Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon: Chosen

Genesis 37: 1-28
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 20, 2017

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.

He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, ‘Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, ‘What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?’ So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’

So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’

But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
- Genesis 37: 1-28

Our text today moves us into the fourth generation of the chosen family of Abraham. Each generation has certainly had their share of conflicts. Most of these conflicts have centered upon who seems to be chosen to receive the family blessing.

Joseph was the next to youngest of twelve brothers; he was the son of Jacob (Israel) and Rachel. Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons. Jacob did not hide his favor. When Jacob had prepared to meet his brother Esau, he divided his wives and children. He placed Rachel and Joseph farthest away from the scene in case violence erupted (Genesis 33: 1-3).

And now Jacob expressed his love for Joseph in a demonstrative way. He clothed Joseph in that coat of many colors. And when the brothers saw this they hated Joseph (Genesis 37:4).

These older brothers hated Joseph even more when they heard this young teenager’s dreams of being chosen as a central figure of leadership. Joseph was not mature enough to interpret these dreams. Joseph’s dreams do come true as God acts behind the scenes of this young man whom God has chosen save God’s chosen people of Israel. We will talk more about that next week.

The text today zones into the older brothers’ jealousy and hatred towards Joseph. They saw him as less than: a tattle-tale, an attention seeker, and daddy’s golden boy. The brothers hated Joseph and could not even speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:4).

Jacob sensed the turmoil. He sent Joseph to join his brothers in the pasture to interpret if a sense of shalom or peace was among the brothers. I wonder if Jacob hoped that some distance would help the brothers cool off just like it did with his own brother Esau.

Joseph walked some 50 miles. When he met his brothers, Joseph discovered peace was indeed missing in the most horrible way.

Joseph’s brothers allowed their hatred and jealousy to rise to the most grievous plan of killing their brother. They stripped Joseph of his chosen status by stripping him of his robe. They switched gears throwing Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. And then they deceived their father Jacob allowing him to believe that Joseph was dead.

Joseph’s story is not solely a single family narrative in Scripture. It continues to reveal God’s desire for reconciliation. It also ushers in the communal story of God’s chosen people of Israel and how the family of God interprets and responds to chosen identity.[1]

The past week our country has been grieving for Charlottesville, Virginia. While the removal of historical statues is a debatable issue, our nation is grieving something greater.

We are grieving because we have seen our white brothers filled with such hate that they could not speak peaceably to fellow humanity.

We have seen God’s peace missing in the most horrible way.

We grieve the loss of life and the many who were injured because of violence and hate.

We also grieve the fact that hate groups still exist today in 2017.

These hate groups have chosen themselves to be superior over all other races. Along the streets of Emancipation Park white men no longer hide their faces to raise lit torches, wave Nazi flags, and shout dehumanizing phrases grounded in the ideologies of White Supremacy and Neo-Nazism.

The moral fabric of our society says there is no place for these racist ideologies. While Scripture has been used throughout human history to justify racism, I am grateful that more churches across denominational lines are lifting the voice of the Church Universal to denounce racism and speak into this place where God’s peace is missing.

Rev. James Herbert Nelson, II, The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PS(USA) made the following statement this past week:

White supremacy and racism stand in stark, irreconcilable contradiction to God’s intention for humanity. They reject part of the human family and are utterly contrary to God’s Word made incarnate in Jesus. They are idolatries that elevate human-created hierarchies over God’s freely given grace and love. They are lies about the human family, for they seek to say that some people are less than other people. They are lies about God because they falsely claim that God favors some people over the entirety of creation.

I thank God that hate did not have the last word last Saturday in Charlottesville. Hate never has the last word!

A large group of clergy, walked along the streets in silence. They were diverse in age (some over the age of 70) and from various denominations and faith traditions. One clergywoman stated, “With each step forward, I just kept holding onto the call to love.” Another clergy member shared, “It felt like Selma after Bloody Sunday.”

They walked arm in arm to proclaim to the world what chosen identity means according to God’s Word. Those clergy stood side by side in silence as a profound image that the whole of Scripture says we are made in the image of God. God has chosen to live in relationship with us out of a great love. This divine love that is to shape our relationships with one another.

Four days later thousands of faculty and students of The University of Virginia gathered around the heart of the university to reclaim their community. As the sun went down, a candlelight vigil permeated light in the darkness. The image was powerful as they walked the same paths where torches had been lit and Nazi flags waved days earlier. The faculty and students sang “Love Wins,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Amazing Grace.” The candles illumined those faces with hope of unity, peace, and reconciliation.

And yet one young adult’s comment from this experience gives me pause. He said, “If something else happens next week, are you going to be here? Are you going to engage yourself?”

Are you going to engage yourself? It is not an individual question but a communal question of how do we respond in the days to come?

As people of faith, our baptism informs us how to engage one another and how to engage the brokenness of the world.

We respond to the free gift of God’s amazing grace by receiving the sacramental marks of Baptism. The water and Holy Spirit claim and clothe us in God’s love. We are freed from sin and death. We are no longer divided by social constructs because we are united as one in Jesus Christ as the Church Universal. And we are joined to Christ’s ministry of peace, love, and justice.

