Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Generosity

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Generosity"
1Timothy 6: 6-19 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign for ever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
- Psalm 146

When we read the landscape of everyday life, it is hard to be a disciple. There is so much that competes for our attention. We are so easily distracted to take our eyes off the trail Jesus is blazing ahead of us. Paul is writing to young Timothy and gives him some encouragement on staying focused not just as a leader in the church but also as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Listen to Paul’s words (1 Timothy 6: 6-19) according to the paraphrase in The Message, by Eugene Peterson:

6-8A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.
9-10 But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they will self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.
11-12 But you, Timothy, man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses.
13-16 I’m charging you before the life-giving God and before Christ, who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didn’t give an inch: Keep this command to the letter, and don’t slack off. Our Master, Jesus Christ, is on his way. He’ll show up right on time, his arrival guaranteed by the Blessed and Undisputed Ruler, High King, High God. He’s the only one death can’t touch, his light so bright no one can get close. He’s never been seen by human eyes—human eyes can’t take him in! Honor to him, and eternal rule! Oh, yes.
17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

The human story has not changed a lot over the course of history. Comfort is sought over being content with the basics of life. Money is perceived to bring happiness. Status is a prized possession.

While Paul speaks how money can corrupt when it is misused or abused, it is actually a symptom of a larger issue within our history. That issue is a story that is threaded by the fabric of fear – the fear of not having enough, the fear of not being enough, and the fear of not being in control. Fear deceives us to trust ourselves more than God. Fear tells us we need to take care of ourselves first and foremost. And Paul wants Timothy to flip the script. “Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy” (verse 11).

Paul wants Timothy to remember that the trail Jesus is blazing ahead of him is solid ground. If we blaze our own trail it is paved with idolatry because human nature puts other things before God. But the trail Jesus is blazing has a foundation laid with God’s generosity and it is a worthy path for us to follow. The most basic level of God’s generosity is revealed through love. “And we know love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The psalmist reveals God’s generous love in that God is our Helper and hope, the Maker of heaven and earth, and the Keeper and Giver of faith (Psalm 146: 5-6). God shows what love looks like in executing justice to the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, setting the prisoner free, opening the eyes of the blind, and lifting up those who are bowed down – particularly the stranger, the orphan, the widow (Psalm 146: 7-9).

God’s generous love stands beside us and pushes against that fear of not having enough. God’s generous love gives us identity and purpose and reminds us that as a child of God we are loved. We are already enough. God’s generous love meets us where we are and provides our every need to affirm that God is still in control and is worthy to be trusted.

I need that reminder this week because we live in a world with a lot of fear. There are additional pressures as tensions rise across our country and throughout the world. The political and racial tensions are high as distrust and fear are tearing apart the unity in our communities. We ask ourselves how are we to faithfully respond?

There are additional concerns for our children as life unfolds in real time on cell phones and social media. The interwebs have become places of virtual violence with graphic images and words that attack rather than build up. We wonder how to guide our children to make right choices with digital communication. We have to look at ourselves and how we are modeling that too.

There are additional questions as we all consider what kind of world do we want to live in? We pray for the brokenness of our world where it seems that corruption, mistrust and fear reign higher than God’s ways. Some days it leaves us all feeling quite small and helpless. And we really wonder how is God leading us to take the next right step?

The writer of Hebrews speaks loudly to me this week. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one not therefore abandon that confidence of yours, it brings a great reward. For you need endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (Hebrews 10: 23-25, 35-36).

Today it is imperative for the twenty-first century disciple to follow that trail Jesus is blazing for it is marked with God’s will. Scripture shows us the heart of God’s will is generosity. God’s generosity is bold. In the Greek, that word ‘generosity’ holds a powerful image of being ready to reach out with open hands. Those hands search for ways to give an offering of intrinsic good. They reach out with God’s purposes in mind. Clenched fists learn to be open for the sake of creating a beloved community. This is how the hands of our Creator are shaping us to be as disciples.

I am always amazed how children and youth lead us in life lessons. Our young ones teach us rich gems of wisdom.

