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.

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.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sermon: Beatitudes of a Faint Spirit

"Beatitudes of a Faint Spirit"
Isaiah 61: 1-4; Matthew 5: 1-12 (verses 3-4)
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2017

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
- Isaiah 61: 1-4

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

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

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘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: 1-12

He was anointed as God’s Beloved Son and sent to proclaim the good news. According to Matthew, Jesus’ first public proclamation of the good news is the Beatitudes. Jesus offers nine declarations which assure the disciples, the crowd, and the readers of Matthew’s Gospel of God’s coming kingdom.

That word “beatitude” is Latin for “blessings.” And the blessings Jesus talks about are not some prosperity gospel for Christian success. Jesus uses a prophetic voice to infuse God’s hope-filled kingdom promises into nine life experiences of our broken humanity. They are blessings because within each experience named, Jesus promises that the gift of God’s grace will permanently sustain those in these experiences. In turn they will have long lasting joy.

There was a dire need to hear the good news back in Jesus’ time. The people were still oppressed. They were now under Roman rule in a Greek culture. The Roman government had appointed the three sons of King Herod the Great as kings. God’s people still longed to experience the Lord’s favor and deliverance (Isaiah 61:2).

Jesus went up the mountain and as he sat down his disciples came to him. Jesus looked into their eyes and with the tongue of a teacher he knew how to sustain the weary with a word. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

The disciples were quickly learning the full effects of being poor in spirit. Each disciple was leaving everything behind to follow the call of their Rabbi and Savior. They left their families and homes, whatever possessions and properties they had, and their former jobs [1]. The disciples had no significant resources other than their dependence upon the Lord. You see, the blessing for the disciples was to recognize their only need in life was to consciously rely upon God. What a humbling experience.

With each step of following the Rabbi, the disciples would begin to see life through the eyes of the poor in spirit – those who were destitute, living with nothing but scarcity. Jesus knew the poor in spirit had something to teach about depending upon nothing but the mercy of God.

Can you imagine sitting on the mountainside in Jesus’ makeshift classroom and hearing Jesus speak these words? Those words are packed with depth of meaning. To be poor in spirit and to receive the blessing of the kingdom of heaven was life-changing. It was a major shift of one’s identity to go from being a lowly outcast within the Roman kingdom and Jewish society to receiving permanent value, belonging, and provision in God’s kingdom.

As a disciple’s identity in Christ becomes more secure by relying upon God, a disciple cannot help but lament that the far reaching dominion of God’s kingdom has not yet fully come. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

In those words Jesus held the collective story of the past and present laments of his brothers and sisters. Jesus remembered Isaiah lifted up the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners for they mourned the weight of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Isaiah prophesied that God’s future blessings of good news would greet the poor and oppressed; broken hearts would be mended, captives would be released, and prisoners would be freed.

These blessings were realized when King Cyrus of Persia crushed Babylon and released the Israelites to go home (Isaiah 48: 12-20). But as the disciples and the people sat on that mountainside, and as we sit in these pews today we still lament that we live in a broken world.

The action of lament moves us beyond ourselves to long for God’s blessings to be fully realized for all people and in all places. Many of us have a faint spirit where we cry for our sisters and brothers across the world and even in our own backyards who live in poverty, violence, abuse, injustice…and the list goes on and on. Every circumstance that we mourn “recognizes the present conditions of this world are far from God’s purposes.”[2]

And yet the presence of Jesus Christ did in fact bring God’s comfort to the disciples and the crowd on that mountainside. In his life and ministry Jesus was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as he walked close alongside the children, the poor, the outcasts, the prisoners, the stranger, and the weary. He blessed them with God’s life-changing grace. And he gave it away in abundance.

Jesus’ death and resurrection open our hearts and minds to trust that God has been at work throughout history and is at work today and tomorrow. Even when it feels like the sky is falling, the gift of faith emboldens us to proclaim that God is still sovereign over all heaven and earth. It is in Jesus Christ that God was and is still reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

And there are days where the Spirit convicts us in such a way that we cannot help but risk taking a step to participate in God’s purposes.