Listen to the questions we are called to respond to:

Do you renounce all evil, and powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love, to your life’s end?

These questions are not simply questions to receive the sacrament. These questions are to shape our hearts daily in the ways we are to individually and communally respond to our chosen identity as children of God. These questions are at the heart of God’s vision for reconciliation. These questions direct us to be the reconciling body of Christ wherever God’s peace is missing.

So in these difficult days whether the hate of racism is palpable or subtle, I urge each of us to engage our faith to proclaim the truth of what it means to be chosen. It is not easy and it is not comfortable. But God’s grace gives us the courage to say “Yes” to what the gospel and the ministry of Jesus Christ requires us of.

We renounce hate and racism with our words but also with our deeds. There are peaceful protests and candlelight vigils, but we must educate ourselves on how to dismantle systemic racism for the sake of right relationships. This is an important step for us to work towards reconciliation and healing.

We confess the ways that hate and racism divide us and what is implied if we remain silent.

We follow Christ alone and his examples of peace, love, and justice by uniting with our community and local leaders in fellowship and working together on social issues that loose the bonds of injustice.

“The only thing that counts is faith working through love. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right” (Galatians 5:6b, 9).

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter's Bible Commentary: "Volume 1 - Genesis" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 222

[2] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 403-408.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: The Work of Reconcilition Part 2

The Work of Reconciliation: Part 2
Genesis 33: 1-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 13, 2017

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.

But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down.

Esau said, ‘What do you mean by all this company that I met?’ Jacob answered, ‘To find favour with my lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’ Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favour with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favour.

Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.’ So he urged him, and he took it.

Then Esau said, ‘Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.’ But Jacob said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.’

So Esau said, ‘Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.’ But he said, ‘Why should my lord be so kind to me?’ So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the place is called Succoth.
- Genesis 33: 1-17

The story of Jacob and Esau is a story of reconciliation
. Last week we learned reconciliation means that parties divided by conflict come together through a meaningful exchange to end the hostility between them.

The first step for us to begin reconciling with another is to first be reconciled to God. This internal work is the hard work of the soul. God’s grace grapples with our past so that we unbecome everything we thought we were to find our true selves. This is the first meaningful exchange that mends our separation from God. The work of God’s grace frees us to begin the journey of facing the conflict at hand with another.

Knowing this from his experience, Jacob was taking the next steps in the light of God’s grace. After Jacob had seen the face of God the Spirit was preparing him to see Esau’s face.

I would love nothing more than for Genesis to give us a glimpse into the way God was preparing Esau for this moment. Scripture is silent on that backstory and yet we trust God has also been untangling Esau’s internal emotions to guide his next steps. The author of Genesis cuts to the chase to focus on the brothers’ encounter.

The gap of twenty years began to close as Esau ran to meet Jacob. The fists that had long been enclosed with the rage were opened to embrace Jacob. The brother who had been betrayed was ready to let go of his anger. Strife was redefined by mercy. Esau fell on Jacob’s neck and a kiss symbolized a willingness to restore their relationship. The brothers wept. And in that moment a gift of grace flowed free to forgive the past and yield a future with hope.

John Paul Lederach is a respected peacebuilder. He says, “Reconciliation is like a journey: where there might have been flight away from each other, it then becomes the daring trip back. Walking with humility and vulnerability, it is a journey toward and through the conflict, bringing God’s love into the world through who we are and how we walk.”

God led the brothers to make the daring trip back to participate in the hope of reconciliation. As they stood on this holy ground they both brought God’s love into the world as a gift to one another.

Jacob prefaced the encounter by sending the gift of 500 livestock to Esau as a peace offering to find favor (Genesis 32:13-18; 33:10). Jacob approached Esau in humility with his posture and words (Genesis 33:3,8). Jacob allowed himself to be vulnerable telling Esau that seeing him was like seeing the face of God. Jacob confessed God had been at work in his life and in this situation (Genesis 33: 11).

Likewise, Esau approached Jacob with a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Esau allowed himself to be emotionally vulnerable with Jacob. And Esau accepted Jacob’s gift without judgment or blame.

It is in this liminal space – the point between the broken past and the hopeful future – that the brothers embrace their common humanity. It is an emotional picture that captures some genuine marks of reconciliation. Without these marks, even partial reconciliation is not possible.

Scripture reveals the brothers showed a genuine respect for one another. They were willing to be fully present with each other in that space. They both accepted what had been done for the good and the bad of the situation. They were both given the ability to set aside their differences to move forward towards unity.

Scripture also reveals that the brothers did not fully reconcile. Esau invited Jacob to journey onward together so that he may go alongside Jacob (Genesis 33:12). Walking alongside one another is a significant illustration of two parties coming together to gain mutual understanding and end the hostility that was between them. But Jacob declined Esau’s invitation for reasons we do not know.

The work of reconciliation is not easy. It challenges how we respond to conflict in our lives.

When conflict is met with an authoritative voice and a high hand it breeds hostility and polarizes relationships.

When conflict is avoided from the fear of confrontation it allows the problem to lie stagnate in the water, resolving nothing.

When we respond to conflict by keeping the status quo to maintain relationships and avoid stirring things up then we minimize the problem and foster resentment.

