Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: A Better Way

"A Better Way"
Psalm 96: 1-6; Luke 7: 1-10 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016

O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
- Psalm 96: 1-6

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. - Luke 7: 1-10

He had a hope to bridge the distance. The Centurion looked upon a marginalized individual whom he valued highly. Then he lifted a prayer request to the community for Jesus to bring healing. His request was not simply for the individual to get well.

It was more profound than that. The Greek word for “healing” in this story actually means “to save all the way across” or “to bring someone through danger to safety.” The Centurion had hope and faith in Jesus’ ability to bridge the distance in his servant’s life from a place of otherness to God’s wholeness.

Otherness is a dangerous place. It marks an individual or a group of people by their difference from the majority. Otherness creates miles of distance because of racial, gender, or socio-economic differences. Otherness is using any marked difference as a weakness to exert power over another. Otherness is a stigma that hinders a true sense of connection and belonging. Otherness is an obstacle to experiencing wholeness and unity in community.

I am struck how the Centurion does not reach out to Jesus directly. Did you know the Centurion bears the mark of otherness too? He was a Gentile and the text reveals he felt distanced from the religious community. While the Centurion believed Jesus could heal by merely speaking a word, he perceived an obstacle to approaching Jesus.

The Centurion sent Jewish elders whom he knew to speak to Jesus on his behalf. The Centurion had worked alongside his Jewish neighbors to build a synagogue thereby also helping to build up the community. The small group of Jewish elders spoke with Jesus on the Centurion’s behalf. They lifted up the Centurion’s character and humility.

This is one of the few healing stories I recall where Jesus does not bring about restoration with a personal face to face interaction or physical touch. Healing and restoration are solely brought by the power of words.

The small group of elders and the second set of friends sent lifted up the Centurion and his request with words of dignity. Jesus commended the faith of the Centurion to the elders and the crowd with words of amazement. What is so miraculous about this healing story is that both the community and Jesus work together to save all the way across the differences that need mending for the Centurion and his servant. And then both the Centurion and servant are brought from the place of otherness to God’s wholeness.

This week I have been struck by this word picture of healing all the way across differences. There is an information overload from social media, articles, video clips, and news highlighting the divisions in society and who is named as “other.” Luke’s words remind me there is a better way to seek efforts towards unity. There is a better way to seek out healing for the marginalized that saves all the way across otherness.

William Cole works with security and is a van driver for Better Way Program of Saint Martin’s Hospitality Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He drives through the town picking up hopeful employees to beautify the city with pay. William looks upon these potential new hires with a smile and great respect whereas many would mark them as marginalized and other. The hopeful employees you see are homeless and downtrodden.

William approached one woman who candidly shared her story. She said, “I had my kids and had a three bedroom house. I had everything going for me. But I had anxiety and I just started pulling my hair out. I knew I was going to lose everything and I did. I go around cleaning up for free anyway cause the world is a dirty place. So I like cleaning up. I miss cleaning my house." She was grateful to join efforts with the Better Way Program to begin her process of healing and transformation.

Saint Martin’s Hospitality Center began in 1985 when local clergy formed a coalition with congregations and the community The goal is to bring empowerment and healing to those who are marginalized by homelessness. The guests of the Hospitality Center receive food, shelter, and services to get them back on their feet.[1]

The Better Way Program came out of this coalition. The Mayor of Albuquerque notes, “There is a better way than standing on a street corner asking for money. There is a better way than handing $5 out your window. The better way is to give people the dignity of working to beautify their city.” [2]

Our faith reveals there is a better way to bring healing. It happens when the body of Christ joins hands with the community to offer words of dignity to the marginalized. Acknowledging worth and value in another person allows us to focus more on our shared humanity.

Robert Lupton is the author of “Toxic Charity.” He has spent the past forty years working in Atlanta to envision effective renewal ministry among the poor and marginalized. His insight is quite direct as he notes that many individuals who are marginalized feel distanced from the religious community. The distance is caused when pity is received instead of church volunteers seeking common ground with those they are helping.