Twelve years ago I felt God’s Spirit nudge me to participate in an international mission trip. It was a risk for me back then because my daughters were so young, just ages two and four and Doug (my husband) traveled all the time. But the trip is one that forever changed my life. When I think about this formative time of my faith, I remember Elena.

Elena and her family live near Moyobamba, Peru (northeastern part of the country near the Andes Mountains). Elena, Pastor Marcos (her husband), and their two daughters live in a small rural village called Los Algarrobos.

Marcos was the pastor for this small village of one hundred people. The mission team went to Los Algarrobos to help build the next phase of the church for Marcos and his flock.

We were given machetes to strip bamboo to be used as the interior church ceiling. I had no idea that wielding around a machete could be so dangerously fun!

Early into the week I made a connection with Elena. She invited me to come to her home anytime I wanted to take a break. At first I felt a bit uneasy because she did not speak English and I was limited in my Spanish. But each day as the mission team worked I felt compelled to go next door and visit.

While the village homes had dirt floors, Elena’s home had concrete floors. The windows were open to the elements with metal bars as the only barrier to the inside. There were two small bedrooms, a kitchen and living area. Elena cooked on a fire outside from the kitchen. There was no running water so all cleaning and washing was done in the river. The restroom was an outhouse. It was common for chickens and roosters to walk through the homes; their hunting and pecking always gave Elena and me a good laugh.

In our visits we talked about our families, our children, and our lives. If Elena was cooking something over the fire she would always offer me a plate. I was so humbled by her hospitality because she was so generous to share what little she had with me.

Elena told me how God had truly blessed her and her family with their home and all they had. Her gratitude for God’s provision, in contrast to what we describe as poverty, made a lasting impression upon me. Elena felt a deep joy of God’s abundance. It is a joy that is not found in the greatest privilege of overflowing financial resources.

Elena’s self-worth and security were deeply rooted in God’s spiritual landscape of self-giving love. To abide in Jesus Christ meant everything to her. I have heard similar stories from other mission trips and also within local outreach when I am privileged to hear other’s stories. The common thread in these stories is that having gratitude for God’s provision reinterprets one’s circumstances.

Elena was poor in spirit and she knew the blessings of God’s kingdom. Elena also mourned what was out of her control. She wept for her children. Elena was concerned about the lack of financial resources they needed to provide for their oldest daughter’s elementary education. She was also concerned about her baby who needed medical treatment. Again her family had no additional means to fill in the gaps.

My home church was able to share resources to assist meeting Elena’s children’s needs. Members of the mission team remained in contact with Elena and her family for years to offer guidance and prayer support through some very difficult times.

But more importantly this mission trip opened the team’s eyes and my own to wrestle with our positions of privilege. We were challenged to see the world and faith through the eyes of those very different than us.

We learned so much from the relationships we made in Peru. And we were moved by knowing in a deeply personal way that the work of Christ takes many hands.

You see the privilege of our resources allows many of us to choose what hardships we face – not all hardships but many. If we are not self-aware, privilege can easily be an obstacle preventing our faith to look beyond ourselves and hear Christ calling us to join him in this holy work of kingdom building.

The Beatitudes bless us by giving us a new lens in which to see. As our spiritual sight develops then our spirits faint as we see what breaks God’s heart. And yet all our laments are held by a God who promises to be present and actively working through these broken circumstances.

The blessings that Jesus names bear the weight of God’s grace for all of God’s children and for us. God’s grace is always at work – even in the silence and even when it seems like the sky is falling– in order for God’s kingdom to break in a little more among us and through us. May we never forget that.

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

Sources Referenced and Informed By:

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Cost of Discipleship" (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 102.

[2] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Homiletical Perspective by Ronald Allen, p. 311.

The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Volume VII ( Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 106-112.