The gospel reframes conflict as an opportunity to pursue God’s desire and will for reconciliation. God’s Word opens our eyes to see conflict as a space where peace is missing. The Word calls us to see this as an opportunity to join God in this holy work of restoring peace. We do this by building trust, fostering mutual understanding, and holding each other accountable in humility.

A ministry colleague shared at Montreat Youth Conference this summer, “The gift of bearing peace into broken relationships helps us to live into the tension” even when full reconciliation is not attainable.

That nugget of wisdom stayed in my mind as the youth and I potted clay together. The piece that I made broke in half after it had fully dried. I was tempted to throw it away but a friend told me of the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi, repairing broken objects with a glue-like substance and gold leaf. This Japanese art says there is value and honor in restoring what is broken.

A woman in the pottery shop helped me to ‘golden repair’ my art piece. It was truly holy work, reminding me how easily our hearts our broken by the conflicts we endure in life and the way the conflict of human sin estranges us from God and one another. The struggle is real in our shared human experience. Our lives can be left with some jagged pieces where peace is missing.

“The beauty of Kintsukuroi, is that it is firmly grounded in the real. It begins from how life really is, [messy and broken], and teaches us to welcome time, change, [and even conflict] as agents that can enhance, evolve, and ultimately [transform us]. The scars and rough edges of conflict are not badges of shame or resentment but hard-won badges of honor; a continually unfolding road map of our own unique journey towards [reconciliation, healing, and peace].”

That gold line which restores two broken pieces is nothing less than the gift of God’s mercy and grace. The mark of reconciliation does not make excuses for the damage or injuries incurred. But that mark does illumine the hope for the jagged edges of life to be smoothed and covered by forgiveness.

The broken pieces of life can be reunited and strengthened in the wisdom of learning from the past and our mistakes. They may not align perfectly or be just like they were before. But that gold line is a path that marks peace and reconciliation as a new direction to live into.

Reconciliation is a peace that God initiates and calls us to participate in. It is offering grace filled moments just as Christ has already covered us in the grace of forgiveness and second chances. Even when full reconciliation is not possible, God’s grace is never wasted.

May God open our eyes to see the hope of reconciliation in our brokenness within our homes, community, and wider world. Wherever peace is missing, you and I are being called to trace the line of God’s grace to mend the bonds of humanity.

Love always leave a mark to give us a future with hope.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon: The Work of Reconciliation Part 1

The Work of Reconciliation: Part I
Genesis 32: 1-12; 22-31
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 6, 2017

Twenty years have passed since Jacob left his home in Canaan and his brother Esau’s fury. Jacob spent those twenty years living with his uncle Laban in Haran. Jacob now had a large family with twelve children (11 sons and 1 daughter). The sons and grandsons would later become the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob settled a conflict with Laban so that he could make his way back to Canaan (Genesis 31: 43-55). The Lord had promised Jacob that he would indeed return to the land of Canaan and his father Isaac’s house in peace (Genesis 28: 15, 20-21).

This is where we enter today's story from Genesis 32: 1-12 and 22-31:

Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ So he called that place Mahanaim.

Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, ‘Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, “I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.” ’

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.’

And Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good”, I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.” ’

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The time had come for Jacob to begin the work of reconciliation with his brother Esau. Jacob, who had been such a trickster and deceiver within his family, was taking the next steps quite seriously. His choice words of calling Esau his master and referring to himself as Esau’s servant imply Jacob was willing to reverse the blessing he stole from Esau.

Nevertheless, the struggle was real for Jacob. The anticipation of meeting Esau along with a company of four hundred men weighed heavily upon him. I can imagine Jacob feared the worst-case scenario resulting even as he hoped for the best.

What do we do when a situation presses us? We pray. And Jacob prayed to God.

Jacob affirmed that God was the One to initiate this plan towards reconciliation. As he prayed, Jacob’s posture began to take the shape of humility. Jacob confessed the conflict with Esau had not only caused family division. It also left Jacob’s heart divided to find a solution that protected those his loved ones and livelihood. Jacob prayed for God to deliver him from this conflict and his greatest fears in confronting it.

Before God could work through the conflict between the brothers, God chose another starting point; God began with some internal work with Jacob. The internal work of reconciliation is always the heart of the matter and it is usually the hardest part.

As night fell and Jacob was alone by the stream God wrestled with Jacob. It was through the long hours of the night that Jacob’s vulnerability and limits were exposed. The grappling match was the physical, emotional, and spiritual work between God and Jacob. You see, God was stripping away all that obstructed Jacob from becoming who God desired him to be; attitudes, decisions, and hurts that impaired relationships.

Rob Bell connects Jacob’s struggle with our own struggle to find reconciliation, saying:

“You and I have pasts, families we have come from, things we have done, mistakes we have made. And where we have been and what we have done has shaped us into who we are today.

We have to embrace our story – our history. We don’t have to be proud of it. But we must claim it because it is ours. Only when we can claim our own history for what it is – the good, the bad, and everything in between – can we begin to” know who we [are not and who we] are in God’s eyes… “This is the hard work of the soul to discover our true selves.”

The thought of coming face to face with our old wounds and conflicts can bring a lot of stress and anxiety. The quick fix is to cut off that part of our lives or even sever ties with that person we are in conflict with.

