Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Unworthiness Steal Your Gratitude (Part 3 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
Don’t Let Unworthiness Steal Your Gratitude" Part 3 of 5)
Matthew 22: 1-14; Philippians 2: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 15, 2017

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

'But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’
- Matthew 22: 1-14

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
- Philippians 2: 1-11

The past few weeks the lectionary texts have been our guide in highlighting common struggles that steal our gratitude for God’s grace. Today Jesus uses another parable to underscore a common obstacle to living into God’s abundance. Remember that Jesus’ parables reveal hidden truths of God’s kingdom. His parables instruct how we might grow as kingdom people.

The kingdom of heaven gives us a framework to understand gratitude. Jesus says the kingdom is like a banquet of God’s lavish hospitality and provision, bar none. It gives our God great joy to throw such a feast for it is the anticipated Messianic Banquet, the wedding feast to honor the Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is joined by his bride, the Church.

At this heavenly banquet, the Lord’s work of redemption and reconciliation is complete (Revelation 19:9). At God’s heavenly banquet table each seat has a place card saying, “My Delight” (Isaiah 62:4). All gathered savor the fullness of salvation, as compared to the foretaste we receive at Communion around the Lord’s Table in our houses of worship.

Each time we gather here to commune with God and one another, we take the bread of life and the cup of salvation and we can’t help but say, “God’s grace tastes SO GOOD!”

In Jesus’ parable the prophets and apostles extend the invitations to the heavenly feast. The first ones to receive the grand invitations made light of it (Matthew 22:3). Some were offended by the invitation. Others went back to their farms and businesses because they determined their self-worth through their work. Jesus said this made them unworthy. Their unworthiness was an obstacle to accept God’s invitation because these individuals kept trying to prove their worth on their own terms.

The next invitations went out to those who never imagined themselves worthy to sit at such a feast of lavish abundance. I love this parable because God welcomes a real rag tag bunch of folks. They are folks who are unassuming and good natured; you know the ones who have a heart of gold but still never feel they are enough. Also included are folks who have hearts filled with pain, troubles, and deeds that society claims to be unworthy of a second chance.

Regardless of how these guests saw themselves or how society labeled them, each one received a new robe as they entered God’s house. Each one was clothed equally in God’s merciful love. The more I read Jesus’ parable the more I sense that many remained reluctant to fully enjoy the moment of such amazing grace.

Martin Luther was one of those reluctant ones. Luther was one of our Reformers in the Protestant faith. He struggled with a great sense of unworthiness a good portion of his life.

He was born in 1483 and raised in a large family in Mansfeld, Germany. Luther’s parents were hardworking; his father leased property for copper mining. His father had high hopes for Luther to become a lawyer, but Luther was really searching for assurances in life and was drawn to theology.

Luther went against his father’s wishes to study theology and spent years trying to make his father proud.

After Luther was ordained at the age of 23, he stood before the church to lead the Mass; at that time the only church was the Roman Catholic Church. The words he was to recite were engraved upon his heart since childhood. But when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. He had forgotten the words for the sacrament of Communion.

For Luther, this was not a case of nerves or a lapse of memory or God’s sense of humor. He felt a grave sense of unworthiness. His self-worth reached an all-time low as he called himself “a bag of maggots, food for the worms.” [1]

His mentors and colleagues tried to help him reframe his view of God and self. But the more Luther worked to study Scripture, fast, and pray, the more Luther felt the weight of God’s judgment. He asked out loud where a God of grace was to be found. I cannot help but wonder if his deep struggle resulted from a childhood shaped by harsh discipline and the ebb and flow of depression, which is common for many of us.

It was not until Luther studied the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans that God turned Luther’s unworthiness inside out. Luther read Paul’s words, “But now, apart from the law, [God’s work of making things right] has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified [our unworthiness is removed] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24).

These words from Romans changed Luther’s life. The chains of unworthiness were broken. Holy Spirit opened God’s Word to free Luther to discover that Jesus took our unworthiness and made us right with God. We are made worthy because of God’s love for humanity. It is by God’s grace alone, by Christ alone, and through faith alone; it is all a gift of God alone.

From that moment onward, Luther invested his time, passions, and energies to teach, preach and write about God’s revelation of a love that will never leave us where God finds us. But more importantly, the Spirit empowered Luther to discover the gratitude of being clothed in Christ’s worthiness.

Our value, our self-worth is found in knowing that we are a beloved child of God and have a place of belonging in the kingdom of God.

Friends, there is truly nothing we can do to earn God’s gift of salvation. There is no job, career, vocation of ministry, or even a checklist of faith that allows us to find God’s favor. The kingdom of heaven does not allow for you and me to define worthiness on our own terms.

In the same vein, are we to remain imprisoned by our sense of unworthiness? Are we to live below the humility line telling ourselves that we are not enough? I can certainly hear the Apostle Paul say, “By no means!”

Paul encourages us saying, “Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:2-3).

Paul encourages us to be intentional to allow our inner faith convictions to shape our outward actions and behaviors. Faith is to keep us from living above the humility line in pride or below it in self-deprecation. For Paul the only thing that counts…the only thing that is worthy is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). And that is revealed in Jesus’ faithful obedience working through God’s love on the cross. (Philippians 2: 9-11).

It is that kind of sacrificial love that equally clothes us in Christ for the journey of faith. It is that kind of unconditional love that opens our spiritual eyes to see ourselves and others the way that God sees us: welcomed, accepted, forgiven, and worthy of a love that will never let us go. It is that kind of humble love that frees us to take the next right step in our highs and lows and in our struggles and doubts.

So, who does God see at the banquet table saying, “Friend, how did you get in here without a robe?” (Matthew 22:12). That friend is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is not wearing a robe because he has given it to you, and me, and this rag tag bunch whom God has invited to the greatest party, bar none.