Beth Lindsay Templeton, "Loving Our Neighbor: A Thoughtful Approach to Helping People in Poverty" (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008), pp. 3-6.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sermon: Walking the Walk

Walking the Walk
Psalm 15; Micah 6: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.
- Psalm 15

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6: 1-8

He was known as “The Man in Black.” Johnny Cash was a man of solidarity. He was not a perfect man but his faith shaped his concern for the least and lost. The reason he wore black still speaks volumes today in his timeless song:

I wear black for the poor and beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he is a victim of the times.
I wear black for those who never read or listened to the words that Jesus said / About the road to happiness through love and charity.
Why you’d think he’s talking straight to you and me…
Well there’s things that never will be right I know / And things need changin’ everywhere you go.
But till we start to make a move to make a few things right / You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

For Cash, wearing black was an ethical decision to remember God’s character of compassion as he walked the line of faith in the real world.

The prophet Micah was also a man who had the gift of poetic words. He was raised in a rural village of Judah which gave him a heart for those who needed a hand up. Micah was actually a street preacher who had a great passion to live in solidarity with the poor and beaten down. He was quick to lift up his voice in the market place and in the town square to speak into the daily oppressions of God’s people.

Micah talked about walking the line of faith. That line was between a faith that one talked about possessing compared to a faith that lived in response to God’s grace. You see, God’s grace had delivered Israel from the oppressive grips of Egypt through Moses. And then God delivered Israel again from the disgrace of Egyptian enslavement through Joshua as they left Shittim to Gilgal.

God’s people were called to remember God’s saving grace by seeking right relationships with God and one another. The people were called to live in response to God’s character by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Essentially Micah was urging the people to work with God to “restore the community with communal good.” This would allow them to work with God to bring justice to those oppressed by the sociological, economic, and political systems.[1] Micah was urging the people to love God and neighbor through the sacrificial love of serving others. This is what "kindness" means in Hebrew. Micah was urging the people to remember that their covenant relationship with God gave them all they needed to be loyal disciples.

“God desires a faith that is more than empty words. God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community, a loyal love that [reflects] the kind of loyal love that God has shown [throughout Scripture], and a careful walking in one’s ethical life.”[2]

It is not enough to talk the talk of faith. We must walk the walk too.

My clergy colleague from seminary serves a church in Roanoke, VA. He recently shared a story about the way a young adult parishioner, named Jordan, heard God’s call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Jordan begins saying: I want to tell you how God is using my life.

Most Saturdays since September, I have been riding back and forth to Charlotte with my new friend Jen. Now that is 6.5 to 7 hours in the car. So we are pretty tight now.

Within the first month of getting to know her, she told me about this idea she had, after hearing about a similar program in Northern Virginia. Jen’s idea was to start a program in Roanoke, VA with the goal of rejuvenating the West End area and crossing socioeconomic barriers. Women who had recently been released from incarceration could apply to this program where they would be given a mentor, learn job and life training skills, and earn a certificate called ServSafe at the end of the program. This certificate would give them a leg up in interviews for jobs in the service industry.

Jens vision is ecumenical too. Volunteers would come from all different communities of faith in the Roanoke Region uniting churches and other faith based organizations. Jen plans to name the program House of Bread, which Jen didn't know it initially, but “House of Bread” is what Bethlehem means in Hebrew. The product that would be made in the training would be bread because of both the metaphorical and literal roles that bread plays throughout the Bible. House of Bread would be feeding people literally and spiritually. The loaves would be sold to raise awareness and the proceeds would roll back into the program.

Jen had most of the logistic details worked out. But she could not find the leadership needed for the program. Jen knew it was not meant for her to lead it alone. She felt she had hit a wall. I asked her if she felt like God was telling her to give it up. She said, no, she had a strong sense that God was telling her to wait.

I told Jen, “That's funny. My pastor, Andrew, is always talking about how our church is being called to cross over to parts of Roanoke which might make our church uncomfortable. He specifically talks about the West End area. He'd probably like your idea. Anyway, good luck!”

And that was that. I mean, it did not occur to me to become involved. I had a lot going on and baking is NOT my thing.

