Sunday, December 24, 2017

Homily: The Light of Love

The Light of Love
Isaiah 9: 2-7; Luke 1: 26-38
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2017
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined...

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
- Isaiah 9: 2, 5-7

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. - Luke 1: 26-38

According to Barbara Robinson there was a particular Christmas pageant which could be described in one word – scandalous!

For as long as she could remember, the children’s Sunday School Class played all the parts and those children knew the Christmas story by heart. The primary school kids were angels; the intermediate kids were shepherds, the older boys were the Wise Men; the pastor’s son Elmer was Joseph; and Alice was Mary because she was the most holy-looking.

But one particular year it was all very different. The Herdman kids happened to come to Sunday School the day the pageant cast was assigned. And they were not shy to stake a claim for all the main roles.

You see, the Herdman kids didn’t have such a good reputation. They lied. They stole money from the offering plate. They said bad words and smoked cigars – even the girls. The day they attended Sunday School they drew mustaches on all the disciples’ faces in the classroom picture Bible.

And here they were going to represent the best and most beautiful in the Christmas pagaent. The Herdman children didn’t even know the Christmas story! Well, it got everybody worked up.

The very first rehearsal the director was answering lots of questions, so she read the whole story from the Bible. The Herdman’s reacted like it was a case from an F.B.I. file. They were shocked to learn about a pregnant teenage girl in church. They were worried about Mary having a baby in the barn. They concluded the Wise Men were a bunch of dirty spies, and King Herod was a villain who needed to be removed.

When word got out that the Herdman kids were in the pageant, the pews were packed on Christmas Eve. Everybody wanted to see just what those Herdman kids were going to do.

The lights dimmed and the spotlight shined on the empty stable, anticipating the story to unfold. Imogene and Ralph were Mary and Joseph. The holy couple didn’t look so holy. Baby Jesus was slung over Mary’s shoulder and she was just ready to clobber anyone who would threaten to mess with her boy.

The shepherds all approached the manger and little Gladys pushed through as the angel of the Lord with her skinny legs and dirty sneakers. The Angel threw her arms open wide nearly hitting a shepherd in the face. And she shouted, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

Leroy, Claude, and Ollie trekked forward as the Wise Men. They knew just what baby Jesus wanted for Christmas. So one of them carried a heavy gift – a ham that they dropped at the foot of the manger. The ham came from the Herdman family’s Christmas basket, a gift from the church. That ham was the first thing the children had ever sincerely given away.

As the pageant closed with Silent Night, little Mary with her crooked veil stood in the makeshift stable crying and crying. She didn’t even wipe away her tears. The spirit of Christmas completely overwhelmed her.

What many thought could be the worst actually became “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” because the Herdman children revealed the truest sense of Christmas. The story unfolded for everyone that night through the most unexpected family and in the most unexpected way.

The Christmas story that so many of us treasure is really quite a scandalous one. Mary was a young teenager. She was legally and financially bound to marry Joseph. And in the most unexpected way, the angel of the Lord appeared with the most unexpected and shocking news. Mary would carry in her womb the Son of God.

Mary was disturbed with her inner thoughts and emotions. She wrestled to make sense of all this. None of this looked good. If pregnant and unwed, according to the Law, she could have been stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). She could have been publicly shamed by Joseph. She could have lost every hope for a promising future according to ancient cultural norms. And yet she said yes to God. Mary took a bold risk to trust God’s faithfulness.

The announcement of that sweet little Jesus boy is revealed in a less than desirable situation. What more, God chose to enter in the messiness of human life to be one of us.

This babe lying in the manger is the flesh and blood of a divine promise kept. This past week our Women’s Advent Bible Study concluded with these words:

Jesus does not come into a perfect family, filled with perfect people, who do not need saving to begin with. He comes into [God’s family] that has sinned. The Messiah’s people need saving, not just from individual moral failures, but from multigenerational, systemic sin that touches every human institution… The beautiful hope is Mary’s child provides physical, tangible evidence that God has not abandoned God’s people. Mary’s pregnancy fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of Emmanuel, “God with us.” [1]

Listen in the silence. Listen in the noise. Listen for the Spirit’s voice.

The voice of God’s Spirit is saying, “I have kept my promise for I will be your God and you will be my people; yesterday, today, for all eternity.”

The sign of God’s promise is Emmanuel for God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. He is the light shining brightly in the darkness of our unholy moments and imperfect family dynamics, our fears and grief, our brokenness and sin. The Christ Child is the true light that enlightens everyone with cries and coos of God’s possibility.

The new life born from Mary’s womb holds God’s promises of redemption and new life for us. The gift of salvation is from the very womb of God’s amazing grace.

The continuous thread of Scripture weaves the most unlikely women, men, and even children to bear God’s good news in the most unlikely ways.

The miracle of Christmas is a scandalous one – the holiness of God put on the thin skin and tattered garments of humanity to be one of us. The gift of Christmas is a profound one – the promise of Emmanuel proves that nothing will separate us from the love of God!

May the Light of Love overwhelm you and me through unlikely people and in unexpected ways this Christmas season.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Tom Fuerst, “Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), p. 84.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon: The Joy of the Lord

The Joy of the Lord
Isaiah 61: 1-4; Psalm 16: 7-11; John 1: 6-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 17, 2017
The Third Sunday of Advent

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
- Isaiah 61: 1-4

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.
- Psalm 16: 7-11

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
- John 1: 6-16

Henri Nouwen is known in faith circles as a deep well of spiritual wisdom. He was a respected Dutch Catholic priest, a seminary professor, and an author of many books on spirituality and pastoral care. But one of Nouwen’s gifts was his ability to be transparent and real about the journey of faith. Nouwen was a wounded healer. He struggled with depression and wrote about his own dark night of the soul:

Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.

What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.

Nouwen found incredible healing in being surrounded by a small circle of trust and compassion; friends who shined God’s light of love and grace into his darkness. Nouwen’s experience completely changed his understanding of joy; for JOY is knowing that the promise of God’s presence is a solid foundation that grounds us in the strength of God’s grace.

Years later Nouwen offered the truth he learned about the joy of the Lord:

Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God's love for us…Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing-sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death-can take that love away. [2]

The Psalmist was a wounded healer too. He had in incredible gift of pinning down his own human experience and his daily need for God’s grace. The Psalmist opened his heart and mind to be real about his own oppressions, heartbreaks, grief, and longings for new life. And we find comfort in his bold trust in God that spans lament and praise.

But we need to know the hidden truth for the Psalmist – it was true for Henri Nouwen too; even before the Psalmist found his voice to be a light of encouragement to others, the Psalmist was first aware that he was fully understood and fully known by God. This is a key truth of joy.