Just over a month ago a five year old boy was pulled from a demolished building in Allepo, Syria – a place marred by civil war. His name is Omran Daqneesh and his picture caused the world to sit with bated breath. Omran sat in an ambulance covered in grey dust and blood, sitting in silence and shock, as chaos churned around him.

And just a few days ago a six year old boy named Alex from New York wrote the most generous words to our president. Alex’s wisdom shines bright hope in our broken world.

Dear President Obama,

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]?

Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!

In a world where money deceives, wars rage, politics attack, and racial tensions rise – just imagine the healing and unity that could come about if we all modeled Alex’s generosity. And yet Alex’s vision of generosity is already among us but we must open our eyes to see it. We must commit ourselves to open our hands and hearts to tirelessly work for it.

Generosity is a virtue God cultivates within us in order to join God in this holy work of reconciling the world. It is necessary for us to be united in generosity to follow Jesus’ call.

Generosity is as simple as giving someone different than you a hand shake, a hug, or even a warm welcome to recognize our common humanity. It is an act of humility that sacrifices something of self for the sake of including and connecting others to the whole. Generosity chooses to be kind instead of insisting to be right or prideful. This virtue of a disciple offers gifts to build God’s kingdom with our financial treasures, our time, our actions, and our words. Generosity flips the script from focusing on what benefits us to what benefits the whole of God’s coming kingdom.

We know what God’s generosity looks like through God’s Word, through Christ’s sacrificial love, and through examples like Alex. As we continue to learn about generosity we are called to go and do likewise. We are to do good, to be rich in good works, and be ready to share. Generosity empowers us to grasp the truest essence of life.

We feel a sense of God’s pleasure and purpose in life when we share the riches of God’s kingdom with others. In these difficult times that we are experiencing consider how God’s Spirit may be nudging you and me to be a little more generous.

Send a card to someone going through a difficult time and include a Bible verse of encouragement. Schedule a coffee date with someone who shares a different political perspective and commit to listen to one another without judgment but to gain new insights on shared concerns. Plan to meet someone for lunch of a different ethnicity or race to listen to their perspective on life in this tense time. Say thank you to a woman or man in uniform who serves our community. Help your children and grandchildren to reflect on generosity. Ask them who they helped at school or on the playground. Prayerfully consider how you might share your resources to partner with God in ministry here and beyond.

May we take the next steps of a disciple to go after God and provoke one another to love and good deeds. May the Spirit open our hands and hearts to practice extravagant generosity.

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Prayer

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Prayer"
Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; 1Timothy 2: 1-7 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
- Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all —this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
- 1 Timothy 2: 1-7

I remember the first time I began to learn about prayer. I was thirty years old and sitting in my first adult Bible study. The group was made of women from a variety of denominations, ages, and stages of life. These women were a wellspring of faith to learn from. The leader had such a presence of grace and wisdom about her. She was a person that anyone would quickly recognize as having those deep roots of faith. She would always reserve the last twenty or thirty minutes of our time together for prayer. The more the relationships and trust grew, the more the women would share about seeing God in the everyday as well as asking for God’s guidance in specific situations for specific people and themselves.

After the requests were made, the leader always led us in a time to quietly rest in God’s presence. And slowly, one by one, random voices would raise specific prayers for each woman by name and any situation mentioned. Some prayers were very short and simple. Some weaved their prayers with the words of Scripture from our study. Some prayed in silence because it was too much to say the words out loud (that was me back then). But listening to those women pray taught me so much. They gave me a foundation to keep building upon. Those women taught me that prayer is a centering source in the well of God’s grace.

Paul says in his first letter to Timothy that the goal of prayer is a centering one. Prayer empowers us to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2). Prayer is a regular pause that composes our hearts and minds to free us from outward distractions. Prayer provides a sense of peace as we experience stillness and steadiness due to God calming our inner chaos of life. A life of prayer cultivates godliness as we develop an inner response to a life of faith. A life of prayer shapes our dignity – our moral and spiritual character - as others see outer evidence of God at work in us.