A couple weeks later I was at the bible study that a friend somehow convinced me to lead. As I talked with another friend we agreed how feelings of restlessness are often part of a discernment process. She talked about the stuff she is really good at, which is most things, versus what she actually feels fulfilled doing. At one point, she made a throw away comment about being really really good at bread baking and buying groceries on a shoestring budget.

And I thought...Nothing of it.

A week later in Bible Study, another friend, Kristin, mentioned she was being promoted to a supervisory role at work and that as part of it she was undergoing this ServSafe managerial training.

And then I went home and thought, "Oh no."

I clearly saw what I was supposed to do. Because I had never ever ever heard the term “ServSafe” before, and I had now heard it twice, in a short span of time, from people that God had put me purposefully together with.

Ugh!! I don't like this part of serving God; the ‘being called to do’ stuff. I mean it is not convenient. And it is hard, really hard. God’s calling pushes me out of my comfort zone, God makes me do things I don't actually like, and God has me do things I am not good at. And I like to be good what I do.

But God moved my heart past my selfishness. The next Saturday I said to Jen, "I think you need to come talk to my bible study group. There are some people there whom you need to meet. I think we might be able to help you get House of Bread off the ground".

House of Bread is a real ministry now and has applied for nonprofit status. We have an actual budget and a mission statement for heaven sakes! We are helping women begin anew through God’s grace one loaf at a time.

Jesus told his disciples, "YOU give them something to eat." We're trying, Lord. I know we will do it imperfectly and we will sometimes fail, but we are trying.

As your pastor, I want nothing more than for God’s character to lead each of us to walk the walk of faith. And at the very center of God’s character is the ministry of compassion.

That word, compassion, means to suffer with. We see God’s loyal and steadfast compassion in Jesus Christ as walked alongside children, neighbors in need, the sick, the marginalized, the prisoner, and he welcomed the stranger. Christ calls us to ministries of compassion that bring God’s restoration, justice, and reconciliation.

We walk the walk of faith as we prepare hygiene kits for our homeless neighbors this afternoon. Our work honors their dignity with gifts of God's hospitality to be renewed with hot showers and clean laundry.

We walk the walk of faith by advocating for justice in the town square like Micah did - by calling our representatives with concerns for the well-being of our children, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.

And we walk the walk of faith as we listen deeply to hear where God’s Spirit of compassion is leading us to serve others with faithful and ethical integrity.

My heart aches for each of us – as individuals but also as a church - to have that defining moment where we clearly sense God’s Spirit showing us where we are to walk next in our ministry.

May we do nothing less than clothe ourselves with God's character. In doing so, the Spirit will open the eyes of our hearts to see the justice, the kindness, and the humble walk that God alone desires.

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Pastoral Perspective by Andrew Foster Conners, p. 292.
[2] Feasting on the Word, p. 292.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon: Words of the Teacher

"Words of the Teacher"
Isaiah 50: 4-9; Matthew 4: 18-23
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2017

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
- Isaiah 50: 4-9

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.

And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
- Matthew 4: 18-23

The words of a teacher have a way of shaping us.
Do you remember that one teacher in your life – that coach, or mentor - who saw something special in you? Their words of encouragement empower us to rise to the occasion and soar above our challenges to accomplish amazing things.

God is the greatest Teacher in the life of faith. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God saw something special in the Servant. The Servant had a unique openness to being taught by the Lord God. Those words Isaiah uses to speak of God – Adonai Yahweh (Lord God or Sovereign God) – actually describe the intimate spiritual relationship between God and the Servant.

The Servant was constantly instructed by God for Isaiah states two times that it is God who helps the Servant (Isaiah 50:7, 9). His compassionate and sacrificial love was shaped by learning how to sustain the weary with a word. In Scripture God draws near to the weary because God desires to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless (Isaiah 40:29). Therefore the Servant was called to humility in order to rise up and bring about God’s reconciliation for God’s people.

