Monday, October 31, 2016

Sermon: A Saintly Inheritance

"A Saintly Inheritance"
Psalm 119: 137-144; Ephesians 1: 11-23 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2016
All Saints Day

You are righteous, O Lord,
and your judgements are right.
You have appointed your decrees in righteousness
and in all faithfulness.
My zeal consumes me
because my foes forget your words.
Your promise is well tried,
and your servant loves it.
I am small and despised,
yet I do not forget your precepts.
Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
and your law is the truth.
Trouble and anguish have come upon me,
but your commandments are my delight.
Your decrees are righteous for ever;
give me understanding that I may live.
- Psalm 119: 137-144

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
- Ephesians 1: 11-23

Have you ever turned the pages of a loved one’s Bible? It can be an open window into their life of faith. Last year my mother shared her mother’s Bible with me. Her name was Evie but I called her Granny. I loved turning the pages of her Bible. It was sacred space to look for Granny’s handwriting in the margins, to see what she had underlined, and to read random prayers and notes from Sunday School classes and sermons. Granny had left insights about her spiritual treasures.

One of the Scriptures she underlined was from Micah 7:7, “As for me, I look to the Lord for his help; I wait for God to save me; he will hear me.” I can imagine Granny praying these words in her life.

My mom shared Granny was a woman of deep faith. She went to church as often as she could. Faith was not just important to Granny; it was the hope that kept her going. Faith was a guiding promise through the challenges of tobacco farming, in the highs and lows of marriage, and in the joys and struggles of parenting. Sadly Granny passed away when was just 5 years old.

When I was in early elementary school I remember sitting next to mom in church and hearing my mom recite the Lord’s Prayer. I remember being in awe that everyone in the pews knew how to say those words together in unison. I asked Mom after worship how she learned that prayer. “Your Granny taught it to me when I was your age,” she said. The gift of faith that Granny so treasured was passed down to my mom, who passed it along to my sister and me. Now Doug and I are passing this treasure along to our children. The passing down of faith has been the experience for many of us gathered here today.

The Apostle Paul tells us that in Christ we, as believers, have obtained a great spiritual treasure – a saintly inheritance. In baptism we are engrafted into the fulfillment of God’s promise made with Abraham through Jesus Christ. Not only do we share in Christ’s death and newly resurrected life, but we are adopted into God’s great family of faith. The children of God are as numerous as the stars and for over two-thousand years we have continued to inherit God’s rich blessing of the Promised Land.

Our saintly inheritance teaches us that in life and in death we belong to God. The gospel of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13) is illustrated with the biblical image that in our Father’s House are many dwelling places where Christ goes and prepares a place for us to live eternally (John 14:1-2). For in the fullness of time through Christ, God is gathering up all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10).

There is just a breath between this life and life eternal. When our loved ones enter into the Church Triumphant this saintly inheritance brings us great comfort. The eternal hope of the Resurrection lifts our hearts praising and trusting in God’s glorious power. Nothing in all the world can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ – not death, nor life, nor any power or principality (Romans 8: 37-39

God’s love creates all that is good and faithful and inspiring in us. God’s love forgives and redeems us. God’s love quells our pain and suffering and forever wipes away the tears from our eyes. God’s love brings full healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and broken hearts. God’s love embraces us in such full measure that we cannot comprehend it all on this side of eternity.

But this saintly inheritance is not just a comfort in our times of grief. Paul says we have obtained an inheritance so that as we set our hope on Christ we might truly live right here and right now for the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:11-12).

This week I was seeking some spiritual treasure in Paul’s words – how do we truly live today praising the richness of God’s blessings? The Westminster Confession of Faith from our Book of Confessions gave me some insight: “The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Book of Confessions, 7.001).

We glorify God as we walk the ancient paths of faith. With each step taken, we remember what we have learned through our spiritual ancestors. We remember beloved family members and friends who have inspired us by their faithfulness.

Remember faithfulness is not about a life lived perfectly, but it is about striving to follow God one day at a time by Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s guidance. Through this gift of faith God is able to accomplish far more than we can ever hope, ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20) That is the hope that keeps us going!

