Monday, February 29, 2016

Sermon: Third Sunday of Lent - Refocus

Third Sunday of Lent
Isaiah 55: 1-9; Luke 13: 1-9 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2016

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
- Isaiah 55: 1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
- Luke 13: 1-9

Time – It is something we mark with the seconds, hours, days and weeks. We keep track of how we spend it and what types of progress it yields. And with all our sense of time we get antsy when we have to wait. You and I, we are all in places of waiting for something…something to shift, something to change, something to shake out. It might be waiting for the political tides to shift. It might be waiting for the right job opportunity to come along. It might be waiting for family dynamics to become less stressed. It might be waiting for one chapter to end and the next to begin.

It is hard to wait for time to move in an anticipated direction. We are brought to places where we stand still and we grow impatient. Like the man with the fig tree – if we have waited for what seems to be three days or three years – if we have not seen some sense of growth or movement – then we decide this is certainly wasted space. It is time to cut our losses and move on.

And yet the gardener offers a different perspective. Give me one more year – let me take the time to get my hands in the dirt and till around the base of the tree and dig out the things that don’t belong. Let me take the time to loosen the dirt and prepare it. Let me make some room to throw down some manure to offer the good stuff that this plant needs to grow. Let me take the time to cultivate an opportunity for growth and let’s see what happens over the course of the next year. Let’s wait and see what springs up.

Jesus knew a lot about the timing of God’s opportunities. Jesus knew that humankind’s way of understanding time was very different from God’s. He said in the earlier text from Luke: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s 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 know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12: 54-56).

Jesus refers to two different types of time. You and I live our lives according to ‘chronos’ or chronological time. It is the time we mark according to our watches and calendars. It is corollary as Jesus talks about the ways we interpret the earth and sky with a sense of cause and effect. Chronos time gives us the reason and logic to sum things up and decide what happens next.

But Jesus wants us to consider a different time. He calls it the present time. The Greek names it ‘karios’ time and it is all about God’s time and God’s opportunity. This is the opportunistic time that the gardener is talking about in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. Jesus says we need to pay attention to this kind of time in our lives. We don’t measure this kind of time chronologically. Rather we are called to respond to it in a particular way. And that is to be turned back to God. Another word Jesus uses to describe our response to God’s time is repentance.

MaryAnn Dana McKibben is a colleague in ministry. She writes about faith musings and considers herself a free-range pastor of sorts as she writes and speaks at conferences and churches in Presbyterian circles. She recently offered these words which I find helpful:

Repentance is really about deepening our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God, who can be trusted to make us new, again and again.

Isn’t that what the gardener is wanting for the man with the fig tree? The gardener is asking the man with the fig tree to be open to God’s opportunity to be made new again.

In our times of waiting it might seem like we are standing in wasted space. We have a human tendency to cut our losses and move on to the next thing. But Jesus wants us to pay attention to what God might be doing behind the scenes. God wants you and me to consider this space of time that we claim as unproductive. God wants us to claim this space as an opportunity for growth.

The very hands of God want to dig around in dirt of our lives and faith. The hands of our Creator have long been in the dirt of humanity shaping and molding us. God remembers the bane that marked the Garden of Eden and continues tilling the roots of humanity to bring about a new creation. God wants to purge our spiritual soil of things that get in the way for our faith to bear good fruit. It might be pride, complacency, resentment, fear of the unknown, worry.

Consider the soil of your life…what are the rocks and thistles and weeds that need to be tossed out? Some things need to be pruned back and tossed that threaten new life. God wants to make room for the good stuff to move us in the right direction. God wants for us to grow vertically in the steadfast love of God and horizontally in the relationship grace of Jesus Christ.

Any farmer or gardener knows the value of spreading manure for plants to grow. It’s old school fertilizer. You can count on it to bring a richness that plants need to grow. I remember growing up and hearing my dad talk about manure as fertilizer. I would just turn my nose up. At that time I didn’t really understand why manure was so important to the soil. I could not get past the smell of it because my childhood home was surrounded by three dairy farms. Manure was everywhere to sustain crops.

Saint Augustine was a fourth century theologian from Algeria in North Africa and he said that the manure in Jesus’ parable was a symbol of humility.* It makes me wonder what things God has placed in your life and mine that we might turn up our noses to. What are the things in our lives that we might quickly think are not so pleasant but they change our posture to be more repentant and humble?