The Psalmist’s bold trust that God was and is ever before him was the Psalmist’s strong foundation, therefore he would not be moved (Psalm 16:7-8). The Psalmist’s conviction granted him joy in all circumstances; that joy was a keen awareness of God’s grace breaking in.

The Psalmist’s conviction was not a solo endeavor. He was encircled by the goodly heritage of God’s Word. Our ancestors of faith like the prophet Isaiah surrounded this wounded healer with the promise of Emmanuel “God Is With Us;” the Lord will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim the Lord’s freedom and favor, comfort and provide for those who mourn, and give a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The Lord God showed the Psalmist the path of life for it is illumined with the light of God’s promises. That path is not an easy one nor is it free of challenges, struggles, pain, or grief. It is the path of life because God is with us in all situations and even shares in our human struggles as revealed in the fullness of Jesus Christ. The life of the Christ Child is the light of all people (John 1:4).

As we anticipate his birth once again, it brings us great joy. Nothing compares to the wonders of Christ’s love and the glories of his righteousness. Because the Lord is ever before us, we shall not be moved. As we live into this great hope others take notice of that light shining within you and me. That true light which enlightens everyone is coming into the world.

As we enter into this third week of Advent, I want for you to think about your journey along the path of life. Consider the all the twists and turns that you have encountered along the way.

Where have you been hard pressed?
What situations at home, at school or work, and in the wider world hurt your heart?
What do you need to be freed from that is gripping your life?
Has grief come to visit you again leaving you a longing for comfort?

Yes, these are deep questions, but we do not answer them in a solo endeavor. Even as we are trying to find the words to articulate our own stories and name where we need God's grace, we are already fully known and fully understood by the Lord, for God is with us.

Take heart in the prophet’s promise. Be encouraged by the vulnerability of the wounded healer of the Psalms. And follow in John’s footsteps of shining the light of your truth about the wonders of Christ’s love and the glories of God’s grace breaking into your life and in the wider world.

As we live into God’s story that still changes the world, we find joy. True joy is not superficial happiness. It cannot be bought or self-generated. True joy is a gift that encircles us. And we need one another to find it.

Henri Nouwen says it this way:

People who have known the joy of God point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real Presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other's wounds, forgive each other's offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God's Glory. [3]

Listen in the silence. Listen in the noise. Listen for the Spirit’s voice of compassion.

From his fullness we have received grace upon grace (John 1:16).

May the joy of the Lord move you and me to share the light of God’s promises in Emmanuel.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Henri Nouwen, “The Inner Voice of Love” (New York: Random House, Inc., 1996), p. xiii.
[2] Henri Nouwen, “The Heart of Henri Nouwen” (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003).
[3] Henri Nouwen, “The Return of the Prodigal Son: The Story of Homecoming” (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1992), p. 117.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: The Peace of God

"The Peace of God"
Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 10, 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
- Isaiah 40: 1-5

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
- Mark 1: 1-8

Some words will only bear the weight of their full meaning when held in tension to its opposite. Here are a few dynamic duos that are common to all ages: night and day, cause and effect, right and wrong.

The Bible is full of such opposites that are pregnant with meaning when we hold them side by side: sin and grace, debt and forgiveness, death and new life.

But today we are peeling back the layers of a particular word that we are longing to find fuller meaning within this second week of Advent; and that word is PEACE.

What opposite would you pair with the word “peace?”

Many say the opposite of peace is conflict. But Scripture offers another word pairing.

The prophecy of God’s peace comes from Isaiah. According to the prophet, the opposites of peace are injustice and unrighteousness; they threaten the wholeness and wellbeing of God’s shalom, or peace.

God’s people of Israel cried out for God’s peace to comfort them in the wilderness. God’s people lamented. The most weak and vulnerable were being oppressed by an unjust society. God’s people felt completely disconnected from right relationships.

The wilderness of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles felt like walking through the valley of the shadow where mountains seemed merciless and immovable. The path that seemed to lead to no where was chalked full of stones of judgment, pitfalls, and potholes where large gaps of integrity were missing.

Isaiah speaks comfort to God’s people. “A Spirit from on high is poured out on us; in the wilderness justice will dwell and righteousness will abide. Justice and righteousness will abide in the fruitful field of God’s possibility. The effect of righteousness will be peace. The result of righteousness [will be] quietness and trust forever (Isaiah 32: 15a, 16-17).

You see, the peace of God is a divine prophetic reversal to make things right for God’s people; particularly the oppressed: In the wilderness [the Spirit] prepares the way of the Lord. Every valley is lifted up in to the light of God’s bright hope. The merciless and immovable mountains of injustice are made low by the justice of God’s Law of Love. The uneven ground with all its stones and potholes is made level by God’s faithfulness, paving the way for right relationships.

The wilderness that led to nowhere now clearly leads to a highway where we meet our God Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The peace of God reveals the glory of the Lord and all people shall see it together (Isaiah 40:3-5).

The word of the Lord will not return empty. It shall accomplish God’s purposes of peace (Isaiah 55:11). Its full result is God restoring us to see one another, especially the weak and marginalized, in our full God-given dignity and personhood today and to experience the glorious new life of God’s security and trustworthiness through Jesus Christ forever (Isaiah 32:17).

This past week I found the prophetic peace of God at work in an unlikely person. August Pullman is a ten-year old boy. He has been walking in a wilderness his whole life. He has felt shunned for something completely out of his control. Auggie has a severe craniofacial deformity. He has had twenty-seven surgeries to breathe, to see, and to hear without a hearing aid; but Auggie says none of them have helped him to look ordinary.

Auggie was homeschooled from a young age. His parents now think it is time for him to take the next step by starting fifth grade in a nearby middle school. Every fifth grader would be beginning the fated middle school wilderness together as new students.

Auggie was petrified but willing. He dreaded the unwanted stares from those who did not know him. While his new wilderness got really rocky at times, Auggie experienced a complete reversal in that school year that brought an inspiring and profound peace.

On his first day of school his dad dropped him off with a big hug and the wise words, “Auggie, I know you are going to feel all alone but you are not.”

Auggie found the gift of connection among a few true friends who looked past what made him different. These friends saw Auggie’s character of quiet strength, humor, and rock star science skills.

When the valley of bullying overshadowed Auggie with hurtful words and actions, Auggie’s principal shined a bright light into the darkness of that bully saying, “August cannot change the way he looks, but we can change the way we see.”

August saw a new beginning unfold as he envisioned where he wanted to be. Over the course of his fifth grade year, Auggie went from being treated as “less than human” to receiving the highest honor for pulling up the most hearts with his quiet strength and his deep resolve to overcome cruelty with kindness.