Lupton says, “There is nothing that brings me more joy than seeing people transitioned out of poverty, or neighborhoods change from being described as “dangerous” and “blighted” to being called “thriving” and even “successful.” I have worked with churches, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and armies of volunteers and know from firsthand experience the many ways “good intentions” can translate into ineffective care or even harm.” [3]

Good intentions that are based on pitying the marginalized bring ineffective care and harm because they, “weaken those being served, foster dishonest relationships, erode the recipient’s work ethic, and deepen dependency.” Efforts to bring healing out of pity result in toxic charity. [4]

However Lupton shares ministry that truly renews seeks to “empower those being served, engenders healthy relationships, improves local quality of life, and relieves poverty.” Ministry that seeks to heal all the way across requires that we are intentional to heal with our words. [5]

Healing words requires that we learn to become more sensitive to better understand the lives of those we are missionally serving in the community. Lupton goes on to say God wants to create opportunities for us “to listen to the stories of our neighbors in need, to ask how their faith has sustained them in difficult times, and pray” for all who are receiving and giving helping hands of grace. When we are intentional in these things then the “pity factor diminishes, and is replaced by respect and emerging understanding.” [6]

Lupton’s insight tells us that Saint Martin’s Hospitality Center and The Better Way Program are doing something right. They offer an example for many – and us - to follow in serving others who need a hand up.

The better way to bring about healing is always connected to bestowing words of dignity to one another. Not just to those who are crippled by homelessness, poverty, mental illness or any other difference we might name. Each and every one of us deserves healing words of dignity because we are each a child of God. We are each greatly valued by God and called beloved.

Luke’s healing story calls us to consider the ways this body of Christ might work with the community to break down the walls of otherness. We are stronger in number as we all come together to bridge the distance from otherness to God’s wholeness. I pray God would continue to open us to the better way of healing. May it be so.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] St. Martin’s Hospitality Center website
[2] Upworthy Video on Better Way Program
[3]Robert Lupton, “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help and How to Reverse It” (New York: Harper One, 2011). p. 1-2.
[4] Toxic Charity, p. 16.
[5] Toxic Charity, p. 15.
[6] Toxic Charity, p. 151.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sermon: The Way of Wisdom

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.

O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to one who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her...

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

‘And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.’
- Proverbs 8: 1-11, 22-36

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. - John 16: 12-15

At one time in her life, Kathleen Norris worked as an artist with third graders. She felt the elementary discipline of creating art came from learning about noise and silence. Kathleen instructed her third graders to make all the noise they could while sitting at their desks but only when she raised her hand.

The other important part of her instructions was that when her hand lowered, the noise would have to stop. For Kathleen, making silence was not about quiet funny faces and squirmy bottoms in the seats but breathing quietly and sitting still. When silence became a presence in the room then creativity flourished among those kids in deep ways.

Kathleen noticed that silence actually liberated the children’s imaginations. We have so much to learn from child’s play as children often hold a key to wisdom through their imaginations. One boy in Kathleen’s class came up with an image of strength as being “as slow and silent as a tree.” Another little girl offered a “gem of spiritual wisdom” that Kathleen will never forget: “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.” Silence was quite a revelation to these children in a world of noise. [1]

The crossroads where noise and silence meet is a crossroads where wisdom for the journey of faith can indeed be found.

The writer of Proverbs says that Woman Wisdom takes her stand at the crossroads of life. She stands in the center of all the noise and distractions that life can muster. Woman Wisdom raises her hand and cries out to all people: “Hear, for I will speak noble things” (Proverbs 8:6).

Woman Wisdom has much to teach us. She is a gift of the Holy Spirit. While she is playful with her role in Creation she is also like a master worker. She builds up the people of God in God’s righteous ways. She invites us to partner with God in creating new life out of our brokenness. Woman Wisdom invites us to stand with her at the crossroads of life and consider the intersection of noise and silence in such a way that we might find a life that is full and abundant.

You and I are more than familiar with the noise of the daily grind. Many of us need a certain level of noise in the background to find the pulse of life. We love to combine tasks with the sound of music or television. Noise is not just auditory but it is visual too. Digital noise like social media keeps us connected and in touch with the world around us. It’s also a good distraction for those of us who need an excuse to procrastinate!