The prophet Isaiah says that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). God knows what is needed in every season of our lives. God has a way of taking uncomfortable and humbling situations to engage us as individuals and as a community. God moves us to bring about a richer depth of our understanding about God and ourselves.

There have been many times in my adult life where I have been in places of waiting. It is humbling and I truly mean humbling to sense that God is asking you to remain planted right here and right now. When we standing in that “in-between” space we continue to ask God, “What are doing, Lord? Where is the next right step for me to take?” I have even asked and prayed to receive a Fed-Ex envelope to know what God is doing and what God wanted me to do.

But I have discovered that this transitional space is not always about discerning what the next right step is. God has a reason for keeping us planted. It may be for a few days, months, or even beyond. The “chronos” time can be frustrating in our seasons of waiting. But it is not supposed to be our sole focus or measure.

We are to pay attention to the present time – God’s time of preparing us for God’s next opportunity to grow. There is something to be unlearned. There is something to be reconciled. There is something to gain because that is how Jesus’ ministry works. That is how the cross works – we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

If we are to pay attention to the present time there is one thing that is needed. That one thing is to lean into a deeper trust of God. It is to let God clear away the distractions and the frustrations that serve us no purpose. Refocus on what God wants you and me to shake loose. Be open to the richness God is shoveling around the base of our faith.

Try not to turn up your nose to it because you and I – we need this time and a space of Lent to be humbled. Let humility find us and surprise us to see beyond ourselves into God’s possibility. God can be trusted to lead us to the next step at just the right time. This Lenten season we each need to lose something of ourselves in order to find the new thing God is bringing about.

Refocus in this time of waiting and trust the hands of the Creator.

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


*Daniel Deffenbaugh, Feasting on the Word: Year C Volume II (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 96.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sermon: Second Sunday of Lent - Standing Firm

Standing Firm
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2016

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’
– Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. – Philippians 3:17 – 4:1

Last Sunday we took the first steps towards living a Holy Lent by reflecting upon Christ’s spiritual virtue of praying with a vulnerable heart. A faith that can be vulnerable breaks through our pretenses and allows us to draw closer to God.

As we enter into this second week of wandering in this shared spiritual wilderness, we consider living a holy Lent by standing firm.

Paul’s letter to his church plant in Philippi is one of encouragement. While he continued to build up the body from a distance he wanted to keep his flock focused on what really mattered in life. He wanted them to keep the main thing the main thing. Paul says towards the beginning of his letter: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm” (Philippians 1:27). He restates his point in our text today, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me and observe those who live according to the example you have in us…stand firm in the Lord” (Philippians 3:14, 4:1).

Whenever a word or phrase is repeated in Scripture is it important and it begs us to pay attention. Standing firm was important to Paul. It was about spiritual formation and growing in godly character – by imitating Christ and Christian role models like Paul himself.

Philippi was a colony of Rome. It was known for its gold mines and gave the community a sense of prosperity. Paul’s ministry there was centered upon outreach as the church he founded was primarily Gentiles and not from the Judeo-Christian tradition. We can tell that Paul’s ministry impacted the Philippian church in significant ways as this community is shifting in their life perspectives because of the gift of faith. The Philippians are not only partnering with Paul financially to share the gospel with other regions. The faith community of Philippi is also shifting in the way they are finding meaning in life. Paul says when life is centered solely upon earthly things then our end is destruction and we find ourselves cut off from God’s intentions. Instead life should be centered upon eternal things. For Paul a life well lived is a matter of perspective and it makes a difference how we order our lives.

David Brooks says there are two main ways we attempt to find meaning in life. One way is by seeking “résumé virtues.” This outlook focuses on developing our skills to accomplish something in life. It is to work towards life goals to be successful and sustainable. It considers how we measure up to the world’s standards. Brooks says résumé virtues are based upon “utilitarian logic. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.”

The second way to find meaning in life is by seeking “eulogy virtues.” This outlook focuses on developing the core of our character instead of taking stock in our skill sets. It is considering the moral qualities that we often offer to summarize a person’s life. It is to live a life of integrity to “love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth.” Brooks says that eulogy virtues are based upon “an inverse logic. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”

These résumé virtues and eulogy virtues collide because we often spend more time and energy focusing upon the earthly things – obligations that steal our potential joy and meaning in life. We end up missing opportunities to cultivate the eternal things of life – qualities that are godly and inspire others. Godly character inspires us to reach towards the weightier qualities of humility, sacrificial love, and greater purpose. Godly character is what gives life greater meaning.

