we all continue to need God’s help in taking the next right step in this adventure of faith. Thank goodness Jesus Christ fulfills God’s covenant promises showing us the path that leads to a life of redemption.

Spiritual Boot Camp reminds us that we need the discipline of Lent to see and hear God’s calling in our lives. Lent is a time to be more fully present to hear God calling us in a new direction. From Ash Wednesday through Good Friday we are in a liminal space – a transition period – where God’s Spirit is reforming our identity to be born anew through the womb of God’s grace. We are urged to open our hearts and minds to a new adventure in order to be reshaped by God’s wondrous love revealed in Jesus Christ.

The hope is that we may experience God’s deliverance from what God is calling us leave behind: old excuses and lesser habits.

But today Spiritual Boot Camp leads us to the next task to gain spiritual health. We are called to go deeper into the recesses of our hearts and consider leaving the lesser things that have shaped our lives and become all too familiar:

past regrets that still weigh on us;
unresolved conflict that still chains us;
systemic racism that we are complicit in;
self-centeredness that prevents generosity;
spiritual apathy that says nothing in life will ever change.

As we lifted our voices in the prayer of confession this morning we named all these: regrets, unresolved conflict, racism, self-centeredness, and spiritual apathy. They are all blockages to the human heart. These lesser things can become so familiar that we actually become complacent to break the hold they have on our lives.

Our indifference to these blockages actually forms a barrier to truly experiencing the love of Christ in new ways. And Christ’s self-giving love always flows in the direction of wholeness.

This week Spiritual Boot Camp leads us to take the first step to reflect on what is blocking the path to experiencing real change which comes from the fullness of God’s promises and wholeness.

I will be the first to tell you that looking deep into one’s heart is one of the hardest things for any of us to do. We all have these “blockages” as I call them deep down. Indifference is the easiest way to respond to them. But faith empowers us to do the hard things and Holy Spirit gives us the motivation to be changed.

No matter what your relationship with God has been like in the past, we are assured today that God draws near to us because we are chosen. God’s steadfast love surrounds us when we don’t like what we see in the mirror, when we feel unprepared to take the next step, and when we are afraid of where God might lead us or require of us.

God is not inviting us but God is calling to us saying, “You MUST GO on this new path which I will show you!” This new start is about training and retraining our hearts to work through those blockages.

Take some time this second week of Lent to name your indifferences. What is blocking your heart? What is God calling you to let go of? The truth of Spiritual Boot Camp is that the beginning of any new regimen is hard. Our desire for change must be greater than our indifference to do nothing. But the more we train our hearts, the more our training becomes a new way of life. Day by day we are being reshaped to be the people God has created us to be.

As you train lift up your voice like Phyllis Rowley and say, “I may not be the most spiritually fit person right now, but these indifferences - these blockages - in my life are not going to stop me!”

And take heart - God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). And remember, Christ’s deliverance always flows in the direction of wholeness.

May we respond to God’s call with faith like Abram. We may not know where this Lenten Boot Camp will take us but we do know this: God is leading us on an adventure of faith to experience his covenant promises one step at a time.

God is saying it is time for a new start to be reshaped and renewed. How will we respond?

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Theme and Title adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 21, Sermon Theme "Boot Camp for the Soul," by Winnie Varghese.

[1]David Cotter, “Sacra Pagina: Genesis” (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 90.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lenten Sermon Series: Spiritual Boot Camp - The Need for Change

Spiritual Boot Camp: The Need for Change
Psalm 32: 1-8; Matthew 4: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017
First Sunday in Lent

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

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.
Selah

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.
Selah

Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
Selah

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
- Psalm 32: 1-8

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
- Matthew 4: 1-11

Some of you may know that over twenty years ago I worked as a personal trainer. I had a personal love for fitness and wellness and I still do. I enjoyed motivating men and women to do something for themselves and to tap into an inner strength they did not realize they had. As you can imagine many of us look at exercise as quite a chore and not an opportunity to feel the joy, joy, joy down in your healthy, healthy heart.

