Monday, April 24, 2017

Prayer: Shine Upon Me

"Shine Upon Me"

Let Your face shine upon me.
I feel Your everlasting Love radiant
upon the skin of my soul.

Your continued faithfulness
washes over me
encircles and enfolds me
like the curling waves.

Your radiant love sparkles
upon those waters
that wash over my feet.

The waters of baptism are
dancing joyfully in your creation
and in what You are creating in me.

Wash away anything that hinders me
from being built up in Your faithfulness.

Fill me with life-giving strength
that I may dance in Your holy mystery.
CMO/ 4-19-2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon: Blindfold Faith

"Blindfold Faith"
John 20: 19-31; 1 Peter 1: 3-9
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
Second Sunday of Easter
April 23, 2017

When it was evening on that [Easter] day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
- John 20: 19-31

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
- 1 Peter 1: 3-9

Every year this congregation celebrates the gift of God’s love with the Valentine’s Dinner. One of the games our children play on that night is “Pin the Lips on the Face.” It is a spin-off of that childhood favorite “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”

Each player must have a blind fold covering their eyes. The handkerchief is tied snugly with no spaces to peek. The children are turned around a few times. And then they are instructed to take a step forward to pin a mark of love.

We love to cheer on the children as they fumble and blindly reach towards the target. There is always plenty of encouragement and applause given to every player. And of course the winner gets the prize. I am always amazed at a child’s intuition to trust their instincts in the game.

Faith is like walking around with a blind fold covering our eyes. Just like the children’s game, we try to resist relying on our sight alone. Walking by faith and not by sight is hard.

God was teaching the disciples how to do this. As Easter Sunday faded into twilight, the disciples were unsettled. Easter interrupted their lives and met them in their unfinished faith, as I preached last Sunday. The disciples hid in the upper room with all their uncertainties.

According to John’s Gospel only Peter and John had seen the empty tomb. The disciples feared what all this resurrection business meant going forward. How would it actually affect them? Would they see resurrection in their lives?

And yet the Risen Christ walked through their locked doors. The peace of Christ embraced the disciples’. Our Savior breathed calm into their internal chaos of questions and fears. The Lord appeared and showed the disciples his marks of love.

The marks on his hands and his side proclaimed the promise of Emmanuel – God with us – in the highs and lows of humanity. For it is by his wounds that we know the joy of God’s salvation.

It was in the upper room that Christ created a space for the disciples to experience all this. And they rejoiced in the miracle of Easter as we did last Sunday.

But Thomas was the odd man out. He was not there when the Risen Christ first appeared. Thomas said, “Unless I see I will not believe” (John 19:25). Thomas was saying - Unless I see with my eyes the marks of love I will not be able to walk by faith.

Thomas did not have a sense of peace and he did not hesitate to voice it. Thomas gives us permission to wrestle with the blindfold of faith.

Many of us are like Thomas. In this season of Eater many of us feel like the odd man out too. Our situations seem bigger than the work God can do in them, especially when we feel we have not personally seen Jesus’ marks of love. The refrain of Easter Hallelujahs begins to fade into the places of our lives that are still restless and weary for new life.

It is hard to walk by faith and not by sight.

It is hard for our children and youth to overcome the peer pressures of school, social media and the push to academically perform. They long to be accepted for who they are; to know they are more than a snapchat thread or test score.

It is hard for our young adults to face uncertainties the future holds. They long to know the right decision to develop their talents in a sea of choices; to know who God is creating them to be.

It is hard for our families whose loved ones are tangled in situations where prayers have not yet been answered. They long to know that God is intervening; to know God will calm the chaos.

It is hard for our aging members to gracefully adapt to the changes life brings in the normal wear and tear of our bodies. They long to know their contributions are still valued; to know others still see their vibrancy and not their limitations.

Telling the truth about ourselves honors the footsteps of our faith. We all stumble and fumble to take the next right step forward. When we do not have a sense of peace then it can be hard to trust God.

But peace is not the absence of conflict or struggle. Peace is a faithful response to our unfinished places. The Risen Christ empowers and equips us with this response of peace. Jesus breathes the peace of the Holy Spirit into our lives. God’s Spirit promises to guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

Walking by faith and not by sight is hard but God is teaching us how to do this. Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen with their own eyes and yet have come to believe – to trust” God is at work (John 20:29). God shows us the way, the truth, and the life of believing when we have not seen.