It is important for us to pause and to reflect upon our lives. No matter our age, we get caught up in the rat race of the day to day list of obligations. We don’t stop and look into our lives until life forces us to stop. Illness will force us to slow down because we are worn down. The unthinkable happens and it causes us to question everything in life. Still others are forced to pause when life begins to draw to a close. It is as we approach the very thin space of earthly life and life eternal that we wonder what have we really done with this wild and precious life of ours.

A palliative nurse spent years listening to the regrets of patients as they reflected upon their lives and these statements are what so many of her patients shared as they looked backwards in time:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me.
I wished I had not worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish I had let myself be happier.

Lent is a suspended period of time to allow the Spirit to shift our life perspectives. It is a time to reflect upon our personal and communal lives, past and present, and ask questions like: Are we keeping the main thing the main thing? What are we living for? What are we living towards? What gives our lives meaning and purpose? If we want a life of integrity how are be cultivating a godly character?

We are to look at the cross and empty tomb for they are significant to the character of Jesus Christ – the One we are to imitate. We are to consider what it means to stand firm in the Lord.

Standing firm means is to acknowledge that the cross is our guiding compass in life. It is an intimate partnership vertically with God and horizontally with neighbor. The cross tethers us to the steadfast love of God (vertical)and the relational grace of Jesus Christ (horizontal). In order to stand firm we must prayerfully discern where Christ is leading us to live out our faith in meaningful ways at school, in the work place, through the community, and in the world. Consider where your passions and God-given talents intersect the world’s deepest needs, as Frederick Buechner says. A life filled with meaning is not self-seeking. It is trusting that each of us has been given a greater purpose to serve God and one another.

Paul says, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We allow God to bring this good work to completion as we search for these sacred intersections in life through efforts, trials, and practice. It also takes intentionality to cultivate character that is driven by humility and sacrificial love. The core of Christ’s character was giving up his will in order to faithfully serve God and others. Christ’s character of humility, unconditional love and service allows us to lose ourselves so that we might find the joy of participating in God’s redemptive work.

Standing firm is to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel. Paul says our lives should be a long obedience to God’s promises: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he is the Lord of heaven and earth…From one ancestor [Abraham] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and boundaries of places where they would live, so that they [Abraham’s ancestors] would search for God and perhaps grope [personally discover] for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-28).

In order to stand firm we must continue to look for Christ in one another. Take the time remember your faith mentors and let their examples of godly character inspire you to search for God. Remember the storytellers who looked for the awe and wonder of God’s presence. Remember the women and men who allowed adversity to be a pathway to champion justice and mutual forbearance. Remember the children and youth who encourage us to be present each day and to be our true selves.

But more than these, Paul says standing firm is to live in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). It is a privilege and a struggle to live according to the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. It is a privilege that we are united and shaped by the gracious character of Christ for “God chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4). It is a privilege to experience and share God’s amazing grace.

But standing firm in this gift of faith is one that calls us to struggle as we seek the mind of Christ in all things. This week prayerfully consider how the cross is shifting our perspective of life. Consider how the character of Jesus Christ is moving us to lose ourselves so that we might find ourselves clothed with a little more humility, sacrificial love, and God-given purpose. This gift and call guides us by the cross and moves us towards a shared purpose to seek the sacred intersections of life and to live for God alone.

Let us encourage one another to stand firm in what really matters in life.

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


David Brooks, “The Road to Character” (New York: Random House, 2015), p. xii - xiii.
Joe Martino, “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” April 27, 2013. Collective Evolution website

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sermon: First Sunday of Lent - Doing the Hard Thing

"Doing the Hard Thing"
First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16; Luke 4: 1-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 14, 2016

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
- Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
- Luke 4: 1-13

Today marks the first Sunday in Lent. We are entering into a tradition that began in the fourth century. Back then it was in preparation for Baptism as the newly baptized were received by the church on Easter Sunday. Over the centuries Lent has been a spiritual journey as we follow Jesus Christ’s ministry which leads to the cross and empty tomb. The culmination towards Holy Week assures us that Jesus fulfills the prophecies of God’s promise for salvation.