August Pullman is a “Wonder,” as told in the book and movie. He is a wonder because his story displays God’s powerful promise that justice will dwell and right relationships will abide in the wilderness no matter what age we are. This story is bringing great comfort to children and families facing similar struggles who have been silenced and marginalized. This story is giving them a voice.

You and I have also seen God’s prophetic peace unfolding in one of the fastest moving reversals of our time.

Women and men who have long been silenced as victims of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are now truly being heard. As a result, powerful figures across the board are resigning from these allegations. This reversal has given many a great hope because abuses of power cast a shadow of shame which feels less than human. Abuses of power blame the victim for something they had no control of. Those words, “abusive power,” “shame,” and “less than human” no longer have the last word.

And this is just the beginning towards God’s peace which seeks to bring healing, wholeness, and security where trust has been violated. As The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

God promises the human wilderness will be transformed into a field where all may flourish according to God’s law of love and his gospel of peace. Advent anticipates the great kingdom reversal that the Prince of Peace brings and will bring to completion. And we are seeing glimpses of God’s glory together.

These stories are important because they hold profound implications for all people of faith today. There is something at stake for the church to understand God’s prophetic promise of peace: “When the church is deaf to the voices of women, children, powerless men, and other peoples at the margins, the health of [the church’s] faith and witness is compromised.” [1]

The church is called to listen for and respond to these voices for the sake of the integrity of the gospel.

The peace of God invites us to prepare the way of the Lord. The work of Advent is to listen in the silence. Listen in the noise. Listen for the Spirit’s voice.

The voice of God’s Spirit is saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Look into your own heart of personal valleys, immovable mountains, and rocky paths. Where is God’s peace missing in your life? Know that God longs to bring about reversals for you to find healing and to flourish this Advent season.

Look outward too. God’s mercy and grace are on the move to shine the light of Christ upon the women, children, powerless men, and the marginalized. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9). The body of Christ is to be on the move too as a sanctuary for a weary world when the wrong seems oh so strong.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is Emmanuel; GOD IS WITH US. His gospel is peace.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] “Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 208 “The Gifts of God for the People of God,” by Leanne Van Dyck.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sermon: The Hope of God's Faithfulness

"The Hope of God’s Faithfulness"
Isaiah 64: 5-8; 1 Corinthians 1: 4-9
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2017
The First Sunday of Advent

You [Lord God] meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
- Isaiah 64: 5-8

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
- 1 Corinthians 1: 4-9

The network television drama This Is Us just completed its second season. The show has come into America’s homes and quickly become a favorite. It is one of the few tv shows that I have actually binge watched for hours on end; I am completely captivated by the story line of the Pearson family.

Their story unfolds from 1980 to the present day. That storyline narrates an ordinary Pittsburgh family who faces the very real and oh so common joys and trials of life.

Jack and Rebecca Pearson have triplets; Kevin, Randall, and Kate. Jack is the family anchor. He is not a perfect man; he struggles with alcoholism as his father did. But he strives to live into a different story as a family man. Jack and Rebecca live into the greater purpose of raising their children to navigate through the great joys, obstacles, and the gut-wrenching moments of life.

As their lives unfold in switchbacks from childhood and adulthood, the triplets each have a thorn in their side: Kevin wrestles with self-doubt, Randall struggles with anxiety, Kate is conflicted with low self-confidence.

Life just happens and when it brings deep needs to overcome, the triplets’ individual memories flashback to a tender moment with their dad. Jack’s loyalty as a patient father and husband oftentimes moves us to tears.

Whatever the moment held that brought an emotional unraveling, Jack would cup his hands around his child’s face. He would look them in the eyes with a trusted and tender spirit. And he would say, “Just breathe. We are going to get through this.”

Jack gave his kids a great hope when they could not see it for themselves. Jack’s love was a centering force that calmed Kevin’s, Randall’s, and Kate’s heart and mind, preparing them to take the next step. And Jack’s loyal love tethered each one in that household to a family bond so strong that nothing can separate.

This Is Us reminds me of some deep truths that our Advent texts hold today.

The season of Advent comes into our ordinary and imperfect lives. It meets us where we are in all the switchbacks of life’s joys and messiness. The season embraces us in God our Father’s trusted and tender spirit.

Advent is a holy space to anticipate God’s faithfulness because we are still in need of a Savior. God’s faithfulness is ultimately revealed in his loyal love.

Gods’ loyal love gives us a great hope when we cannot see it for ourselves.

Whatever life throws our way, we do not need to fear. Our help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 121:2) and says, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand (Isaiah 41:10).

God embraces the messiness of our lives with trusting and compassionate hands like a potter. God’s faithfulness is reshaping our hearts and minds, as the prophet Isaiah says, “We are the work of God’s hands” (Isaiah 64:8). God is shaping our faith by God’s own faithfulness, therefore giving us the assurance of things hoped for and deepening our conviction of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1)

God’s loyal love is a centering force that calms the chaos of life, preparing us to take the next step.

When life is spinning out of control and we continually think of that thorn in our side or that struggle in life, God tells us to keep our eyes on the Lord.

The writer of Lamentations says, “My soul is bowed down within me, but this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end, they are new each morning. Great is your faithfulness!” (Lamentations 3: 20-23). “The Lord is the keeper of our lives; the Lord will keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121: 5, 8). The Lord will always help us to see a forward when there seems like no way.

God’s loyal love tethers each of us into the great family of faith, which is the fellowship of God’s Son Jesus Christ, which will strengthen us to the end.

The mystery of God’s love is that it is revealed to us in a profound way – God’s loyal love is embodied in human form. We are waiting for the birth of the Christ Child whose name is Emmanuel, meaning God-With-Us.

Emmanuel leads us from the manger to the cross and to our highest calling to be the body of Christ. We are called to continue Christ’s ministry of love, justice, reconciliation, and peace. We are called to be God-With-Us people so that we might see Christ in one another.

There is nothing more powerful than to be the body of Christ and shine the light of God’s love in the great joys, obstacles, and the gut-wrenching moments of life. These kind of God-With-Us moments reveal the ties that bind us together in God’s faithfulness and will strengthen us to the end.

My prayer for each of us today is that we will be intentional to claim this holy space of Advent. Eagerly anticipate God’s presence in whatever chaos is tossing you and me around like a faded leaf in the wind. I promise you that making time to draw near to God will quiet our hearts and minds and prepare us to take the next step.

I want for you to close your eyes just for a moment. Behold the light of God’s loyal love embracing your face as a beloved child of God. Listen in the silence, listen in the noise, listen for the Spirit’s voice.