Jesus Christ is the way. He embodies the journey of faith that is created by growing relationships with God and one another.

The Risen Lord is the truth. His ministry, death, and new life hold the spiritual reality that all things work together for the good of God’s purposes.

Our Savior is the life. He breaks through the closed doors of our faith to open our hearts and minds to experience God’s abundant mercy and grace.

As the trials of life spin us around, our faith is stretched to become more genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). That happens in the spiritual reality of community. Just as Thomas had to come back into the fold of the disciples to see the marks of Jesus’ love in his life, so it is for us.

We need to hear the community of faith encourage our faith instincts to navigate through our unfinished places. The community helps us to spiritually see Jesus’ marks of love.

That youth who struggles to know acceptance was approached by a member after worship with the words, “You are such an amazing child of child and I am proud of you.” That youth saw Jesus’ marks of love.

That young adult who is searching for the right decision took a risk to trust another with the details of a new opportunity. Together they began to discern the nudges of the Holy Spirit. That young adult saw Jesus’ marks of love.

That family who questions if God is intervening received the gift of a friend who was willing to sit in the silence. No pat answers were given; just a shoulder to lean on and prayers that did not cease. That family saw Jesus’ marks of love.

That saint of the church who is struggling to age gracefully experienced a surprise visit from a youth. Together they sat sharing stories about the crazy teenage years. They laughed at their common bonds. They saw a wild and precious life in one another. That saint saw Jesus’ marks of love.

The marks of Jesus’ love reorient us in the affirmation that God will bring to completion the work he lovingly began in us. The scars on Jesus’ hands and side proclaim God is with us in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in life. It is by his wounds that we are receiving the joy of God’s salvation. Each step of faith is an act of resistance to rely on human sight alone.

Walking by faith and not by sight is hard but God is teaching us how to do it.

The outcome of our faith brings a growing peace as Christ marks us with genuine love. In turn God creates opportunities for us to see Jesus’ marks of love through others. This increases our trust of seeing God at work in the world and in the more intimate places of our lives. And it moves us to extend the peace of Christ to another.

Peace allows our blindfold faith to hold fast to what is good, to care for one another with mutual affection, to rejoice in hope, to be patient in suffering, to persevere in prayer, and to serve the Lord (Romans 12:-9-12). May it be so for you and for me, for we are Easter people.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Sermon: Go Quickly!

Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24 ; Matthew 28: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
Easter Sunday
April 16, 2017

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
- Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
- Matthew 28: 1-10

They were relieved to see the coming of the dawn in light of all they had experienced. The past three days had been haunting. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the mother of Jesus, had watched Jesus suffer on the cross of Good Friday from a distance.

The intensity grew. Creation had been eagerly waiting for that very moment of liberation; the earth quaked in response as Jesus gave up his spirit (Romans 8:20-21). The temple curtain tore in half and God’s presence could no longer be contained. The prophesied life of Emmanuel, “God With Us,” was being fulfilled and now God was let loose into the world (Matthew 1:23; 27: 50-51, 55-56).

These two women had lovingly sat opposite the tomb and watched Jesus’ burial (Matthew 27: 61). It must have been overwhelming to process everything that had happened to Jesus – their Rabbi, their Lord, and Mary’s promised Son who was to save the people from our sins (Matthew 1: 21). They must have left the tomb with so many questions, so much grief, so much in life that seemed unfinished.

They returned to the tomb on that Sunday morning as the rays of sun pierced through the night’s dark veil. And then they were disturbed again to their very core as the earth quaked once more; for God’s unconditional and sacrificial love had conquered sin and death when the angel rolled away the stone (Matthew 28:2). God’s steadfast love could no longer be contained for it had a story to proclaim to all the earth.

Matthew tells us that the very first Easter was not comforting. It was not warm and fuzzy like the yellow down of a baby chick or the soft fur of a bunny. That first Easter brought Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother, and the guards to their undoing. The finished work in Jesus Christ for God’s salvation came face to face with humanity’s unfinished faith. They were all so alarmed that they could do nothing. Caution seized them.