The days of Lent are long and they last for 40 days. Henri Nouwen speaks of Lent as a wilderness time for us to move from “one interpretation of life to a different interpretation.” It is a time of spiritual growth as we reflect upon Christ’s costly grace of the cross and the implications it has upon our lives of faith.

Christ’s journey into his public ministry began with the fullness of God’s abundant Spirit. Christ’s ministry is claimed and inaugurated by the waters and Holy Spirit of baptism. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is then led out to the wilderness to do the hard thing; to fast and pray for 40 days and 40 nights. And at the end of those 40 days he was famished.

As Jesus wandered through the desert he was tempted to do the easy thing – to turn that stone into bread for a quick fix. Jesus was tempted to take his eyes off God and look towards another kingdom. Jesus was tempted to test God and push the boundaries of God’s abundant love. Each of these temptations challenged Jesus’ faithfulness to God. And yet Jesus’ unwavering obedience offers us a roadmap of how to take each step of the Lenten journey.

It is tempting to forgo Lent and just jump to the celebration of Easter Sunday. But that would allow our spirits to cave in to doing the easy thing. It would be a missed opportunity to gain a richer experience of the ways our faith guides us to living as God’s new creation because something in us has to die.

Let’s be honest – Lent is uncomfortable. Lent is a time for us to examine the reality of what our hearts really hold. It is a space to be honest about what distracts us from following God’s ways and what obstacles seem to choke the roots of our faith. We are each a sinner of God’s own redeeming.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not – every one of us has spiritual baggage that gets in the way of following God faithfully. To fast and to pray is to allow the Spirit of God to chisel away at those things that have hardened our hearts. Walking in the wilderness allows us to be led by the Spirit and let the Word of God reshape us.

It is tempting to take our eyes off God and look for other kingdoms of our own making. When we choose to focus on other things like money, busyness, our will, or working 24/7 with no room for rest, then we are placing God in a small box and labeling it cheap grace.

Cheap grace turns a blind eye to our deep need for God’s guidance, action and grace. Cheap grace says we only need God in a pinch because we can do life ourselves. Cheap grace overlooks the human condition of sin which causes us to live in a constant state of hunger for more. But what in fact is the “more” we are looking for?

Lent pushes us to see the bigger picture of our lives. The Spirit asks if we are willing to allow God to enter into our bigger picture or just a little here…a little there? Lent moves us from cheap grace to costly grace because Jesus’ sacrificial love held nothing back from God or humanity. Jesus’ sacrificial touches every aspect of our lives. The gift of faith is to guide our every decision in holy integrity so that we might become more like Christ in God’s coming kingdom.

It is tempting to test God and push the boundaries of God’s abundant love. Every child of God does it no matter our age. The lessons of parenting are endless as boundaries of love are pushed from toddler years, youth, and even into and beyond our young adult years. Boundaries make us feel constrained and come with negative perceptions.

But the boundaries of God’s love were never intended to be rules and shall nots. They were reinterpreted by Christ. They are a gift given not to test but to encourage us to trust in God’s abundance and to be shaped by God’s mercy. We are to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. God’s love reminds us who we are and whose we are. It urges us to respond every day with a heart of gratitude for this gift of wondrous love.

We are therefore called to enter this wilderness experience of temptations and dessert spaces by clothing ourselves in Christ’s spiritual virtues. Luke tells us that Christ’s centering spiritual virtue is prayer. Do you want to know the secret to Jesus’ 40 days of prayer in the wilderness? It is not in the technique or in how many minutes he spent in uttered speech or silence. The secret is vulnerability. Jesus allowed the Spirit to guide him into the landscape of the human condition. By doing so, Jesus allowed the Spirit to expose his own vulnerability in the wildreness.

Father Henry is a retired Roman Catholic priest in Tupelo, Mississippi. I had the privilege of knowing him as a colleague in ministry during my first call. A few years back he asked quite a provocative question during a Lenten series. His question was this: “Do we use our faith for pretense or for drawing us closer to God?” That question continues to stay very close to me in my personal life and ministry.

Pretense causes us to put up walls so that others cannot see our brokenness. Pretense paints our lives into a perfect picture where we have it all together. The smile we show to everyone covers the pain that we carry deep inside. And sometimes we even think we can hide our brokenness from God as well!