God’s Spirit is saying to you and to me, “Just breathe. We are going to get through this. I will strengthen you and I will help you with my victorious right hand!”

In this first week of Advent listen in the silence for the still small voice of God’s faithfulness.

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

* Special music, Listen in the Silence, shared with permission of singer / songwriter, Linnea Good

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: Let Yourselves Be Built

Let Yourselves Be Built
Joshua 4: 1-4, 19-24; 1 Peter 2: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday

When the entire nation [of Israel] had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.” ’ Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe.

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, “Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.” For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.’
- Joshua 4: 1-4, 19-24

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner’,
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
- 1 Peter 2: 1-10

I don’t think I will ever forget that day. I had just accepted my first call after graduating seminary to serve a church in Tupelo, Mississippi. I was driving around Tupelo with Miss Bea, who was our realtor, to search for our family’s next home. You know how it goes with house hunting. As soon as you walk through the front door, you are trying to perceive if this is it….is this where I belong?

Every house has a way of telling its story. Some houses have a way of sharing the family lineage that has embodied many generations through thick and thin. Some are brand spanking new with the hope of a bright future. And some houses tell the story of longing for better days if someone could just see their potential.

I made my way through the knee-high grass and approached the cracked oval window in the front door. The house had been empty and on the market for one year. It was dirty and required a lot of work to become livable again. I could sense the story of brokenness that the walls held.

Miss Bea thought I was absolutely crazy when I said that I thought this was the house! She affectionately called it the “goat house” because there was no way a lawnmower could make a dent through the knee-high weeds and grass. This house was in need of a resurrection and you know how we preacher types are!

What I remember most from that day was meeting the next-door neighbor on the cul-de-sac. When I asked him about the house, his reply was this:

“Carson, the past year my family and I have been praying for the family God would send to buy this house. In fact, all the neighbors on this cul-de-sac have become close over the years and they have been praying too.”

That was a powerful moment to me; it still gives me goosebumps to this day. Through his words, I felt God nudging me to let our family become part of this house’s story.

The letter of 1st Peter invites us into a community’s house that is also telling a shared story. Churches in the first century were not attractive houses of worship like Van Wyck Presbyterian. There was no beautiful brick architecture or an inviting sanctuary with stained glass windows. There was no beautiful walnut arch in the chancel. The first Christians met in people’s homes as small intimate gatherings.

A typical house in the 1st century of Asia Minor was a small box-like structure. The outer walls were built of stones or clay bricks made by hand. The level roof was made of branches. The living area doubled as a kitchen and bedroom.
The meager surroundings and threadbare walls told a story of families united in quiet strength and deep perseverance to follow in the footsteps of the Christ and his disciples.

Something memorable had occurred among the church community which the letter of 1 Peter addresses. This early church community was tender in their new shoots of faith. They remembered encountering the risen Christ in the ordinary places of life.
And they celebrated this every Sunday morning – the day of the Lord’s resurrection – by sharing the bread and cup of Communion.

Their hearts and minds were being redirected from the cultural tendencies of malice, deceit, insincerity, envy, and self-absorption. The bread and the cup fed the community with the Lord’s spiritual milk as they tasted and experienced the goodness of the Lord. The lives of these men, women, and children were being changed. And they were being prepared to walk along the pathway of new life in Christ. God nudged them to let their families become part of the story of God’s household to proclaim God’s glory.

The story of God’s household was reforming faith and reshaping lives. God did this by laying the foundation of God’s household with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone.

The cornerstone was an important piece in masonry construction. In ancient Judeo-Christian times and still today, the cornerstone is the first stone laid as a foundation. All other stones were set in reference to the cornerstone, thereby interconnecting each stone into a united structure. As the cornerstone strengthened and fashioned the walls into a household, so Christ as the foundation of faith joins together Christians into one body dedicated to God.

The building up of God’s household is loaded with Old Testament imagery and rich in meaning. The story of our spiritual ancestry in Joshua’s text proclaims believers have long been living stones whose lives bear witness to God’s sovereign love and all that God’s mighty arm has done (Joshua 4: 1-24). This story has been passed down through every generation.

You and I are tethered by these stories of faith to unite in quiet strength and deep perseverance to keep walking along the ancient paths. The Lord goes before us and is our rear guard. We walk with a growing assurance in the footsteps of Christ and all his followers for our Lord and Savior has done mighty things.

The story of the early church matters. Those early Christian communities prepared their minds for action and set all their hope on the grace that was promised through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They went out into the world in the ordinary places of life to share genuine hospitality and care towards a hurting world. They encountered the brokenness and suffering of others with great hope. And each time they made the choice to show up, God continued building up the household of God.

By daily living out the gospel our lives are being shaped and set in reference to the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. And the spiritual dwelling of the household of God continues to grow this day.

God sees our greatest potential to hold fast to our confidence and hope as we gather around the Lord’s Table. The spiritual milk of the bread of life and cup of salvation nourish us to grow deeper in our faith. The messy and broken places of our lives are changed by Christ’s resurrection hope. Therefore, we leave this Table as living stones to tell the story of what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for us, among us, and through us.

The church is God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles, prophets, and Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone in whom the whole building being held together is growing (Ephesians 2: 19-20). Look around you now and imagine God’s house filled with so much godly potential to go out and make a difference.

“Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” Feel God nudging you as you search for a new church home. Feel God nudging you to grow in your knowledge of Scripture and its practical application. Feel God nudging you to share your gifts with the deep needs of our community. Feel God nudging you to extend compassion to someone who is going through a rough time as the holiday season begins.

Friends, the text cautions us to be mindful that we are not the ones building the spiritual house. We are to recognize that because we are precious and chosen in God’s sight, God is the One shaping our jagged edges and fitting us together.

Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, whom was revealed to us in humble manger and threadbare walls. The babe who was born the Prince of Peace grew into a King. Christ the King ushers in an upside-down kingdom of God’s free grace, sacrificial love, justice, and right relationships.

God’s kingdom points to the cross and the empty tomb that even the largest stone could not contain. Christ the King reigned then and Christ the King reigns among us today. His rule of love should bear weight in all we say and do.

Today we gather to celebrate Christ our King just as the early church did with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. God takes these ordinary elements and makes them holy to proclaim that God’s Spirit is building us up into the great household of God.

I want you to know that Christ our King is always praying for those who will be drawn to dwell in God’s household. Christ our King is always praying for you and me to let ourselves be built more strongly into the story of God’s house.

We are to be God’s household - a living sanctuary on the move - with open doors and open hearts to be a source of strength and refuge for all God’s children.

May it be so for the King of glory.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Psalm 23: A Prayer of Lament

Psalm 23: A Prayer of Lament

O Lord my God,

I feel lost in a wilderness of grief, wanting nothing more than to hold my beloved again.
Restore my trust in you, for the Lord is my shepherd.
Hold my emptiness in your everlasting arms; you know my every want and need.