This mark of being a disciple inspires others and it reveals that God’s grace is creating something remarkable in you and me. The remarkable thing is a heart that is on fire for God.

John Calvin once drew a picture of the essence of faith. It was a hand with a burning heart in the center of the palm. His words describing this spiritual tattoo, if you will, were, “My heart I give to you, O God, promptly and sincerely.” Calvin had an urgent gratitude to draw near to God daily in prayer for God is the ultimate source of life in which we plug ourselves into. For Calvin it was imperative to create space for God to breathe new life into the embers of our faith to fan the fire and our passion to live for God.

One day last week I craved a window of time to just be quiet and still. Each morning in my devotional time I play some instrumental music on Pandora (online music website) as I read that day’s devotional entry and the accompanying Scriptures. Just as I opened my book, “Be Thou My Vision” played. It was a real God moment as I felt compelled to just close my eyes to be still and quiet. As the words came to my mind it felt like God’s Spirit was praying those very lyrics over me. When the song finished I read the devotion’s Scripture, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

What comforting words for a disciple. And then the previous verse caught my eye. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). As I sat in the stillness of contemplating God’s Word, the Spirit was reminding to lean into a deeper trust of the Rabbi and what he is teaching us. That trust composes us so that we are not overwhelmed by the chaos. That trust guards our hearts from being troubled as we are steadied by God’s strength. To be regularly quiet in God’s presence allows us to follow Jesus one step at a time and one prayer at a time so that God may be our vision.

Jesus taught the disciples to follow God’s vision of prayer by his example and word. Jesus would retreat often from the daily grind to center himself in the well of God’s grace (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16; 6:12). Jesus prayed with gratitude and deep trust that God is always ready to listen and work in our lives in order that God’s glory would be revealed (John 11: 41-42). Jesus advised to never pray for show but to create a space set apart to connect with God (Matthew 6: 5-6). Jesus taught the importance of interceding for people and situations that break God’s heart (Matthew 25:31-40). Jesus urged the disciples to pray for and about obstructions to God’s kingdom, be it for strained relationships needing forgiveness (Mark 11:25) or those who persecute Christ followers (Matthew 5:44). Jesus knew that apart from God we can do nothing therefore a disciple must abide in God daily to lead a fruitful life (John 15:5).

Paul shares what a fruitful prayer life looks like in the steps of a disciple. He raises five marks for us to tap into.

1. Make room for the Holy Spirit to open your heart in gratitude. As you enter God’s presence be spiritually still. Do not talk. Just listen. Allow God’s Spirit to slowly open your heart and mind to what you are grateful for. Even on the worst day there will always be some blessing, some glimpse of God’s faithfulness that we might tell God, “Thank you.”

2. Pray for those close to you. Share with God your joys and concerns for your family, friends, and community. We are connected in a web of relationships. Pray for the connections that need nurturing. Pray for the relationships that are strained, conflicted, and need to be mended by forgiveness. Pray for the needs of your loved ones and your beloved community. These prayers are our supplications as we ask God to supply these physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs as they fall in line with God’s vision of kingdom living.

3. Pray for those in authority and leadership. Scripture urges us to pray for our leaders in high positions. That includes our President, military, our senators, our House Representatives, governor, mayor, and council men and women. We pray for our leaders who help our local community - our sheriff, police and fire departments. We pray for school teachers as they open our children to imagine and think critically. And we pray for our spiritual leaders – our councils and elders and ministers who walk with us in faith to help God transform the world.

4. Pray for the weak. God’s Word guides us to become more spiritually aware to what breaks God’s heart. Just as Jeremiah wept for his people who were oppressed, it is right for us to lament and pray for our sisters and brothers who are unable to protect themselves – those who are threatened by war and violence, those who have lost hope because of injustice, those who are sick, mentally ill, poor, and homeless. These prayers are global and communal. They are our prayers of intercession as we ask God to intercede. We not only pray and trust that God is already present in these hard places of life. We also pray and listen for God to direct us in how we might be the body of Christ and work with God to bring justice, peace, healing, and love.