Pretense hides our shared realities that we feel weak and do not fully know how to stand firm in the Lord. Pretense is the cataract to our spiritual eyes and prevents us from refocusing on what God is trying to do in our lives. Pretense creates an obstacle to truly experience forgiveness and to break with the past. Pretense blocks the path of truly following Jesus Christ to die to sin and be raised to new life.

Do we use our faith for pretense or for drawing us closer to God?

If we are truly allowing our faith to draw us closer to God then we must expose the depths of our human condition to God. We must even take a risk to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others. We take the next right step by being real with our faith. The spiritual virtue of Jesus Christ leads us to be real through personal and communal prayer.

Some people take the 40 days of Lent to give up something. I would like to invite our congregation to give up some time every day to cultivate the spiritual discipline of prayer.

Together we will be reading daily online devotions. Make sure the church has your email address to receive these daily emails or “like” our church facebook page to receive them. With each devotion listen for God’s presence in the Word and also in the world around you. Let God’s Word feed the hungers of your heart. Let God’s Word guide you to do the hard thing and pray with a vulnerable heart each day. It is by doing this that the Spirit might chisel through the wall of our pretenses. The Spirit will empower us to let go of the quick fixes, the little kingdoms, and the ways we push the boundaries of God’s love.

Together we will also grow in Christ’s spiritual virtue by using a prayer wall which is in the Vaughan Room just behind the cross of this sanctuary. Take a prayer tag and write a prayer. Your prayer might stem from something the Lenten devotion has stirred within you. Or maybe your prayer centers upon a question or situation you are wrestling with to find God’s direction in.

Each week when you are here, take some time to pray over these prayer cards and vulnerable words. Some might be signed with a name and some might be anonymous. The prayer wall is a safe space to lift our questions, concerns, and collective searching for God’s direction in the bigger picture of life and faith. It is a space to nurture this discipline of prayer every day. Thank God that God listens to these vulnerable spaces and trust God to move each of us to a new interpretation – a new place of deeper faith – this Lenten season.

May the Spirit empower us to do the hard thing and live a holy Lent.

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

Henri Nouwen, "Lent and Easter" (Ligouri: Ligouri Publications, 2005), p. viii.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sermon: Glimpses of Grace in Anointing

Glimpses of Grace: A Sermon Series
Grace in Anointing
John 12: 1-8, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2016

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ - John 12: 1-8

It was the best that she had; a costly bottle of perfumed oil. People considered it a prized commodity back in New Testament times for it was worth the annual income of an average laborer. It was pure nard.

Nard is still sold today as an essential oil to stimulate health and wellness naturally. It has an earthy aroma that brings relaxation while also assisting the heart and nervous system. Since ancient times, nard has been considered an extravagant and costly oil as the spikenard root comes from the Himalayas. Nard was once used as sacred incense in the Jerusalem Temple. It was used by gracious hosts to anoint invited guests and demonstrate honor. Nard was also used to anoint kings in life and in death.

Mary took the nard and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark remember Jesus said that this woman had done a good service – a beautiful thing – for him (Matthew 26:10; Mark 14:6). Luke’s Gospel remembers an unnamed woman stepped in off the street to anoint Jesus with her nard and tears as she sought forgiveness (Luke 7:37).

But John’s Gospel focuses on something different. Within this small house friends gather to celebrate a miraculous healing; Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11). In the house Martha is serving dinner and Lazarus is reclining at table next to Jesus. And Mary takes the best that she had and again sits in the presence of her Lord. With a heart of gratitude Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. And then John says that the aroma of the oil filled the house. It is a moment where time is suspended as God’s grace is experienced with the human senses. It is a moment where sight, touch, and smell proclaim God’s steadfast love which brings restoration, healing, and wholeness through Jesus Christ.

Mary knew Jesus as her friend and her Lord. She knew firsthand the love of Jesus Christ and God’s power at work through him. She knew Jesus as the Messiah that was coming into the world to make all things new through God’s redeeming love. The touch of Mary’s hands as she anointed Jesus shared her trust and testimony in a loving Lord and King of Glory who promises healing and wholeness. For as Isaiah says it is by his wounds that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

John invites you and me to join this intimate setting as Mary anoints Jesus because our human experience with grace is fundamentally connected to an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

A number of years ago I was privileged to take a long weekend retreat with a handful of friends who happened to be clergywomen. Our bonds of friendship grew out of seminary and we entered into ministry leaning upon each other for support and insight. The retreat was to continue nurturing our relationships, supporting one another in our challenges, and to rest in God’s grace. It was a gift to listen to one another’s stories of family, ministry, and life. We each were going through unique life changes and milestones but there was also a common thread. We continued to search for the whispers of God’s grace to find a sense of wholeness in all the ways that life fragments us.