The clients I worked with had lots of different motivations to begin an exercise program. Some received doctors’ orders to lose some weight and better their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Some were hoping to toss old routines and discover some new tricks to take the next step towards a healthy lifestyle. Some had set a new goal in life and needed some help with accountability so they could reach it.

One client I will never forget is Beth. Beth was a delightful woman. She was in her fifties. She and her husband loved to travel. She would always tell me the best part of taking a trip is planning the next one. Beth worked with the head trainer, Jerry, and also myself.

But Beth had a different kind of motivation for working out. She had been diagnosed with Lupus, a debilitating disease that causes chronic damage to the joints, skin, heart, lungs, the blood, and even the brain. There is no cure for Lupus but lifestyle modifications and of course medication help to improve one’s quality of life.

Beth was an inspiring woman to me. She could have let this diagnosis overwhelm her life and shut her down. Instead she handled this big life change with a lot of grace and a lot of perseverance. She even asked the head trainer and I to plan a weekend retreat so that she and her girlfriends could focus on a holistic styled boot camp.

Jerry and I planned the three day retreat with food menus and prepared healthy meals and snacks for all of us. We planned for time windows of guided relaxation and meditation, and had a massage therapist come and treat the ladies. And we planned the actual boot camp into daily intervals with group circuit exercises that challenged the women’s strength and endurance.

The hope for the holistic boot camp was for Beth and her friends to cultivate a new desire to care for themselves in life-giving ways. It matters what we fuel our bodies with to be sustained. It matters to have periods of rest and reflection to find a balanced life. It matters to have a daily rhythm of gaining strength instead of falling into apathy’s temptations. Our boot camp retreat fired up all of our desires to modify life habits to really live into our fullest potential! What we took away from that retreat was not just for that weekend or a season of life but to put all we had learned into daily practice.

The Psalmist recognized the need for change in his life. He was motivated in a different way than Beth. He encountered a life experience which caused him to withdraw from God in silence – one might even argue that the Psalmist experienced a season of apathy. And as a result it caused whatever strength he had to feel dried up and wasted away.

We can only go so far in life when we rely on the strength that comes from sources other than God. The human heart certainly has an insatiable desire and we so easily fill the void with anything and everything until it gets to the point where faith is the last source we tap into.

The turning point for the Psalmist was acknowledging the truth. He confessed to himself and to God where he was standing along the path of life and faith. When the Psalmist stopped denying that he alone could fix his own problems and started trusting God with them then he discovered something amazing. He discovered that God is truly a hiding place for us to have our hunger filled, our thirsts quenched, our weaknesses empowered.

When the Psalmist drew near to God he saw a new path open up that would lead to strength and deliverance (Psalm 32:7). And the Psalmist heard the Spirit whisper a word of encouragement: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32: 8). God promised to lead the way as the Psalmist’s great spiritual coach. In turn the Psalmist gained new motivation to trust God in grace and perseverance.

As soon as Jesus was claimed as God’s beloved Son and baptized by John the Baptist, the Spirit instructed Jesus to go into the wilderness to be tempted. Matthew tells us that for forty days and nights Jesus fasted and prayed and afterwards he hungered.

Jesus was then temped to rely on his own ability to satisfy his physical and emotional hunger (Matthew 4:3). He was tempted to test the limits of God’s presence and provision in life (Matthew 4:6). He was tempted to make God’s kingdom a lesser priority and trust in the distortion of worldly strength (Matthew 4:9).

For years I have read this text focusing on how famished Jesus was and how he must have struggled SOME with these temptations before standing strong. Matthew’s story reveals Jesus’ humanity in a way you and I can relate to!

However Jesus was led into the wilderness for those 40 days in order to fully tap into the power of God’s grace. As a result Jesus was empowered to face those temptations in the fullness of God’s strength. When you and I put ourselves in the story, those temptations Jesus faced can easily lead you and me to waiver in our spiritual obedience.