As the Servant took on flesh and lived among us as Jesus Christ, he walked by the Sea of Galilee. He began his ministry by seeking out his disciples. Jesus looks for the ones who have that unique openness to come and follow him. Jesus sees God’s possibilities in this rag tag bunch of followers. The disciples were ordinary people like you and me. I am always struck by Matthew's way of describing their sense of urgency to respond to Christ’s call to follow. They dropped everything without question and without exactly knowing where Christ would take them.

To follow a Rabbi (or Teacher) meant spending every moment walking in the Rabbi’s ways. The existing knowledge and skill a disciple had would be further honed and shaped by the Rabbi’s vision. That takes a unique openness to being constantly instructed by the Teacher. Doesn’t that sound like the relationship the Servant had with God in Isaiah?

Jesus would, therefore, hone his disciples’ unique skills according to God’s vision and God’s Way. This vision the disciples would follow was being paved with Jesus’ faithful obedience to God through his teachings, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing the brokenness of humanity.

The disciples see the big picture of Jesus’ teachings, proclamations, and healings in the story that comes right after our text today, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We will actually begin a sermon series on The Sermon on the Mount in February – so stay tuned.

But Jesus instructs how we are to live in the abundance of God’s kingdom. We are to love God and love neighbor as we work for God’s justice and reconciliation. This faithful love is a sacrificial love. God's Servant draws near to weary to hear their stories therefore knowing how to sustain them with God's Word. Gods' Servant in Jesus Christ models this for us as Christ drew near to the marginalized and ultimately models this sacrificial love through the cross and empty tomb. Jesus’ teachings invite us to actively work with Christ – our Teacher – to bring about God’s reconciliation in our homes, in our community, and in the world.

This past week we have observed two historical events that are filled with the pressing need of reconciliation.

Monday we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., an amazing preacher and a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. We pause to remember the lessons history has taught us about how far we have come in embracing human diversity and honoring the image of God in one another. We also pause to confess that the moral arc of the universe is long, as King said, and we must press on and work together as this arc bends towards God’s justice.

Friday our forty-fifth President was inaugurated into office. Inauguration Day is always a historic day. It always begins with a special worship and prayer service. It moves to ceremonies of the change in leadership. Oaths are taken; speeches are made; parades are celebrated.

While many are hopeful in a different Presidential vision for the next four years, there are just as many who are fearful. That fear stems from concerns of justice hanging in the balance for the poor, the marginalized, and those with no voice.

And yet no matter where we stand, the uncertainty that the future holds has brought a lot of questions and division in our country, in friendships, within families, and even among marriages. We cannot deny there is a great need for reconciliation among us, around us, and within us.

And this past week an encouraging word from Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to claim my heart and mind. King looked to the humble teachings of Jesus Christ as a primary model for engaging the world. King said we are to “be the first in loving, be the first in moral excellence, and be the first in generosity” in order for us to achieve greatness.[1]

The humble faithfulness of Jesus Christ teaches you and me how to be God’s servant. It is God alone who helps us, who strengthens us, who sustains us, and who works through us in order to bring about the greatness of God’s kingdom.

And King went on to say, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And we can be that servant" [if we are open to Jesus’ teachings].[2]

Jesus Christ says “Everyone who hears my teachings and acts on then will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock; The Holy Spirit will teach you everything that I have said to you” (Matthew 7:24; John 14:26). Christ’s teachings are foundational for shaping us to serve as the body of Christ.

God has chosen us in Jesus Christ to bear the weight of grace for "the church has been entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation. Christ has called the church to this mission and given us the gift of the Holy Spirit" to do so.[3]

To be chosen means to be a beloved child of God. Being a beloved child of God means that God sees something special within us which God will shape to bring about God’s purposes. God's purposes point us to the important work which Christ began as God's Servant so long ago.

A dear ministry colleague told me last week that a teacher once imparted a real gem of wisdom that daily saves her from moments of pride and discouragement: “Christ calls us to obedience, the results are his.”

May we go out today seeking the one thing that God treasures above all else. God treasured this in the Servant. God treasured this in the disciples. And God desires for you and me to have this too.