As the retreat came to a close we participated in a service of anointing for wholeness. We sat together in a circle and had a time of prayer as a whole. And then one by one we said a prayer over the friend sitting immediately next to us. It was a prayer asking and trusting the Holy Spirit to be present in that person’s unique situation. And then the friend held our hand and anointed it with oil with the mark of a cross.

It is hard to find words to describe the mysteries of God’s grace in moments like this. The experience of being prayed for and anointed with oil was humbling. The Spirit of the living God fell upon each of us as our hands gave testimony to the power of Christ’s healing love. I felt my own brokenness was held by the very hands of God. The whispers of grace through the prayers and care around that circle proclaimed that our relationships with Jesus Christ and one another were indeed bringing new life.

One of the most beautiful revelations of God’s promises of healing and wholeness is made known through ordinary elements that are common to human life. When we experience God’s grace with the tangible expressions of water (Baptism), bread and juice (Communion), and oil (Anointing) then we are proclaiming “a vision of a community shaped by love and grounded in relationship to Jesus Christ.”*

God takes ordinary things like water, bread, juice, and oil remind us of the greatest story ever told – that is God’s love for you and for me breaks in to our brokenness – our grief, our need for healing, our struggle with forgiveness, our worry, and even our sense of unworthiness. God breaks into these hidden places of our hearts and begins the work that only God’s amazing grace can do.

Anne Lamott once said, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

The work of God’s amazing grace does not stop with you and me as being mere recipients of grace. Remember that John’s Gospel invites us into this intimate setting with Jesus and his friends. John’s story invites you and me to follow Mary’s example to use our hearts, hands, and feet to bear testimony to the fullness of life we have in Jesus Christ.

The Women’s Bible Study Group is currently studying the Gospel of John. And it has been such a gift to dive a little deeper into God’s Word. The words of John’s Gospel are pregnant with the glimpses of grace which Christ is bringing into the world through relationships. The Bible study book we are reading shares an interesting insight to the implications that Mary’s actions have in our lives:

"Jesus’ feet anointed by Mary bring us closer to an understanding of Jesus’ giving himself in love for us and the meaning of our own discipleship in obedience to him. Jesus’ feet will carry him to a cross and ours continue to carry us into a world to bear witness to his love." **

Today we have the opportunity to experience glimpses of God’s grace in a service of anointing for wholeness and in approaching the Lord’s Table to take the bread and cup of Communion. It is my hope and prayer that each of us might experience the Spirit’s presence breaking in to our personal and communal spaces of brokenness. Allow the Spirit to open a deeper awareness of God’s deep embrace in times of need. But more than anything, may the Holy Spirit use these ordinary elements of bread, juice, and oil strengthen our trust in God’s amazing grace and embolden us to go out bearing witness to God’s love.

John’s Gospel and the whole of Scripture leaves us a legacy of faith that has been passed down through every generation. Today we proclaim that this gift of faith continues to shape our lives by our relationships with God and one another through Jesus Christ. But as growing disciples of Jesus Christ, you and I are also the keepers of the story of God’s love. It’s a love that meets us where we are and thank God does not leave us where it found us!

May the glimpses of God’s grace surround you, shape you, and send you so that others may have life in Christ’s name.

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


* New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 600.
** Mark Matson, “Interpretation: The Gospel of John” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). P. 78

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sermon: Glimpses of Grace in Worry

Glimpses of Grace: A Sermon Series
Grace in Worry
Matthew 6: 25-34, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 31, 2016

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today
- Matthew 6: 25-34

It is an important thing to look through the lens of faith to gain perspectives. It helps us to better see our individual and communal lives. Paul Tillich, a German-American Christian and theologian, once said that “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters for the life of the believer.” The concerns that we hold matter because they become a guiding force in the way we navigate through life and faith. Jesus himself speaks to the crowds about a concern that humankind has held over the course of time, and that is worry.