But there is also the noise in the forefront of life. This noise is distracting in ways that pulls the fibers of our being and weighs us down. The noise of busyness, hurt, and conflict stirs something within us. Our hearts become filled with emotions on all levels. The longer we allow ourselves to be distracted by the chaos buzzing around us, the less we are able to focus and discern a wise response to it.

In order for us to calm the chaos around us and within us we are invited to hear the way of wisdom. And we can only hear her presence if we make silence and listen. For when silence makes its presence in our lives then wisdom flourishes in the life of faith.

Creating a space for spiritual stillness allows us to reflect on the ways God is leading us to deal with the noise in life. Our Proverbs text illustrates the goal of life is to walk through all of life’s busy intersections, twists and turns with wisdom. True wisdom meets us where we are to teach us prudence, equity for others, and how to right wrongs. True wisdom guides us in restoring brokenness, extending grace and forgiveness, and being an agent of peace.

All of life is a classroom and every situation we encounter gives us an opportunity to learn from it. The more we follow the Spirit’s lead to practice spiritual stillness, the more freely and clearly we can respond to the noise in our life with wisdom and grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that “Silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing.”[2]

Whenever I am trying to discern how to respond in a situation I wait for God’s Word by praying Scripture. Sometimes I intentionally look for Scriptures that apply to specific situations. But many times God’s Word finds me in that daily devotion reading, whatever it may be that day.

On my best days when I write that Scripture down and keep it close through the day, I am amazed how God speaks through those words. Some glimpse of God’s truth is made known in a story someone shares. The grace of Christ slowly reveals a sense of direction when an answer to a question is sought out. The Spirit’s presence brings a sense of peace in whatever we are wrestling with that day.

It is no coincidence that Proverbs shares that wisdom is listening to God’s instruction as we bind God’s Word on our hearts and tie these words around our neck. When we walk they will always lead us. And when we lie down to think and rest God’s Word will watch over us (Proverbs 6: 21-22).

The way of wisdom leads us towards space for prayerful reflection. Creating this space allows our faith to be liberated by the faithfulness of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the abiding presence of Holy Spirit. The way of wisdom is God’s revelation that we are empowered to choose a different way to relate and respond to the busyness, distractions, and the conflict at the crossroads of life. Spiritual stillness liberates our hearts and minds to imagine how faith might guide our decisions in life giving ways.

We ultimately have two choices. We can allow the noise in our lives to be an ongoing distraction. When we allow busyness, hurt, and conflict to be the louder presence then we will never find an authentic way to respond to it or even resolve it. Our human nature alone will always respond to challenging situations out of our brokenness and out of our own will. If we make decisions from a place of emotional distraction then we only hurt ourselves and others.

Or we can respond to challenging situations out of wisdom’s noble things. If we are intentional to hear Gods’ instruction to be wise and we do not neglect it then we will find ways to be Christ-like in our relationships with others. We will learn how to be care for others with mutual forbearance that builds up others. We will learn the art of discernment in such a way that faith informs our decisions which bears the weight of grace and God’s wisdom.

Wisdom is better than anything our hearts can desire. Wisdom makes a way forward through the distractions and drama of life. Wisdom allows us to find a sacred center of a full and abundant life. God delights in our efforts to follow wisdom’s ways.

God’s wisdom is always seeking us out and calling out to us but the question is will we create space to hear and listen?

Each day we stand at the crossroads of life where noise and silence intersect. As the day closes, name the noise and all its distractions that day. But also take care to make some silence. At the end of the day pause and consider how we have listened to the way of wisdom. I find these questions from Henri Nouwen helpful:

Did I offer peace today?
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?
Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment?
Did I forgive?
Did I love?

These are the real questions for they lead us to find wisdom.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1]Kathleen Norris, “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith” (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1998), pp. 16-17.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community” (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), p. 79.

[3] Art by Natalia Bystrianyk

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sermon: Powered by the Spirit

"Powered by the Spirit"
Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2: 1-21
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
- Acts 2: 1-21

There is something to be said for the power of showing up. The apostles were committed to holding fast to Jesus’ promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The apostles showed up and waited together in unity. Even with all their questions and stumbling the apostles kept trying to take the next right step. They made an effort to trust their Rabbi and Risen Savior. And then it happened; God’s faithfulness not only showed up but God’s faithfulness poured out. The apostles heard the Spirit. They felt the Spirit move. They saw God blaze a trail among them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence. And they responded.