During the season of Lent we remember Christ’s steadfast obedience to God and the sacrifice of his self-giving love. Christians across denominational lines will respond in kind by giving something up – an unhealthy food, sweets, coffee, wine, social media, and so on. All of these are good things to give up for Lent.

However, Lent is bigger than the small sacrifices we might make. It’s a time to be honest about what tempts us to make the gift of faith - our spiritual health - a lesser priority in our lives. So much competes for our time today with obligations for family, work, and overly full schedules. Lent is a time to take inventory of our ultimate concerns in life and measure them alongside God’s desire for each of us to reach our God-given potential. Lent is a time to exercise the muscles of our faith to grow ever stronger in Christ’s faithfulness for we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Today on this First Sunday in Lent, we enter into the wilderness experience of Spiritual Boot Camp. God’s Word and the Spirit are moving among us in a time of self-discovery. The Spirit is present to reveal the need for something to change in our lives.

Just like that fitness retreat I helped to plan years ago, spiritual boot camp at its best has a holistic approach that touches every fiber of our being.

We reflect on the sources we have been choosing to sustain our hearts and minds. It really does matter what we are fueling our bodies, hearts, and minds with to sustain our faith. Consider some basic changes for your daily rhythm of life: Eat cleaner and drink more water. Get your body in motion. Watch less television and decrease your screen time in order to feed your mind with God’s Word. As our call to worship stated this morning, “The Word of the Lord is our daily bread.”[1]

We take a pulse on how well we have been to creating spaces of rest in our lives. It really does matter that we find regular Sabbath time to rest and reflect in order to find a balanced life. Finding intervals of time to listen for God and contemplate Christ’s faithfulness is a gift of grace. It is an opportunity to be cradled in God’s presence and provision as we draw near to God throughout our forty days and nights of Lent just as Jesus did in the wilderness.

Lastly, spiritual boot camp pushes us out of our comfort zones to be honest about the temptations in life. We are tempted to focus more on our human strength and self-reliance. We are tempted to make spiritual health and God's kingdom lesser priorities. True spiritual strength comes from exercising our faith.

We all need to be encouraged to cultivate spiritual disciplines to build up our spiritual health and keep our eyes on God. Those disciplines come from pumping our hearts and minds with healthy repetitions of spiritual sets. Just like we may do a set of running in place to jump start our heart, doing 10 pushups, and then 10 tricep dips…a spiritual set would include reading God’s Word, prayer that intentionally listens for God, and serving others.

We pastors are like personal and communal faith trainers. And we are working with God as our head spiritual coach. Among all that we ministers do, your pastor loves to get each of us pumped up to tap into something greater than ourselves. So let’s get pumped up this season of Lent.

It’s time for Spiritual Boot Camp! It’s time to tap into the power of God’s grace. It takes 30 days to make a new habit and we are all so lucky that Lent includes 40 days and six Sundays!

Are you willing to let go of old excuses and certain habits in order to discover who God is creating you to be? Are you ready to tap into the strength of God’s grace in order to experience a newly resurrected life? These changes are not only for the Lenten season. They are life-giving commitments to guide us into the future.

So before you hit the spiritual circuits, I ask you to begin with the first step, as any good trainer would ask: What is truly motivating your need for change?

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Theme and Title "Spiritual Boot Camp: The Need for Change" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 21, Sermon Theme "Boot Camp for the Soul," by Winnie Varghese

[1] Feasting on the Word Worship Companion: Liturgies for Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 96.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Sermon: Beatitudes of a Peacemaker

Beatitudes of a Peacemaker
Matthew 5: 9-12; Hebrews 12: 1-4
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- Matthew 5: 9-12

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
- Hebrews 12: 1-4

The Beatitudes bless us by giving us a new lens in which to see. That lens trains the spiritual eyes of our hearts to become poor in spirit and more fully dependent upon God (Matthew 5: 3). As our spiritual sight develops then our spirits mourn as we see what breaks God’s heart (Matthew 5:4). We lament the condition of the world around us and we ache for God’s kingdom to fully come.