My soul is wandering and restless.
The world around me has lost its color because my beloved has died.
Lord, make me to lie down in the green pastures of your promised eternal hope.
Wipe the tears from my eyes so that I may see the resilient colors
of your grace enfolding me.

My heart is disrupted by chaos.
Nothing makes sense anymore.
Lord, lead me beside your still and living waters.
Calm the chaos within me.
Restore my soul with the knowledge that nothing
will ever separate my family or me from your steadfast love.

My feet do not know the next steps to take.
I have lost my sense of direction.
Even simple decisions overwhelm me.
Lord, lead me in right paths for your name’s sake.
Show me what the next right step is.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil –
For you are with me.
You alone know my pain, for you experienced it with your Son.
Comfort me with the mystery of your grace in that old rugged cross.

As many gather with family and friends around tables of thanks this week,
I am trying to find gratitude in the midst of grief.
You prepare a table of your gracious provision before me
in the wilderness of human heartache.
Even as I see the empty chair
I remember you have provided support
through the encouraging words and prayers of family, friends, and strangers.
You reveal to me that I am not alone.
I give thanks for the gift of my beloved.
Your love, O Lord, has washed over our lives and claimed us
in a love that will never let us go.

Sustain my family and me with the cherished memories of our beloved,
that our cups might overflow with the joy that has filled our lives.
Fill my cup with the joy knowing that my beloved is now in your eternal presence,
healed and made whole.
On the days when my cup feels empty, fill my spirit and hold me together.

With each passing moment show me the way to lean into a deeper trust in you, O Lord
– that you, Lord God, are my strength and refuge.

Speak words of comfort to me,
that surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.


written by Carson Overstreet, Nov 22, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon: A Future with Hope

"A Future with Hope"
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7, 11; Micah 6: 6-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 12, 2017
Stewardship Commitment Sunday

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. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
- Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7, 11

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6: 6-8

These words from the prophet Jeremiah have been guiding my vision of ministry this year. I did not randomly choose Jeremiah’s words but rather they took hold of me in a devotional reading one January morning.

Each week over the past ten months I set aside time to focus on Jeremiah’s words. Holy Spirit keeps drawing me deeper into this text to shape the attitude of my heart, not just as your pastor, but as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. We are all in this together to grow as disciples and to grow in our authenticity as the body of Christ.

Jeremiah wanted God’s people to be an authentic community of faith too. The city where God sent the Israelites into exile was Babylon. It was a challenging time for God’s people faced a lot of change. They were disoriented and they wanted nothing more than to go back to what was familiar and cherished and experience the goodness of life as they remembered in Jerusalem. The Israelites also questioned who they were in light of those difficult times.

The Lord spoke through Jeremiah and gave God’s people encouraging words to shape the attitude of their hearts from discontent, anxiety, and worry to a new attitude of purpose and gratitude.

No matter how difficult it was to adjust to all the changes in life, the Lord wanted the people to be intentional about two things. The first was to daily cultivate God’s goodness in their personal home life (Jeremiah 29:5-6). The second was to daily read the communal landscape of Babylon and to pay attention to the places where God’s shalom, God’s peace was missing.

If God’s people would have a prayerful heart for the true wellbeing of the city which God had sent them to, then by pursuing Babylon’s wellbeing, they would find their wellbeing and God’s peace too. It would not be an easy, but God promised to go before them to bring a future with hope and God’s unfolding kingdom.

We find ourselves facing a lot of change in our lives, community, and world. Even the landscape of ministry is quickly changing. It can be easy to worry and allow the chaotic troubles of today to steal our gratitude as people of faith. Remember the wisdom of one of our church members shared last week, “Gratitude is a day by day journey. It comes when we realize how blessed we are for everything that God gives us. Even the not so good but growing experiences.”

You and I have been blessed to be a blessing in an ever changing world. The prophets Jeremiah and Micah reveal to us how to be that blessing; for it involves being good stewards of God’s grace and living into God’s vision for ministry.

I am grateful for the long history of Van Wyck Presbyterian. Over the past 133 years the saints, past and present, who worship, fellowship, study, give, and serve here are also leaders in the community. Van Wyck Presbyterian Church is a welcoming community church that exudes genuine care and concern. We are movers and shakers who wholeheartedly invest ourselves to improve the community around us. My heart is grateful that this church community does this because of a deep value of relationships with God and one another.

God connects each of us into a priesthood of believers. That means each of us is a steward and minister of God’s grace. Your baptism is sufficient for your calling and commitment to Jesus Christ. God has given each of us a gift – a passion - and it is God’s greatest desire to lead us to intersect our passions with the needs of the greater community.

God calls you and me to goodness in our personal lives. We do this by nurturing this gift of faith and our passion for Jesus Christ within our families. Our spiritual lives are nourished through worship, Bible study, fellowship, and serving others. We serve by sharing our time, passions, and financial treasures. As we grow in our faithfulness God’s Spirit breathes within us a renewed attitude of the heart. God gives us a deepening love of God’s people and the bold trust in God’s coming kingdom.

As we look towards our shared ministries of 2018 I ask that you pray with session and me for the Spirit to open our eyes to see the places where God’s shalom, God’s peace is missing within our surrounding communities of Van Wyck, Lancaster, and Indian Land.

Where is God calling us to do justice by working for right relationships? Will we sense God nudging us in new directions to love kindness by serving and empowering our neighbors in need? Will we hear God whispering into our ears to walk humbly to share our blessings so that God’s love and God’s name will be shown, known, and glorified? God’s Spirit is on the move to encourage us to see these God moments before us.

God’s grace promises to go ahead of us, to shape the attitudes of our hearts, and bring the peace only our Lord can provide. God’s grace promises to give us a future with hope as we seek where God’s peace is missing among us.

When we are about God’s business, then we feel God’s peace deep down in our bones. And let me tell you – that kind of peace surpasses our understanding because we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of God’s unfolding kingdom!

Never underestimate the spiritual power of a smaller sized church! God is not calling us to be successful. God is calling us to be faithful.

Will you join me in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly?

Will you, because God wants each of you to say yes to God. For God wants you to be a part of building the kingdom in a way that only you can do!

I really cannot wait to see what God is planning to do among us and through us in 2018!!!

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Sermon: An Attitude of the Heart (Stewardship Sunday)

"An Attitude of the Heart"
Psalm 107: 1-9; Micah 6: 6-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2017
Stewardship Sunday

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things.
- Psalm 107: 1-9

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6: 6-8

The month of November often marks our everyday life with a season of thanks and gratitude. But for people of faith, isn’t everyday meant to be lived out in gratitude?