It is a tempting solution. But the spiritual reality is that cutting off our conflicts also cuts off the opportunity for God to be at work in our broken pieces.

The heart of the gospel is reconciliation. That word ‘reconciliation’ means that parties divided by conflict come together through a meaningful exchange to end the hostility between them. Henri Nouwen states a hidden truth about our divisions: “all divisions are tragic reflections of our separation from God.”

When we think of reconciliation we want to immediately jump to repairing the separation between the parties divided: the husband and wife who suffer a breach of trust, the friendship that was split by differences of opinion, groups within the community who are divided by walls of hostility.

For years I have thought about reconciliation beginning with naming the conflict, allowing each party to share their perspective and then make the move to bring the two back together in mutual understanding. And this is certainly part of the hard work of reconciliation. But Jacob’s story in Genesis is teaching me something new.

Reconciliation is best viewed in the shape of the cross. The horizontal part of the cross tells the story of the way God’s grace impacts and mends our relationships with others. This will be the focus of next week’s sermon as Jacob comes face to face with Esau.

But in order for us to be free to name the conflict and begin restoring our broken relationships with others, God must first have a meaningful exchange within us. This is what God was doing in Jacob’s life.

This part of reconciliation is the vertical part of the cross. It tells the story of the way God’s grace begins the internal work to repair our separation from God. Just as God wrestled with Jacob, God’s grace grapples with our past so that we unbecome everything we thought we were to find our true selves.

The power of God’s grace is revealed in Jesus Christ, “for while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

It is through this costly grace that Jesus Christ fully struggled with the weight of our sin and its nature to estrange us from God and one another. It is the cross that reconciles us to God. And this costly grace continues to strip away what is dead in our hearts so that we might be changed.

It is by the power of God’s grace that we come to better understand ourselves, to claim the past which has shaped us, and to grow in the wisdom that God is not done with us.

God helps us to unbecome the label of brokenness that has defined our identity; we hear that little voice inside our hearts naming us: deceiver, prideful, resentful, workaholic, guilty, shamed, weak, addict, not enough, unloved …and our list of labels goes on.

Grace empowers us to unbecome what we have been. We are so much more than that because Jesus Christ reclaims our pasts. And it is the Spirit who continues to tell us over and over again that our new identity is nothing less than a beloved and forgiven child of God.

When we feel secure in God’s love, it flows out to truly love our sisters and brothers. Our highest calling is to love God and neighbor as we have already been loved.

The first step of being reconciled with others is to be reconciled with God. This internal work is the hard work of the soul. It takes time, a posture of humility, a commitment to hold on with intentionality, and the openness to be changed. Just know that even as we are holding on to God, the love of God will never ever let us go.

Henri Nouwen states: “Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliation goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.”

Our lives are in need of finding the gift of God’s grace to bring the peace which is missing in our hearts, homes, and wider world.

May Jacob’s story give us pause to consider God’s wisdom for reconciliation.

What does God need for you to unbecome to discover who you are in God’s eyes?
What is God trying to strip away in your life in order for you to take the next step towards reconciliation?

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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon: Keep Climbing!

"Keep Climbing!"
Genesis 28: 10-22a; Romans 8: 26-39
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2017

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’
- Genesis 28: 10-22a

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8: 26-39

Jacob was a man whose mind and body stayed in motion looking for the next opportunity. Last week we learned he deceived his father Isaac and stole his brother Esau’s birthright. The whole fiasco resulted in great hardship that weighed heavily upon Jacob’s family and upon his own shoulders.

Jacob followed his mother Rebekah’s instructions to leave their home until Esau’s fury had turned. He was now on the move towards Haran to stay with his uncle’s family. Jacob began to put some distance between himself and the family chaos behind him. He was all alone. He came to a certain place, rested his head on a rock, and settled in for the night.

As Jacob’s story continues to unfold, it reveals something important about God’s character. God chooses to work through unexpected people and unlikely situations to bring about God’s purposes.

As Jacob slept, God seized the opportunity to grab Jacob’s attention with a dream. Jacob was mesmerized by the stairway to heaven. It kept Jacob’s mind focused to listen to God’s plans for his life. God stood beside Jacob and claimed Jacob had a purpose in God’s plans.

God claimed Jacob with the same promise which began with his grandfather Abraham: land, countless offspring, and every generation going forward would be blessed by God through Jacob.

But then God said something amazing. God said, “I will keep you, I will bring you back, I will not leave you until I have accomplished my purposes in you” (Genesis 28:15).

God was saying that from now on, Jacob did not need to climb upon the backs of others to grab the next opportunity. Jacob was not to solely live for himself. From now on God had Jacob’s back. Jacob only needed to climb God’s steady and faithful support to overcome any obstacle, conflict, or hardship o reach God’s promises.

Jacob was completely surprised by God in the dream. More importantly he was moved to respond by the encounter. Jacob said, “If God will be with me and will provide so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). Jacob even went as far as marking his God sighting. He anointed the stone from that very place in order to tell his story to others. Jacob’s story would be one of the many ways future generations would be blessed through him.