Christ took off his prestigious robe of God’s glory. He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave in the thin skin of humanity. He humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 6-8).

God desires for all to come experience this amazing grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called to respond to such an invitation with a healthy sense of humility for we have all fallen short of God’s glory. Thank God that falling short is never the end of our story.

We are clothed in Christ’s worthiness because Christ welcomes us in God’s hospitality, meets us where we are, assures us of God’s power to change our lives, and promises to stand by our sides from now into eternity.

Don’t let unworthiness steal your gratitude. You are enough because you are a beloved child of God and you have a place of belonging found alone in the kingdom of God.

And that is something not only to be grateful for. That is something to celebrate!

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] James A. Nestingen, “Martin Luther: A Life” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003), p. 9.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Worry Steal Your Gratitude (Part 2 of 5)

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
"Don’t Let Worry Steal Your Gratitude" (Part 2 of 5)
Matthew 21: 33-46; Philippians 4: 1-9
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017

[Jesus said] ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower.

Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
- Matthew 21: 33-46

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
- Philippians 4: 1-9

Jesus spent time in the house of worship and out on the streets. He drew near and met people where they were in life. He knew their concerns and the ways they saw the world around them. He taught in parables to speak into the everyday highs and lows. Jesus did this in order to reveal hidden truths of God’s kingdom and to instruct how we might grow as kingdom people.

Today’s parable of the wicked tenants is a powerful telling of God’s greatest desire for us. It points back to Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5: 1-4).

Creator God is the landowner and great master gardener, if you will. God joyfully got his hands in the dirt to prepare the soil and care for the land with a dream to plant a rich and fruitful vineyard. God set boundaries around the vineyard. God built a watchtower as a stable refuge of strength and entrusted the community to keep and care for God’s gifts. God placed a wine press in the center for the community so that all may see the yield of good fruit and taste the goodness of the Lord.

However, Jesus’ parable echoes the great tragedy that unfolded from Isaiah’s parable. God intended for the vineyard, which symbolized God’s people, to be cared for with justice and right relationships. However, humanity’s sin left bloodshed and the vineyard cried out in pain.

Creator God lifted up a deep lament saying, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” Jesus knew the heart of God and knew how God’s plan would unfold next. Jesus’ parable foreshadowed that God would send his Son who would be disregarded, seized, shamed, and killed. The One who humbled himself was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Thanks be to God that we have the gift of faith through the obedience and unconditional love of our Savior who willingly took the pain, the brokenness, and sin of the world.

While this parable bears a deep conviction that we hold true, it also reveals a hidden truth about the way we are to grow as kingdom people. And I have to be completely honest with you. This past week as I have held our biblical texts in one hand and the current events in the other hand, this parable haunts me. I have needed this parable and the Apostle Paul’s words to ground me because worry has been stealing my gratitude. I know worry has been stealing your gratitude too.

This past week we have seen violence rear its ugly head again, this time in Las Vegas. Fifty-nine of our sisters and brothers lost their lives and over five hundred were injured. We worry for friends and family members that we know who were in that area. We worry because we feel helpless to stop the violence; the debates sharply rise and fall on gun reform and the shadow of shame still looms over efforts to bring awareness to mental health. We worry from compassion fatigue as each week unfolds with another natural disaster and destruction. We worry for the sufferings that remain here in our own backyards.

Certainly, God weeps with us. God laments with us as the Lord’s beloved community is subjected to the sin of violence and hate. God laments as the world groans in labor pains. God laments with us when our worries get the best of us. God laments when fear disorients our trust that God is still in control.

And yet the Apostle Paul says, “Do not worry. Stand firm in the Lord in this way. Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything. Pray. Focus on things worthy of praise.

But there is something hidden in Pauls’ words that shines some light on Jesus’ parable, for Scripture always speaks to Scripture. Those words are “Let your gentleness be known to everyone; the Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:5).

In Jesus’ parable the Lord is near for God is in the watchtower. For “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The watchtower stands tall with a 360 degree view of God’s beloved community. God sees the seeds of faith taking root and bearing fruit. God also sees what threatens the beloved community.

Our faith cultivates a great sense of gratitude in knowing the strength we find in God as our strong tower. But God also invites us to climb up into the watchtower. God entrusts you and me with the caring and keeping of God’s beloved community. It is in the watchtower that we gain a new point of view to see into the world. We are given an opportunity to see both the blessings and the brokenness around us.

You see our world is wounded and it is hurting and it is crying out. The world does not need for us to be up in the watchtower giving knee jerk reactions. The world needs for her pain to be recognized.

Pain that is not addressed in a constructive way metastasizes into bitterness, anger, resentment, hate, and violence.

Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Her career the past sixteen years has been studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

In her newly released book, “Braving the Wilderness,” she says:

Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working. How much longer are we willing to keep pulling drowning people out of the river one by one, rather than walking to the headquarters of the river to find the source of pain? What will it take for us to travel together to the cradle of pain that is growing in all of us in such a rate that we couldn’t possibly save everyone?

Pain will subside only when we acknowledge and care for it. Addressing [pain] with love and compassion would take a miniscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it...Most of us were not taught how to recognize pain, name it, and be with it. Our families and culture believed that the vulnerability that it takes to acknowledge pain was weakness
… [1]

That kind of vulnerability seems illogical. However, God recognized our human pain a long time ago. God became vulnerable to point of putting on the thin skin of humanity in Jesus Christ to fully experience our brokenness and pain. On the cross, Jesus Christ took on all our pain to make known God’s steadfast love and compassion. Through the empty tomb Jesus Christ gives us the hope that pain may be transformed by the power of grace.