Arthur Gordan, a writer and journalist, once said:
One of the most insidious maladies of our time [is] the tendency in most of us to observe rather than act; avoid rather than participate; not do rather than do. [We have a] tendency to give in to the sly, negative, cautionary voices that constantly counsel us to be careful, to be controlled, to be wary and prudent and hesitant and guarded in our approach of this complicated thing called living.[1]

You see, Easter is not a holy day to observe. Easter is a day for us to act and to participate in. God has been let loose into the world and this glorious power of LOVE interrupts our lives. And just as it disturbed the ones who gathered around the empty tomb on that first Easter it should interrupt something in you and in me too.

When God disturbs our hearts and minds it moves our spirits to be re-awakened. The pulse of our faith reawakens not from being comfortable, prudent, hesitant, and guarded. Easter reawakens us when we allow ourselves to stand in that space where the risen Christ comes face to face with all that is unresolved in our lives. Grace begins to weave together our tattered and loose ends.
We may not fully comprehend what it all means. What we do know is that we are never the same when we encounter Jesus Christ. Our hearts are filled in ways they never have been before.

Michael Yaconelli was a pastor for forty-two years. I am drawn to Yaconelli because he never sugar coats faith; he is honest and real. In doing so he encouraged the faint-hearted, helped the weak, and cared for those who suffered. In his book “Messy Spirituality,” he shares:

Spiritual people admit their unfinishedness. Unfinished means incomplete, imperfect, in process, under construction. The construction site of our souls exposes our flaws, the rough-hewn, not-finished faith clearly visible in our hearts. When we seek God, Jesus begins to take shape in our lives. He begins a good work in us, he starts changing us, but the finishing process is a more-than-a-lifetime-process.

I’ll never forget the day Eric stood up in our church during [prayer concerns.] Eric’s lifelong battle with alcohol had been mostly unsuccessful. He had been in and out of jail, and his [addiction] was taking a toll on his marriage [and family].

[Yaconelli and the congregation loved and cared for Eric and his family. And Eric knew the church to be a save space.]

That day Eric said, “I need prayer. My wife has given me an ultimatum – my [addiction] or her. She asked me to decide today, and I just wanted to tell you all what I have decided…”

[In that long pause of silence] every person in the church was on the edge of their seat with their face turned toward Eric, encouraging him, pleading with him to make the right decision. You could have heard a pin drop.

Finally, he stumbled on, tears in his eyes: “I’ve decided to choose my wife!”

Applause and cheering broke out. [In that moment I saw that] Eric was not afraid to tell the truth; he was not afraid to reveal to all of us how difficult [his decision was]. Eric is a spiritual man. Troubled? Yes. Unfinished? Absolutely.

Eric refused to pretend life is clean and neat and he knew he had to tell [God and] us the way things were, not the way we wished they were.

We all have unfinished places in our lives. Easter empowers us to be real with God and to be embraced by a beloved community we know as the body of Christ. Easter moves us to share with God and one another that we still have a need for a Savior. The power of God’s Love enters into our family dynamics, our fears, our hurts, and our questions.

It is the mystery of grace that allows us to give God whatever is unresolved in our lives and to trust God with it. God, in Jesus Christ, leads the way for us to experience deliverance, healing, and wholeness.

God’s finished work in the Risen Christ comes face to face with our need for mercy that God desires to bring about within us. We all need God’s mercy to weave the unraveling parts of lives with forgiveness; mending us with faith, hope, and love. We all struggle with past regrets, those times we were too cautious to speak out or ask for help, that broken relationship now calloused with hurt.

Frederick Beuchner once said, “Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and [also] sees us whole.”[3] This is where we see the hands of our Creator and the redeeming love of the cross reshaping us into a new creation, a new resurrected life.

We cannot explain it, we can only experience it. If God’s Love can make the earth quake, tear the temple curtain, and raise Jesus Christ from the dead, what can God not do to bring the glory and praise of our Savior Jesus Christ in your life and mine? Nothing is impossible with God.

On this Easter Sunday, we are to stand boldly in the presence of our Risen Lord and Savior. God’s amazing grace has a story to proclaim to us where second chances and new life are abundant.

So today we do not hide our unfinishedness. Today is Easter and we give all that is still unresolved to God and we say “Hallelujah!”

As we experience the power of God’s Love, Scripture reminds us we cannot keep the joy of God’s promises to ourselves. We too must follow the angel’s charge and the word of our Lord as well: “Do not fear but go quickly! Take your unfinished faith and tell everyone you meet - our Lord has been raised from the dead!