Jacob’s words echo another man’s response to God; the Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about God working through hardship and conflict. Half of the New Testament is filled with Paul’s writings about hardship from personal experiences and from his church flocks. “If God is for us, who is against us? We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8: 31, 28).

Cherie and Larry Steele are like family for many here and within the Van Wyck community. They have endured many ups and downs in life just like every family. Their daughter Shannon was recently asked to share her story. You see a childhood friend was inspired by Shannon’s story of enduring hardship. Her life was also impacted and changed by it.

At eight years of age, Shannon had a horseback riding accident that resulted in an ER visit. Testing and follow-up doctor appointments revealed something the family never expected. Shannon had a tumor on her spine and she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the nervous system (stage 4).

Months turned into years as Shannon endured treatments from that young age and on into high school. The hardest part of Shannon’s journey was trying to reconcile feeling different than other kids her age. Cancer was isolating and it brought about an inner conflict that deceived Shannon to feel that she would never be enough; it stole Shannon’s self-worth.

But Shannon kept going. The love and support of her family kept her going. Her parents, Larry and Cherie, felt God’s love and provision and that kind of faith support kept their family going.

Throughout her health struggles Shannon kept climbing into the saddle to horseback ride. The family’s horse farm was like a sanctuary for her. As Shannon shared her story with me, this is the place where I see God seized the opportunity to do something amazing in her life to bring about God’s purposes.

Shannon’s horses were a tremendous source of healing. She went on to travel and ride competitively as an accomplished rider. Shannon also said, “There’s nothing more empowering for a young girl who feels less than or not enough to [sit in the saddle] and control a 1,000 pound animal. When you get down you feel like you can handle the world.”

Shannon is now in her forties. She no longer rides competitively but she trains young riders and she loves empowering her clients to discover new found strengths, talents, and self- confidence.

Shannon looks back on her life and sees there has been a greater purpose. Her experiences and struggles have shaped her to become more patient with herself and more compassionate towards others who endure hardships in life. She sees God has put certain people in her life so that she can encourage them even as God has worked through many to encouraged her.

Shannon also shared that faith has been a foundation in the face of fear. After years of silence, today Shannon lifts her voice to tell others what her personal story has taught her:

“Do not let fear be the narrator of your life story. Don’t let your struggles tell you that you are not enough. When you share your story do not apologize for who you are. The point of life is to live so if you are doing anything less than that, you are wasting time and I don't want to waste anymore time.”

Consider the place where you are standing in your life today. Our struggles can easily leave us feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. The twists and turns of life are unpredictable and we might not know how or when to take the next right step towards a place of certainty, a place of healing, a place of reconciliation and peace.

God’s greatest desire is to free us of our fears and insecurities so that we will trust that God has our back. As we grow in our trust of God, faith helps us to focus on God just as the stairway to heaven helped Jacob focus on God. Faith helps us to see hardships, distress, and conflict in a new way.

These hard places in life are not an end but become an opportunity to see God’s power at work. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and empowers us to keep climbing in the support of God’s strength. God says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye on you” (Psalm 32:8).

Don’t let life’s struggles deceive you to feel less than others. The truth is that our struggles are stepping stones to see God how big our God is. Every step we take is in God’s faithfulness.

When we take steps to overcome our struggles, our strength comes from Christ. We have the hope to overcome because Christ has overcome for us on the cross. This gift of faith says that we are more than conquerors. We are more than our struggles because nothing in all the world can compare to knowing the love of God in Jesus Christ.

We are embraced by a love that will never let us go. We are loved by an amazing Savior who will always be beside us. God’s Spirit will use our broken pieces and our stories to peace you and me and the world back together as the Spirit intercedes for us. God will never leave us until God has done what God has promised.

The stories of Jacob, Paul, and Shannon tell us to keep climbing.

Keep climbing because God has our back.
Keep climbing because if God is for us who can be against us?
Keep climbing because there is no experience that God cannot use to reveal his greater purposes, power, and glory.
That is the kind of support worth clinging to.

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

* artwork entitled, "Jacob's Ladder," by He Qi

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sermon: Hate - An Unlikely Teacher

Hate: An Unlikely Teacher
Genesis 27: 41-45; Matthew 5:43-48
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2017

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’

But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, ‘Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him for a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?’
- Genesis 27: 41-45

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- Matthew 5: 43-48

The truth was sinking in. Isaac trembled violently as he told his oldest son Esau the news. The instructions Isaac gave to Esau to hunt game and prepare the ritual blessing meal were intercepted by Jacob. Therefore, Jacob disguised himself as Esau, presented Isaac with the ritual meal, and received his father’s blessing (Genesis 27: 5-33).

When Esau heard his father’s words he cried out, “Bless me also father!” Isaac reluctantly replied, “Your brother came deceitfully and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightfully named Jacob? For he has supplanted me (grabbed the heels of opportunity) these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing. Have you not reserved a blessing for me?...And Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Genesis 27:34-36, 38).

When Esau left his father’s bedside, all he saw was red. Esau’s anger towards Jacob burned like a forest fire out of control. The flames of his anger now raged into hate. And the only way he sought to console himself was through vengeance. Esau planned to kill his brother Jacob.