You and I are called to be stewards of God’s beloved community. We are to have the mind of Christ and see the pain that is wounding our world. Seeing that pain is not judging it, but striving side by side to allow faith to seek understanding. We seek understanding by living into Jesus’ example of unconditional love and compassion.

The mind of Christ moves us to see the pain in the lives of others by listening to the story of another’s pain even when that story is vastly different from our own experience. It is in our commitment to live in relationship with God and one another that we may let our gentleness be made known to everyone, for the Lord is near through the body of Christ.

But also our commitment to live in this way means we are to take what we have seen and heard and learned and work with God to make a difference in the world for the sake of God’s beloved community to flourish. That is how we grow as kingdom people. We live out our faith that is intentional to bear the fruit of justice and right relationships.

In these troubling times, don’t let worry steal your gratitude. God is still in control. Rejoice when you see God’s grace through others. Pray. Focus on things worthy of praise.

But more than anything, may you and I allow the spiritual reality of the cross to open our eyes and recognize the world’s pain. For God invites you and me to join the Lord in this holy work of transforming pain by the power of God’s hope, vulnerability, compassion, and grace.

That is something to be grateful for.

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

Watchtower photo from the Holy Land
[1] Brene Brown, “Braving the Wilderness” (New York: Random House, 2017), p. 67.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude (Part 1 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don’t Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude"
Part 1 of 5
Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 3: 10-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday

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

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
- Philippians 3: 10-16

Where does gratitude come from? How does it begin?

For many of us gratitude stems from the simple joys in life. A gorgeous sunrise or sunset where our Creator paints one-of-a-kind majestic landscapes. Watching the children play with a carefree freedom that reminds us adults to play and be present. The realization of an answered prayer where a deep need or longing was met.

The past month we have certainly seen gratitude coming from the most trying times of life. The sparing of life in the face of losing everything from home, possessions, and livelihood. An interaction of kindness that restores hope in humanity. It is hard to find words for these examples of gratitude.

From a Christian perspective gratitude is rooted in God’s Word pointing all the way back to our spiritual ancestors. For them gratitude was anchored deep in the waters of God’s covenant love.

Moses told God’s people in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth to be [God’s] people, [God’s] treasured possession. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6, 8-9).

God’s people crossed the Red Sea and saw the goodness of the Lord; they were delivered. It was so powerful that they could not help but sing and dance with tambourines (Exodus 15). They celebrated with a deep and abiding gratitude for knowing the joy of God’s deliverance.

However, the wilderness tested Israel’s ability to remember they were God’s treasured possession.

In our text today the people were complaining and quarreling with Moses. They had forgotten that joy was a growing awareness of God’s grace. They had forgotten their response of gratitude were not determined by their present circumstances. In fact Israel’s complaining was not the real problem. It was a symptom, a biproduct of what was stealing their gratitude.

You see, God’s people were spending more time and energy focusing on the past. They looked back into the past generations whom had lived in Egypt. They remembered having a place to call home – a roof over their heads, food and water to drink daily, and having children. Each day in Egypt had the same repeated rhythm.

But this memory came with a sense of complacency about the past. For Egypt had dealt shrewdly with God’s people. They were oppressed, exploited, and dreaded by Egypt (Exodus 1: 10-12). Complacency led Israel to be more comfortable in the norms of Pharaoh’s oppression than to strive to find a new normal within God’s freedom.

The past was not as good as God’s people tried to remember it to be. Whatever gains Israel had in Egypt were to be counted as loss because of God’s unconditional and covenant love.

God was working through Moses to lead the people to risk following God’s direction to the Promised Land. This would require the people to trust God in the wilderness – a very uncomfortable place.

The wilderness was a place of discontinuous change; meaning change occurs in such a way that we do not have the lived experience to know how to adapt to it.

Israel’s story is our story. We too have a hard time with our present circumstances. Yesterday and yesteryear always seem to hold a memory of a better time and place. In times of change we become nostalgic for what seemed routine and familiar.

Today we are walking through another wilderness of discontinuous change and we truly do not know how to adapt to it.

We are going through individual life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle. It seems like our children are forced to grow up faster than we adults did and at the same time it seems like their childhoods are delayed with the advent of technology. It seems like the years fly by so quickly that age brings physical challenges we are not ready to accept. It seems like life will sarcastically pull the rug out from under us when change alters our careers, marriages, and health.

We are going through societal life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle either. There seems to be more acts of violence and more natural disasters that overwhelm our hearts and our world. It seems like we live in a post-truth society as the value of researching respectable primary sources to articulate the truth have been replaced with the turning tides of personal opinion. There seems to be a new normal as our language has become yet again more dehumanizing; words become weapons to belittle and deny God-given dignity.

The church is facing changes and challenges too as denominations across the board are declining. We wonder what will happen to the church as we hold so many dear memories of the past when a house of God was the center of community.

Through all these individual and societal changes, we look back into the past and ask, “How did we get here?!?” These kinds of discontinuous change create a lot of uncertainty. Who can blame us for wanting to live in the past?

I echo Moses’ sentiments as he met his flock with reassuring words. While we all treasure what was comfortable and routine and familiar about the past, we must remember that the past also had trouble of its own just as tomorrow will certainly have it too. God is leading us through another spiritual wilderness for God sees that we are in need of being delivered once again. God sees yet another need for reforming our hearts.

If God is leading us to something new just as God was leading Israel to something new, then we must step forward into the wilderness and let go of the past. We cannot remain in the past or be trapped by nostalgia. If we stay anchored to the past then we will always feel pulled apart from what lies behind and the hope that lies ahead. Therefore, we feel afraid and frustrated and start leaning more into our will rather than God’s will. That kinda sounds like Jonah and is far from an attitude of gratitude.