The glorious power of God’s redeeming love will always go ahead and meet us on the journey of faith – wherever we are. It is there in the messy parts of our spirituality that we will rise up and truly see the holy work of Easter.

The costly grace and mercy of Jesus Christ assures us of God’s faithfulness in our lives. The good work that Christ began in you and in me will be brought to completion through this wondrous love that we celebrate.

This is what the journey of faith is all about! Experiencing the hope of resurrection not just today on the holiest of days, but every day!

Let us say the joyous refrain together once again!

Hallelujah! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1]Quoted from Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), p. 137.
[2] Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), p. 41-42.
[3]Quoted from Anne Lamott, “Hallelujah Anyway” (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), p. 40.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lenten Sermon Series - Spiritual Boot Camp: Hitting a Dead End

Spiritual Boot Camp: Hitting a Dead End
Psalm 130; Ezekiel 37: 1-14
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
April 2, 2017
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
Psalm 130

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’

Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
- Ezekiel 37: 1-14

It was not just an ordinary Tuesday morning. Many gathered at Olympic Stadium last summer in Rio de Janeiro to see the pinnacle of athletic performance. The starting pistol fired to begin the qualifying heat for the women’s 5000 meter track event (3.107 miles). These seventeen women had trained hard to compete on the world’s biggest stage. Only the fastest runners from the first two heats would go on to race the final event for the gold, silver or bronze medals.

As the women clocked the eighth lap with four and a half laps remaining, confusion exploded within the pack of athletes. Abbey D’Agostino (USA competitor) suddenly fell which clipped the competitor ahead of her, Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand competitor) also causing her to fall. They both incurred serious injuries. D’Agostino severely tore her knee ligaments and Hamblin had a badly banged up shoulder.

It looked like a dead end situation. Serious injuries usually bring the dreams of completing to a full stop. And even if they could tough out the pain, their chances to catch up to the pack and make up for lost time looked bleak.

Situations like this seem to make time move in slow motion as some mysterious gift intervenes. Somehow D’Agostino got up and instead of walking off the track or trying to salvage her own race, she stood next to Hamblin who was still on the ground. These two competitors did not know each other and had never spoken to each other before. But D’Agostino extended her hand to Hamblin saying, “Get up, get up. We have to finish!” Hamblin got up and they both began to run as best they could.

Hamblin ran on ahead of D’Agostino and after a few laps she looked behind and saw D’Agostino down on the ground again. Her face was grimacing with pain. Hamblin turned and ran back. She saw the tears in D’Agostino’s eyes and likewise, she extended a hand to her competitor saying “Get up, get up. We are going to finish this together.” For a while Hamblin had her arm around D’Agostino to give her extra support to complete the heat.

When they crossed the finish line, not only did the crowd cheer these two on, but also their competitors cheered and congratulated them. Their sportsmanship was unlike anything the Olympic judges had ever seen, therefore Hamblin and D’Agostino were rewarded entrance in the final 5000 meter event. Of course D’Agostino’s knee required surgery and she was unable to run the final.

These two runners were completely moved by the experience. D’Agostino said she remembers praying through her last laps as her knee became more misshapen and buckled underneath her. It is a mystery to her how she was able to continue and cross the finish line. After her initial fall D’Agostino simply tried to put aside her pain to help Hamblin in this tragic accident. As a result they had connected in a powerful way.

And Hamblin said, “Everyone wants to win and get a medal, but as disappointing as it is, there is so much more to this,” “It is just a mutual understanding of how much everyone puts into it. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years time, this is my story. She is my story. (USA Today)” “That girl, Abbey D’Agostino, is the Olympic spirit right there” (CBS).

God’s people experienced a similar tragedy. They too had fallen down. It was way beyond torn ligaments and battered shoulders. God’s people had fallen and had lost all hope to get back up. The people looked like a valley of dry bones.

Out of nowhere the hand of God appeared and rested on Ezekiel. At first God made Ezekiel sit down on that field to take in the scene. It looked like a dead end. And then God led Ezekiel all around to access the damage. God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live? (Ezekiel 37:3) Can these people get up and finish the race of faith with perseverance?” God's question warranted the answer, "No."

Ezekiel knew the people. He had been with them through thick and thin. And this prophet did not how the runners on God’s team could find the strength to stand up and persevere again. The weight of the Babylonian exile had caused too much confusion and pain for a possible recovery.