5. Pray for yourself. I think sometimes this is the hardest prayer to lift to God. As the Holy Spirit opens and touches the quiet places of our hearts, it is challenging to allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable with God. You might ask, ‘If God knows everything, do I really need to talk with God about this or that situation in my life? I don’t know if I can say that out loud to God.’ The answer is yes. We should tell God everything. God’s greatest desire is to have an intimate relationship with you and me. And while it takes some time to build enough trust to lay our hearts bare to anyone, God is worthy.

So tell God about your day – your personal joys and your worries. Tell God what is weighing on you, what you are angry and bitter about in your life, and what you are wrestling with. Tell God your frustrations and complaints. God can handle it all. Give it to God in prayer and then take the time to listen.

As you listen for God pay attention to the whispers of the Spirit. God speaks to us in the contemplation of Scripture as we glean new insights. God speaks to us through our emotions, through conversations with others, and out in the wonders of creation. Pay attention to the spiritual nudges as God seeks to guide us in godliness and dignity.

Prayer is an ongoing conversation with God. It is also a two-way street for us to both listen and talk with God. As we think about those five marks of a rich and balanced prayer life, it is not about changing God’s mind or changing situations or changing the people we are praying for. Prayer changes us. It allows our spirits to be shaped as we ask God to be our vision, our best thought, our strength, and the light in our life.

As you reflect upon your own prayer life consider the 5 marks of prayer. Which one(s) seem out of balance? How might your feed your spiritual appetite so that it is more balanced and satisfying?

As you think about your prayer life where are you most comfortable connecting to God? You may have a special room in the house or in a tranquil garden where you settle in and quiet yourself in prayer. Maybe your spiritual house is on the move as you run or walk and talk with God as an old friend. You might enter God's presence when you're driving alone in the car as you let Jesus take the wheel. You might cultivate prayer while doing tasks in the kitchen, home, or yard. Prayer is not always about being physically still. Prayer is holy work as we strive to communicate with God in meaningful ways. Just as we make communication a priority in any significant relationship, we do so with God too.

As you and I take the next steps of a disciple consider how you might strengthen this discipline of prayer. Explore different ways to contemplate the mystery of being in God’s presence to grow in relationship with our Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Prayer is a centering source for us to experience the well of God’s grace in the joys, challenges, and broken hallelujahs of life. So come to the well often to drink this life giving water and rekindle your passion for God.

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example PRAYER GUIDE

Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example (Luke 15: 1-10; 1Timothy 1: 12-17)

As we seek to grow in the steps of a disciple, read through the biblical texts and pray through one question each day.

Luke 15: 1-10; 1Timothy 1: 12-17

1. This week pray for the Spirit to open your eyes to a deeper awareness of our connections to the body of Christ.

2. Remember who you see on a regular basis at church. Pray for them.

3. Consider who you have not seen in a while. Pray about someone who may be losing a connection with the body of Christ because of an outstanding circumstance.

4. Pray for those who are lonely or and have fallen on hard times. How might God be encouraging you to reach out to them with genuine care?

5. Ask God to help you widen the circle of Christ’s grace and compassion. Who might you invite to Van Wyck Presbyterian Church to grow in relationship with God and community?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Live by Example"
Luke 15: 1-10; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
- Luke 15: 1-10

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. - 1 Timothy 1: 12-17

Jesus made the Pharisees nervous. The example of faith that he was setting was quite radical in his time. When Jesus would teach in the synagogues the Pharisees would scan the crowd to notice who was listening. When Jesus walked the streets the Pharisees paid attention to those Jesus interacted with.

Tradition held that Rabbis always sought the best of the best students to teach. The best were worthy of receiving such knowledge of God’s Law. But Jesus broke the mold for a Rabbi. He looked for students and followers who did not make the cut, were quite ordinary, and were rough around the edges. Jesus sat at the lunch table with the unlikely disciples, the tax collectors, the sinners, and anyone who had fallen short of God’s glory.