The Psalmist takes that view. He stands before his community of faith and says, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Psalm 107: 1-2).

The Psalmists’ words imply an important question to those in his midst: What does this community of faith mean to you? Why are you celebrating the goodness of God?

The Psalmist goes on to share the stories of gratitude held by God’s people.

God is the One who is shaping our hearts by his steadfast love revealed in Jesus Christ (Psalm 107: 1-2).

God is the one who gathers us in to experience the joy of community where we feel accepted. (Psalm 107: 3).

God is the One who is leading us by a straight Way; the ancient paths of faith where God’s grace guides us in all the twists and turns in life (Psalm 107:6-7).

God is the One who satisfies our thirst for authentic worship. God is the One who satisfies our hunger with good things like belonging, right relationships, and faith that bears fruit (Psalm 107:9).

This past week I have been asking our community of faith, “What does Van Wyck Presbyterian (VWPC) mean to you? Why are you celebrating the goodness of God?” I am grateful to be able to share a few thoughts from this body of Christ.

One member shared: This question could well create a document the size of a house! In simple terms - VWPC people fill my heart with the joy of learning together, and reflecting the love of Christ; searching for meaningful ways to express that love to others. There is, indeed, a sweet, sweet spirit in that place.

One of our elders shared: What fills my heart regarding our church? Its people. I have been a member of eight different congregations in my lifetime and the love, faithfulness, and friendliness of the people of our church stand out above all of which I have been a part. I have been graciously blessed by my Father to count myself a member of this most hospitable body of believers.

Another member shared: VWPC always lives up to its name as a "friendly, welcoming church." What makes it so special is the care that the members put into the making of a community church that forms a church family for everyone. The people who have passed through these doors have made VWPC what it is, in contributions of time, talents and just being there. Children are an essential part of our church. I've watched so many young ones grow up in this church and even though many of them are gone on to other stages of their lives, the heart of this church goes with them wherever they are. I see the future of the church in the young ones growing up here now and in the lives that will be touched by VWPC as our area continues to grow and change and new members find this hidden treasure in Van Wyck.

How are we to respond to God’s goodness? How are we to thank God for all the Lord has done in the past, for all the Lord is doing now, and all the Lord promises to do in the future through us and among us?

A faithful response is not out of duty or obligation but rather out of gratitude.

This week one of our members shared with me that “Gratitude is a day by day journey. It comes when we realize how blessed we are for everything that God gives us. Even the not so good but growing experiences.”

As our spiritual cups are filled with gratitude for God’s faithfulness, they overflow into the lives of others we encounter. It is in those moment that others have an opportunity to see not just our attitude of gratitude, but they see our faith is shaped by an attitude of the heart.

The prophet Micah says an attitude of the heart looks like that heart on the front cover of our worship bulletin; it is a heart with a cross inside of it.

Jesus Christ reveals God’s heart to us in the way Jesus lived, in the way he died, and the way he promises the hope of new life.

You and I are here today because Jesus Christ has changed our lives in a significant way. You and I have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Gods’ Spirit calls your faith and mine to bear good fruit to be that blessing to others.

Christ alone is shaping our hearts and minds to pour out our gratitude in this way: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

We do justice by going out into the community to work for right relationships. I give thanks to God that the Spirit has led us to bear good fruit of justice the past year. We do justice by proclaiming that everyone is a beloved child of God.

This year we were a part of God’s holy work of doing justice in a new partnership with Kairos Prison Ministry. Many of you baked homemade cookies so that every inmate in Kershaw, South Carolina would see the tangible love of God. God’s love conveys that we are more than the worst thing we have ever done. Doing justice in the lens of grace proclaims the cross of Jesus Christ brings new life, forgiveness, and second chances to all. May these seeds of hope take root in these men’s lives to live a Christ centered life to given them a future with hope!

We also have been working for right relationships by gathering with other local churches in our immediate community to begin dismantling the sin of racism. We did this by honest dialogue around the movie “Selma” to build up mutual forbearance and respect. And that event was just a beginning. I look forward to see where God’s Spirit takes us.

Ministry that crosses denominational lines to foster unity in the community in order to make a difference is very near and dear to my heart and I am grateful for the seeds being planted among us to work for right relationships.

We love kindness through the love of serving those in need. And I thank God for all the generous hearts of this congregation – you literally wrap your arms around those inside and outside of these church walls.

Over the course of this year we have served our homeless neighbors with hot dinners at the Warming Center and also assembled hygiene kits to give our homeless neighbors dignity in self-care. We have delivered Thanksgiving baskets to families in need and stood hand in hand in a circle of prayer for God’s hospitality and blessings to cover these families. Some of you were called to serve on mission trips this year to Beverly, Kentucky, Honduras, and Panama to not only share God’s love but to enter into meaningful relationships with our sisters and brothers of faith across the country and world. These stories of outreach and mission are inspiring this church to discern where the Spirit is leading us next!

We walk humbly with God by always giving God the credit when the Lord’s grace abounds. God invites you and me to join the Lord in this holy work of changing the world through the grace of Jesus Christ. The truth is apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

Today we celebrate the stories of God’s goodness and we give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.

The gift of faith tells us there is no other way to respond to God’s faithfulness other than with an attitude of the heart.

May Micah’s beautiful image shape our attitude of faith in this upcoming year of 2018 to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

Our Lord is calling to us with these words today:

Will you come and follow me
if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown
in you and you in me?

(Listen to the full hymn here)

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] “Will You Come and Follow Me,” by John Bell and Graham Maule, 1987. This hymn is found in Glory to God Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), Hymn No. 726.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Disappointment Steal Your Gratitude (Part 5 of 5)

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
Don’t Let Disappointment Steal Your Gratitude (Part 5 of 5)
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 29, 2017

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole [Promised] land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.

The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’

Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.

The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
- Deuteronomy 32: 1-12

It was a moment to behold. Moses had served God and God’s people from the first call within that odd and captivating burning bush. Moses had followed God to grow and mature in his prophetic leadership over the years and from Israel’s exile to step into God’s new life of freedom.

And God brought Moses to one last mountain top experience before he was called home. Moses glimpsed the Promised Land. It was the place where God’s people would continue to pilgrimage towards in order to abide in God’s faithfulness for generations.

Moses died in the land of Moab at the Lord’s command and God’s people were filled with grief. The Israelites had followed Moses through the wilderness for forty years. God’s presence had been revealed through Moses in powerful ways. Their grief naturally held disappointment as this chapter of faith came to a close.