This one thing God treasures above all else is to strive daily to have a teachable spirit. A teachable spirit empowers us to worship, study, fellowship, serve, and reconcile with Christ's humility, love, and mutual forbearance.

If we are open to having a teachable spirit then God will surely accomplish more through us than we can ever hope, ask or imagine.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1]Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," February 4, 1968.
[2] King, "The Drum Major Instinct."
[3] Part I of the PC(USA) Constitution, The Book of Confessions, "The Confession of 1967," 9.31

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sermon: Second Guesses and Doubts

Second Guesses and Doubts
Isaiah 49: 1-7; John 1: 29-42
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2017

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’

But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.’

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
- Isaiah 49: 1-7

The next day John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’

He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
- John 1: 29-42

No matter how young or how old we are - uncertainty is a fact of life that always has some effect on us. It usually leaves us questioning things, therefore planting seeds of doubt. I always love when the facts of life come through the eyes of a child. They have a way of transcending our life situations with a light heart and a good laugh.

During snack time, a kindergartner asked the teacher this question: Why are some raisins yellow while others are black? The teacher didn’t know the answer off the cuff, so she walked down the hall and asked her friend if she knew; the friend was a first-grade teacher. “Yellow raisins are made from green grapes, and black raisins are made from red grapes,” her friend explained.

The teacher reported her findings back to her classroom. And you can probably guess that one of her students had something to say about that. One little boy suggested, “Maybe that’s why she teaches first grade, because she’s just a little bit smarter than you.”[1]

Today we are looking into Isaiah’s second Servant Song. Even before the Servant was a witty child – like that kindergartner - having a mouth sharp as a sword – he was chosen by God for the sole purpose of glorifying God. And in doing so, Israel would be drawn back to God.

And yet Isaiah gives us a priceless dimension of the Servant. We are allowed into the Servant’s internal dialogue. The Servant says: I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity (Isaiah 49:4).

Did you hear that? The Servant allows himself to be vulnerable and honest with himself and also with God. The Servant second guesses and doubts his ability to fulfill his God given purpose and mission in life (Working Preacher). His words capture the deep recesses of the human heart when we wrestle with our perceived limitations, inadequacies, and weaknesses. We question ourselves when we are faced with great change, or added stress, or when we sense the expectation of working at a higher performance level.

I sense that John the Baptist had some second guesses related to performance anxiety. John the Baptist grew up with the prophetic calling of preparing God’s people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1: 13-17). John’s father, Zechariah, was in complete disbelief with this news, saying, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18). I can imagine John’s childhood was filled with stories of his prophetic calling and Zechariah hoping it would all work out as God said.

Always pay attention to repeated words of Scripture. According to John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is quoted two times saying, “I myself did not know him” (John 1: 31, 33). He kept baptizing for the reason of pointing to the Messiah but he did not know exactly who he was looking for. I wonder if John the Baptist questioned his ability to bring about God’s purposes like the Servant did in Isaiah?

The disciples certainly wrestled with their questions and doubts. Nathaniel second-guessed Jesus’ credentials, “Can anything good, much less a Messiah, come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Simon was the third disciple Jesus met and called. He was chosen and claimed with the new name of Peter which means Rock, for Christ would build his church, the body of Christ, through Peter (Matthew 16:18). And yet Peter allowed fear and uncertainty to second guess his calling from Christ. The cock crowed as Peter denied being Jesus’ disciple three times and Peter wrestled with that (John 13:38; 18:17; 18:25-27; 21: 15-19).

Second guesses and doubts are familiar to you and me because they are part of the human story in Scripture. They are a part of our stories. And sometimes it seems that second guesses and doubts get the best of us.

We second guess our effectiveness when our work does not bear fruit.
We doubt our qualifications when God points us in a new direction.
We doubt our uniqueness when we compare ourselves to others.
We second guess our parenting when life gets hard and we are just trying to survive.
We doubt that healing will truly come based on the logic of the situation at hand.
We second guess God’s timing to close the gaps with that opportunity we are praying for.