Those who are powerless – meek - and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness open our hearts to see our highest calling to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves – no matter the risks (Matthew 5: 6-7).

Therefore, Jesus teaches us that a disciple is to walk in concrete acts of mercy because God’s steadfast and covenant love have already claimed us in the mercy and self-giving love of Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:7). As we walk in Christ’s blessed teachings then our hearts continue to be reshaped to be pure. Remember pure does not mean sinless or perfect. To have a pure heart means to strive to work for the well-being of others (Matthew 5:8).

The Beatitudes come into full focus as Jesus tells his disciples, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Throughout the Beatitudes we have seen how Jesus leans into Old Testament wisdom. When the Old Testament speaks of peace it is brought about by God and in Hebrew is it called “shalom.”

Peace does not come from an absence of conflict. It comes about as God’s works through division to bring about complete well-being that reconciles what is broken. Peace is a gift of God’s promised wholeness.

Those who work to bring about God’s shalom are the peacemakers. Now, peacemakers are not conflict-avoidant and passive. They are committed to “positive actions of reconciliation.”[1]

Rev. Beth Lindsay Templeton of Greenville, SC says making peace is not the same as keeping peace. “Keeping peace means that people ‘play nice’ to each other’s face. Making peace is harder. We do the hard work of reconciling hostile individuals and situations. We strive to return good for evil and to love those we do not like. We painstakingly build bridges when every fiber of our being would rather build walls.”[2]

The peacemakers are blessed with a permanent joy in joining God’s desire for reconciliation among all God’s children.

Over the course of our lives we have all felt the estrangement that the human condition of sin brings between our relationships with God and with one another. As we strive to bring about God’s peace in real ways Jesus knows that the work of faith costs something of us. That estrangement should motivate us to extend the peace of Christ with others. It is not easy but faith empowers us to do the hard things.

Following Jesus’ example is not a popular journey. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).

That word persecuted is not to be taken lightly. Persecution is not when someone disagrees or debates with our perspectives or faith convictions. In the Greek that word persecuted means to be zealously hunted down, harassed, and maltreated. Jesus knew persecution would come in unjust ways when his disciples commit their lives to work for causes that are in line with God’s kingdom vision for justice and right relationships.

Anyone who has been in our Bible study of Isaiah knows that God’s ultimate concern is for the vulnerable and the marginalized to be treated with just relationships which honor, uphold, and protect the image of God in them.

Rev. Beth Lindsay Templeton reminds us that, “Ghandi was persecuted when he stood up for his people in India to be treated fairly as valuable human beings. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated when he stood up against racism and war. Nelson Mandela served decades in prison for standing up against apartheid in South Africa.”[3]

To answer the call of discipleship to follow Christ means to follow in the footsteps that our Teacher and Savior walked which lead to the costly grace of the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite theologians and pastors. He says, “The cross is where the poorest, the most tempted, the meekest of all can be found.”[4]

For it is on the cross that we see the Son of God poor in Spirit. He mourned for the brokenness of the world which despised and rejected him. It is on the cross that Christ became meek to the point of renouncing his power and equality with God. He gave his body as the bread of life and his blood as the new covenant to nurture our faith as we hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness.

It is on the old rugged cross that we see the merciful One who claims us in God’s unconditional love that will never let us go. Christ was God’s suffering servant who had such compassion that he was wounded for our transgressions in order for his wounds to bring God’s healing gift of salvation as a ransom for many.

It is where the beams of the cross meet - the vertical beam symbolizing our relationship with God and the horizontal beam symbolizing our relationships with one another – that we see Christ’s pure heart.