Esau’s hatred towards Jacob reminds me of another brother’s hatred in the book of Genesis – Cain (Genesis 4: 1-10). Cain was the older brother and a tiller of the ground. Abel was the younger brother and a shepherd of sheep. The brothers each brought an offering to God. And for reasons we do not know, God favored Abel’s offering.

As a result, Cain was filled with anger. And God asked Cain, “Why are you so angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:6). But then God spoke into Cain’s anger, “If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it (Genesis 4:7).

God knows that hate is an unlikely teacher. While anger is a natural human emotion, it has a way of lurking in the shadows of our hearts. Anger that grows into cherished animosity will turn into a tempting beast we call hate.

It seduces us to think we are not our brother’s keeper. It erodes our relationships and becomes a cancer that spreads. Hate is destructive to the wider world and yet corrupts the heart that holds it. God’s words to Cain reveal a powerful truth: as children of God we have a spiritual, moral, and ethical responsibility to disarm hate.

God does not speak directly into Esau’s hate. But God does work through Rebekah. She felt the division between Esau and Jacob heating up like a ring of fire. It is Rebekah’s empathetic love that sets a new path forward for both brothers. She could not bear to lose her two sons to hate, for if Jacob were killed then Esau would be executed for murder.

As Rebekah sends Jacob away and waits for Esau’s fury to turn, she has a great hope for her children to be set free from this bondage to decay. And freedom comes through God’s hope of peacing together all that is broken and divided within our families, humanity and creation (Romans 8: 21-23).

Rebekah had a hope for this peace which she could not see. She would wait for it with patience; twenty years spanned between the day Jacob left home and the day Jacob would seek Esau’s forgiveness (Genesis 31:38). Rebekah shows us that the first step in disarming hate is love.

Gal Gadot plays the character of Diana Prince (Wonder Woman Trailer)...the Amazon Warrior Princess who left her homeland of Themyscira, a utopian island. She set her mind to end the second world war that divided the brothers and sisters of humanity. She saw first hand the ways that hate put one against another and nation against nation. As Wonder Woman, she entered the battlefield where there was no perceived hope, only darkness and depravity loomed.

Wonder Woman faced opposition and heard over and over that humanity did not deserve her, much less deserve being saved. Her response was nothing less than prophetic wisdom: “It's not about "deserve". It's about what you believe. And I believe in Love.”

From that point on Wonder Woman came to know hate as an unlikely teacher saying, “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring [complete] peace to mankind; but then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both [darkness and light]. The choice each must make for themselves — something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know... that only Love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give — for the world I know can be. This is my mission now - Forever.”

Faith convicts us to behold the power of love. It means we are to love our enemies because it is the Jesus way. Jesus chose to love those who had wronged him; to love those who had betrayed him; to love those who even lived in opposition to him; to love those who disagreed with him. Jesus even loved those who nailed him to the cross. And Jesus calls us to live into his way.

While Jesus Christ is our Rabbi and Teacher, hate can be a teacher too. And in today's world it scares me as a pastor and a mother. Hate can lure us to aim our actions, words, posts, and tweets through the cross hairs of uncontrolled anger to injure others. This is what we already see in the newspaper, on our social media feeds, and in our personal experiences.

Or hate can do something else – it can reflect the image of the person we do not want to be. Remember God called hate for what it is – a sin that is lurking at the door and we must master it. The anger we see in the world and even in ourselves can teach us how to be more compassionate. Love that is rooted in compassion works to stop hurt instead of perpetuating it – one act of faith at a time.

Our sweet Wilma (90 year old elder) rode with a neighbor and the neighbor’s adult daughter to the grocery store one day. As they were driving, the neighbor’s daughter got angry with her mother in car. The argument between the two quickly escalated and the daughter’s anger raged. Soon her words were sharp as daggers as she cussed at her mother. At first Wilma just sat in the back seat and closed her eyes. When the car stopped and the women got out of the car, sweet Wilma looked at the daughter and said, “Your mother has cared for you and she loves you and it hurts me so much to hear you speak to your mother and my friend that way.” Wilma went on to say, “I love you and care about you too but please speak words of respect and kindness to your mother.” Wilma’s compassion spoke into that space of hurt and hate and kept it from perpetuating that day.

Rev. Farouk Hammo is a native of Baghdad, Iraq and is a Presbyterian minister there. Our presbytery is in direct partnership with Farouk’s congregation as well as two other Presbyterian churches in Iraq (Iraq Partnership Network). I had the privilege to meet Farouk last week to learn about his ministry. Farouk lives in a dangerous and war-torn area. And yet when a car bomb explodes on the streets, Farouk and a group from the church have committed to go to the bombing sites and pray for the victims and the enemies. The enemy is not Islam; it is ISIS militants. As a result, the number of car bombings in their area have decreased. Farouk’s ministry of compassion is proclaiming the power of love into spaces of hate.

Love can be our mission in the ordinary spaces of life; at school and at work. Rachel Stafford teaches children how to redirect hurt and hate by the power of love: “We can support someone’s dream no matter how far-fetched it is. We can choose to accept someone instead of judging their appearance or difference. We can consider who we are excluding. We can choose not to dismiss someone’s feelings just because we deal with them differently. We can pledge to not call people bad names just because they have a different opinion.”