And yet no matter what direction our questions take us, God is on the move to speak into our internal dialogue.

God spoke to the Servant calling him to remember that above all else God’s steadfast love would equip him for God’s purposes.

God spoke to John the Baptist calling him to keep preparing the people for the Lamb of God; God would open John’s eyes to see God’s timing.

God spoke to the disciples calling them to come and see what God is doing through Jesus Christ.

And God speaks to you and to me calling us to focus on God’s actions over and above our abilities, limitations, and weaknesses.

God’s Word reveals that it is not by our own efficacy to succeed; it is not by our own actions that bring change; it is not by our own merit that we are delivered.

What a reassuring word that God alone is the One who qualifies our calling; God alone is the One who changes the course of history; God alone is the One who saves us from our doubts and despair.

We are to lean into a deeper trust of relying on the source of God’s grace, strength, and transformation. And that source is none other than God’s Servant and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brian found himself in a spiritual season of second guesses and doubts. He began questioning his life and faith. So Brian called a mentoring friend as he scrambled to hold on.

"My faith in God has been like a walk on the beach. I’ve taken off my shoes, and as I stand at the water’s edge, the tide rolls across my feet. It feels wonderful. Up to this point, my spiritual journey has been incredible but in the last six months doubt has begun to paralyze me.

It’s like when the water goes back out to the ocean. It is washing away the sand beneath me and my feet keep sinking lower and lower and lower. If this keeps up there won’t be anything left to stand on."

Without hesitation the mentor replied:

"Brian, I have stood where you are standing. I’ve felt the water cascading across my feet. And it is wonderful as you say. But I’ve also had the water go back out to sea and I have felt the sand getting washed out from my feet. But listen to me when I say this. When it feels like the last grain of sand is finally gone, you’re going to discover that you are standing on a rock."[2]

No matter what you may be second guessing – no matter what you may be doubting today – I want you to consider this.

There are two things in life that guide us during the times when we are the most vulnerable. Fear or trust.

Fear will tempt us to believe that our life situations hold us captive. Fear will paralyze us with our second guesses and doubts. It is like we are sinking down into a pit and everything is closing in on us. Fear makes it seem there is no escape, there is no way out.

But trust is different. Trust will guide us to a broad place where we gain a new perspective by naming our fears. Trust allows us to explore and discover the source of our strength. The source is not in our ability to rise above our vulnerabilities. The source of our strength is God in Jesus Christ – our rock and our refuge, our strong tower and deliverer.

When Christ’s strength works through our vulnerability then our questions and doubts become spiritual spaces for us to grow through the changes, the challenges, and the trials of life. Our second guesses and doubts are not the problem - it is what guides them. If God is for us and with us in Jesus Christ then what can be against us (Romans 8:31)?

Trust becomes a spiritual map that encourages us to press on even when we do not see God’s plans. As the Spirit moves us to trust God’s guidance then that broad space will open to God’s possibilities. God’s timing will allow us to see past the crest of our insecurities. We will see God connecting pieces of our lives to reveal God’s plans for the well-being of ourselves and others secured by a future with hope.

When we trust that we can do all things through the One who strengthens us - it will bring glory to God.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] “Those Kids Said What? Twenty-Eight Hilarious Real-Life Teachers’ Stories,” by Readers’ Digest Editors
[2] Brian Jones, “Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can’t See His Plan” (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2006), p. 15.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Prayer: Be Still and Know

"Be Still and Know"

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am your refuge and strength.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I help you in troubled times.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that you have no reason to fear because I am with you.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words
when you cannot pray.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I am for you so who or what can truly be against you?
Be still and know.

Be still and know that even as My Word perplexes you, nothing is impossible for Me.
Be still and know.

Be still in My Word.
Be still and let it be.

Be still.

CMO 1/9/17 (Psalm 46: 1-3, 10; Romans 8: 26-28, 31; Luke 1:29, 37-38)