It takes a lot of trust to follow God’s lead in uncertain times. Trust requires remembering that our awareness of God’s grace and our response of gratitude are not dependent upon our present circumstances.

Trust calls us to hold onto the foundation of our faith…that foundation is a head and heart knowledge that we are God’s treasured possession. Therefore, we are to press on through this spiritual wilderness because the Lord has redeemed us in a love that will never let us go.

We know God’s story of redeeming love through the cross and empty tomb. Today Christians around the world gather together for World Communion Sunday.

At God’s table Christians around the world unite to remember the only story of the past that continues to reform our faith and reshape our hearts with an attitude of gratitude.

That story is to know Christ Jesus – God’s Anointed One Who Saves. For we remember the power of Christ’s life, ministry, sufferings, death, and resurrection that brings spiritual freedom. If the sacrificial love of Christ has delivered us from the death of sin to new life, then we should trust that Christ will equip us to walk through this crazy wilderness with God leading the way and providing our every need.

Like the Apostle Paul, we press on in Christ’s example because Christ has made us his treasured possession for the sake of God’s great faithfulness.

The Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation give our faith the courage to do this one thing: forget what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.

Don’t let the past, or the wilderness for that matter, steal your gratitude. The God we worship always provides a way when there seems like no way at all!

That is worth being grateful for.

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

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Series Theme "Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don't Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude" adapted from "The Enemies of Gratitude: Nostalgia" theme in "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, C" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 65.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon: The Problem with Mercy (Jonah 4: 1-11)

The Problem with Mercy
Psalm 145: 1-8; Jonah 4: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2017

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.

One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendour of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
- Psalm 145: 1-8

When God saw what [Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ - Jonah 4: 1-11

The past four weeks we have been exploring the book of Jonah. We have learned a lot about God’s character.

When Jonah turned tail and ran from God’s call, the Lord pursued Jonah with a relentless love. When the storm raged as Jonah was headed in the wrong direction, the Lord provided a whale to plant Jonah’s feet where God needed him. When Jonah’s heart was not in his proclamation to Ninevah, the Lord still worked a miracle by giving both Ninevah and Jonah a second chance. They were both delivered by God’s amazing grace.

And today God’s Word reveals the heart of the matter between Jonah and the Lord.

God delivered Ninevah and as Jonah watched God’s mercy unfold he became undone. Jonah was not perplexed or miffed. Jonah was angered to the point that rage was kindled and burning within him. Jonah looked like a red-faced cartoon character blowing steam out of his ears because Ninevah did not get what they deserved.

Jonah confessed this to God. He knew God’s character and he had a hunch the story would end this way. But still Jonah had resisted God’s mercy in hopes that God would resist mercy too.

Jonah’s conflict with God reveals there was something at stake for Jonah. Remember he was a court prophet earlier in Israel’s history (2 Kings 14:23-26). Jonah had known the threat Assyria had posed to Israel all those years ago. He and the readers of this story also knew the injustices of Assyria in a very personal way, for the people of Ninevah had since destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. Therefore, Jonah wanted justice to be done. And he told God, give me justice or give me death.

Ninevah experienced first-hand that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2: 13b) and Jonah experienced the problem with mercy. When we have experienced the brokenness of the world in a very personal way, we judge the merits of mercy for those who have wronged us.

God saw this conflict raging within Jonah. I am struck with God’s response. The Lord did not dig up Jonah’s past failures of faithfulness. The Lord did not remind Jonah of all the mercy he had already received and failed to take into account. The Lord did not chastise Jonah for his anger.

God met Jonah where he was. In a moment of sheer grace God not only drew near to Jonah. God also offered a teaching moment to give Jonah a new perspective of mercy.

God gave Jonah an opportunity to look more deeply into his own heart. The Lord asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?” When Jonah’s emotions got the best of him he walked away from God’s presence. You see Jonah was wrestling between the differences of his reality and God’s reality. In fact, the light of God’s grace shone so brightly that Jonah tried to shield himself from it.

And yet again God drew near and embraced Jonah in nothing less than grace. Not only did God bring forth the shade tree to comfort Jonah, God also took it away to bring Jonah to his senses. God stayed by the prophet’s side in hopes to reframe Jonah’s perception of mercy from a problem to a gift.

Dewitt Jones was a professional photographer with National Geographic Magazine for twenty years. Over the course of his career he learned so much about society, geography, and people. But more than that, National Geographic reshaped Dewitt’s worldview by their vision: “Celebrate what is right with the world instead of what is wrong with it.”

From a young age Dewitt recalls being taught the traditional maxim that we all know, “I won’t believe it until I see it.” As he shot photographs for National Geographic that maxim shifted for him in a profound way. Dewitt realized the truth of the maxim is understood rather as: “I won’t see it until I believe it.”

The magazine would send Dewitt to places he had never been before. Dewitt knew he would not see the shot worth capturing until he believed it would be provided. He believed there would be beautiful landscapes to photograph and they would appear. He believed those landscapes would be full of wonderful people and they would be there. He believed he would see the good in every face framed by the camera lens…and even in the worst situations the good would shine through. He began every shot trying to celebrate what was right with the situation rather than what was wrong with it.

Twenty years of working behind the camera lens gave Dewitt a new understanding of how the world works. He came to learn that “Vision controls our perception and perception controls our reality.”

If we choose to focus on what is wrong with the world we will always see the worst. We will see the world around us through the lens of shortcomings, failure, and evil. We will make our own judgments about people and surrounding situations. We will be tempted to disengage from opportunities to make a difference. Seeing the worst of the world often leaves us hopeless. We get angry and frustrated when we cannot bend the outcome by our control.