Luke recalls the Pharisees made quite a self-righteous comment about Jesus’ example: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). I don’t think the Pharisees understood the example of faith Jesus was setting for others. While the Pharisees criticized him, I think they were actually questioning what motivated Jesus. Why did Jesus reach out to folks beyond the Pharisees’ righteous circle?

Jesus had a special place in his heart for the lowly. According to Luke, God promised to work through Jesus Christ to humble the proud and the powerful, to lift up those who had nothing to depend on but God alone, and to fill the hungry with God’s abundance (Luke 1: 51-53). God’s promise of steadfast love would do nothing less for every generation of faith (Luke 1:54-55).

The example that Jesus was setting pointed to God as a shepherd. This shepherd was keen to observe the patterns of his flock and especially to notice who was missing. The shepherd would leave the circle of the flock to go above and beyond his call. The shepherd was willing to search the pastures and wilderness to restore even just one sheep to the whole. And let’s not forget the shepherd was the low man on the totem pole. The Pharisees did not hold the shepherds in high regard. Jesus’ parable caused some friction with the Pharisees. While the Pharisees placed more value in the circle that confined the flock, God places more value in sacrificial love and grace that breaks down cultural norms.

A few weeks ago a simple photograph brought a mother to tears because social circles were on her mind. The snapshot told the story a school cafeteria lunch hour. Kids filled the seats with lunch boxes and school trays. A handful of Florida State University football players visited the elementary school that day, dressed in their uniforms, and they even went through the lunch line. The players took the opportunity to visit with the kids.

With his tray of pizza in hand, Travis Rudolph saw an empty table where one eleven year old boy named Bo was eating all alone. Travis approached the boy and asked if he could join him. This caught the eye of a school employee who must have been looking out for Bo, as the picture was shared with Bo’s mom. It didn’t take long for the picture to go viral.

That simple interaction was life changing for both Bo and his mother. Bo often eats lunch alone every day. Kids shun him as different because he interprets the world around him through autism. Bo’s mom worries daily about her son being left out of the circle of friendships. But Travis’s simple act of compassion towards the one child who sat alone is a true example to learn from.

When Travis later learned that Bo was autistic he shared in an interview, “It’s just heartbreaking that [Bo] is in that situation, but I’m praying for him. He’s a great kid overall. I would love to hang out with him anytime.” And Travis did hang out with Bo and his mom as they received a special invitation to attend a dinner with the Florida State football team. What radical hospitality.

This reminds me of something Mother Teresa once said, “We can’t all do great things but we can all do small things with great love.”

A week ago Mother Teresa was lifted up as an exemplary model of sacrificial love. The Roman Catholic Church canonized her as a saint of the church. From the young age of twelve Teresa wanted to be a missionary [1]. At the age of eighteen she left her Albanian home to serve in Calcutta, India. She ministered to orphans, the sick, and they dying. Her published diary says she vowed to “live in the convent with kindness; to come alongside the poor with gentleness; to have a kind presence with the sick; and lastly to smile at God” [2].

Mother Teresa had a deep devotion to serve God and the lowly, even when she did not feel God’s presence in the dark valleys of life. Over the years people would come from miles and miles to walk in her shadow to find greater purpose in their lives. When people tried to follow her on the streets and live by her example she would say these words:

Stay where you are, find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are – in your own homes and in your own families, in your work places and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere – wherever you go; you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society – completely forgotten, completely left alone.

Jesus Christ strengthens us to be inspired by others and to follow his example as a disciple. Our highest calling is to allow God’s grace to overflow from us to others in faith and love. Being a disciple is not just focusing on attending to our spiritual formation here within the walls of the church.

Do not get me wrong. It is so very important to gather as a community each week to tell God “Thank you!” and to be shaped by the songs, stories, and rituals of God’s love. It is important to be shaped by our Teacher and Savior.

But it is equally important for you and me to live out the example of Christ’s love where we are – in our homes, at the water cooler, on the sports field, and at the lunch table. Christ put on the thin skin of humanity in order to live out God’s example. From the beginning God has chosen to live in relationship with us. We know the fullness of God’s example with that one word in which we celebrate each Advent - “Immanuel” for God is with us.

