Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Do Not Say

"Do Not Say"
Jeremiah 1: 4-10; 1 Corinthians 12: 4-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’

But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
- Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-10

Before Jeremiah was formed in the womb, God knew the gifts which would be bestowed upon him. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made as the psalmist says (Psalm 139: 14). Jeremiah has the nickname of the Weeping Prophet. He came alongside the people of God during a traumatic time in their history. Jeremiah was given the gift of words to help the people articulate their painful experience.

But Jeremiah also received the gift of prophecy. He came from a lineage of priests so maybe this was no surprise to his family. It was a tough job of being God’s mouth piece. The prophets said some challenging words to move the people from places of unfaithfulness to follow God in deeper commitment. I am not sure any individual would jump at the chance to be a prophet. While it is an honored office in serving the Lord, it is not a popular one when you are hanging out with the people and bringing words of woe and judgment held in the tension of God’s grace.

And so at a very young age God speaks in a very strong affirmation for Jeremiah to follow God’s leading in this very particular way. Jeremiah’s response is so realistic and it is one you and I can identify with. Jeremiah replies with a painful interjection, “Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to do this! I am too young! I am just a boy” (Jer 1: 6).

Looking back into the Good Book, when God called Noah to build the ark and Abraham to go to the land of God’s promises they both did so without question (Genesis 6:22; 12:4). Somehow the human mold has broken because folks are not made like that anymore! As the history of our spiritual ancestors moved along, God’s call was met with some push back.

Jacob wrestled with God when he was called to face the conflict with his brother Esau (Genesis 32:24). Moses had a thousand reasons to get out of God’s call to lead the people into freedom. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11). “What if the people don’t believe me?” (Exodus 4:1). “I don’t have eloquent words” (Exodus 4:10). Moses even said, “God please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13). When God called Gideon to be a mighty warrior, he cowered in weakness and then asked God to show a sign to prove he was to go” (Judges 6:15, 17). When God called Isaiah to be a prophet his first reply was that he was not worthy enough (Isaiah 6: 5).

I will never forget the day I began to feel God’s call. I was an active church member and a leader of small group ministry. One particular April morning ten years ago I had a lot on my heart. I loved being a stay at home mom raising my two young daughters, who were at that time ages 3 and 5. I loved being a participant in Bible studies. I loved leading a small group for moms. I loved serving the church. I loved coming alongside others to hold the hard parts of life. But that particular morning as I was putting my youngest in the car I had a little conversation with God. “God tell me what are you doing through all of this in my life? What do you want from me? Where does all of this lead?” I can hear my mom say, "You should be careful what you pray for."

Later that very morning I ran into my pastor in the church mail room. He stopped me to talk a bit. And then he asked me a question. “When are you going to seminary?” I just looked at him like a deer in headlights. “What do you mean? Do you think I should go to seminary?” I asked. He just smiled at me and said, “Yes I do. You have a pastor’s heart and you need to go.” We talked more in that mail room. And when I left that conversation I thought that I was going to throw up.

Three days later I flew to Saint Paul, Minnesota for a week-long conference for small group leadership training. The entire conference was held in a beautiful hotel. Hundreds of people attended, both pastors and church leaders alike. Every day someone asked me if I was a pastor. It was weird. As I talked with other young clergy and listened to their call stories they sounded familiar to me. I thought maybe God is calling me. I felt sick with each thought.

That sick feeling I had was a two-sided emotion. I was terrified of taking the next step to follow God. I did not fully know what would be required of me or if I could really do what God was asking. I had plenty of excuses like Moses and Jeremiah. It was a big decision to pull up roots to go to seminary and possibly ordained ministry with a husband and young children. I said God, I don’t think I can do this. God, there are no ministers in my family. God I am not worthy enough to do this. And when it came time to preach I just said - God, please send someone else.

But I was also excited to discern just where God might take my gifts to intersect the needs of the world. I did want a theological education but I really had not imagined myself as a pastor. Doug and I prayed about it for one year. And with all of the questions and all the queasy anxiety, we had a peace about saying yes to God. We did not know how it would all work out, but God has indeed led us one step at a time over the past ten years. And when the road gets rough and even when I fail, God is always there to help.

When Jeremiah pushed back against God’s call, God said, “Do not say I am only a boy” (Jer 1:7). Do not say I am too young. Do not say I am unqualified. Do not say I do not know enough. Do not say I don’t have the right words. Do not say I can’t do that.

The Apostle Paul assures us “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).

Not everyone is called to be a prophet or a pastor. But God does have a calling on each and every person’s life. The Spirit discloses to you and to me some gift of being with God and others that gives us a sense of joy in serving God. That joy is not merely happiness; it is a keener awareness of God’s grace.

That gift might be the ability to offer words of wisdom and encouragement out there in the world – on the sports field, at work, or at the post office. Maybe you have the gift of teaching at home, in schools, in the neighborhood Bible study or here at church. Maybe you have gifts of healing to serve in the medical field. Maybe you have the gift of discernment when it comes making decisions. Maybe you have the gift of music or creativity with dance, art or writing. Maybe you have the gift of empathy which gives others a shoulder to lean on. Maybe you have the gift of mercy and you can sit with that grieving friend in long moments of silence. God gives us many gifts and activities so that God’s glory might shine through us and bring about the common good of the kingdom.

Right now maybe God is nudging you to do a new thing in your life to hone your unique gifts. Or maybe right now you are reflecting back when you first felt God call you to serve in a very particular way. Our first response is usually feeling terrified and anxious.

Author Marianne Robinson says this word of encouragement:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

God knew each of us before we were formed in the womb. God knows the gifts which will be bestowed upon each of us. God knows the right timing to help us hone these God-given abilities. God will show us the next right step even when we fail. God is the only one that already knows our fullest potential to shine the Light of Christ and encourage others in the power of Holy Spirit.

When you begin to feel God nudging, then listen to the whispers of the Spirit. Do not make yourself small and immediately say, “God I am just ________.”

Do not let fear or unworthiness or insecurity paralyze you. Keep a healthy sense of humility for it reminds us that God alone equips us when God calls us to do a new thing or the same thing in a new way. Your baptism and the claim God has upon your life is sufficient for your calling.