We enjoy God forever as we seek to live each day in a growing relationship with God and one another. Any good relationship needs attention, nurture, and purpose therefore; we make these a priority also in our faith journeys.

We pray for spaces to focus our attention upon God to reveal a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the ordinary places of life (Ephesians 1:17). As we come to know God’s heart more and more, our hearts and minds and lives are nurtured, enriched, and hopefully changed day by day (Ephesians 1:18). The more united we become with God’s heart, the more we discern the hope to which God has called us (Ephesians 1:18). Through this saintly inheritance God has given each of us spiritual gifts and treasures to bring about God’s purposes in our homes, communities, and in the wider world. As we glorify God and enjoy him each and every day, we find the secret of what it means to live fully alive in our joys and in our sorrows.

The secret is found in the cross of Jesus Christ.[1]

Just look at the cross in the chancel area. The vertical beam stretches a great distance from top to bottom. It symbolizes the unity Christ grants us with God’s immeasurable greatness at the very top and reaching down to unite us with the generations of the saints; those who have entered the Church Triumphant and even down to our biblical ancestors.

The horizontal beam reaches wide just like Christ’s own arms reached openly with compassion for all of God’s children to come to him. Christ’s open arms of sacrificial love unite us with our current sisters and brothers in faith stretching from here and all the way across the world.

It is where the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross intersect that we see the secret of the cross. It is here that God reveals that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ unites the saints of the past and the saints today in a never-ending community held in God’s deep embrace.

It is in the cross that we see Paul’s image of a saintly inheritance. It proclaims our eternal hope when our baptismal journey is complete. It proclaims God’s presence and peace in the midst of our grief and loss. And it proclaims how we truly live to glorify God and enjoy him forever in an intimate relationship.

On this All Saints Day may we remember our cherished stories of this saintly inheritance that has been passed down through the generations. For it is through remembering our stories that God opens spiritual windows with new meaning.

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

Source Referenced:
[1] David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Pastoral Perspective by Sarah Birmingham Drummond, p. 234.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength"
Luke 18: 9-14; 2 Timothy 4: 6-18
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
- Luke 18: 9-14

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
- 2 Timothy 4: 6-18

Jesus met people where they were in the ordinary spaces of life. As Jesus was walking towards the costly grace that awaited him in Jerusalem, Jesus read the human landscape around him. Jesus knew what was in everyone’s heart (John 2:25), all that is good and faithful and our contradictions too. So Jesus offers a parable of two men which points to the truth about God even as he points to the truth about the human heart.

On this side of the cross we give the Pharisees a bad reputation but in Jesus’ time they were considered faithful interpreters of God’s Law. Their role was to guide the people in God’s ways. And they set ritual boundaries to maintain their religious purity. Pharisees were seen in the temple on a regular basis in regards to their role in society.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was considered at odds with God’s Law. Jewish tradition forbade this occupation. Collecting taxes was perceived to be dishonest and impure. Tax collectors were rarely seen in the temple as they were considered outcasts in Jewish culture.

What is so surprising about Jesus’ parable is the prayer which these two men utter in the temple. In the first century mouths would have gaped to hear the Pharisee utter a prayer up to God in self-righteousness. Chins would have hit the floor to hear the tax collector, standing along the temple margins, utter a prayer in dismay for God’s mercy and forgiveness and then to actually receive it.[1]

Jesus not only reveals the contradictions within each of the men and in society, but he reveals God is moved by a heart that recognizes one’s need for God. You see, God is not moved by prideful attitudes of how closely we walk the narrow and straight path, or how many check marks we have on the ‘How to be Faithful’ list. Boasting of our faithfulness denies God’s work within us. God is always the One to take the first step in our lives.

If we exalt ourselves with our works and we devalue others with an attitude of contempt then we have missed the mark of being a student of Scripture, of being a follower of God, of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We have missed the mark because we have failed to look inward and consider what is common to every human being: no matter what our pasts or present holds, we have all fallen short of God’s glory.