God shows no favoritism. God embraces us all in a gracious hospitality and is always pursuing our hearts and minds to be captivated and changed by God’s amazing grace. Jesus’ example of faith demonstrates that God is at work to widen the circles that we have a tendency to draw saying who is in the circle and who is outside of the circle. God is at work chipping away that “us versus them” mentality to make room for all to see and experience glimpses of God’s truth.

The next steps of a disciple are to live by example – Jesus’ example. With each new day Christ calls us to follow a little bit more in his radical ways by extending God’s hospitality to others. Christ calls us to allow the Spirit to open our eyes and see who is not here. Who is losing connection with the body of Christ because of outstanding circumstances? Who is sitting alone at the lunch table and wishing that someone would express genuine care? Who has fallen on hard times and needs a hand up? Who has the community forgotten? And then Christ calls us to be ready and willing to go out into our community to extend God’s grace with a humble and grateful heart.

Living by Jesus’ example is not about turning faith or church or ministry into a success. A colleague once shared with me that we are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful. May we seek to be faithful as we take steps to grow as a disciple.

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] Mother Teresa: Come be My Light (New York: Crown Publishing, 2007). pp. 13-14.
[2] Mother Teresa: Come be My Light, p. 166.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon Series: Steps of a Disciple - Being Shaped

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Being Shaped"
Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Luke 14: 25-33 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
- Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. - Luke 14: 25-33

Her goal was to focus on the mission. At the age of 21, Jennifer Pharr Davis felt called to hike 2,175 miles along the Appalachian Trail. My family met Jennifer two years ago when her speaking tour led her to Tupelo, Mississippi to share her story. Jennifer prepared for the long journey by studying under Dr. Warren Doyle, the teacher of mastering the Appalachian Trail. As she planned her strategy to hike from Georgia to Maine, she had to acknowledge her limitations, pack smart, and trust the words of her teacher. The most important words that Dr. Doyle shared were these: The trail will ultimately change you.

Jennifer took the trail name of Odyssa, the feminine take on Odysseus from Homer’s book “The Oddesy.” Odyssa left the comforts and security of her life, family, and friends. Although she hiked much of the trail alone, Odyssa found a home on the trail among a community of hikers. She began the trail path believing she would have so much time to reflect upon her life and what she wanted to do in her future. But Odyssa quickly realized that the trail was not just a new home or even a recreational pastime. The trail required her to live in the present and to focus and discern her mission with each passing day to move forward.

With each step, the Appalachian Trail was re-shaping Odyssa – not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually. Hiking between 25-40 miles a day, she found her mission was filled with a lot of discomfort. Odyssa encountered physical hardships, emotional distress, and spiritual unrest [1]. But her deep commitment to prepare for the hike and her willingness to be shaped by the adventure empowered Odyssa to follow her call.

The steps that we take to follow Christ in the journey of discipleship require some preparation as well. That word, “disciple” in the Greek means to be a learner, a student of the teacher. To be a disciple means that one needs to acquire the mental effort to think something through. More specifically a disciple learns to follow the teacher so closely that they strive to be like the teacher in every way.

Luke tells us that being a disciple of Jesus Christ was not for the faint of heart. While the disciples grew in their relationships with God’s ways, with Jesus as Teacher, and also with one another in community, the disciples were being prepared for the difficult journey ahead. Jesus did not call a person to follow him perfectly, for none of us can. Jesus knows the limitations that our humanity brings. Jesus knew that his disciples would need to be shaped by the very hands of God and by the shape of the cross.

From the very beginning the hands of God proclaim he is our Maker and we are the works of God’s hands. As I mentioned in our children’s sermon this morning, you and I are like Play-Dough. We are all beautifully different regarding our ethnicities, personalities, and unique talents. God continues to shape us as we grow. While our decisions and life experiences can make the shape of our clay glorious and purposeful, they can also shape our clay to be rough, chipped, or even spoiled. But God is not satisfied leaving us in that condition.