Vision certainly controls our perception and perception controls our reality. God gives us opportunities to see the world and ourselves through the Lord’s kingdom vision to shape our faith perception and guide our spiritual reality.

God’s vision is captured through the lens of steadfast love. The Lord is gracious and merciful. God hears the cries of humanity and creation. God is compassionate; for the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in an unconditional love that remembers God’s covenant promises.

Faith charges you and me to celebrate what is right with the world. The cornerstone to be celebrated is that all of humanity and creation are tethered together in a web of intricate relationships by our Creator’s redeeming love.

Every time we affirm our faith saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” we are professing important truths about God’s character; The Study Catechism helps our articulations of these truths:

“God is a God of love and God’s love is powerful beyond measure. We are created to live together in love and freedom – with God, with one another, and with the world. We are created to be loving companions of others so that something of God’s goodness may be reflected in our lives.”[1]

We see the fullness of God’s merciful compassion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The whole of Jesus’ life is illustrated by him meeting us in our brokenness without judgment or condemnation. Christ already knows the worst in the world and also in us and yet chooses to see us through the lens of God’s compassion.

God’s care for the world reached a tipping point for mercy to triumph over judgment, therefore Christ died for us to reconcile us back to God. Christ rose for us so that we may experience the joy of salvation in our lives today and know God is eternally by our side.

That word “us” is not defined by our boundaries of grouping like-minded people or defining someone’s worthiness; God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11). In Christ there are no longer man-made categories that divide us; there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Christ is on the move to break down the divisions we create.

Likewise, we are to respond to God’s mercy and celebrate our common calling. For the body of Christ is called to go where God sends us, “to welcome and accept others in a way that honors and reflects the Lord’s welcome and acceptance of you and me,” and to extend God’s mercy to others [2].

In doing so we join God in this holy work of redeeming the brokenness of the world into something new and beautiful. God celebrates our potential to share the mind of Christ. God celebrates every opportunity for all of God’s children to be transformed and changed by God’s mercy and grace.

The problem with mercy is that our vision controls our perception and perception controls our reality.

Jonah’s vision was centered upon what was wrong with the world and how he had been wronged by it. That vision misguided Jonah to perceive that at he knew better than God to decide the merits of mercy. His reality became so narrowed that he could not see the abundance of God’s mercy in his own life.

God’s vision is centered upon what is right with the world; and what is right is God’s merciful compassion that pursues us with a relentless love. That vision opens our hearts and minds to perceive God’s mercies are new each morning. God’s compassion has the ability to shape our spiritual reality focusing on what breaks God’s heart and celebrating God’s abundant goodness that is always present in our brokenness and in the worst situations.

The book of Jonah leaves us holding the question – will we see mercy as a problem or as a gift?

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] “The Study Catechism,” (Louisville: Witherspoon Press by the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 1998), Questions 7 and 19, pp. 3, 9.
[2] The Study Catechism, Question 39, p. 25.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sermon: Second Chances (Jonah 3: 1-10)

Second Chances
Psalm 51: 1-17; Jonah 3: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2017

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
- Psalm 51: 1-12

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
- Jonah 3: 1-10

One of the gems from Jonah’s story is that God met Jonah where he was, even as Jonah ran away from God. Rev. Janet Alford shared last week, “The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah when he was headed in the wrong direction. Compassionately, God pulled Jonah back in order to put his feet somewhere else. During those long three days in the belly of the whale Jonah had to trust that he was in God’s hands.”

God was moving Jonah to have a change of heart. The hope was for Jonah to turn from his resistance and to come follow God’s lead. Our story continues today saying that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

Jonah did follow God’s lead but his heart was not in it. While Ninevah was a three days’ walk across, Jonah only walked through the city for one day. He didn’t go as deep into the city as he had gone into the belly of the whale for three days. As this court prophet stood in the city street, he called out in the same way that the prophet Isaiah remembered Israel's leaders were calling God’s people to respond to God; they were just going through the motions. Israel had forgotten the heart of God and God’s intentions for abundant life lived in community. Jonah had forgotten it too (Jonah 3:4; Isaiah 1:13-14).

God had told Jonah, “Proclaim to [the people] the message that I tell you” (Verse 2). But Jonah did not say, “Thus says the Lord,” the words that introduce prophetic speech as God’s mouthpiece. Jonah stood in the street and half-heartedly called, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”

That word “overthrown” has two very different meanings in the Old Testament. It can mean to be overturned as destroyed by judgment (Genesis 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:22; Jeremiah 20:16; Lamentations4:6). It can also mean overturned as being delivered (Deuteronomy 23:5; Psalm 66:6; Jeremiah 31:13) [1]

Jonah told Ninevah to trust God or expect destruction by judgment. It is really quite amazing how the people of Ninevah responded – it was an amazing grace moment like the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). God was found by a people who did not even seek the Lord out in the first place. The Lord revealed himself to those who did not ask for God. What a demonstration of deliverance.

All of Ninevah marked this second chance in their lives as a defining turning point of experiencing God’s mercy. It claimed the city from top to bottom; authority figures, residents, and animals alike. No one was excluded from God’s mercy and grace.

When God gives us a second chance it encourages us to know the compassionate heart of God. It happens to us in lots of different ways.

The clapperboard of life snaps “Take Two” with a new opportunity to change and reach towards our God-given potential when we least expect it, as it did for Ninevah.

A second chance comes from purging our hearts which guides our steps towards forgiveness and restoring a broken relationship.

The do-over our children and youth find when they can correct their test mistakes and receive a little extra credit to bring up a bad grade.

The fresh start that comes after a clean bill of health when illness once seemed to have an upper hand.

Second chances bring such joy in challenging circumstances.

But second chances also challenge our willingness to truly live in a new way.