God always has the last word in these situations. And God says, “Do not be afraid of what I am asking you to do today. Do not be afraid of where I am sending you. Pray. Trust. Confide in others for discernment. But know...know with your head and your heart that I am with you to deliver you” (adapted from Jeremiah 1:8).

May it be so for us.

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

Source Referenced:
Marianne Williamson, "A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of 'A Course in Miracles'" (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sermon: In His Hands

"In His Hands"
Isaiah 5: 1-7; Luke 12: 49-56 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2016

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!
- Isaiah 5: 1-7

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
- Luke 12: 49-56


The prophet Isaiah paints a poetic picture. God has the whole world in his hands as we sang in our previous hymn. The people of God are imaged as a vineyard and God is singing a song of deep and abiding love over them. God’s hands are certainly bigger than we can imagine. They hold the people of God with great care.

God’s hands dig deep into the spiritual earth with great joy to prepare a fertile ground for the hopes and dreams of this great vineyard. Isaiah says God’s hands created rows, fenced boundaries, and cleared the foreseen obstacles for the vineyard to grow and thrive. And then the spiritual soil was ready to receive the finest seeds that would produce the richest fruit. God creates out of a lavish love and desires for the vineyard to bear good fruit.

And then God takes two more steps in hopes that God’s dream is sustainable. God built a watch tower in the midst of the vineyard as a reminder that God is a trusted refuge. God invites a sense of community for others to keep watch in the tower to participate in discerning the vineyard’s needs and vitality. And last a wine vat was placed for the community to taste and see the abundance of good fruit coming forth.

This image of God’s hands as a master gardener recalls to my mind humankind’s story in Genesis with God forming our beginning from the dust. God shaped humanity from the clay of the earth and breathed new life into us (Genesis 2:7). God planted a garden in Eden for humanity to live in relationship with God (Genesis 2:8). Even as God looked at the work of God’s hands and called it good, we remember our spiritual parents sowed wild seeds of disobedience and crossed the boundaries of God’s will (Genesis 3: 1-7). At that moment our story to seek God’s redemption began.

History always has a way of repeating itself. As God’s heart and hands joyfully prepared for another garden of rich fruit in Isaiah's communal vineyard, the fine and rich seeds grew wild. Instead of fruit that bore justice and righteousness (doing right and living in right relationships with God and one another), the fruit bore oppression and cries of despair.

Instead of the fruit growing upwards into the Creator’s lavish and unconditional love, the fruit’s disobedience prevented it from reaching its potential. The Creator looked at the creation of wild grapes and instead of hearing God say, “It is good,” Isaiah says God was disappointed and heartbroken. God says, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

When I was a child and growing up there was only one thing that would stop me in my tracks when I had not lived by the house rules. It was not a time out. It was not being grounded. That one thing was to hear my father say that I had disappointed him. When these moments happened my dad would take me aside to talk and he would always speak in a loving voice. Sitting in that space made me sad to know that my actions hurt others and hurt him. But that space always encouraged me to do better next time. Isaiah’s vineyard parable creates a space for us to reflect on the ways our broken human condition needs a pathway towards forgiveness and redemption.

While you and I still miss the mark sometimes, even as we experience disappointments, even as we sow wild seeds that hurt ourselves, others, and God we come into God’s House to be assured that we are still held in God’s hands. Later on in the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the way in which God turns this vineyard around with the promise of salvation (Isaiah 27: 1-6). God’s voice sings over this vineyard once again for the Lord is its keeper. God guards it day and night so that no one can harm it. God sings for the vineyard to cling to God for protection for this vineyard will fill the whole world with fruit.

Today as we come to the Table we are reminded once again of God’s promise of salvation. The lavish love of God put on the vulnerability of humanity in Jesus Christ to meet us where we are. In doing so, God fashioned a new hope that we might truly experience the very hands and heart of God in life giving ways. Christ came and lived among us to be an example of how to grow more fully into God’s intentions.

Christ’s hands care for all of God’s children with compassion that comes alongside us with hope. Christ’s heart guides us to approach each day in a new commitment to follow God’s ways. Christ’s feet lead us on the path to do what is right for the sake of right relationships that encourage us in God’s love. Christ’s example breaks down the walls that we build to compartmentalize our life and faith. Christ urges our faith to touch every aspect of our lives - our relationships and commitments - so that our families, our work, and our spirits are united in God’s hopes and dreams to bear nothing but good fruit.

Today as we gather around God’s Table of lavish love and hospitality I want you to imagine the very hands of God.

As we break the bread of life reflect where has God been nurturing your spirit? When have you heard God singing a song of joy in your heart? Where are you hungry to experience God’s presence?

As we take the cup of salvation reflect upon the places of your own spiritual soil that seem parched and dry. What in your life has become an obstruction for good fruit to take root and grow? Where might God’s hands break up and remove the disappointing rocks and weeds that are weighing upon your spirit? Where might God’s hands rework your spiritual soil to bring forth new life?

As we break the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation remember the hands of God have been stretched out upon the cross so that our brokenness may be held and reshaped and resurrected by God’s redeeming grace. These hands that hold the whole world with care and compassion create a space for us to acknowledge our brokenness. These hands encourage us to stand tall as the body of Christ and partner with God’s hope to bring about a new kingdom where justice and righteousness are the good fruit for all to taste and see God’s goodness. These hands invite us to be nourished and strengthened by the bread and cup in order to go and bring about this good fruit through and for one another.

He’s got the whole world in his hands. May we sing so others may hear and experience the song of God’s lavish love too.

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


Monday, August 8, 2016

Sermon: Filling the Gap

"Filling the Gap"
Isaiah 1: 1-3, 10-20; Luke 12: 32-40
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016


The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
- Isaiah 1: 1-3, 10-20

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Watchful Slaves

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
- Luke 12: 32-40

As the words of the prophet begin, I can hear the iconic Law and Order bells ringing the call for justice: Dun Dun. The bells prepare us for a sobering scene of why justice is needed. There is a backstory that leads to a courtroom hearing. Judah has fallen into a cyclical pattern that has been ongoing for generations. It is systemic. Judah moves along the right path for a spell and then falls off the wagon, so to speak. The pressures and influences of the surrounding cultures have long clouded Judah’s judgment and Judah wavers in taking the next right step in faith. Judah lives with the consequences for a while and then prays for deliverance and promises to do better. Throughout the generations God’s people are on the wagon and then off the wagon in habits of faith that help and then habits of unfaithfulness that hurt.