That sacred center shows us the way Christ entrusted his whole life to God and how to live more fully into his covenant love. The love Christ shows us through the cross breaks down all the dividing walls that estrange us. The power of sin and death are no more as God’s resurrection hope and peace of Christ rule through the empty grave.

As we lean into a deeper trust of God’s covenant love, God’s Spirit nurtures us on days like today when we gather at the Lord’s Table. The Spirit strengthens us, and convicts us to put our faith into action to join God in reconciling the world.

May the Beatitudes bring about a change in our hearts and minds to see the world, our sisters and brothers, and our very selves as God sees.

There is something at stake in order for us to follow Jesus’ teachings.

What is at stake is the costly grace of the cross. It is there and only there that the Spirit gives us a true glimpse of God’s righteous kingdom and the permanent joy we are given to belong to it.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:
[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “Volume VII: Matthew” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 111.
[2] Beth Lindsay Templeton, “Loving Our Neighbor: A Thoughtful Approach to Helping People in Poverty” (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008), p. 11.
[3] Beth Lindsay Templeton, p. 11-12.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 ), p. 109.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sermon: Beatitudes of a Wholly Heart

Beatitudes of a Wholly Heart
Proverbs 14:20-21; Psalm 24: 1-6; Matthew 5: 7-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2017

The poor are disliked even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends.
Those who despise their neighbors are sinners,
but happy are those who are kind to the poor.
- Proverbs 14: 20-21

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
- Psalm 24: 1-6

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Matthew 5: 7-8

I am intrigued by the way in which each of Jesus’ beatitudes informs the others. Each blessing builds upon the next. I hope you are beginning to see that connection as well. Last week our sermon on the beatitudes for the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ended with God nudging us and even disturbing us to remember our highest calling: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, no matter the distance.

Pastor and author Fredrick Buechner says it this way:

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our well-being to that end.

This is at the heart of Jesus’ beatitude for those who show mercy. Now mercy is at the heart of God’s character. Even as Israel did not live in faithful obedience to God, the Lord upheld his covenant love saying, “Because your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

In turn God’s mercy goes ahead of us to reveal how we are to live by God’s covenant example to not abandon or forsake others. We are to love mercifully as God has already mercifully loved us.

What is at stake for living out God’s mercy is remembering that we are tethered to our Creator and all God’s children through the gift of relationships. The tether of God’s steadfast and covenant love holds us accountable to honor the image of God in everyone, particularly those on the margins.

As Jesus holds the least of these at the heart of his ministry we can hear his teaching on mercy building from the wisdom of Proverbs, “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy – blessed – are those who are kind – the Hebrew actually says ‘merciful’ – to the poor” (Proverbs 14:21).

The merciful are those who sense God’s loyal and steadfast love guiding them. Therefore faith is lived one day at a time following God’s lead to offer acts of compassion to work for our neighbors’ sense of well-being.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). The merciful are blessed by receiving God’s permanent joy for offering kindness to the poor and the least.

Adam is a young adult who lives in Marin City, California. Each time he walked into the coffee shop on the corner he noticed a young man who appeared to be homeless. One day Adam found the courage to ask the young man his name, which he learned is Tarec. And then Adam asked Tarec to sit with him at the table to share a lunch together.

As the two began to talk Adam learned that Tarec was born and raised in Jamaica. When Tarec was a kid, he dreamt of being a famous football (soccer) player. He was recruited to play in school but never got the opportunity because of some trouble he got into as a teenager. He moved to the States eight years ago and has spent the last 12 months living in a tent by the side of the freeway.

Tarec goes days without eating, sometimes just living off of the berries he picks. He spends 90% of his time alone. He has no friends or family in the States. Tarec shared it had been a month since he bathed. After their lunch Adam brought Tarec back to his apartment so he could enjoy a hot shower. Adam began to sympathize with Tarec’s situation and wondered, “How can you fill out an application when you haven't eaten or bathed in days?”