We are at another social impasse where it is critical to disarm the dangerous language of hate. We live in a society where the language of hate is becoming more and more normalized.

As people of faith, it is time to unite our voices with intention to speak the power of love into spaces of hate. The light must shine in the darkness. Let us pray for the Spirit to strengthen our conviction to follow the Jesus way so that you and I may be the change we want to see in the world.

The kingdom of God IS breaking in one act of faith at a time. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: Struggling Together

Struggling Together
Genesis 25: 19-34; Romans 8: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other,the elder shall serve the younger.’

When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
- Genesis 25: 19-34

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
- Romans 8: 1-11

You have heard it said before that the Bible is the greatest story ever told. It is not just a story of our spiritual ancestors. It is also our story – our shared human story. Today we hear an important piece of our shared story in Genesis. It shapes the way we see the world around us and even ourselves.

Isaac and Rebekah are chosen to plant seeds of the second generation of our big family tree of faith. Not only did Rebekah conceive to bear a son, she became pregnant with fraternal twins.

But then the story intensified. Rebekah’s joy was disrupted. The author of Genesis says “the children struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22). That word “struggled” in the Hebrew means to crush and to strike one another. Even in the womb these brothers were at odds with each other physically and emotionally.

Jacob and Esau were fighting and shoving and competing to be born first. In Old Testament culture, the first-born son got a double portion of the inheritance and a sense of authority in the household. But all of the fighting took a toll on their mother.

Rebekah was pained and discouraged. She was a strong woman who could endure a lot, but she could never have imagined this journey being so incredibly hard. I am struck with Rebekah’s boldness to speak to God with a raw honesty. She prayed, “If it is going to be this way, why do I live? (Genesis 25:22). It was a lament and a cry for God’s help.

God spoke into Rebekah’s space of disruption and tension. God said her sons, who were descendants of Abraham, represented two nations who shall be divided. The story of Jacob and Esau sets the biblical stage for the historic rivalry between the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). And on this biblical stage an arc is drawn that bends towards God’s power to reconcile the greatest divide.

But the story of Jacob and Esau also set the stage for humanity; “this family conflict will have consequences on the future of God’s people.”[1] The consequences reside in the ways God’s people respond to human conflict that disrupts life.

The world teaches us that in times of conflict someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. The world teaches us that in times of conflict it is every man for himself so let go of relationships and walk away when there is no resolve. The world teaches us that in times of conflict there can be no peace in the midst of chaos.

And so often we respond to conflict in worldly ways to seek peace. It comes so naturally because it is our universal struggle with the human condition of sin.

This past week at Montreat the theme was “A Missing Peace.” We learned that the way the world defines peace is not biblical peace. Through the lens of faith peace is not the absence of conflict but rather a state of being to help us to live into the tension and the disruptions of life. Peace is rooted in our conviction that God’s love never fails and conquers all. The peace that God provides is present in the midst of our struggles, pains, and conflicts.

At Montreat we heard stories of God working through youth and adults to bear peace with acts of patience, kindness, and love. Through worship, small groups, and back home conversations we learned about God’s way to respond to conflict. We discovered faith creates a space in the midst of conflicts to find understanding and common ground.

Instead of seeing our sisters and brothers as the opposition in conflict, faith moves us to value our sisters and brothers as children of God. Then we are humbled to enter a different kind of struggle: to work and serve together with intentionality to find the missing peace in our broken pieces. It is when we struggle together in God’s holy work that the Spirit empowers us to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

I am grateful for the prophetic voices at Montreat week who were honest with our youth in claiming that being a Christian is hard work. This calling upon our lives to follow Jesus Christ is not always a journey of joy. It disrupts our lives and calls us to do hard things and to be challenged to carry God’s love and bear God’s peace into the world.

God chooses to work through us to piece the world back together through one act of faith at a time. The good news is that it is through the gaps and the cracks of our broken pieces that the light of Christ breaks in.

Some days we will feel discouraged and like Rebekah say, “Why does life have to be this way with all the pushing and shoving and competing against one another? How are we to truly live if the human story continues to be this way?”

It is worth being connected to our shared story of human struggle because God will never let go; God will never disconnect from us. The apostle Paul says, “God sent his own Son in the likeness of human flesh to deal with our human condition of sin” (Romans 8: 1-11). On the cross Jesus entered our human struggle to conquer sin and death and ultimately bring the hope of peace. Through the empty tomb Jesus brings the hope of new life and reconciliation.

God invites us to join Jesus Christ to be peacemakers. Being a peacemaker is to extend God’s peace which is missing in our homes, our community, and in the wider world. Our keynote speaker, Rev. Paul Roberts, encouraged us to follow the Jesus way in conflict. Roberts challenged us to risk placing ourselves in the disruptions and struggles together in hopes to bear God’s peace into the broken pieces of life.

If we respond to our struggles and disruptions with the world’s influence then conflict builds dividing walls. Any kind of division or disruption can make us feel estranged from God and one another. But Rev. Paul Roberts says if we “use our disruptions courageously” then they become opportunities to be changed by God’s amazing grace.