Now Judah has blood on their hands by living in poor decisions and corrupt behavior that has affected the livelihood of the most vulnerable. Judah has turned inward and complacent. Judah has turned a blind eye to being agents of God’s justice. Judah had not loved the stranger for they were once strangers oppressed in Egypt. God’s deliverance called Judah to live in a particular way but their complacency resulted in a corrupted heart.

The camera leaves the streets and pans into the doors of a courtroom. Judah takes the seat of the defendant and squirms in the hard wooden seat. What is so startling is that both the plaintiff’s and judge’s seats behold the voice of Almighty God. The divine plaintiff stands up to address the court and loudly summons heaven and earth as witnesses for this trial. The Jewish tradition held that you need two witnesses and of course heaven and earth had seen it all from the beginning of time. The voice of Almighty God speaks with a broken heart of the defendant’s actions and states the charges that have been filed.

“I have reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). The charge is that “God’s people do not know, they do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). The people are not being charged for ignorance. The people were being charged with breaking their covenant relationship with God. This covenant through Moses tethered the people to an eternal relationship with God and one another. The people of God have forgotten their raising, as we say in the South. They have forgotten who they are and whose they are. They have forgotten how to live according to God’s grace with a particular intentionality.

You see the problem was this: the religious leaders and the people of God had become beyond complacent in their faith response. Rituals of worship become divorced from the heart of God’s will. Faith was no longer a vessel to pour out God’s just and righteous love into lives outside of the temple that were desperate for change. Judah’s worship lost its relevance to God’s message of hope for a hurting community. The gap was widening between faith that praises God and faith that practices godly ways [1]. When the gap is due to the condition of human sin, God is justified in God’s sentence and blameless when God passes judgment (Psalm 51:4). We said these very words about God’s judgment together in the prayer of confession.

To think of God as a righteous judge makes us squirm in our seats. For years this image of God made me beyond uncomfortable. I would wonder how could I possibly measure up to a God of judgement. I would much rather hear about a God of grace, mercy and love. And yet when we come into God’s presence we are to remember that we are all held within the tension of God’s judgment and God’s grace. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. While we may deserve to hear the gavel come down with a harsh sentence as Isaiah hints to, God chooses grace over the gavel. God gives instruction on how to be turned back to God and how to take the next right step.

The next right step is seeking what the Lord requires. Isaiah directs us to hear God’s hope: “Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend and plead for the most vulnerable – the orphans and the widows” (Isaiah 1:17).

I love the way Micah prophesies it: “What does the Lord require but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). I once taught this verse to children at Vacation Bible School and I broke the meaning down in this way: justice is doing what is right; kindness is more than being nice – it is the love of serving others; and humility is to always give God the credit when we help someone.

What Isaiah and Micah are getting us to think about is this. Taking the next right step means that we all need to do a faith check. We need to see the gap that stands between our praise of God and our practice of God’s ways. And then we need to be focused to fill it. Filling the gap is not an easy thing to do. It takes intentionality and attentiveness. Filling the gap means not just talking the talk but also walking the walk.

During my first call in ministry I served as an Associate Pastor for Young Adults and Outreach. I loved finding ways to intersect life and faith with my young adults. I also loved building relationships with individuals and groups across denominational lines and organizations. I still love this ecumenical aspect of ministry.

One Sunday evening I came alongside a group of young adults and youth to prepare and serve dinner to 50 to 75 guests of the Salvation Army Shelter. Before dinner was served our service team gathered for instructions and prayer. I encouraged our group to welcome our guests with smiles and a warm welcome. Make eye contact. And when everyone is served then go out and sit next to a guest and talk with him or her.

Not all of the Salvation Army dinner guests were homeless. They were also men, women, and children who were trying to make ends meet and needed a hand up for a hot meal. The guests were white, black, and Hispanic too. Some were dressed nicely and some had threadbare clothes and holes in their shoes. Not everyone sitting at the cafeteria tables wanted to talk that night. And not everyone who volunteered to serve dinner felt comfortable walking up to a total stranger and starting up a conversation.

You will never guess what filled the gap that evening. It was Bingo. Good ole fashioned Bingo. As folks were finishing their dinner the youth and young adults disposed of trash and passed out Bingo cards to our guests and volunteers alike. We all came together to sit at the cafeteria style tables. And as the B-5’s and the G-16’s were called, we slowly had folks across the room shouting BINGO! And then came the genuine smiles and giggles.

As the game progressed each Bingo winner was invited to come forward to select a prize from the big basket. The prizes were wrapped in colorful wrapping paper and ribbon. The items ranged from candy to personal hygiene products to small games. One woman came forward to select her item and she just hugged it; glad to have a gift just for her. A man gave his prize to a young child who had not won a game. That night every person seemed to feel the joy of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

And as I watched the game continue, I was amazed that a simple game of Bingo could break down our diverse demographic walls and make each of us feel like and act like children of God. Now Bingo will not solve everything and it will not bring about God’s justice in full force. But on that evening God’s Spirit was present and I felt the kingdom of God break in as we sought to do right by loving our neighbors, serving others, giving God the credit, and seeing Christ in each other’s eyes.

For God justice is an action of love. It is primary in order to bring about God’s intentions for reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. Justice for the weak and vulnerable was of the utmost importance to God for it hinges on who God is. God set his heart in love on our spiritual ancestors alone and chose us out of all the peoples. The Lord our God is mighty and is not partial and takes no bribe. God executes justice for the orphan and the widow and loves the strangers providing them food and clothing.

We also are to express love to these specific neighbors for our spiritual ancestors were once vulnerable strangers in the land of Egypt and God’s compassion delivered them (Deuteronomy 10:15, 17-19). God’s unconditional love put on the thin skin of humanity in Jesus Christ to show us how to be dressed for compassionate action too. Therefore our commitment matters to keep in step with Gods’ dream for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

We fill the gap between our praise of God and practice of faith by seeking to do what is right in the community through the power of relationships. Ask the Spirit to open our eyes to those who are vulnerable in our backyards. Be willing to listen to our neighbor’s stories of what life is like from their unique perspectives. Pray for God to reveal the needs that our gifts can meet with compassion that empowers and strengthens our community.