Adam felt compelled to give Tarec a hand up and sacrifice his time. He offered to drive Tarec around town the next week to fill out applications and even speak on his behalf to help him get a job. But before they could even begin job searching, Adam bought Tarec a new shirt and slacks. Adam was blown away at the immediate change in Tarec’s demeanor. His smile was radiant; he stood up straighter, and even walked with some swagger.

As they went to various stores to ask for job applications, they were told to fill them out online. Tarec does not have a computer so Adam took him to the local library. The experience gave Adam a new perspective as he watched Tarec struggle with the online process; how easily we take computer literacy for granted.

There is no way Tarec would have been able to do any of this without Adam’s help. Adam commented, “There have been many obstacles in my life where I have needed someone’s help to overcome them. We all need a little help.”

As we commit ourselves to follow God’s lead to offer concrete acts of mercy and compassion, the gift of faith begins to reshape our hearts in our devotion to God. Jesus says to the disciples, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Now the pure in heart are not perfect. They are mindful that God’s mercies are new each morning and they strive “towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:14).

Jesus knows the pure in heart “do not lift up their souls to what is false” (Psalm 24:4b) but they entrust their lives to God in such a way that they seek to live in loyal relationship with God and in solidarity with neighbor.[1] As the pure in heart live out their faith with intentions that correspond with right actions they are blessed to see God’s provision and care.[2]

Each and every day that Morrie Boogart wakes up, he has one goal in his heart and mind, one commitment if you will. That daily goal is to knit at least three stocking hats. From the moment he wakes up until the time he goes to sleep at night, Morrie knits hats for the homeless.

Morrie has knitted for the past fifteen years and his hands have made over 8,000 hats for the homeless.

Morrie is ninety-one years old and lives in a nursing home in Grandville, Michigan. His beloved wife passed away sixteen years ago. Morrie lost his son to cancer just six months after his own cancer diagnosis. He was not able to go to his son’s memorial service because he was receiving hospice care at the time. But knitting has kept Morrie going every day. It gives him a sense of purpose and lifts up his spirit as Morrie is immobile and restricted to bed rest.

Morrie says, “I just like [knitting]. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but I can still do this. I have always liked helping people and I am not going to stop now. There are too many homeless people out there who need others to care about them.”

On his nightstand sits family pictures and a worn out Bible. Next to his nightstand are towering boxes filled with yarn. People from all across the world have heard of Morrie’s pure heart. He has received yarn from family as gifts, from people in the nursing home, and as donations from local churches and even from individuals he will never meet from as far away as Australia.

“Morrie teaches everybody that no matter how old we are, or what medical condition we may have, we can all give back in some way.”

Morrie’s daughter says, “We should all be as driven as my dad. What he’s done by [knitting all the hats and donating them to homeless shelters] has touched a lot of people, and it’s been the best thing that could have ever happened for him, given his circumstances.”

“If his health allows, his goal will continue to be to start and finish three hats per day, insuring that his ‘end’ might be a ‘beginning’ for those in need.”

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. Jesus teaches us that a disciple is to walk in concrete acts of mercy because God’s steadfast and covenant love has already claimed us in the mercy and self-giving love of Jesus Christ.

As we walk in Christ’s Way and entrust our whole selves to God our hearts are being reshaped to be wholly. A wholly heart is one that is not divided by personal interests and multiple loyalties but one that makes room for devotion to God and to selflessly work for the well-being of others.

God uses our devotion to reshape us into the people God intends for us to be. God honors our imperfect faithfulness to partner with God so that the Kingdom might break in a little more with nothing less than joy. That joy is an awareness of God’s grace at work among us, through us, and for us.