Neil White had a comfortable life in Oxford, Mississippi. He was a family man with a wife and two young children. He was a generous giver to his church. He was a journalist and a successful magazine publisher. In 1993 he was charged with a federal crime of bank fraud. Neil was thirty-three years old. He had transferred $750,000 of checks from one bank account to another to keep his business afloat. Neil was sentenced to serve eighteen months in a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana.

The prison was twenty miles south of Baton Rouge and had formerly been a federal medical facility for over one hundred years for patients with Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy. In 1993 this federal prison was nested in the medical center which still held 130 beds in use for these patients who had become outcasts losing their families, homes, and any dignity or quality of life.

Neil’s eighteen month sentence at Carville was a defining moment; so much so that he wrote his memoir entitled, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” When he arrived at Carville he made some quick judgments about the patients with leprosy. He recalled, “[He] didn’t want to breathe the air, or accidentally brush up against one of them, or get close enough that the infection could reach out, take hold in [his] body, and turn [him] into a horror.”[2]

The patients and prison inmates crossed paths in designated areas of the facility. One day Neil met Ella. She was an older African American woman in a wheel chair. Ella had been quarantined at Carville since elementary school. She had lost her legs as a result of leprosy. As Neil listened to Ella’s words more than his inner judgement, he began to see a woman who was kind and had a gentle spirit. The more Neil talked with Ella the more he forgot about her disease. Their conversations began to shift Neil’s perceptions. Living as an outcast in solidarity “with the victims of leprosy” truly became a sanctuary of mercy, change, and hope.[3]

As time passed, Neil talked with a number of the patients and inmates. The journalist within him set out to listen to their life stories as he began to process his own. Neil’s biggest questions were considering how those eighteen months should change him and how he could return home to face all the people he had wronged. He had lost everything – his marriage, his children, his job, his reputation. Prior to his arrest Neil had always been a man who sought to be praised for his accomplishments and pride had gotten the best of him.

One day Neil asked Ella, “Ella, how do people change?”
She replied, “Hard to do. Hard to do.” Ella hesitated.
Neil tried to prod her asking her what she was thinking.
“Keep meddlin,” Ella said.
Neil responded, “I don’t want to interview anyone else.”
“Maybe you been asking the wrong folks,” Ella replied.
Neil recalled he had talked with Father Reynolds, Reverend Ray, Sister Margie, every interesting inmate and dozens of leper patients. Ella had thought of someone else who could offer insight. So Neil asked who that would be.
Ella leaned forward and in her soft voice said, “Your own self.”

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God calls us to look inside ourselves and consider the contradictions between our faithfulness and waywardness. Inner reflection is faith’s motivation towards change for God desires truth in our inward being (Psalm 51:6). Our confessions are always individual and communal, two sides of one coin.

What are the contradictions between faithfulness and dismay that you see within yourself and more broadly? The text asks us to consider this question. I have been pondering that question for myself. As a broken human being, a woman, a mother, and a pastor I feel the gravity of Jesus’ parable in light of this political season. I know I am not the only one dismayed.

I am dismayed as I wrestle with my own judgments. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has completely devalued women, minorities, interfaith groups, and the social graces of democracy. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has carelessly named groups of people as deplorable. I am dismayed with the ways we as a nation are quick to dehumanize any candidate. I am dismayed when we judge and label one another for the diverse lenses of faith that we interpret political issues through. We do all need to make decisions regarding who to vote for and why. But we must also decide how to model and teach our children and the younger generations the virtues of disagreement with regards to respect and dignity.

Every institution in our world, country, community and even the Church is tainted by sin. While our elections of national, state, and local leaders are important, there is no one perfect political party or candidate which will be the savior for all our problems. At the end of the day every candidate is a child of God. They are men and women who are broken and who need God’s mercy just like the Pharisee and tax collector did; just like you and I do.