It matters that the apostles experienced the power of Holy Spirit in a very visual way. In a recent article Deborah Thompson Prince, a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church, shared her insights on Pentecost:

Visions are spread throughout the story of the early church because the Risen Jesus continues to communicate with his followers even after his resurrection. Jesus’ ministry is carried on within the Jesus community, the church. But to persist in this mission, the church must continue to see the path that God has laid before it through Christ. The Pentecost story reveals that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that believers are invited to see what God would show them. [1]

We are misled in thinking the revelation of Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a one day event. The daily walk of faith means we are intentionally seeking to follow God’s Spirit one day at a time. Holy Spirit is not a thing. Holy Spirit is our source of power to take the next right step in God’s faithfulness as the body of Christ. In order for Holy Spirit to show up and light the path God has laid before us, we must be committed to show up, listen, and see the Spirit’s movement among us.

This year the spiritual leaders of the church – our nine ruling elders and I – are learning about the Holy Spirit. We are reading and discussing “Sailboat Church,” by Rev. Joan Gray.

Gray says, “Early Christian symbols include a boat as a symbol for the church. In Jesus’ time, there were two ways to power a boat on open water. One was to use muscles, most commonly by rowing. The other way was to harness the power of the wind. When early Christians used a boat as a symbol for the church, it was never a rowboat; it was always a sailboat. That is because on the day of Pentecost, with ‘a sound like the rush of a violent wind’ (Acts 2:1). Jesus’ promise of power became a reality and drew those who believed in him into a different way of living. “

Gray goes on to say some churches go about ministry like a rowboat church. They focus on human efforts such as the church’s strength, wisdom, and resources. Seeking God’s will and spiritual growth are not primary skills to hone. Transformation does not happen because the church becomes inwardly focused. The energy of the church is minimal because the church’s movement is solely powered by the members who are willing to row.

And then some churches go about ministry like a sailboat church. They focus upon opportunities to sail into the waves of God’s will by harnessing the power of Holy Spirit. They navigate God’s way forward with the compass of Scripture and prayer. They create spaces to hone skills to listen and see the Spirit’s movement in order to discern and follow God’s direction. Personal agendas are let go in order to prayerfully know what is good for the whole by partnering with God. [2]

There will be times and seasons when every church will lean more into a model of rowing or sailing. The spiritual leaders here – our nine ruling elders and I - are praying that in this next chapter of ministry that we will sail into the direction of God’s plans. As we all worship, study, connect, and serve together, we are trusting that God’s faithfulness will show up and pour out. We want to live so God can work through us anywhere we are and anytime we are open to the Spirit.

Today is an opportunity for God to open us more to the Spirit’s work among us. God always desires for us to tap into the ultimate source of life. God wants us to be powered by Holy Spirit. God intends for us to sail by God’s life-giving breath or wind.

The Spirit of Pentecost is the same Spirit which hovered over the dark and churning waters at the earth’s beginning. The Spirit brought calm from the chaos then and the Spirit still calms the chaos today.

The Spirit claims us in God’s love that will never let us go and the Spirit reveals this in God’s Word today.

The Spirit moved among the prophets to fill them with God’s energy, imagination, and love to lead the people of God. And the Spirit works through our leaders today.

The Spirit was promised by Jesus Christ as our Helper to teach us all that Christ commanded and the Spirit helps us today.

The Spirit moved mightily among the apostles and blazed God’s trail for them to see and the Spirit moves mightily today.

The Spirit brings peace, life, and power to follow God’s vision for real change in our lives and in the world.

I pray that as we stand in the story of Pentecost today that we would experience a renewed vision of God’s faithfulness and sail into it. The power of Holy Spirit was strong enough to forge the church all those generations ago. The same Holy Spirit desires to be moving among us in both gentle and powerful ways that bring energy, excitement, and passion for what God has already done, is doing now, and is yet to do among us. The Spirit just might move us in new and surprising ways!