And yet God was at work to make sure their disappointment did not steal Israel’s gratitude. God had already been preparing Joshua to take the baton from Moses as God continued to go before the people and do a new thing.

Throughout the history of Scripture God called the prophets as God’s people strayed off the path of faith. While the prophets conveyed God’s disappointment, the covenant love of God never gave up on God’s people.

Even as God called the prophets, God also called upon women like Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth, Deborah (Judges 4: 4-5), Esther, and Mary (Matthew, Luke) to also lead God’s people in times of difficulty and great disappointment. God spoke through these women to reinterpret disappointment as God’s opportunity to do something new in the hope of the coming kingdom.

God revealed his only Son Jesus Christ as the new Moses to lead God’s people in another exile to experience the freedom of new life; eternal life. Like Moses, Jesus sought refuge in Egypt as a baby (Matthew 2: 13-15). He endured the temptations of the wilderness for forty days (Mathew 4: 1-11). He reinterpreted the law of God’s love to the people as he taught in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12).

Jesus Christ called disciples to follow him towards the gift of new life that the cross and empty tomb hold. And for three years as those disciples followed their prophetic Rabbi, Lord, and Savior they encountered God’s covenant love in powerful ways. After our crucified and Risen Lord ascended to heaven as told in Acts, the disciples were greatly disappointed (Acts 1: 6-11). Their grief and disappointment was much like the people of Israel after Moses died.

And yet God was at work to make sure the disciples’ disappointment did not steal their gratitude for all God had done through Jesus Christ to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. God passed the baton to the disciples and the apostles to carry on Jesus’ ministry as the body of Christ. God was doing a new thing to make sure Gods Word and God’s will would not return empty; it shall accomplish the thing for which the Lord sent it (Isaiah 55: 11).

Centuries after the early church took root, a young man named Martin Luther experienced God in a powerful way. We talked a few weeks ago how he deeply struggled to find a God of grace. Luther wrestled many years with a great sense of unworthiness. His searching led him to study theology; he entered the vocation of ministry as a monk, teacher, and priest. However, Luther did not feel worthy to serve God for he felt nothing but the weight of God’s judgment.

It was when Luther was giving a series of lectures on the book of Romans that God did a new thing in Luther’s life. Holy Spirit opened the Apostle Paul’s letter of Romans to Luther in a way he had never experienced before. Luther’s unworthiness was turned inside out as he learned that the “justice of God” was not about God’s wrathful judgment on sinners. (Romans 1:27; 3: 21-24).

Justo Gonzalez shares, “Luther came to the conclusion that a Christian’s worthiness is not their own, but God’s. “The righteousness [or worthiness] is given simply because God wishes to give it.”[1] This gift of God’s forgiveness and salvation are just that, a gift that comes from Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. We cannot earn it. Christ is the only mediator of God’s grace who can give it.

Luther said, “I felt that I had been born new and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained new meaning. And from that point on the phrase “the justice of God” no longer filled with me hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”[2]

As God’s goodness completely changed Luther’s life he grew more and more disappointed by the church’s interpretation of forgiveness. In the 16th century the only church was the Roman Catholic Church. At that time the priest was the only one who could mediate and bestow forgiveness of sins through the sacrament of penance. Many priests handled this sacrament with the sale of indulgences; a coin which could be purchased to cancel the debt of sin.

Luther’s revelation of God’s grace not only stood in stark contrast to the church’s tradition, but the exchange of money for forgiveness was an exploitation of God’s grace. The church was gaining a profit for this system therefore it convicted Luther to begin a wider conversation to reform the church. Luther protested by writing a list of 95 theses; a listing of questions and propositions detailing why forgiveness is granted by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s courageous faith. He could have been burned at the stake for being a heretic; he was challenging the authority of the church.

Luther was a bit like Tom Petty. He basically said, “There ain’t no easy way out. Hey, I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down!” God worked through Martin Luther to again do a new thing among God’s people. Luther’s actions are remembered as forever changing the theological landscape of the church. Luther’s actions are also recognized as the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

You and I find ourselves in the Reformed tradition, which largely began with Martin Luther and many who came after him, including John Calvin. No matter what situation life may present to us as the church universal, a community or as individuals, God alone is the one who will deliver us by grace alone, in Christ alone, and through faith alone. And this truth is found in Scripture alone. This is the cornerstone of what we believe in the Reformed tradition.

The overarching story of Scripture and the span of human history point out that our amazing God has been awakening God’s people with pulses of reformation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was, is, and will be on the move to reform the ways of old and even our human waywardness to do a new thing. God continues to work through the voices of women and men to declare God’s steadfast covenant love in order that we might be reshaped and reformed by God’s Word.

You and I are a part of a moveable feast of God’s grace, for we are connected to “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order 2015-2017, Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.) Part II, F-2.02). Notice in hearing these words that you and I are not solely doing the reforming, but rather we are being reformed by the Word of God in the power of Holy Spirit. God is our Ultimate Reformer.

The next time you find yourself overwhelmed with disappointment from a pressing situation, the shifts of society at large, or even change that happens in the greater church know that you are in good company.

The place where you are standing may just be a place where God is about to do a new thing in you, through you, and for the sake of the gospel. God passes down that baton to you and me as the body of Christ. Gods’ Word will not return empty. It shall accomplish the thing for which the Lord sent it and God invites you and me to be a part of that.

Don’t let disappointment steal your gratitude. Disappointment is actually a holy opportunity for God to speak the Lord’s narrative of grace into our lives.

Those whom God was working through as reformers throughout Scripture and across history show us that God’s grace is always on the move to reform our hearts by the shape of God’s heart in Jesus Christ.

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

Sources Referenced:

Sermon Series Theme Title "Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don't Let Disappointment Steal Your Gratitude" adapted from "The Enemies of Gratitude: Disappointment" theme in "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, C" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 65.

Artwork, "Moses and the Promised Land," by Joni Ware 2009

[1]Justo Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity: Volume 2 The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: Harper Collins, 1984,p. 19.
[2]Justo Gonzalez, p. 20.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Righteousness Steal Your Gratitude (Part 4 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
Don’t Let Righteousness Steal Your Gratitude" (Part 4 of 5)
Matthew 22: 15-22; Romans 13: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 22, 2017

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’

Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
- Matthew 22: 15-22

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
- Romans 13: 1-8

The past two weeks we have looked into a few of the parables Jesus taught in the synagogue; the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21: 33-46) and the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22: 1-14). It was no coincidence that Jesus was speaking these parables in close proximity to the Pharisees.

In fact Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ framework of faith. The Pharisees were the interpreters of the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Their sense of righteousness with God came from abiding by the Law of Scripture as a duty and obligation.