It is worth repeating that God is still sovereign and Jesus Christ is still the only Savior we need. But Jesus was the only one worthy to speak of his righteousness, yet he never would boast of his perfect obedience to God. “Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself - made himself of no value like an outcast, taking the form of a slave, being born of human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by fully recognizing his reliance upon God and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Even Christ recognized his need for God’s mercy therefore we are to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). As disciples we are called to follow Christ’s example. At the end of the day there is only one thing that matters. And that one thing is to recognize our common need for God’s mercy in our lives. It is the core truth of what it means to walk as a disciple. The path of faith is designed to take each step fully depending upon God.

God’s mercy was on the loose in the temple, it is on the loose for those who feel like Pharisees, tax collectors, and outcasts, and it is on the loose even in our lives today. God’s mercy proclaims that nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy finds us and redeems us when we are honest with ourselves and the world around us. Mercy triumphs over judgment. But it takes faithfulness to be honest and faithfulness is not about perfection; it never has been.

Faithfulness is having the courage to daily interview ourselves about what needs to change within our hearts while claiming our need for God’s mercy to re-write our stories again and again. Faithfulness is meeting our sisters and brothers on the intersections of life and seeing our common brokenness through the lenses of mercy and grace. That kind of faithfulness is what humble strength looks like.

May we go out empowered to take the next steps as a disciple and never settle for less than that.

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

Sources Referenced:

Art image, "Jesus in Gethsemane," by He Qi
[1] Alyce Mckenzie, “Parables for Today” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 57-58.
[2] Neil White, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 19.
[3] Neil White, p. 78.
[4] Neil White, pp. 190-191.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling with God

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling With God"
Genesis 32: 22-31; 2 Timothy 3: 10-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
- Genesis 32: 22-31

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3: 10-17

Whether Jacob knew it or not, he was about to face his limits. This plays out quite artistically in the Hebrew language which our English translations do not capture. Jacob (ya’aqov) approached the Jabbok River (yabboq) and there another wrestled him (ye’abeq). Do you hear the play on words?

The limits drawn around and throughout Jacob’s story were lines connected by a life of struggle. From the time Jacob and his twin brother Esau were in Rebekah’s womb they struggled and caused her great discord. They were two nations divided in her womb (Gen 25:22-23). Jacob’s name means “supplanter” or one who uses force or scheming to take another’s place. And Jacob indeed was a schemer and manipulator.

Jacob deceived Esau to sell his birthright for a cup of soup (Genesis 25: 29-34). Jacob deceived his father Isaac to receive the patriarch’s final blessing which enraged Esau enough to want to kill his brother (Genesis 27). After Jacob left home to make a life for himself, he continued to scheme and deceived his father-in-law Laban to profit himself at Laban’s expense (Genesis 30: 37-43). It’s an understatement to say that Jacob lived his life as a man on the run.

Despite the ways Jacob sought what benefited him, God continued to pursue Jacob. God met Jacob in a dream with a promise to bless him as God has once blessed Abraham. But God also instructed Jacob to return to his home with the assurance that God would be with Jacob and would not leave him until God had done what God had promised (Genesis 28:13-15).

Something within Jacob was not content with all that was estranged, divided, and unresolved in his life. So Jacob, his family, and his livestock set out to follow God’s direction home to meet his brother Esau. On the way Jacob encountered God’s messengers to share that Esau was indeed coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men in his company.

Only here do we see Jacob utter a prayer to God, “O God of my Father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and your kindred and I will do you good,’ I am too small for the least of your steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother” (Genesis 32: 9-11).

Hoping to appease his brother and find favor, Jacob sent his family and livestock across the river to meet Esau. And now Jacob is left alone as the night presses in. He comes face to face with his own limitations and there another wrestled with Jacob. This other is a spiritual presence that we read to be a divine messenger or angel of God. They grapple in the dust through the night.

But notice that Jacob does not initiate the wrestling match. It is this divine being. I cannot help but wonder if this angel was trying to create an opportunity for Jacob to wrestle with the culmination of his life in a constructive way? Jacob was preparing to face the biggest conflict of his life and it brought Jacob great anxiety and uncertainty to do this. He did not know what would happen on the other side of that river.