I pray as we stand in the story of God’s promises and presence by sharing the bread of God’s abundance and the cup of Christ’s amazing grace that our spirits would be strengthened. I pray that we would indeed feel the movement of the Spirit among us so that we might dream and imagine and see all that God is laying before us.

May we seek to be powered by the Spirit and have the courage to respond. It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.

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

Sources Resourced:

[1] Deborah Thompson Prince, “The Visionary Spirit of Pentecost,” The Presbyterian Outlook, May 11, 2016.

[2] Joan Gray, “Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sermon: We Have Work to Do

"We Have Work to Do"
Ascension of the Lord
Psalm 47; Acts 1: 1-11 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
- Psalm 47

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
- Acts 1: 1-11

Jesus had left the building.
The apostles had been with the Risen Christ for just over 40 days since the first Easter Sunday. They had been soaking up all the time they could with the Risen Rabbi. And just like that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, as we say almost weekly in the Apostles’ Creed.

The apostles’ mouths were gaping open and they were looking up into the sky. They were stunned as they were left to be the body of Christ. I can imagine them looking at one another and saying, “What do we do now?” Let’s just be real for a minute. What chance would you have given these apostles at this point to be the body of Christ and really change the world? (1) A lot (2) Some (3) Very little.

Without any divine plan in place, I think the apostles would have had very little hope to carry on Christ’s work. But Jesus did give them instructions before he took the stairway to heaven. “You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses where you are now and on to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The plan was two-fold: keep in step with the Spirit and share the good news. The apostles were to focus on these two things in their immediate location in life and then start reaching out little by little. And of course God’s messengers were right there to reinforce the point with an extra nudge: “What are you looking up in the sky for? We have work to do!”

The mission of the greater and local church hinges upon the marching orders Jesus left. Many today are going back to the early church’s example as told in Acts. The early church followed the Spirit’s leading through lots of prayer and discernment. Those early followers were actually small house churches. They were small groups of people who were intentional to share the good news like Christ did – walking among the people and meeting them in their brokenness. The good news gave others hope, healing, and a hand up. And the mission of the early church was authentic because it was relational.

People today are looking for communities where they can tap into authentic faith. Being authentic in the church today means that faith is a verb. Faith is on the move. It grows in substance, energy, and passion as God continues to be at work in our lives and in the world. Faith seeks to understand others as it abides in hope and love. Faith takes risks to reveal God’s kingdom.

A faith that grows in substance, energy, and passion yearns for connection. The body of Christ is made of lots of individuals. We all are in various seasons of life. We all have various struggles. We all have unique passions and gifts. The strength of the body of Christ is dependent upon the strength of our connections. The more ways we can connect with one another to share our joys and struggles, our passions and dreams, our talents and abilities then we have more unity in community. And unity is key to partnering with God.

It is important to imagine new ways for us to connect that meet people in the busyness of life. A few weeks ago I gathered a group of women together to share the joys and struggles of working and parenting. Many said it was so meaningful to gather at a later time to just be still and listen to one another’s stories of life. We shared good food and a devotional together. We also talked about what is saving us right now in these hectic days.

The connections that night revealed the movement of the Spirit among us and everyone received a word of good news. Small groups like this, like Presbyterian Women, youth group, a weekly Bible study, the Men’s Group empower us to grow as the body of Christ so that we might share new energy and passion for God’s activity with others.

A faith that seeks to understand others moves us to get our hands dirty for hope and love. We follow in the steps of Jesus’ servant leadership. Jesus was the Good News on the move, always walking alongside another in hopes to lift them up in God’s love. But in order to do that authentically, let’s consider what is breaking our hearts in the community and in the wider world. We must be open for the Spirit to lead us to acts of understanding and compassion. That is what leads us to action - to roll up our sleeves and serve others.

I am grateful for the ways this church has felt God leading us to serve in local mission. Earlier this year a church member shared she had gotten to know a local family by tutoring one of the children since the previous year. This particular family had fallen on hard times. Conversations between the church member and the family opened a door for our mission team to also come alongside this family with compassion and hope. God’s Spirit opened the hearts of many here to be a part of serving this family.