We worry about trivial things in life such as what we might wear or what we will eat. Thank goodness we have Pinterest to help ease the regular questions we ask about our wardrobes and recipe ruts! But for our neighbors who live on the margins, the concerns about clothes for the winter and questioning where the next meal might come from are deep worries about daily survival. You see it’s a matter of perspective.

We worry about the areas of life where we feel we have little or no control. We live in a time of fast paced change and it is hard to keep up with it all.

There are two types of change.

Continuous change includes change which is expected over the course of time – such as watching our children grow into responsible adults. It certainly doesn’t happen without a lot of reflection, concern, and worry, does it? Another form of continuous change is our climbing up the ladder in our employment to better our opportunities.

Discontinuous change however is different altogether because it is unpredictable – such as the rapid change of digital technology or the change regarding our sense of global security brought about by September 11, 2001.

Within any context of change our worries are compounded by a social culture that speaks to a narrative of scarcity and fear. If we really listen to media and marketing there is so much rhetoric that is fear based. The language of scarcity pushes us to believe we will not have enough. We are persuaded to believe in the fear of loss. The underlying current of fear capitalizes on our worries and causes great insecurity and distrust. When we allow worry to be our ultimate concern then it paralyzes us and prevents the gift of faith from being a guiding force in life.

The weight of anxiety and worry causes us to spend more time looking inwards rather than outwards. It makes us feel fragmented and disconnected. We spend more time focusing on our circumstances. We spend a lot of energy focusing on perceived realities that may not even happen. Our worries actually distract us from focusing on the One in whom we claim to trust and find our ultimate meaning. Anxiety makes us take our eyes off God alone. Jesus knows the power of worry is a deceiving one. Therefore Jesus invites us to look for God’s perspective rather than our human one.

God’s perspective shifts our ultimate concern to focus on living for the kingdom and right relationships. This is a primary focus of Jesus’ teachings. Christ encourages us to place our trust in God’s abundant presence, provision, and care. Christ assures us that there is no problem, worry, or concern that is greater than our God’s ability to work through it to bring about God’s purposes in the world. Christ urges us to have a teachable spirit by growing in our discernment through prayer.

Prayer is the space we hone our skills to focus and keep our eyes on God. It is where we practice asking, searching, and knocking on the door of heaven to see God at work in the ordinary places of life. It is where we gain God’s perspective on things we do not understand. It is where we are humbly reminded that we are always a student of life and faith as we seek to learn how to relate and respond to a changing world through the example of our Lord and Savior.

I cannot help but think of Paul’s words, “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

God’s Word says we are not called to bear the weight of worry and anxiety, but we are called to bear the weight of grace. Matthew remembers Jesus said to those of us who carry the weight of worry: ‘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).

When we are tempted to carry worry and we bear the weight of anxiety, we are forgetting that the yoke Jesus is talking about it not a yoke for the shoulders of one to carry. The yoke Jesus speaks of is a double yoke that rests on Christ’s shoulders and ours. Christ comes beside us in this gift of faith therefore we are called to carry the weight of grace.

The weight of grace allows God to moves our focus beyond ourselves and towards the example of Jesus Christ. We are to follow Jesus’ every step and find humbling strength that God is in control. It is in Jesus Christ that we see God’s coming kingdom that is mending, healing, restoring, and making all things new. It is in Jesus Christ that we see what it means to live in right relationship to God and one another. Striving for the kingdom and God’s righteousness is to seek God’s perfect love that casts out fear.

Our commitment to love God and neighbor hinges upon the law and all the prophets. When our faith is ultimately concerned with what Jesus values the most then this gift of faith truly becomes a guiding force not just for our personal lives in great times of need. Faith also becomes a guiding force for the body of Christ to point to God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness breaking into the world around us and through us. And we are not just to point to this coming kingdom. Others will see glimpses of the kingdom through you and me. So yes, the content of your faith and mine matters in the life of the believer, as Paul Tillich says.

The next time you are tempted to worry, God’s Word urges us to refocus our lenses of faith. We cannot see the world our even our own situations rightly without God’s Word – the spectacles of faith as John Calvin would say. We should all allow the Spirit to write these words on our hearts so that the weight of grace may still the chaos of our sleepless nights:

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice or fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

“ Do not worry about your life…but strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25).

“Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

May it be so as we seek glimpses of grace in our times of worry.

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


Paul Tillich, “The Dynamics of Faith” (New York: Harper Collins, 2001, 1957), p. 4.