The tensions kept rising between the Pharisees and Jesus. You see Jesus was meddling in their lives and the Pharisees wanted him arrested and gone. Can you imagine that Jesus would meddle in someone's business?

The Pharisees grabbed their disciples and their buddies, the Herodians, to step into the boxing ring of debate. And they posed a loaded question to trap Jesus in his words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” (Matthew 22:17).

The Jewish people were not a free people; they lived under Roman occupation. My commentaries say, “This particular tax was the census. It was a head tax instituted when Judea became a Roman province.”[1] “The tax was a claim of [Roman] ownership over the land and its inhabitants. The census triggered The Zealot movement whom of which rebelled and resisted paying the tax." They rebelled because the land and the people belonged to God alone.[2] “The Pharisees were popular with the Jewish people because they in principle resented the tax but did not go as far as refusing to pay it.”[3] And then we have the Herodians who were Hellenistic Jews; they supported King Herod Antipas, who was a ruler of the divided kingdom of Judea and also an agent of Rome.

Jesus was surrounded by three differing interpretations of righteousness or obeying the rules of civic law and the Law of faith. And there was certainly a lot of animosity among those three.

Therefore, “if Jesus opposed the tax he would be accused of being a zealot and get in trouble with the Herodians and Roman officials. If Jesus agreed to pay the tax then he would alienate the Zealot movement.”[4]

The answer Jesus gives carefully sidesteps the trap. He not only finds common ground among the three Jewish groups but he also issues a challenge.

When he asks to see the coin, Jesus is making a point and a theological claim about honoring civic and faith responsibilities. The coin which was used to pay the census tax bore the image of the emperor. It would have said, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The emperor considered himself god, an authority to be worshipped, as well as the head of all households in Rome. The first century was an honor - shame society. If the ultimate head of the household was not honored, then shame would be the price and it would cost you greatly.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. The only thing that belonged to the emperor was the coin that bore his image. Jesus says, so render it back to him. This was the only thing due to him.

Give to God the things that are God’s. Is there anything that does not belong to God our Creator? A few Scriptures come to my mind: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). “O Lord God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but we acknowledge your name alone” (Isaiah 26:13). “There is no authority except by God” (Romans 13:1). We have no higher loyalty than to God alone, therefore the kingdom of God claims all of creation and all orders of human life.

And as I read Jesus’ answer over and over I cannot help but wonder who bears God’s image?

Jesus Christ was the first to bear God’s image. In the beginning Jesus was the Word and everything came into being by him and through him (John 1: 1-3; Colossians 1:15-16); and then Jesus was revealed to us in the thin skin of humanity. Jesus Christ rendered his life in complete obedience to God (Philippians 2: 6-8). Last week we learned that Jesus Christ took the humility and shame of the cross and he rose to new life to make us right with God. Jesus rendered his life to claim us in his worthiness and righteousness. It is a gift and nothing we can earn.

And yet God’s amazing gift of grace not only ushers in God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ but also God’s grace changes our lives so that you and I now bear God’s image. Therefore, when Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” our Savior is challenging the people of God – challenging you and me – to render our whole lives back to God alone.

I find this assigned Bible text of Matthew and Jesus’ answer to be so very timely. You and I have witnessed a lot of cultural shifts over the years. And we find ourselves living in a time where there are rising debates regarding what obedience should look like towards civic authority and the authority of faith. The debates across the board have gotten quite vitriol. All of the judging of civic and religious righteousness becomes a trap in itself that quickly steals our gratitude.

Brene Brown is a sociologist and has been a professor and researcher at the University of Houston for the past sixteen years. In her recent book, “Braving the Wilderness,” she says we are more sorted today into groups of like-minded political and faith beliefs. “Separating ourselves as much as possible from people whom think different from us has not delivered that deep sense of belonging that we are hard wired to crave…We don’t derive strength from our rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together.”[5]

As people of faith, we understand God’s Word as our guide to collectively work together in the kingdom of God.

It’s important to acknowledge that you and I have different families of origin and life experiences. These differing perspectives shape the ways we see the world and the ways we read and interpret God’s Word to guide our life and faith.

It’s also important to recognize that Scripture too has different views on how we are to live as citizens of the state and citizens of heaven.

The Rev. Dr. David Bartlett, a dear former seminary professor and an American Baptist pastor shared:

“As a whole, we have [the Old Testament prophets] Elijah and Jeremiah condemning authorities. In the book of Revelation John of Patmos claims that imperial power comes from Satan, not God. Paul may encourage obedience to rulers, but he would never encourage total allegiance to an emperor; [that would be idolatry].

Paul’s words in Romans also do not tell us what to do when we as citizens of a democracy can help make laws, not simply choose whether to obey them. Paul’s letter does not really raise the question of the proper response to tyranny. It does not tell us what Christians should do in the face of Nazi power, or in the face of legal segregation. Christians looking for an easy answer to the question of how to be good citizens will not find such easy answers in the Bible.”

As we follow Jesus’ instruction on giving to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor and to God the things that belong to God, we all have to make interpretive decisions on what obedience looks like and the implications. You know it’s true that if you get 10 Presbyterians in room you will hear at least 12 different perspectives on any given issue.

I trust you and I agree that our Christian responsibility is not to judge another’s righteousness or obedience to civic law or the Law of Love; that is reserved for God alone. Rather our Christian responsibility is to live faithfully in such a way that we might render our whole lives to God.

That kind of faithfulness means we allow the kingdom of God to reign in all aspects of our lives. The Law of Love reigns supreme and moves us to resist our individualistic nature to segment our lives into the compartments of family, work, faith, and politics.

The Law of Love urges us to never sever the ties that bind us for the sake of being right.

What is at stake is that you and I bear God’s image as the body of Christ. To bear God’s image is to come alongside others as Christ did to find common ground, to strive for the common good in all things, and to practice God’s Rule of unconditional love. We are to render our lives to God for Jesus Christ did nothing less than that.

Righteousness is a gift and a response to God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. Righteousness at its core is about right relationships between God and one another. It is a gift because Jesus Christ has made us right with God. It is a response for we are to work towards making right relationships.

God is reconciling the messy brokenness and divisions of the world in right relationships through the humility of Jesus Christ and the guidance of Holy Spirit. And our amazing God invites each of us to be a part of God’s kingdom vision using our differing gifts and interpretations.

And that is something to be grateful for.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7 Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 311.
[2] Reza Aslan, “Zealot,” (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 76.
[3] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7 Matthew, p. 311.
[4] Daniel Harrington, “Sacra Pagina: Matthew” (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 311
[5] Brene Brown, “Braving the Wilderness” (New York: Random House, 2017). P. 46-53.
[6] David Bartlett, “Romans” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 116-117.