As the mission team and I rolled up our sleeves to paint bedrooms and provide some basic needs, I was amazed how God’s love was lifting up all of us. That family and our body of Christ certainly felt the Spirit’s direction and presence and good news was shared through all these relationships. Our mission team continues to pray for God’s direction to share good news through meeting real needs. God definitely has work for us to do to use all of our skills, passions, and gifts in the hopes of making a difference in Van Wyck and beyond.

A faith that takes risks to reveal God’s kingdom needs persistence. We need to be persistent in praying for God’s will and the courage to follow it. In her book, “Sailboat Church,” Rev. Joan Gray says that “every congregation is called to be, in its own way, a demonstration plot of God’s kingdom on this earth.” She likens this image to a farmer that takes risks every season to plant new seeds to grow a crop. In an agricultural sense the farmer sees the demonstration plot grow and reach its potential first hand with lots of prayer, nurturing the soil, and patience.[1]

You and I are like this farmer and we too must take risks to grow our demonstration plot – a place where those who are here and not here yet can plug into the body of Christ and taste the fruits of God’s kingdom. It’s a place where we seek genuine ways to connect the body of Christ, imagine where God is calling us to go and serve others, and prayerfully consider God’s vision for our future. Each time the body of Christ gathers we are being prepared for God to send us out to partner with God in changing the world.

Some churches gather and only draw inward and become more inwardly focused, thus becoming more irrelevant in a time of unexpected change. But that is not who we are at Van Wyck Presbyterian. We have long been movers and shakers in the community. Through the generations we have been forward thinking and open to the creativity of the Spirit.

We are called to keep in step with the Spirit and share the good news. Prayerfully consider where you are finding connection in the body of Christ? Where is God breaking your heart in the community and wider world to nudge us to serve others in hope and love? Where is God calling you and me to take risks in order to reveal the kingdom here?

Let us be prayerful about these areas, because we have work to do!

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] Joan Gray, “Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 33.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Sermon: Sphere of Influence

"Sphere of Influence"
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 67; Acts 16: 9-15 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 1, 2016

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.
- Psalm 67

In our New Testament reading, the good physician, Luke, tells us that Paul had been traveling with apostles and elders. They had mapped out an itinerary to backtrack and check on believers they had previously encountered and influenced. Paul wanted to see how his sisters and brothers in the faith were doing. Those pockets of relationships were like family to him.

But Paul divides off from the original group with only Luke, Silas and a new follower Timothy. God had led Paul and Timothy to cross paths. This intersection created an opportunity for Paul to become a mentor to young Timothy. As these four set out, the Spirit redirected them yet again for God had particular plans.

Listen for the movement of the Spirit in our story of Acts 16: 9-15 as told by Luke.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.

When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

God redirected Paul’s small group to Philippi. That place would forever be connected to Paul’s heart. The people Paul met there gave him great joy because of the special ways they shared in the gospel from that first day (Philippians 1:5). That first day Paul remembers started when his small group walked out of the city gates of Philippi to the river. They walked to a quiet space on the Sabbath to rest in God’s grace. They went down to the river to pray.

It seems the Spirit had intentionally redirected Paul’s steps to this space that was set apart. I can imagine the path leading to the river bank was well worn by many who sought a personal connection to God in quiet solitude. The large rocks along the bank were smoothed over the years as small gatherings of sisters and brothers in the faith sat seeking support from the strength of community. The babbling water of the river calms the busyness of any sojourner with the whispers of the Spirit. Sitting by the river has a way of restoring the soul.

I find it so interesting that God chose this space to intersect Paul and Lydia. Paul was open to the Spirit’s leading and even redirection so that he may continue to pursue his sphere of influence to share the gospel. People knew Paul’s story and his passion for Christ. And Paul had a way of meeting others where they were in life.

And there was Lydia. She also was a woman of influence. She was a prominent business woman who rubbed shoulders with many different people across the socio-economic spectrum. She also had a passion for living the life of faith. She was a worshipper of God.

In that intersection the Spirit had opened Lydia to listen to the conversation between Paul, his small group and with the women gathered along the river bank. I would love to know exactly what was said that moved her so much. Whatever the conversation or even the prayer that was shared – Pauls’ sphere of influence opened Lydia’s soul and deepened her desire to learn. The Spirit moved Lydia to eagerly attend to her faith.