He was at the most vulnerable point of his life. By wrestling with the angel, Jacob was grappling with his own self and all that was unfinished. It is a hard thing to face the worries, fears, uncertainties, and conflicts in life head on. Any of one of us would probably rather turn around and run from them. Isn’t it easier to cut off these areas of life rather than dealing with them?

Remember Jacob had prayed that God would deliver him through this ordeal of facing his greatest challenge. If Jacob truly wanted deliverance he could not avoid facing this struggle. Jacob could not go around it. He could only go through it. And God promised to be with him and to do Jacob good.

Wrestling gives us an image of God fighting for Jacob as Abraham’s grandson exerts all of his physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Once Jacob’s energy is spent he is freed to let go of all the loose ends of his life and to let God begin the process of reconciliation.

I also wonder if the angel wrestled with Jacob to bring him to a place of humility. Jacob had always grabbed the heels of opportunity to benefit himself over and against his own family. In order for God to fulfill the blessing promised, Jacob would need to grapple with this new experience to learn the virtue of humility. Jacob would need to see the limits of his own pride in the face of God’s steadfast love and strength.

And so wrestling also portrays an image of God fighting Jacob’s “stubbornness and pride.”[1] As soon as the angel strikes Jacob on the hip socket, Jacob begins to feel the effects of humility and he is forever changed by the struggle.

As darkness began to give way to the rise of a new day, Jacob knew something about God’s deliverance that he did not know before. God would not let go of Jacob in order to do something powerful in Jacob’s life. And so Jacob asks the angel to bless him. He receives the new name of Israel for he had striven with God and with humans and had endured. And yet we know that Israel – God’s chosen people – continued to struggle with God throughout the generations of our shared history.

Jacob’s story – Israel’s story is indeed our story. For we continue to wrestle with God and all that life holds.

We fight with our fears and being vulnerable with God.
We are challenged by family dynamics and strained relationships.
We struggle to find a sense of who were are within all our imperfections and weaknesses.
We wrestle with all that we have done and left undone.
We grapple with the ways God’s Word speaks to life issues, injustice, and concerns.
We weigh the costs of what we have sacrificed to find meaning in life.

No matter what we struggle with I think we are all searching to find something that will bring a sense of peace. We feel the ways that struggling with ourselves pulls us apart and we long to feel the effects of reconciliation.

So hear this encouraging word - do not fear the struggle. Do not fear the struggle because the most important part of it is to show up in an effort to be made whole. We see this truth in Jacob, in countless other stories in Scripture, and in Christ’s faithfulness of sacrificial love to struggle for us on the cross in order that we be made whole in the promise of resurrection.

Showing up to face our limits is an opportunity for us to draw near to our Creator. It is a space to be real with the One who knows the full depths of all we question, doubt, and endure. God honors our efforts to show up trusting God will deliver us. God will fight for us as we grow in our commitment as a disciple. God will also interrupt our lives in an effort to humble us and loosen the grip of our own self-will.

Whether God is fighting for us or God is fighting against our stubborn pride, we too experience God’s blessing if we will just let go and let God. God continues to pursue us in an effort to work through all that is standing in the way of empowering you and me for every good work in this gift of faith.

I encourage you to be strong and courageous to engage the struggles in life for the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go. And because of that we will be forever changed by our struggling, again and again. It is a humbling experience for sure. The only things we have to lose are those things in our hearts and minds that God is trying to shake loose from our lives. There is no life experience that is wasted upon God for God can use it all to teach us, heal us, and empower us to cross our limitations into God’s promises of a new day and a newly resurrected life.

To wrestle with God proclaims that no matter what our struggle entails – no matter how overwhelming it seems – no matter how vulnerable we are – God does indeed enter into the struggle with us. God never lets us go. God desires to strengthen us through our human weakness so that God’s power of redemption and reconciliation might be revealed.

May we take the next step of a disciple and never forget that truth of the gospel.

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

Sources Referenced:

Art Image "Jacob Wrestles with God," by Jack Baumgartner
[1] D. W. Cotter, “Berit Olam: Genesis” (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 246.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Endurance

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Endurance"
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2: 1-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. - Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.

Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
- 2 Timothy 2: 1-13

He was reflecting back upon his life. Paul’s life had significantly changed since his first letter to young Timothy. He had become imprisoned. There was a lot of time to think in that small space confined by bars and chains. Paul knew about hardships. There was a day he inflicted great hardship upon the early Christians known as the followers of The Way. It still amazes me how God worked through this Jewish Pharisee, a zealous interpreter of God’s Law, to become the biggest proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God turned Paul around 180 degrees to preach, teach, and live out the gift of grace in powerful ways that impact us today.

But this calling upon Paul’s life was not easy by any means. He continued to endure hardships and sufferings. He was stoned in the street. He was imprisoned many times. His life was threatened. He lived through a treacherous shipwreck. He also stood in solidarity with his church plants who were experiencing hard times, conflict, and even persecution. Through all of his life experiences and through all he endured, Paul was empowered to speak a word of hope into the hard and gritty places of life.

To the church in Corinth he shared, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful – he will not let you be tested beyond your strength but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

To the Apostle Peter – the one who not only denied Christ on that Good Friday but was redeemed to be the rock of the early church – Paul shared, “Support your faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, and mutual affection with love” (2 Peter 1:6).

And to the church in Rome, whom he did not meet face to face, Paul assured them saying, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:3

Paul, the patriarch of the apostles, reflects upon the hardships he has shared throughout his ministry and he considers passing along a good word of encouragement to young Timothy. You see, Paul is shaping Timothy to go in the bold assurance of faith to continue his ministry. And Paul knows the secret to endurance.

To endure we must be strong in the grace of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:1). This is not an inner strength from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. This is a passive strength we receive by fully relying on God’s grace. Nothing more fully reveals this than Christ’s own vulnerability and faithful obedience to God. We see the power of God’s grace pour out from the cross and empty tomb. It is a strength that girds us with the assurance that nothing, no hardship, and not even death itself can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.

Paul knows that enduring through any kind of trial in life requires hard work. It takes a lot of physical, emotional, and spiritual stamina to not become completely paralyzed by the chaos that presses in on us. It takes stamina of faith to keep our eyes lifted up beyond our circumstances towards the hope that God promises. Remember that hope does not disappoint because God promises to guide our every step by the Spirit so that we may overcome.

As Paul sits alone in that prison cell he is reminded of the strength that comes through communal support. We share in sufferings as co-sufferers for we know Christ lived in solidarity with our human brokenness. And so the body of Christ continues to live in solidarity with those who are suffering. We are called to bear up one another with mutual affection in love. We are not meant to navigate our hardships alone, for we are tethered by relationships with God and one another. That tether is our lifeline.

Amanda Lindhout has one of the most compelling stories of endurance I have ever come by. She first shared her story in her memoir, “A House in the Sky,” and now she speaks across the world to share her story of endurance, forgiveness, and hope.

Amanda grew up in a broken home in Alberta, Canada. She and her brother would go dumpster diving for treasures others threw away. They would also gather up empty glass bottles to collect the deposits for money. It was on Amanda’s regular trips to the local Thrift Store that she came across National Geographic magazines for twenty-five cents apiece. A whole new world opened up to her between the cover’s yellow lines. Amanda’s plan was to move on to a better life where relationships were not bruised by alcohol and abuse and neighborhood kids didn’t call her dirty or poor. She endured a lot in her childhood and youth and her maturity envisioned a better life.

At the age of nineteen Amanda found a job waiting tables at an upscale restaurant. She saved all her tip money for months on end. And then multiple times a year she would break her rhythm of working to buy plane tickets to travel the world. For nearly seven years she traveled to forty-seven countries. Amanda said this felt called to go and see the world. Each trip was like a revelation. She says it was better than a classroom and church. Over the course of her travels she became a journalist and did free-lance photography.

But her endurance for adventure completely changed gears when she entered Somalia, the most dangerous country in the world.