Maybe justice looks like caring for the widow next door with meals and rides to the doctor. Maybe justice looks like mentoring a child at school who needs help with reading or math and proof that someone cares because no one in his home does. Maybe justice looks like a Bookmobile with storytime, cookies and lemonade, and children who cannot buy books or get to the library are invited to receive a book and the joy of learning in community. Maybe justice looks like dimes that pour out to stop hunger. Maybe justice looks like Bingo where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

Isaiah’s words are sobering. Sometimes Scripture gives us comfort and sometimes it pushes us out of our comfort zones. May you and I take heed to Isaiah’s challenge to see the gaps between our praise and practice as individuals and as a church. Do you know what is at stake for us? The way in which you and I praise and practice God’s unconditional love and compassion. God’s reputation is on the line. And it is our highest calling to reflect God's love in all things. Thankfully Christ shows us the way. So let us go and fill the gap.

In the name of our Father, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:
Artwork by Stuart Shelby
[1] Stacey Simpson Duke’s Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 “Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 318.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: Teach Us to Pray

"Teach Us to Pray"
Psalm 85; Luke 11: 1-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2016

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
Selah
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.
- Psalm 85

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
- Luke 11: 1 - 13



Charles Schultz captured some poignant moments of real life through the eyes of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. One cartoon frames a conversation between Charlie Brown and his dear friend Lucy as he seeks a little life counseling. You remember Lucy - the neighborhood psychologist who likes to shake the can of loose change at her ten cents booth.

“Life is like a deck chair, Charlie.” She says. “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.”

The doctor looks at Charlie, who now looks confused, and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitating, Charlie Brown replies in his gloomy voice, “I've never been able to get one unfolded.” [1]

I rarely meet someone who has not had some difficulty unfolding their deck chair of life. I have had my own struggles too – even wanting to throw that chair into the ocean.

But consider the chair in a theological sense…how do we unfold our spirituality or our prayer life? It gives us an amazing frame of reference to view the journey of life and faith, both where we have been and where we are going. Sometimes the journey gets dry or rough or painful or just plain confusing. If you have struggled to unfold your prayer life do not worry because you are not alone. We are all in good company with Charlie Brown and also with the disciples.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke the disciples saw and heard Jesus’ prayer life. When you follow a Rabbi you share a communal life every day. You get to really know someone when you live with them 24/7. The disciples learned Jesus’ every move. They saw Jesus teach, proclaim, heal, and reach out to the least. They also saw Jesus withdraw many times to quiet places to draw near to God. And oftentimes Jesus was within a stone’s throw from the disciples. And so one day as Jesus was praying in a certain place, one of the disciples asks the Rabbi to teach them to pray.

The only two gospels that share this story are Luke and Matthew. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 9-15). The prayer itself is longer and it is prefaced with a warning to not pray with a high piety but to have a humble trust that God knows our needs before we ask. Matthew’s version sounds more similar to the Lord’s Prayer we recite each week after our Prayers for the People.

But Luke’s Gospel is a bit different. It is simple and direct. It is prefaced with a theme of responding to God’s hospitality in Luke chapter 10. The more I read it and study it the more I wonder if the disciples were searching for the words to pray like the Rabbi. The goal of the disciple was to be like the Rabbi in every way. Maybe Luke is showing us how to unfold our prayers when we are taking steps to grow in our faith or even when we do not have the words, communally or individually.

Jesus gives us words to approach God in prayer. Jesus teaches his disciples and us that the Lord’s way of prayer is a spiritual posture. It confesses our need for a spiritual relationship with God. Christ invites us to place our wholehearted trust in his Father and ours to seek four things in prayer: a foundational relationship, kingdom living, daily provisions, and deliverance from anything that threatens our faith or trust in God’s daily presence.

The words Jesus prays are pregnant with meaning to bear new life into our spirits. The first words from Jesus’ lips are “Father, hallowed by your name” (verse 2). There is a sense of gratitude for who God is and what God does. Jesus had an intimate relationship with God and knew that God loved him even before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). At his baptism, Jesus prayed as the Holy Spirit anointed him for God’s purposes (Luke 3:21). And we are claimed and adopted through Christ as children of God (Ephesians 1:5).

Even as we seek an intimate relationship with God - this God is also holy, set apart, and worthy of our praise no matter what our circumstances entail. This God is so great because of a divine steadfast love in which we can one hundred percent depend on. This God is so great because God’s love sustains and provides for our needs. This God is so great because God’s love will never fail us. And so we too begin to unfold our prayer seeking this foundational relationship that Jesus claims us in.

As Jesus points to how great God is, he moves us to pray about kingdom living with the words, “Your kingdom come” (verse 2). Proclaiming these words was Jesus main message to a community who longed to know God was at work in the world (Luke 4:43). Jesus ushers in an upside-down kingdom which his mother Mary sung about. The Spirit moved Mary at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel to sing with a voice of conviction that God’s kingdom is coming through God’s Son. God’s kingdom brings mercy and strength, it scatters the proud, it lifts up the lowly, it feeds the hungry, it sends the rich away empty when God’s gifts are abused (Luke 1:51-53).

And so we claim the same voice of conviction as Jesus and Mary. No matter how unjust or torn life seems to be in our world or in our homes we are taught to continue praying for God’s kingdom to come. We are taught to pray with boldness that God’s kingdom will restore our brokenness by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. We may not fully see it today, but we are to trust God’s righteousness will look down from the sky and the Lord will give what is good (Psalm 85: 11-12). And Jesus invites you and me to take God’s hand and join in this daily work of revealing glimpses of the kingdom.

As Jesus reminds us the kingdom will continue to unfold in God’s timing, he moves us to prayerfully lean into a deeper trust of receiving our daily provisions of bread and forgiveness (verses 3-4b). Jesus’ eyes were always opened to those who were lacking the bread of life. Jesus walked the streets to meet real needs. Jesus was also aware of the ways God helps to provide spiritual nourishment to prepare in doing God’s work, to make decisions, and to recharge the soul. Jesus would pray for all these things in his ministry (Luke 4:42-43; 6:12; 5:16).