May we be inspired by Jesus’ example of mercy and pure heart through people like Adam, Tarec, Morrie and those in our midst today. May the Spirit grant our desire to have faith like that – faith that looks like a wholly heart.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “Volume III: Psalms” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 370.
[2] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume III: Psalms, p. 370.
New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VII: Matthew" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 110-111.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Beatitudes of Spiritual Strength

"Beatitudes of Spiritual Strength"
Psalm 37: 1-11; Psalm 107: 4-9; Matthew 5: 5-6
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2017

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
- Psalm 37: 1-11

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things.
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.
- Psalm 107: 4-9

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- Matthew 5: 5-6





Who are the meek?
Webster’s Dictionary defines the meek as those who are humbly patient, kind, gentle, and overly submissive. But as Jesus teaches the disciples that the meek will be blessed to inherit the earth a different picture is painted. Jesus speaks through Old Testament wisdom because something is at stake for the ones Jesus is speaking of.

The meek are those who are not afraid of the wicked for they trust in the Lord and seek to do good (Psalm 37:1, 3). Even as they are pressed down, persecuted, or think that God’s rule is not effective the meek do not despair in being powerless. The meek remain aware of their covenant relationship with God and stand in God’s strength.

This kind of humble patience is deeply rooted in the experience of waiting for the Lord to act and make things right (Psalm 37: 5-6). As the meek are sustained through difficult circumstances they look to the future hope of God’s promises to live in the abundance of God’s blessings. In turn the meek inherit the opportunity to join God in restoring and renewing the brokenness of the world.

As the meek work as God’s kingdom partners, they do so with a deep hunger and a growing thirst for righteousness. Just as the poor in spirit cannot help but mourn that God’s kingdom has not fully come, so do the meek. They hunger and thirst for righteousness as they walk through the wilderness and the wastelands crying out for deliverance.

God hears Amen wherever we are and moves people of faith like you and me to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe those without, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner (Matthew 25: 35-36). God works through our actions of self-giving love to satisfy humanity’s longing for God’s righteousness.

Rev. Beth Lindsay Templeton is ordained in the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Church and has served in the capacity of homeless ministry in Greenville, SC for twenty-five years. Many of us met her at the Spring 2016 Presbyterian Women’s gathering.

Templeton says: Hungering is about having a bloated belly and bugged out eyes because you have not had a square meal in weeks. Do we have that kind of yearning for social justice? Do we thirst like someone stranded in the desert thirsts for water? Do we thirst that way for a world where everyone can meet his or her needs and where all can reach the full God-given potential created in them? Do we have that gut kind of yearning for righteousness? [1]

As I have sat in our three biblical passages this week, reading about the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness against the backdrop of the Psalms, God’s Word brings the plight of the Syrian refugees to my mind. And it haunts me.

We have biblical and spiritual connections to Syria. Luke tells us in the book of Acts that “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). This is where the early church began (Antioch was formerly ancient Syria and today is just a few miles northwest of Syria in Turkey).[2]

Dr. Mary Mikheal is a Presbyterian ruling elder and a native of Syria. Recently she said, “People are getting tired of watching and listening to the tragedy in Syria. But we must be faced with it. We must be bothered by it. We must be disturbed by it.”[3]

Mikhael was a guest at our Fall Presbytery meeting. She works with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which has been a collegial partner with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for many years.

“The conflict in Syria began in 2011 and has claimed over 350,000 lives and displaced more than 11 million.”[4] These numbers have increased over the past five months. As safe havens are sought in other countries, including our own, some have found refuge in Lebanon.

This is where Dr. Mikhael lives. She says, “Children live in muddy camps or on the street begging for food, money, anything. We are attempting to rescue as many children as we can. It is impossible [for the church in Lebanon] to serve all of the children because it is beyond our capacity and imagination.”[5]

What is at stake for these meek and innocent children in Syria is they risk becoming “a lost generation. Children who have lost their families are being exploited and criminally recruited to become thieves and to be trained to carry arms.”[6]

This is a human tragedy because their childhoods are being stripped away by violence. These children have no part in this conflict. They are innocent bystanders. As a parent I cannot even begin to imagine your children or mine or our families living in these circumstances.