Jesus healed Legion, a man who was plagued with demons and marginalized by society. That second chance saved Legion. He did nothing to deserve his struggles. When his community would not offer him a second chance Jesus did and it gave him an opportunity to live into God’s abundant wholeness. But when the man feared how others would perceive his fresh start, Jesus challenged him to proclaim how much the Lord had done for him, and he did (Mark 5: 15-20).

After telling the crowd, “Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone,” Jesus stood before the woman caught in adultery. Jesus gave her a second chance saying, “Is there no one left to condemn you?” Seeing nothing around her but stones lying on the ground, she said, “No One, sir.” Jesus replied, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on, do not sin again” (John 8: 7, 10-11).

And God gave Jonah a second chance. God had chosen Jonah to go and serve as an instrument to bring about God’s purposes. But Jonah did not respond to his second chance with a willing spirit.

It has been said, “A second chance doesn’t mean anything if [we] have learned nothing from the first one” (Anonymous).

God did not echo that sentiment. God still chose to work through Jonah’s strong will even before God offered a teaching moment. Ninevah was granted a second chance even after destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel and certainly all of heaven rejoiced even when Jonah did not.

And guess what? God gave Jonah yet another chance to change his heart which we will look at next week in the fourth chapter of Jonah. Does that mean we should resist God’s will too if grace and mercy abound? Of course, the Apostle Paul would say, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1).

Rest assured that nothing stands in the way of bringing about God’s will. Not our resistance, not our lukewarm actions, not our conflicts or doubts. We are not that powerful! God can and will work through the circumstances we create and the unexpected chaos and unwanted change we never asked for. God will work through it all to for the sake of God’s glory.

God’s word goes out and will not return empty; it shall accomplish God’s purposes for which is was sent (Isaiah 55:11). God is in control. That means that God is free to judge our hearts. God is also free to show mercy on whomever God chooses. The Lord God can certainly turn a judgment into a blessing because the Lord loved the world so much that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes will not perish but have abundant and everlasting life. (Deuteronomy 23:5; John 3:16-17; 10:10).

God’s gift of salvation comes to us before we can even profess it. God’s Spirit stays on the move to turn our hearts to see our deep need for God’s care and guidance no matter if we have followed God our whole life long, or if we are digging our heels in, or profess no faith at all. God’s love pursues us with opportunities to be completely changed by God’s amazing grace.

God’s greatest desire is to sustain our faith with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:12). A willing spirit is not being obedient to God out of duty or obligation. But it means to trust, follow, and respond to God with gratitude because our God is a generous God.

Faith requires our all because Jesus gave his all. It gave Jesus Christ JOY to give us the gift of God’s redemption and eternal presence (Hebrews 12:2). And we give thanks to God for all the second, and third, and fourth and fifth chances to follow Jesus’ example to extend God’s hope and mercy to others.

Friends we worship a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all that he has made (Psalm 145: 8-9). God meets us where we are and never gives up on us.

I pray that we always remember that.

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

Sources Referenced:

Art image "Across the Way," by Mark Lawrence
[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, "Volume V: Ezekiel and The Twelve Prophets" (Nashville: Abingdon Pres, 2015), p. 671.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Sermon: Running from God (Jonah 1: 1-10)

Running from God
Psalm 139: 1-10; Jonah 1: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
- Psalm 139: 1-10

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’

But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.

The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ ‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
- Jonah 1: 1-10

Seven year old Max was fed up. He grabbed his backpack and shoved a handful of clothes inside, along with his Ironman action figure. He was packing the important stuff. And before he walked out of his room, he left a note:

Mom is ruining my life. I feel like I should run away and that’s what I am going to do. By the time you read this I will be gone. If you want to see me again, I will be at the first Micdonlds that you see wen you turn rite from our house.

From a young age, we all seem to have that innate angst to run away from home. We get frustrated by the house rules, we feel misunderstood, or just plain and simple we conclude that our parent is ruining our life. No mom or dad in their right mind would ever require a child to “Go make up the bed,” or “Put the dishes away,” or “Take your turn for doggie duty.” Right?!?!

Even grown-ups dream of running away. That is what Jonah resolved to do. God called Jonah to “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness had come up before God” (Jonah 1:2).

This was not the first time God had called Jonah. You see Jonah was a court prophet. Earlier in Israel’s history, God had heard the bitter cry of his people. Israel (Northern Kingdom) was being threatened by the Assyrians. It did not help that Israel’s king (Jeroboam II) was corrupt and did not seek the welfare of the people. God spoke through Jonah commanding the king to restore the borders of the Northern Kingdom; and surprisingly King Jeroboam II did (2 Kings 14:23-26).

Jonah not only saw God work through a wayward king back then, but now God was requiring Jonah to speak to the people of Ninevah; they were Assyrians. Jonah was to preach prophetically to the people who had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Prophetic speech implies words that urge others to live differently by the grace of God. Jonah was having none of that. He grabbed his backpack, jumped on a ship, and set sail for the opposite direction.

Throughout Scripture we see our shared human tendency to shrink back when God called our spiritual ancestors to do hard things. My commentary summed it up like this:

“Moses and Jeremiah thought themselves inadequate for the tasks. Elijah feared for his own life. Amos and Isaiah found God’s message too dreadful to announce.”[1]

And yet God pursued each one to follow God’s lead. “God repeatedly overhauled Moses’ objections. God told Jeremiah he had no choice. God evicted Elijah from Mount Horeb and redirected his steps back to Syria and Israel. God held Isaiah and Amos to their respective prophetic posts.”[2]

Jonah considered where he might flee from God’s presence. Even as Jonah took the opportunity to settle at the farthest limits of the sea – God was there. God pursued Jonah as he went down to Tarshish, down to Joppa, and down into the ship. God pursued Jonah as he hid from God and the world in that fetal position of sleep.