Jesus also knew that the condition of human sin obstructs and limits our ability to nourish this gift of faith. Forgiveness is as much of a daily need and provision as bread is. The unconditional love of Christ strengthens us to tell God we are sorry even as we are forgiving others that have hurt us. For we we have already been loved, strengthened, and forgiven through Christ. The mystery of God’s will is that it is by God’s good pleasure to give us the bread of life and the gift of forgiveness (Ephesians 1: 7-9). Our prayer for these daily provisions unfolds a little more as we remember Jesus’ sacrificial love.

As Jesus reminds us that God sustains our spirits with daily provisions, he moves us to pray for deliverance, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (verse 4c). Jesus knew about trials and temptations. He was tempted in the desert to stop relying on God (Luke 4: 1-13). He was in conflict with the religious authorities. As the shadow of the cross drew closer, Jesus told the disciples to pray that they might not come to the time of trial. And then Jesus took to his knees and began earnestly praying for his own (Luke 22: 40-41, 44).

And what I find most meaningful in Jesus’ prayer for deliverance is that he says to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

Any threat to our faith or our trust in God’s presence is scary. The trials that we endure test us to the very core. We may feel weak and waver in our faith as Peter did. But Jesus moves us to stand in his strength and pray for God to lead us by the right road. And when we fail, God’s grace is there to turn us back and restore us. If Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith to not fail, he prays that for us too.

Jesus moves us to encourage one another and stand in the strength of his words – the Lord’s Prayer – and persevere. The more we clothe ourselves with Christ to ask, search, and knock for a way to let go of the past, embrace the present, and reach towards the future then God will surely give the gift of Holy Spirit to us. And God’s Spirit promises to embrace us, sustain us, and guide us into God’s kingdom promises.

I once heard the author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor ask the question, “What is saving your life right now?” I find the question so thought provoking. Everyone has a different answer which makes the question to relatable. Try it and ask the question to someone this week and wait to be encouraged and even blessed by their answer.

But for now I will share with you what is saving my life recently. I find the quiet moments of reading Scripture save me. I do not claim to have any closer relationship to God than you do. Remember I have trouble unfolding that deck chair of life just as much as you do!

But to be still and listen for Scripture - like our texts from Psalm 85 and Luke 11 today. To listen for God’s Word to shape my words to talk with God; to listen for the Spirit read my own life and speak back to me – that is enough. That is saving me when I am experiencing the communal and personal cruise ship of life with you all– when I am rejoicing with you, when I am struggling with you, and when I am looking out at the churning waves with a quiet trust that God is listening.

Because in Jesus’ words I hear such a simple prayer to keep in the pocket of our hearts through it all:

Dear God,
Thank you for loving us as your daughters and sons.
Help us to see you in the world.
Give our bodies, minds, and hearts what they need to live and thrive.
Forgive us when we hurt you and help us to be forgiving those who hurt us.
Deliver us from anything that threatens our trust in you.


May it be so for each of us.

In the name of our Father, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.



Sources Referenced or Read for Sermon Preparation:

[1] Michael Yaconelli, “Messy Spirituality” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 2007), p. 32.

New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VIII: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 194.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sermon: Choosing the Better Part

"Choosing the Better Part"
Psalm 15; Luke 10: 38 - 42 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
- Psalm 15



Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ - Luke 10: 38-42


Martha and Mary. The sisters. These two ladies seem so easy to relate to. We see glimpses of their genuine relationship through the various gospel accounts. They shared a close relationship with each other and with their brother Lazarus. They were very good friends with Jesus. It was in their home that Jesus found a place of welcome and respite. We even see a bit of sibling rivalry here in Luke’s story. Martha tells Jesus to make her sister step up her game to help and properly welcome him as a guest. Martha must have had a bit of Southern charm in her, don’t you agree?

But here in Luke’s story I have a hard time elevating one sister’s behavior over the other. We have all heard it said before that we need to be more like Mary than Martha. But the sisters share two different sides of our very selves that we all can identify with, whether we are male or female. Martha enjoys doing for others. Mary enjoys just being still. The parallel of their differences is similar to that of extraverts and introverts. Extraverts get energy from being with other people while introverts get energy from being alone. We all have a bit of extravert and introvert in us. We may prefer one over the other. However, we have a need for both and on our best days we seek balancing the two in our daily living.

Martha and Mary allude to the two parts of our faith that inform one another as we seek to follow Christ. One part of our faith is more outward. It is the extension of hospitality from our hearts and hands through our ministries of care to others. It is what Martha was so deeply focused on as she welcomed Christ into her home as her neighbor, friend, and Lord. Martha set her eyes on the tasks of serving. The Greek word here for tasks is where we get the English word deacon and diaconate – or ministry of care. Martha sets her eyes on serving Christ and others with such care and with such faithfulness.

The other part of our faith is more inward. It is our ability to receive divine hospitality given by the very heart and hands of God. We receive God’s hospitality as spiritual direction from our Teacher and Lord. It is what Mary is so deeply focused on as she sits at the feet of Christ and listens to what he is saying to her.

Have you ever wondered just what Jesus was saying to Mary that caused her to hang on Jesus’ every word?

It has been a real question for me this week. Throughout Luke’s tenth chapter Jesus says a lot to his disciples.

As the chapter begins he sends seventy followers out on God’s mission. Jesus shares the realities of the hard work that lies ahead: “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). Do you hear Jesus implying that there are times the disciples will feel overwhelmed by thinking there is not enough joint effort? Doesn't that sound familiar to the story of Martha and Mary?

Jesus goes on to say: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10: 8-9). Do you hear Jesus imply to go out and receive hospitality in the homes you visit but also extend God’s hospitality with ministries of care? That sounds familiar too.

Jesus told the disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10: 23-24). Do you hear Jesus implying how the disciples are being trained to pay attention to God’s divine instruction? Do you hear and see a connection?

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to the lawyer and the disciples (Luke 10: 27-28). Just last week we heard Jesus imply that if we love God and neighbor through the virtue of compassion then we will truly live by having an active life in the kingdom of God.

And the continuous thread seems to be on following God’s mission of hospitality in a prayerful and yet prudent way. “Luke’s Gospel uses hospitality as a social context for the spread of the Christian message” (Mikeal C. Parsons, Working Preacher)

I cannot help but wonder as the ceramic pots and wooden spoons were clinging and clanging in the kitchen if Jesus was taking the opportunity to disciple Mary - and Martha too - on the beautiful gift of God’s hospitality. We hear Martha trying to faithfully extend it and we see Mary is trying to faithfully receive it. “Blessed are those who hear and see what you hear and see” (Luke 10:23) In order for us to follow Jesus’ example of serving others we must also taste and experience God’s spiritual goodness, God's hospitality. We must make room to empty ourselves and cleanse our palates so that we might be filled with God’s fruit of the Spirit to share in service with others.