In 2015 the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon started four schools with plans to open a fifth. The schools are able to serve 300 to 400 children over a two year period. The cost to educate one child is $1,500.00 a year.[7]

The children are brought from the camps into a holistic and spiritual Christian atmosphere. They are taught four main subjects: language (Arabic and English), math, science, and ethics. The children receive one meal as well as snacks, clean water, and medicine. The mission of the school is not to preach or proselytize but to "show these children love through service."[8]

The church also reaches out to the schools to provide for the children and their families’ physical and emotional needs. They receive food baskets, medicine, clothing, and hygiene products. Psychologists are also on site to examine the children as many have experienced great trauma. Skilled professionals give seminars to the care responders on how to work effectively work in trauma situations and guard against compassion fatigue. The church also helps displaced families rent simple homes or small rooms. As you can imagine many do not want to live in refugee camps.[9]

Dr. Mikheal says, “The mission of the Church [Universal] is to respond to the human needs of people… At the end of the day, we return the children to their families. We hope we will succeed in this service for the glory of God and the safety of the children…There are a lot of challenges but a lot of joy as well.”[10]

Did you hear that word “joy?” Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. The weight of God’s grace sustains all these - the refugee families who are receiving God’s grace and all care responders who are extending it. They are all sustained with a permanent joy, a deeper awareness of God’s grace at work, through the most haunting circumstances.

There are no easy solutions for the greater church’s mission to respond to the human needs of our Syrian sisters and brothers. Many of us feel helpless in this effort because of the magnitude of this crisis and the miles that separate us. But when the work of faith overwhelms us it does not excuse us from partnering with God.

God calls us to trust the Lord and do good (Psalm 37:3). That means God is on the move to open our hearts to see life through the eyes of the meek and those who hunger and thirst to experience and taste God’s abundant hope.

God calls us to learn about the Syrian refugee crisis and how the faith community is already responding through the advocates like Dr. Mary Mikheal.

God calls us to be a faith partner through supporting scholarships for children’s education – because education is not just hope but it is power for the powerless.

And God calls us to extend God’s hospitality in order to practice spiritual strength to bring about God’s righteousness.

But more than anything, God is on the move to bother us and disturb us to take notice of our highest calling to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves – no matter the distance.

When we depend upon God and are affected by what breaks God’s heart then we are moved to work in God’s strength to restore and renew humanity and creation.

May it be so for us.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Note:
Looking for a way to help Syrian Refugees?
“Putting a Face on Syria: Hope Through Education” is a response from a group of teaching and ruling elders within Providence Presbytery to raise money for scholarships for Syrian refugee children through the sale of note cards. A set of 15 assorted note cards are $25 and include beautiful black and white photography of Syrian children whom members of the Presbytery met on a previous trip to Syria.
It costs approximately $1500 to educate one child for a year, an amount that covers tuition, school supplies, transportation and food. 100% of the money for the cards goes to scholarships and your purchase amount is tax deductible. Funds are sent directly to the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which is a partner of the PC(USA) and located in Lebanon.
Contact Van Wyck Presbyterian Church (803) 285-1895 or Providence Presbytery (803-328-6269) to empower a child through education through your note card purchase.

Source Influences and Those Referenced:

Photograph of the Mount of the Beatitudes
New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VII: Matthew and Mark" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 110.
[1] Beth Lindsay Templeton, “Loving Our Neighbor: A Thoughtful Approach to Helping People in Poverty” (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008), p. 8.
[2] Encyclopedia Britanica
[3] Presbyterian Disaster Assistance video of Dr. Mary Mikheal, December 15, 2016
[4] Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.
[5] Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.
[6] Presbyterian Disaster Assistance video of Dr. Mary Mikheal, December 15, 2016.
[7] Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.
[8] Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.
[9] Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.
[10} Rick Jones, “Presbyterian to Hear First Hand Account of Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Presbyterian News Service, September 23, 2016.