Lydia’s encounter by the river had an internal and an external effect on her. She sensed God’s influence – God’s loving presence claiming her life. She responded to God’s grace by receiving the waters of baptism. This was the internal.

Then Lydia let that moment flow out from her into these newly formed relationships. Lydia did not just invite but she persuaded Paul and his small group to come to her home just like family. This was the external. The blessings Lydia received were not just for her alone. She was blessed to continue being a blessing to others. I have no doubt this intersection flowed into her faith, family, and work ethics.

It was within this personal encounter that a small interaction created a tipping point by someone’s influence. Tipping points are small things that have great moving effects. God opened a heart and soul to really listen and to attend to what the Spirit was teaching through a mentor. And this encounter did not happen by the way of a sermon or even in a church. It happened out beyond the city gates and off the beaten path. It happened where ordinary life intersects the holiness of God in a simple interaction.

The greatest sphere of influence in our lives is God’s. Any given day the Spirit is whispering to us to walk off the beaten path and find a place to sit beside the river bank of life. It may seem like idle time but we need to be surrounded by God’s grace. We need opportunities for God to open us and let God pour grace-filled influence into us. We need the Spirit’s guidance to discern what we should be attending to each day.

You and I have a deep longing to sense God’s graciousness to us, to know God’s blessing, and to be in God’s presence that the light of the Divine would shine upon us. All good and praiseworthy things in our efforts to grow in faith flow from the sphere of God’s influence.

As we leave the river bank and return to the ordinary spaces and responsibilities of life, we encounter surrounding circles of influence. Just think of the individuals in the span of your years who you have looked up to as a mentor in life and faith.

They are teachers at school or church who open our imaginations and wonder. They are friends who inspire us to hope for the best of God’s ability when life seems like one disappointment after another. They are colleagues whose work ethics and integrity move us to be godly people and not seek our work as a means to an end. All of these individuals share a personal connection with us and demonstrate Christ’s example in real ways that are meaningful to us.

When I think about spheres of influence I think about those mentors who God has intersected in my own life. They make such an impression upon me that I find myself saying, “I want to live like that. I want faith like that. I want God to work through me like that.” Before I entered into church leadership and ordained ministry I never thought I had a personal sphere of influence. Others who had influenced me came to my mind first.

When we walk outside of the church doors today and enter into the fullness of this week, I want you to consider something.

God desires to work through your life so that you may be a sphere of influence to others. Each of us has a sphere of influence. We have influence in our homes, with the friends we associate with, and in the workplace. And within all these pockets of relationships, they are mostly established relationships. But there is more to our sphere of influence than this.

There may be a day in the near future – it may be this very afternoon – where God redirects the plans you have made. God’s Spirit may lead you to purposefully intersect with someone new. And this may be an opportunity where God takes your unique talents, gifts, and personality to open up another’s heart and soul. It may not even be with your words. God may use your actions or deeds. But God will take some gem of your faith and inspire another person to attend to something of their growing faith. Be open to these intersections God is creating and meet others where they are. Life is hard and we all need genuine encouragement along the way.

As you and I consider our personal spheres of influence we do not need to be concerned about leaving a legacy of faith. We don’t need to have letters and books written about us like Paul had. What is worthy of remembering is the ways we are being faithful in the small things.

Find some place off the beaten path on a regular basis: an outdoor sanctuary of a walking trail, an inner room that surrounds you in peace, a space set apart that calls to you alone. Allow God’s grace to calm the busyness of your day - whether the day is just beginning, or you are pausing at lunchtime, or you are reflecting upon the day's end. Listen for the Spirit whispering to you as your heart is opened to what needs tending. Allow these quiet encounters with God to build tipping points within your spirit in order to be a part of God’s great plans. Situate yourself in God’s sphere of influence and see where it might flow into the lives of others through small interactions.

You and I each have a circle – a sphere - of influence and God wants to shine upon us and bless us that we might be a blessing to others. We are created in circles of relationships with God at the very center. May you and I consider the spheres of influence we are standing in and waiting to be led towards. It is from these interconnected circles of relationships that we praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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