Roberts went on to say: “Leaving home becomes a new start; anxiety opens doors to empathy; illness paves a way towards courage; divorce weaves together blended families; grief walks us towards healing; death opens the womb to new life; natural disasters reveal a rainbow; discrimination is chipped away by acceptance; war lays down hostilities to lift up the hopes of rebuilding.” This is what God’s peace looks like as our Creator works through us to restore order out of chaos and peace us back together.

The joy we felt at Montreat was an incredible mountaintop experience in our faith formation. Today we are truly beginning to walk back down the mountain. And I have to be hnest: it is a matter of time for this amazing experience to feel disrupted as we re-enter daily life. The story of our broken pieces and the gaps where God’s peace is missing will begin to feel heavy again.

But remember this - the human story of struggling against one another is being rewritten. God promises to reconcile all of creation and humanity back to God. The finger of God is writing the Lord’s hope of peace upon our hearts and minds.

May we be led by the Spirit to find the gaps and broken pieces that are calling out for the hope of peace and new life. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you and me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume I: Genesis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 178.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon: Who Is In Your Path?

"Who Is in Your Path?"
Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017

So [Abraham's chief servant] said [to Rebekah's household], ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.” I said to my master, “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” But he said to me, “The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house.

‘I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

‘Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, “Please let me drink.” She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” She said, “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.’ And they called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
- Genesis 24: 34-40, 42-49, 58-67

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
- Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

He was focusing his eyes on the path ahead.
The chief steward had taken Abraham’s words to heart, “The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful” (Genesis 24:40).

With every step of his journey, the chief steward was praying for God to not only show him the way ahead, but to place in his path the woman God desired for Isaac. I can even hear the chief steward singing as he walked along, ‘Every move I make, I make in you – you are my way, Jesus!”

When God placed Rebekah in the chief steward’s presence at the well, the chief was quick to study the situation. He was paying attention to Rebekah’s interactions to discern if God’s hand was involved. The chief took notice of Rebekah’s gracefulness, her strength, and her decisiveness.

Rebekah was graceful to extend hospitality to the chief by giving him a drink of water (Genesis 24:18, 46). She was strong to draw water for ten camels and patient as she waited for them to be refreshed (Genesis 24:19-20, 46). And she was decisive in her own discernment to remain connected to Abraham’s lineage. Rebekah was the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. She was given the choice and made the decision to go with the chief steward to be Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24:58).

God’s hand was certainly at work in this encounter. God encouraged the faith of the chief steward. He was moved to put words around his experience to share with Rebekah’s family what God had done to answer the chief’s prayer. God was at work in Rebekah’s household for they recognized this situation could only come from God. And they responded by offering a blessing over Rebekah. God was at work in Rebekah’s life. God was calling her to be the matriarch of the next generation of Abraham’s promised lineage. And God continued to be at work in Abraham’s son Isaac. When Isaac met Rebekah he loved her and she comforted Isaac as he grieved his mother’s death.

When God’s hand touches the paths that we travel upon, God’s steadfast love creates a ripple effect in our lives. God places particular people in our paths not for our own prosperity, but to bring us together in the unity of God’s love. Jesus Christ joins our hands together one person at a time to see glimpses of God’s grace on this path of faith. The connections God makes through us ultimately serve to glorify God and bring about God’s purposes of changing the world.

One of our members shared with me this week that God places you and me in the paths of others to be God’s gift. God works through each of us to be an instrument of God’s grace. Our spouses are God’s gifts to each other. Our best friends are God’s gifts to one another. In the workplace God will intersect you and me with co-workers and colleagues to share our God-given talents to work for the common goal and the common good. In our daily interactions everyone who intersects our path is a gift of God in some way. God can even work through the most unlikely people and even that difficult personality to refine our faith in humbling ways.

The more we intentionally trust that God goes ahead of us on the path, the more we train our hearts and minds to read and discern our encounters through the lens of faith.

God chose to be revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And God still chooses to be revealed through our sisters and brothers on this journey. Through the eyes of another we see that the Lord does not give us a spirit of fear but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The path is where our eyes are lifted to see past the barren winter seasons of our hearts and to behold the promise of new life budding around us (Song of Solomon 2: 10-12). Our shared journeys empower the footing of our faith, for God is helping us to be strong and courageous knowing that the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go (Joshua 1:9).

This week our senior high youth will be going to Montreat Youth Conference. Savannah, Devon, and Ashley – you will encounter other youth from all across the country. Together we will worship in creative ways; learn through key note speakers; grow in faith and relationships in small groups; explore God’s beautiful creation; and serve in mission as the body of Christ.

Savannah, Devon, and Ashley - I want for you to pay attention to who God puts in your path. You just may encounter another youth in your small group or at a recreation event who will be a gift from God – someone who has a unique way of offering encouragement and understanding in this particular season of your life. They may even become a forever friend in faith.

And do not forget that God will work through YOU as an instrument of grace. God will intentionally place YOU in another youth’s path to be a faith support to them. What a humbling thought. Montreat is a very thin space that knits our faith formation in powerful ways.

We are all fellow sojourners of faith and we all need the gift of God’s grace to sustain us with every step we take. For God is leading us one step at a time into the coming kingdom!

As we leave God’s house today to step back out into this beautiful yet broken world, may we take the time for prayerful reflection to ask, “Lord, who are you putting in my path this week?”

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