We all must be reminded time and again that nothing is impossible with God. God’s Spirit is always on the move, even when we have come to a full stop on the course of faith. God spoke to Ezekiel saying, “Prophecy to these bones… speak my divine instruction into these brittle and broken places. I will cause the breath of life to enter my people and you all shall live” (Ezekiel 37:4-5).

God’s Spirit breathes a word of hope into our weary souls to encourage us, saying: “Get up! Get up! We have to keep moving in this race of faith.” God will help us for in God there is steadfast love and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

The Valley of Dry Bones is our story. Our Lenten journey has taken us through 40 tough days of Spiritual Boot Camp. We have certainly felt the excitement of training for a new spiritual adventure. We have also experienced the bleak valleys too.

We have looked to find the motivation for real change in our lives in order to gain new perspectives of spiritual health and God’s wholeness. We have been cultivating new and deeper spiritual disciplines to train our faith to move past the starting line and go the distance with God. We have been hydrating our spirits with God’s Living Water of Jesus Christ with Scripture and prayer. And we have been getting muddy to overcome the obstacle courses of faith in order to see God reshaping us by the grit of life.

Today you may notice that you feel the fatigue of Spiritual Boot Camp as we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. If we look back to that first Sunday in Lent Scripture told us that after Jesus had run the hills of spiritual discipline and completed his 40 days of training in the wilderness he was famished.

Maybe you were clear five weeks ago about your need for change but in your reflections you have discovered that you are just going through the motions. You wonder if you can make up for lost time to finish this race strong.

Maybe you are reflecting on that lesser habit you have been trying to break. Maybe you are still struggling with it. It’s breaking your stride and causing you to limp along. You wonder how in the world will you truly be able to break through this?

Maybe you have been surprised to see the results of perseverance to experience God’s freedom and new life. And this is leading you to really question if you need to bring the lesser habit to a dead end or not. You wonder if it is worth picking up facebook again or that food or that feeling of resentment after fasting from it these past 40 days.

Today we look back to see how far we have come. God is leading us to the track and field of faith to take a good look at our “spiritual bones.”[1] What has motivated you to make it this far in Spiritual Boot Camp? What have you and I discovered about our spiritual perseverance to grow stronger muscles of faith? What has brought confusion and pain? What has made you trip up on the course?

Wherever we find ourselves on the track and field of faith, we only have a few laps remaining. And no matter how strong or weak we have felt, I know without a doubt that we all need the encouragement of receiving a hand up in order to cross the finish line of Lent strong.

Listen for our Coach, Teacher, and Savior Jesus Christ speaking into our lives with his faithful obedience. Look for the ways the Spirit is breathing new life into our dry bones, our weary muscles, and our broken places. Wait for the Lord and hope in God’s Word.

As we wait the gift of faith leads us to trust even when we cannot see the hope that lies ahead of us. The Apostle Paul says, “Hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).

Get up! Get up! We have to finish this together! We are connected to the Spirit of the Living God in the most powerful way! God will revive us with a second wind to finish our race strong. Our hope is not just to survive Spiritual Boot Camp and be revived to cross the finish line. It is way more than that.

Today we make the turn to run the last lap of Lent. Next Sunday we enter Holy Week. Palm Sunday foreshadows Jesus’ triumphant victory lap. But we also remember the last week of Jesus’ life looked like a dead end. We follow his steps to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed in anguish and sweat like drops of blood. We follow Jesus as he led his disciples to share the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday where he gave them a new commandment to love one another and yet Peter denied Jesus three times; Judas betrayed him which led to Jesus' arrest and trial. Jesus was led to carry his cross on Good Friday, suffer on our behalf and then gave up his spirit. What seemed like a dead end was actually a new beginning. God was there all the way to lift Christ up to be exalted as Savior.

Let us run this race of faith not in our own ability but in Jesus’ faithfulness. And as we do God’s Spirit will enter into our lives to breathe the incredible hope of a life transformed by the gravity of Jesus’ sacrificial love. Jesus Christ is the One who extends his hand and heart to us. He is the One who lifts us up to stand in the strength of God’s grace so that we may truly live in the hope of resurrection.

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] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press: 2010), Katherine Amos, Pastoral Perspective p. 126.

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?

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.