Teresa of Avila is one of my heroines from church history. She was one of the first female reformers of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. She was the founder of the Carmelite Monastery where monks and nuns, respectively, would work the land in spiritual community as well as devote their entire lives to God in service and prayer. Teresa knew firsthand the life of faith was embraced by receiving and extending God’s hospitality. This is what Teresa says of Martha and Mary:

Seek prayer and engage in prayer not for your own pleasure but to gain the strength to serve God. We must be like both Martha and Mary if we are to show true hospitality to God.[1]

Jesus wants his disciples to prayerfully focus on what we see and hear from God’s hospitality. In order to do so we must seek to balance service to others with sitting at Jesus’ feet. We cannot love our neighbor in God’s hospitable grace without taking time to love God and receive God’s hospitable grace ourselves. We cannot know which steps lead to an active life in the kingdom of God without taking the time to listen to for Jesus’ spiritual direction.

Some days all the work that we pour our faith into seems more of a distraction than true service to others. Even as we try to be the church and plug ourselves into ministries of care where our gifts intersect the needs around us, the needs of the world press in and overwhelm us. We ask ourselves – how can I possibly help to change the world by myself? How can I extend God’s hospitality with my own efforts to make a difference? How can one act of compassion be exponential in a world that is hurting so much? Who will help me? Who will help us? Who will share our interest to be the active body of Christ? Because even Jesus said the harvest is plenty but the laborers are few (Luke 10:2).

It is in these moments of worry and anxiety that we literally feel pulled apart. And it is in these “Martha moments” that it is so very important for us to seek to balance service with stillness. We must claim these “Mary moments” to be still and listen for God’s Spirit and attune ourselves to that very still and very small voice. A ministry colleague of mine said just this week, “Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out God’s grace to others. Repeat as needed.”

The core truth of breathing in and breathing out God’s grace, God's hospitality is this: God’s hospitality is relational and it always seeks a posture of grace that is reciprocal. This is why the command to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves is so important. It hinges upon the reciprocity of God’s gracious and compassionate hospitality.

As a result, the life of faith involves both intentional action and prayerful reflection. Consider your own journey in following our Rabbi and Lord. How are you doing in seeking the balance between action and reflection, service and stillness, mission and prayer?

Maybe you are knee deep in the harvest and feeling overwhelmed. Christ says blessed are those who hear and see. So listen and look for Christ guiding you to focus less on the distant field and focus more upon your immediate circle of influence where your heart and hands might touch the lives of others - or even just one life.

Maybe the Spirit is nudging you to go out and build new relationships with a different area of the community. Listen and look for opportunities where Christ may be guiding you to receive and extend hospitality on the front porch, at the post office, in the grocery store. The gift of welcome is often found in very ordinary and surprising places if we are open to the Spirit’s leading.

Maybe you have been listening and hanging on Jesus’ every word for a while now and you are seeking the courage to go and put the gift of these words into action. Listen and look for the ordinary intersections to put faith in motion in authentic ways.

The wonder and awe of following in the footsteps of the Rabbi is for us to discern when to choose the better part. We know when to choose the better part as we seek to balance service and stillness. Listen to what Jesus is saying to disciple you and me. Look for the ways Jesus is building us up as the body of Christ.

A life of faithful discipleship is to both receive and extend God’s hospitable grace to spread the gospel message. For in Jesus Christ the gospel in on the move and we are to move with it. May it be so for us.

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


Sources Referenced:
Artwork, "Martha and Mary," by He Qi
[1] "A Little Daily Wisdom: A Year with Saint Teresa of Avila" (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2011), devotion entry June 17

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Do This and You Will Live

"Do This and You Will Live"
Deuteronomy 30: 9-14; Luke 10: 25-37
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
- Deuteronomy 30:9-14


Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

- Luke 10: 25-37


The Parable of the Good Samaritan is more than helping the one stranded on the roadside. Don’t get me wrong, helping others is always a good thing. Many of us have been personally indebted to the kindness of strangers. But Luke’s Gospel flexes some scriptural muscle. Jesus’ story moves us to reflect upon the Christian journey and our guide or compass being the Greatest Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). If we are to truly follow Christ’s compass then it will ultimately do two things. There is no doubt the compass will lead us along life’s rocky path, testing our Christian ethics. The compass will also reveal how we find true life in the kingdom of God.

Luke sets the stage by sharing the lawyer’s motivation for asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer, an expert of Moses’ Law (the first five books of the Bible), wanted to justify himself or to declare himself guiltless. And in true Jesus fashion the lawyer’s question is answered with a parable – a story that intersects ordinary life with a hidden truth.

The road leading from Jerusalem to Jericho is a dangerous path that stretches 17 miles. It descends nearly 3,300 feet with many tricky twists and turns [1]. This winding and narrow path held many hiding places to camouflage bandits and thieves. And so a man – who could have been any one of us – was walking along the road when he fell to the hands of robbers and was left for dead. Both the priest and Levite pass by the man in the ditch. They were probably more concerned about keeping their hands clean than rolling up their sleeves to tend to one in need.

But the Samaritan stops in his tracks. The seat of his emotions is moved by compassion and he lifts up this man like his own brother in empathetic care. The Samaritan took the time to see and bind his brother’s wounds. The Samaritan made the effort to carry his brother from harm’s way to a more secure place.

The Samaritan was not who the lawyer or the disciples expected in Jesus’ story. They expected one of their own, an Israelite. It was counter-cultural and even scandalous for Jesus to name a Samaritan as the one who would point to the example of living out the Greatest Commandment. The Samaritan already knew the pain of being passed by. He was marginalized as an outcast by the people of Israel because of cultural differences. The historical division between the Israelites and the Samaritans was a long standing one. And despite these divisions, the Samaritan chose to look upon the stranger in the ditch with love and not hate. The Samaritan was a neighbor because he chose to act out of compassion and love.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan haunts me. I think about the one who was left for dead and exactly who it was that extended compassion. The last time I preached this text was three years ago (it was a completely different sermon) when the jury was making a final decision regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. It was the lectionary text that Sunday. It is the lectionary text today. And this week the nation has been in shock learning the details of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. This weekend our nation has been in shock with the shootings of the police officers in Dallas, Texas at a peaceful protest.