Amanda and her travel colleague were kidnapped and held in captivity for 460 days. The conditions of their imprisonment were extreme. Not only did Amanda struggle to physically and emotionally deal with the isolation, confinement, starvation, and violence, but she also spiritually struggled with the “life she had led which brought her there.”[1]

What helped Amanda endure was the house in the sky. Day by day she envisioned walking into a doorway of protection, and then stairs which led to rooms. The rooms were filled with the good memories of her life, family, and travels. The house in the sky soon became full of simple gifts of gratitude. The house in the sky was Amanda’s lifeline that empowered her to endure the darkest days of her life by looking towards hope and even forgiving her captors.

She says, “Now I pray many times in a day, and for me now my prayers are very, very different. They’re more like a statement of gratitude for everything that I have, for my freedom now, for the ability to experience the beauty of the world again. I’m really profoundly grateful for that, and I think it’s really important to express that.”

Part of discovering our capacity to endure is not having the option to quit but choosing to take the next step forward. It is making a decision to live every day. We may wish many times over that we never had to know just how strong we are, but life does not work that way. Faith does not work that way in which we are shielded from tests and trials. Each of us will face hard things in life. Sometimes we choose the challenges to endure – like an organized race, a triathlon, or a century bike ride. It can be fun to see what we are made of. It is important to consider what makes us feel fully alive even as the chaos ensues around us.

But life can certainly be like a roller coaster that we did not willingly agree to ride on. Life unfolds in such a way that many times we cannot anticipate what lies ahead. On our best days you and I might seem perfectly fine and pulled together on the outside, but on the inside we are crumbling as we quietly search for the strength to move forward through our circumstances.

Discovering this virtue of endurance is relying on God’s grace as we bear up in God’s strength. Endurance requires us to lean into a deeper trust of God, engage the struggle to reach towards the promise of God’s hope, and to hold onto our lifeline of relationships. Even in the midst of our trials, sufferings, and doubts this gift of faith gives us the sure footing and traction to take the next step and rise above our circumstances. We rise because of who God is and God’s steadfast love and promised presence are bigger than anything we are trying to endure.

A few weeks ago I came across a devotional reading that will not leave me. You and I are all quietly searching for the strength to overcome some obstacle, some mountain.

Relax in [God’s] everlasting arms. Your weakness is an opportunity to grow strong in awareness of [God’s] Almighty presence. When your energy fails you – when you think you cannot endure one minute longer – do not look inward and lament the lack you find there. Look to [God and God’s] sufficiency.[2]

The secret to discovering endurance is not looking inward to what we lack but looking upward to be made strong in the grace of Jesus Christ. Strength is looking into Christ’s own vulnerability for he was willing to live and to die in solidarity with our sufferings so that we might know God’s resurrection power. That is our gospel.

May you and I take the next step of a disciple to discover endurance and to be built up in God's strength.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Amanda Lindhout, “A House in the Sky” (New York: Scribner, 2013), p. 340.
[2] Sarah Young, “Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 282.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Rekindling the Gift

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Rekindling the Gift"
2 Timothy 1: 1-14 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
World Communion Sunday
October 2, 2016

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
- 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

Everyone knew her as Mimi. And if you were invited into her home she quickly became your Mimi too. Mimi’s gift was hospitality. She loved to make things special for others. If you needed a safe place to stay for just one night or even two weeks, she opened her spare bedroom and home for you. If you were recovering from a hospital visit, she would be at your front door with a casserole. If she heard that you had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving, then a place was set at her table for you. There was always room for an extra seat at Mimi’s table!

When Mimi’s car was in the driveway, her door was always open because she wanted folks to drop by. Mimi wanted people to come inside, and tell her about what was going on in life.

One day I was at Mimi’s house. As I sat at her table I noticed her Bible sitting open-faced on the kitchen counter. It was worn and written through and highlighted. And she had such a gift not just helping others feel welcomed, but she prayed for each one that sat at her table. Sometimes she would pray with a person who needed some encouragement, right then and there. Other times she would pray by herself for those whom God placed in her presence.

Mimi had open hands, an open heart, and she was always ready to listen. Her smile brightened up the most dreary day. But more than anything – her loving presence, her sage wisdom and her deep faith gave you renewed hope in the world. We all learned something special from Mimi about the ways God weaves faith and love through the ordinary and broken places of life.