You and I can relate to Jonah. As one of our church members shared with me last week, “Who hasn’t run away from God?”

We have all run away from God for lots of different reasons. We keep God at a distance; we tell ourselves we are doing just fine on our own and don’t really need God’s help... believe it or not, I said that in a season of my life as a young adult. Some of us have been hurt by the church and that leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Others steer away because they have grown weary from a message that projects more of God’s judgment than grace.

When we feel God tapping us on the shoulder it unsettles us. We run for fear of not being good enough or qualified enough. We cringe at the thought of where God might tell us to go. We get nervous hearing God’s Word and knowing God asks all of us to do hard things.

Even Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16: 24-25).

We read those words and we can’t help but ask the question, “Really Jesus? Who in their right mind would say yes? Denying ourselves and taking up a cross just like you did…how in the world can we do that?!?”

Well, guess what? God knows all this. The Psalmist felt God tapping him on the shoulder too. The Psalmist knew a lot about the relentless love of God:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up…whether I am rising up to follow you or rising up with that fight or flight response.
You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down…even when I am in that fetal position trying to hide from you and the world.
You are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? No matter how far I go, you are there.
Even if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea like Jonah did, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast
(Psalm 139: 1-4, 7, 9-10).

God is always on the move to pursue us, especially when we have those fight or flight moments along the path of faith. God speaks through so many means to capture our attention and follow his lead.

God speaks through the chaos in our hearts as the Spirit keeps nudging us to say yes. Do you know that nudge…the one that disrupts life and gives us no peace until we say yes to God?! God has a sense of humor as we ask for signs to know how to respond to opportunities in life. God even speaks to us through unlikely situations and unlikely people to move our hearts and our feet in God’s direction.

We see the heart of God revealed in an unlikely person in Jonah’s story. The captain of the ship was the one to grab Jonah’s attention. In the midst of that terrible storm at sea the helmsman, who called upon another god and a completely different tradition, urged the prophet to do the right thing. He told Jonah to call upon The Lord Almighty. The God of Creation is the One who steers our great ship of faith and was the very One who had called Jonah to begin with!

When we find ourselves running from God, the Lord places people in our path at the just the right time. They serve like a mirror to reflect our willingness as disciples to do the right thing, the compassionate thing, and even the hard thing.

Hurricane Harvey has hit our sisters and brothers in Texas in an unprecedented way. The devastation and aftermath of flooding is one of the worst natural disasters our country has yet faced. The stories of the tragic loss of life, loss of homes, and loss of infrastructure grips our hearts and minds. It is hard to imagine what Texas is going through.

But God continues to pursue us to put our faith into action as God works through unlikely people. In the midst of this crisis the Holy Spirit has been flooding the divisions that have been blocking human hearts like race, religion, and politics. The Spirit made a way for unconditional love flows freely.

Neighbors are helping one another at all costs. First responders have put themselves in harm’s way to risk their lives to save women, children, men, and pets alike. Even Mexico, our neighbor south of the border, plans to help with relief efforts as they did when Hurricane Katrina struck twelve years ago.

To see all these taking risks to deny themselves in order to save others is profound. It is amazing because we are seeing the hearts of all God’s children at work even when they profess different traditions and even when some profess none. Their actions inspire us to be the disciples that Jesus Christ is calling us to be.

God may not call you and me to be prophets or captains or heroes. But we are all called be God’s helpers by placing our trust in God alone as we join Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.

May it be so as God pursues us in his relentless love – for we all have our Jonah moments.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter's Bible Commentary "Jonah" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 646.
[2] New Interpreter's Bible Commentary "Jonah," p. 646.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Sermon: The Turning Point

"The Turning Point"
Genesis 45: 1-15; Romans 12: 9-18
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 27, 2017

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’

Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
- Genesis 45: 1-15

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
- Romans 12: 9-18

Joseph’s reality of feeling beloved was shattered when his brothers threw him into the pit. His identity quickly went from being the apple of his father’s eye to being nothing but a slave in Egypt. Twenty years had passed since that life altering day until our text today.

And yet the Lord did not leave Joseph in that dark place. The author of Genesis says, “The Lord was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love” (Genesis 39:2, 21).

Over those twenty years, God worked behind the scenes of Joseph’s life to restore unto him a new sense of identity and purpose. Pharaoh took notice that God was with Joseph (Genesis 39:3). As Joseph grew into his gifts of dream interpretation and discernment, Pharaoh promoted Joseph as governor of Egypt (Genesis 41: 39-45).

Joseph began seeking the welfare of the city where God had placed him; he stored up grain. When the great famine hit every country, the world came to him to buy grain (Genesis 41:46-49, 57). As Joseph worked faithfully to fulfill his new purpose, God was faithful to begin working out his purposes for reconciliation. God worked through the hardship of the great famine to bring the brothers face to face to begin restoring what was broken.

Jacob sent his sons to Egypt two times to collect grain (Genesis 42: 1-26; 43:1 – 44:2). Both times the brothers stood in Joseph’s presence not knowing it was him, but Joseph knew (Genesis 42:8). Upon each visit Joseph tested to see if his brothers had changed. The brothers felt the weight of their guilt increasing with each test (Genesis 42:21-22; 44: 32-34). Each time Joseph turned away in tears and grieved his rejection (Genesis 42:24; 43:30).

God brought these brothers to a place where they could not deny their pain and brokenness any longer. God brought Joseph and his brothers to a turning point.

The Lord’s steadfast love redefined this family with the gifts of mercy and grace. As Joseph saw God’s hand redefining his own life, Joseph began to experience the inward power of God reconciling his broken pieces. His jagged edges of rejection and betrayal were traced and softened by the line of God’s amazing grace.