Like a potter God adds life-giving water to our being and begins smoothing out the rough edges and reshaping our lives as God pleases. God works through all our life experiences for good– the ones we are proud of and the ones we would rather delete from memory. Nothing is wasted for God can use anything and everything to reveal the strength of God’s hands. Being shaped by the hands of God is to embody God’s promise of being a new creation. We can trust God’s hands to mold us and make us according to God’s will.

I have a dear friend who is a minister and a potter. A number of years ago we sat in her garage at the potter’s wheel. I had never potted clay before but I had a particular piece in mind that I wanted to create. It was a plate size prayer labyrinth to use in my prayer time.

I loved the process of shaping the clay but it was difficult to trust my hands with no previous experience. Jill taught me how to move the clay and when to add the water to give the clay adaptability and new life. We shaped the grooves for the labyrinth so that my finger could trace along the lines for a path of prayer. After the clay dried I glazed it and we fired it in the kiln. Once clay is fired it cannot be reshaped. Rather the clay prayer labyrinth would be reshaping me.

The final creation amazes me. I close my eyes and allow my finger to slowly trace along the path to the center of the plate and then back out. As my finger moves I pray and allow God’s Spirit to guide me. There are places where the clay has a bump or a rough patch. It brings to mind the current rough places in my life and that God is at work there. There are places where the grooves of clay get quite narrow and they squeeze my finger. It brings to mind those situations that are bringing stress to me or to others I am praying for and that God is at work there too. God is always in a process of reshaping us on the journey of faith if we are open to a deeper awareness to it.

The shape of the cross also guides us to follow God’s ways. As Jesus ultimately faced the cross to faithfully obey God’s plan for salvation, so a disciple must be willing to devote himself or herself to Jesus Christ to walk in God’s ways. Being a disciple costs something of us because it cost Jesus everything for the sake of God’s redemption. Remember that Jesus called ordinary people like you and me to walk in the ways of God’s extraordinary love. Jesus knew that we could not do this perfectly but Jesus did and does want disciples to consider the commitment to follow. The shape of the cross prepares us to know the steps of a disciple.

The shape of the cross is both vertical and horizontal. The cross helps us to visualize our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships through life.

Our vertical relationship with God is the most important one we will ever have. God is our Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We connect with God out in the world hiking the trails, fishing along the water’s edge, and seeing God show off with those gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. But nothing compares to an intimate connection with God’s Word. God longs to speak into our lives to remind us who God is creating us to be. We hear the voice of God as a student of Scripture. We learn there how to take the next right step both personally and communally. Daily devotions and group Bible studies are spaces to gain spiritual maturity as well as to prepare for the uphill climbs of life. Nothing centers us more than prayerfully contemplating God's Word.

Our horizontal relationships through life are redefined by the cross as well. The cross questions our loyalty to extend God’s love to others. It is a compass that guides us in the directions of compassion and humility instead of judgment and pride as we walk beside others. The cross is a lens to consider the standards of our decisions and how they affect others. The cross is like a tether that channels our energy into God’s greater purposes at school, at work, and in the community. Jesus asks every disciple to carry the cross every day into every situation of life because the cross touches every area of our lives. You see the cross chips away the walls we build to compartmentalize our life and faith. We carry the cross not out of obligation but with a deep and grateful reverence for all God has done, is doing, and will do among us, through us, and in us.

The life-long journey of being Jesus’ disciple will ultimately change you and me. That is the hope. As we begin this 8 week journey of considering the steps of a disciple we are learning what to pack, what our limitations are, and how the Teacher is preparing us.

So I invite you to do some reflection today and into this week:

How are you living your life differently because of Jesus Christ?
How are your identity and self-worth being redefined as a child of God?
How is your commitment to be a student in the school of faith being nurtured and strengthened?
How are your ethics at school and work being thought through in light of the Gospel?
How is God working through your unique skill sets and endeavors to touch others’ lives for the common good of God’s kingdom?

The first step of a disciple is to have a willingness to be shaped by the Teacher. May it be so for you and me.

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

Source Referenced:

[1] Jennifer Pharr Davis, “Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail (New York: Beaufort Books, 2010), p. 3