The Apostle Paul says that Timothy had a Mimi too. Her name was Lois. And Paul remembers those cherished conversations that Timothy had shared about his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. Paul recalls the sincere faith he had seen in Timothy for these women made such an impression upon him. The faith Timothy’s family had modeled for him was authentic and genuine with a wholeheartedness to serve the Lord with grace and compassion.

As Paul’s words paint a picture of a true gift being shared through at least three generations, we can hear how important faith, hope and love are within Timothy’s family - the connection of faith, the hope found in relationships, and God’s love as it is received and extended. And Paul knows how important these are in order for God to weave the threads of faith into the fabric of our daily lives. So Paul reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift of God that is within him.

I love Paul’s tender words as a spiritual mentor to young Timothy and to us. These words encourage us to remember the stories that have been passed down through our family, through friends, through our Mimi’s and through our spiritual ancestors in Scripture. For these stories remind us of a divine love that will never let us go. God’s love gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline in the midst of our angst and tears for a broken world.

In order to feel that strength of identity, purpose and hope we, too, need to rekindle the gift. We need to fan the flames and allow the Spirit to breathe new life into the embers of our faith. The hope is for us to rekindle the gift not just to regain God’s strength in our times of weakness, but also to continue sharing the gift of faith through open hands and hearts with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr was moved by the notion of tables as a place to encounter love and hospitality. As he considered the ways that encouragement and inspiration flow from a table much like a kitchen table, he could not help but remember the power which comes from the Lord’s Table to nurture us.

In 1933 Dr. Kerr served as pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Together with the church’s Stewardship team, Dr. Kerr envisioned World Communion Sunday. The vision was to bring churches together around the Lord’s Table as a reminder of the connection that holds us all by those three threads of faith, hope, and love.

Dr. Kerr’s son, Dr. Donald Craig Kerr (also a Presbyterian minister), shared that back in the early 1930’s no one really gave it a lot of thought. But that all changed when World War Two began. He said “It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion Sunday symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

What began as a Presbyterian tradition was adopted through the National Council of Churches and is observed globally across denominational lines.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. It is observed annually on the first Sunday in October. It is on this day that Christians across the world gather as God says, “Welcome to My House.”

God’s House is a safe place to find rest for our weary spirits. God’s hospitality embraces us so that we may experience God’s abundant mercy in our time of need. In the center of God’s House is a big Table where there is always room to pull up another chair. There is always a feast ready at the Table where plates are heaping with God’s grace and the cups are filled with compassion. And let me tell you, God’s grace tastes so good!

This feast nourishes and encourages us as we remember the stories of God walking beside God’s people.

God – like a mother hen who wraps her warm and protective wings around her brood of chicks to guide them by the right road.

God – like a father who is filled with nothing less than compassion, forgiveness, and second chances when his daughters and sons come home from the wayward journeys of life.

God – like a wounded healer who knows the scars on our knees and our hearts and tenderly mends our broken places both inside and out.

There is room at this Table to share our stories today of all the good we celebrate in the world and of all that burdens us. And at this Table God draws near to us with sighs too deep for words. God prays for us to strengthen us by the life, ministry, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. God rekindles the embers of this gift of faith by breathing the Holy Spirit upon us, in us and among us so that we may experience new life.

At this Table we are reminded that we are blessed by the ties of faith, hope, and love which bind us together globally as one great family of faith. God created us to be tethered by relationships with God and one another through this gift of faith. As our spirits mature and grow we find hope in the relationships that shape us into a beloved community.

Our passion for God’s Love is strengthened each time we receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. And from this Table we are sent out into the world to share God’s hospitality. We do that by joining God in this holy work of loving one another as God already loves us, for if we do this everyone will know that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34-35).

So welcome to God’s House. Let us take the next steps of a disciple as we rekindle this amazing gift by telling the story of God’s Love once again…for God’s story is rewriting ours as we see and taste God’s amazing grace.

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