The black community is crying out with tears of lament, tears of compassion, tears of suffering with one another - for all these that have fallen to the hands of racial injustice. And the black community is waiting for the white community and the Church Universal to listen and learn from their experience of what it is like to be black. The black community is waiting for you and me to stand with them in solidarity, to extend compassion, and to seek hope together.

Rev. Denise Anderson is one of the newly elected Co-Moderators for the 222nd General Assembly. She is a black pastor in our predominately white denomination. This week she challenged all white Presbyterian clergy with these words: “Talk to other white people about your racism, how you were socialized, and engage with people of color.”

While I find Anderson’s words encouraging and even liberating, they also terrify me.

My first exposure to the sin of racism was as a child hearing an extended family member calling blacks by a derogative word. I am grateful my parents denounced that language but I lament that I still hear that word in my mind. Growing up I learned to treat all people with respect but throughout my life I have heard society’s narrative stereotyping people of color as not being smart enough and being suspicious. I have close black friends and neighbors who are brilliant and beyond trustworthy but when I am alone I question my safety as a black man passes me by. I have loved learning about different ethnicities and cultures since high school, but I recognize that I have this sinful racial prejudice within me and I wrestle with it.

I try to learn about the experiences of my black sisters and brothers because I will never fully know what it is like to walk in their shoes because of my white privilege. I teach my children to show respect and compassion to everyone and to appreciate human diversity. It gives me hope that my children have close friends who are of different races and nationalities. We invite these friends into our home and I hope and pray for the day when all our differences are more appreciated than feared.

The Greatest Commandment to love God and to love neighbor as self closes the distance between our hurts and differences because compassion is that powerful. God completely embodied the word “compassion” in drawing near to us in the person of Jesus Christ by suffering alongside us, by suffering for us, and ultimately dying for us. Therefore God’s command to love seeks to break down the walls of hostility that stem from places of our misunderstanding, sin, and judgment.

Compassion moves us to love like God does. It makes room in our hearts to feel one another’s hurts and to love the image of God in others. God’s love is a compass that guides us to approach our fallen sisters or brothers of color because their hurt does indeed affect us. God’s love urges us to resist passing by and resist being silent and to humbly do better. The Greatest Commandment is God’s heartbeat that pulses with a divine will for love and reconciliation. When we follow the direction of this compass to love God and to love neighbor as self, then you and I will live.

Do this and you and I will live because we will experience God’s gift of life which is to see our shared common humanity in one another. Do this and you will live because striving to see Christ in one another is what it looks like to have an active life in the kingdom of God.

The text from Deuteronomy says, “Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it far away…The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30: 11,14).

Surely to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor is not too hard because Jesus Christ embodies God’s ultimate desire and way of life for us. The Spirit is always ready and present to guide us in Jesus’ teaching which is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet...and yet when Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robber?” the lawyer cannot even utter the word, “Samaritan.” Did you catch that in reading the text? The lawyer can only find words to say “The one - that other one - who showed mercy.”

If we are honest I think we can see - and I know we should see - a bit of ourselves in the lawyer’s response. I know this text convicts me personally. The lawyer creates a thin space for us to see our own biases and prejudices and sin even as we hope to do better and be more Christ like. We do not want to hear this but God's Word convicts us.

Luke’s text moves us to a place of humble confession. We cannot use our faith to justify ourselves as guiltless for we all have difficulties living out God’s love. We all have difficulties loving our neighbor who has a different ethnicity or even religion than ours. Despite the challenging condition of human sin to live by the Rule of Love, we must do better. Unity takes a lot of intentionality, reflection, and grace.

There is still much to be done in our specific community, in our country, and in our world in this ministry of reconciliation. Racial and religious reconciliation are hard to talk about. However, reconciliation is the heartbeat of God’s will and it is the pulse of the gospel. As Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us because in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

June 22, 2016 the 222nd General Assembly voted to adopt the Belhar Confession into part of our constitution, the Book of Confessions. Our creeds and confessions affirm what we believe about God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. They are also like snapshots of the greater Reformed church family in specific periods of history naming what the Church Universal is called to do in response to God’s Word.

Belhar was written in 1986 as the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa lifted her voice in the choir of the Church Universal. Belhar confesses the Church’s purpose to be an agent of God’s reconciliation in order to fully live into God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ. The sin of apartheid threatened the integrity of the gospel and the Church by causing great racial injustice in South Africa.

As Reformed Christians we identify with the hard realities of racial injustice within our own American history. We continue to seek a posture of humility and a resolve for justice as the body of Christ to bring healing and unity for all. The Belhar Confession moves through three articles and we will affirm our faith with a portion of it this morning. Listen to these opening words of the first two articles in light of our biblical texts today:

We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects
and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the
beginning of the world and will do to the end.
We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints
called from the entire human family.
We believe
• that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the
community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one
another;
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus
Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet
simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one
which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.


I pray we would go out today seeking a posture of humility and compassion to be a neighbor like the Samaritan, to bear God’s message of reconciliation, and to build up one another so that we might attain it.

I pray we will risk the time and effort to reflect on the hard conversation of race by considering our own difficult journeys, by reaching across the aisles in our church to share our stories with each other in humility, and by crossing the streets in our community to speak to our neighbors of color with love.

When faith seeks understanding it makes a way forward to stand in the strength of compassion. For if we do this then we will live.

May it be so. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Sources Referenced:

Artwork, "The Good Samaritan," by He Qi (2001)

[1] The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VIII: Luke, John" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 189.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon Series: Sabbath as Resilience

"Sabbath Sermon Series: Resilience"
Matthew 11:28–30 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2016

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

- Matthew 11: 28-30

My first real job after college graduation was in restaurant management. I had worked with a casual dining company through my college years as a server waiting tables. I was grateful to be promoted to Associate Manager. I loved working in hospitality, with a team, and with good food. I had the privilege of hiring and training wait staff. I wrote the weekly schedule for about 35 employees. I was called to speak with our patrons when they sang the kitchen’s praises and also when they grumbled if the food or service was not up to par. My favorite part of my job was working back in the kitchen with our cooks to prepare food. We would sing with the radio and I would occasionally grab a few copper foil sheets and make Wonder Woman wristlets and headbands. Hospitality was not just for the patrons, it was also to build up the team of 70 employees.