Old Testament theologian Walter Bruegemann says, “Joseph was no longer totally fixed on the past. [As he revealed himself to his brothers] he was not preoccupied with the hurt of his father or even with revenge towards is brothers. [God opened his heart] to be attentive to what was yet to come.” [1]

Joseph wept a third time, but those tears fell differently. Joseph was overwhelmed by the fact that God was redeeming his experience of being betrayed for God’s greater purposes. Those divine purposes were to bring hope and new life not just to Joseph’s family but also to the kingdom of God.

The Spirit moved Joseph to extend God’s mercy to his brothers. And as a result, they also began to experience the inward power of God reconciling their guilt. Brueggemann continues saying, “The guilt of the brothers had enormous power. [Until that moment] they were harnessed by the past.” [2]

God’s ministry of reconciliation opens the eyes of our hearts to see a way forward; a way past rejection and betrayal, past shame and guilt. The love of Christ urges us on so that our turning points may guide us to allow peace to cultivate within us.

Reconciliation always begins with our insides so that we may cultivate peace to reconcile with others. That turning point is trusting that God will not leave us in the pit; there is nothing in our lives that is beyond God’s ability to redeem. Whatever is broken has a potential to reveal God’s glory.

It hurts the most when those closest to us hurt us. Kristina Kuzmic felt utterly broken after her divorce. She was left with a broken heart, she was broken financially, and she now had a broken identity. She felt like she was lost with no sense of purpose. She was a mother of two young children with no support. The fear of homelessness loomed as a real possibility. Her tears stung with depression. Time seemed to stand still and she could not see past her own misery.

One day the Spirit whispered in her ear that she would find her own wellbeing if she sought the wellbeing of those around her. So Kristina called homeless shelters and soup kitchens to volunteer. Each call ended with “No thank you,” to this mom with no money for childcare.

That last round of rejection left Kristina in tears. And then the Spirit whispered into her ear again: What is your gift? What are you still confident in?

The next day Kristina went to the dollar store with her children and her food stamps. She bought whatever was on sale to make the biggest meal she could. She emailed her friends saying, “Send anyone who is down and out and needs a free meal to my apartment on Wednesday night for supper.”

As she cooked that meal and prepared the table, her brokenness gripped her with negativity: “Kristina, your life is a mess. Why would your friends send anyone to your apartment? They would be embarrassed. You have nothing to offer.”

But six o’clock rolled around. One knock on the door led to another. Strangers started coming into Kristina’s apartment and let her feed them. And by the end of the night, she had fed a ton of strangers on her tiny little budget, in her tiny little apartment, with her tiny little kids.

After the last person left, Kristina shut the door and just sobbed. For the first time she was not crying out of misery or desperation. She was crying because she had just experienced her first glimmer of hope. God led Kristina to a turning point; she no longer felt defeated. Her problems were not solved but for the first time she saw past her brokenness.

The steadfast love of God holds our broken pieces and proclaims the betrayals, hardships, guilt, and shame in our lives are not what ultimately define us. We cannot and should not deny brokenness is a part of our human experience. But they also do not have the last word. God’s amazing grace is rewriting our stories by the power of God’s redemption to bring healing, wholeness, and peace.

God urges us on in the love of Jesus Christ to see the turning points in our lives as a path that will lead to reconciliation within us and among us. God can and will bring goodness in ways we can never imagine for ourselves.

The Apostle Paul gives us wisdom to lean into God’s turning points.

“Let love be genuine;” not our definition of love but let God’s love be genuine through you, without a hardened heart, hypocrisy, or hidden agendas (Romans 12:9). We love because God first loved us through Christ’s unconditional love on the cross. If we allow God’s love to flow through us to one another then God lives in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4: 9-12). Forgiveness is a big part of God’s will for reconciliation because it makes love genuine. Jesus Christ says that we are to practice forgiveness over the course of our lifetimes (Matthew 18:21-22). Love that forgives frees us from being imprisoned by the past so that we may be attentive to the hope God holds for the future.

God’s vision of reconciliation moves us to detest what is unethical and hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:9). We are all held accountable for our actions that hurt others. However, God’s Spirit of wisdom is on the move to convict us to live differently, whether we have been hurt by another’s sin or we are burdened by the guilt of our sin. We live differently by confessing our experience and holding fast to the truth that God’s goodness is at work in our lives even when we do not readily see it.

God encourages us to move through our turning points with Paul’s words, “Do not lag in zeal” – do not have a reluctant attitude in life’s hard places. As we hold fast to God’s deep embrace, God gives opportunities to look beyond ourselves and see life through a different lens – the lens of faith. The Spirit urges us to look beyond ourselves with a passion to serve the Lord.

God worked in this way with Joseph and Kristina. Even through their tears and depression, God reminded them that they still had value and purpose. God redefined their identities to allow their experiences to serve a greater purpose. As they followed God into the turning points, they began to see glimmers of hope.

The Lord says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you; plans for your wellbeing and not for a harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Even when reconciliation is not possible with another individual, God desires to claim our hearts and minds with Christ’s healing and wholeness so that we may have the opportunity to move forward, have an abundant life, and serve the Lord.

May the Spirit open the eyes of our hearts to see God’s turning points. God sees all the places where his peace is missing. And yet God desires to work through us to bring about God’s will for peace and reconciliation.

The grace of God is on the move to break our chains and free us for the sake of praising the goodness of God.

We praise God with our reconciliation song: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blinded by my brokenness but now I see!

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

Sources Referenced:

Prophetic art "Wave of Healing," by Patricia Kimsey Bollinger

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Interpretation: Genesis” (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), p. 341.

[2] Brueggemann, p. 337.