There was also the work that was not fun, like terminating employees, breaking up fights in the bar, and the administrative details that come with any management position. A work week easily added up to somewhere between sixty and seventy hours. It was easy to hit a breaking point with all the stress and demands. In those days I worked all the time and I did not have a broad support system. Too much stress quickly led to forced rest by a weakened immune system and illness.

Back then I did not understand what true rest should have looked like as a twenty-something, other than sleep. But as I look back through the last forty plus years of the shared human experience, I realize that all of us have a hard time finding true rest when our noses are to the grind stone. The average American works over 55 hours a week now. The more we work, the more our stress weighs upon us a burden. Stress compromises our well-being physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When we are stressed by all of the other plates we spin during the week then we find it difficult to bounce back in healthy ways.

We push through the exhaustion because our work is closely tied to our identity. We normalize daily stress and carry the weight alone, too proud to ask anyone for help. We grumble and complain more. For some a break is found when we take to social media or facebook instead of looking into God’s faithbook. I have done all of these and maybe you have too.

Why are we so stubborn to search for a life of balance and resilience? Why do we resist Sabbath?

There is some truth to Eric Carl’s Hungry Caterpillar story I shared in the children’s sermon. We will tear through everything else around us before we will pause to look more deeply within.

Saint Augustine was a fourth century bishop and theologian. He once said, “Our hearts are restless until the find rest in God alone.”

When we are stressed and burdened, this restlessness that Augustine mentions is very real. And we reach towards so many other things in hopes to satisfy and quiet this restlessness. But nothing will calm the restlessness of our stress and burdens quite like God.

Every time I read Jesus’ words from Matthew I am reminded that we need to unburden ourselves and seek Jesus’ strategy for self-care with spiritual resilience.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Spiritual resilience is found in relationships. Jesus says “Come to me – not come to work one more day or to facebook or to your spouse – but come to ME and I will give you rest” (verse 28). God created us out of the sheer joy of living in relationship with us. Within this gift of God’s love we find the sacred center of all things. Jesus lived his life according to this profound yet simple truth. Jesus’ life got a bit chaotic. The days were filled with demands to give of himself for his work and to help others. The crowds would charge after him with hands lifted in praise or fists raised with stones. There were days he felt the world’s weight of fulfilling the promise of salvation upon his shoulders.

But Jesus did not work in isolation until he hit a breaking point. Jesus would regularly leave the scene to rest in God alone. Jesus knew the importance of quieting himself to be still and nurture his relationship with God. Jesus, while fully human and fully divine, knew he needed a regular time out with God to feel restored by grace for the work that lies ahead.

Spiritual resilience is found in tapping into God’s strength. Jesus says, “Take my yoke and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart” (verse 29). The yoke Jesus talks about is not a single yoke but a double yoke. It implies that the burdens we carry are meant to be carried with God and the body of Christ. The yoke is a spiritual support system.

Jesus knew he could not bring about God’s purposes all on his own ability. Therefore Jesus called the twelve disciples to teach them to lean into a deeper trust of God so they could carry on Jesus’ work in the world. Jesus’ gentle and humble heart teaches us to more fully rely on God and one another as a source of strength, empowerment, and peace. Even Jesus needed to rest by setting down the weight of the world and to trust God and others with it.

Spiritual resilience is being diligent to rest so that it may be well with our soul. We are to follow Jesus’ example of wearing this yoke that is easy and light because God has fashioned it in a particular way for us. God has ordered life with a rhythm of work and rest and when we allow our steps to be guided by this rhythm then all the burdens we carry are more bearable. There is nothing we carry that is too heavy for God to lift with us and even work through. But we must have the courage, humility, and discipline to allow God to lighten our load and just be.

To be still and know that I AM God. To be still and know the I AM. To be still and know. To be still. To just be.

Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath and the true giver of self-care. It is through the example of Jesus Christ that we find the sacred center – our sacred center – of all things. When life feels overwhelming and seems to fall apart we cannot hold the center of it all by ourselves. And we are not meant to.

The hand and heart of God hold us and all that weighs on our shoulders. We feel God’s deep embrace through our relationships as the body of Christ and through the strength of humility and disciplined rest. This rest is not just an absence of work but it is self-care that allows us to explore what re-energizes us. Maybe that is centering yourself in prayer, taking a run or a walk as you let your thoughts unwind, painting with friends in a class, or claiming some time with family.

Sabbath is a sacred center of all things. It lightens the load to set our burdens down and trust God with them. It builds us up in God’s grace and strength. It empowers us to be resilient and bounce back in our daily lives. Sabbath is a weekly spiritual discipline that allows us to thrive and grow through any burden or challenge.

If we choose to ignore Sabbath and we never find a true rhythm of resilient rest then our center cannot hold. We deny our Creator’s gift; isolation causes us to feel cut off from community with God and one another; we compromise our well-being; and we lose a sense of gratitude because we are constantly depleted and have nothing to give.

I pray we reclaim the gift of Sabbath. It is a spiritual space created and set apart for us to rest in God alone. Sabbath frees us from being a slave to our work. Sabbath empowers us to feel fully alive when we play in God’s creation. Sabbath allows us to be agents of restoration when we are the grace of Christ to one another. And Sabbath shows us how to unburden ourselves in order to thrive through any challenge so that we may be spiritually resilient.

As we claim this day of Sabbath together, I lift this prayer from Walter Brueggemann for us:

Things fall apart
The center cannot hold.
We are no strangers to the falling apart.
We perpetuate against the center of our lives,
And on somedays it feels like an endless falling,
Like a deep threat,
Like rising water,
Like ruthless wind.
But You – in the midst,
You back in play
You rebuking and silencing and ordering,
You creating restfulness in the very eye of the storm.
You – be our center
Cause us not to lie about danger
Cause us not to resist your good order.
Be our God. Be the God You promised
And we will be among those surely peaceable in your order.
We pray in the name of the one through whom all things hold together.
Amen.


Source Referenced:
Walter Brueggemann, “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”, p. 26.