Monday, January 30, 2017

Sermon: Walking the Walk

Walking the Walk
Psalm 15; Micah 6: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.
- Psalm 15

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’

‘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: 1-8

He was known as “The Man in Black.” Johnny Cash was a man of solidarity. He was not a perfect man but his faith shaped his concern for the least and lost. The reason he wore black still speaks volumes today in his timeless song:

I wear black for the poor and beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime / But is there because he is a victim of the times.
I wear black for those who never read or listened to the words that Jesus said / About the road to happiness through love and charity.
Why you’d think he’s talking straight to you and me…
Well there’s things that never will be right I know / And things need changin’ everywhere you go.
But till we start to make a move to make a few things right / You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

For Cash, wearing black was an ethical decision to remember God’s character of compassion as he walked the line of faith in the real world.

The prophet Micah was also a man who had the gift of poetic words. He was raised in a rural village of Judah which gave him a heart for those who needed a hand up. Micah was actually a street preacher who had a great passion to live in solidarity with the poor and beaten down. He was quick to lift up his voice in the market place and in the town square to speak into the daily oppressions of God’s people.

Micah talked about walking the line of faith. That line was between a faith that one talked about possessing compared to a faith that lived in response to God’s grace. You see, God’s grace had delivered Israel from the oppressive grips of Egypt through Moses. And then God delivered Israel again from the disgrace of Egyptian enslavement through Joshua as they left Shittim to Gilgal.

God’s people were called to remember God’s saving grace by seeking right relationships with God and one another. The people were called to live in response to God’s character by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Essentially Micah was urging the people to work with God to “restore the community with communal good.” This would allow them to work with God to bring justice to those oppressed by the sociological, economic, and political systems.[1] Micah was urging the people to love God and neighbor through the sacrificial love of serving others. This is what "kindness" means in Hebrew. Micah was urging the people to remember that their covenant relationship with God gave them all they needed to be loyal disciples.

“God desires a faith that is more than empty words. God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community, a loyal love that [reflects] the kind of loyal love that God has shown [throughout Scripture], and a careful walking in one’s ethical life.”[2]

It is not enough to talk the talk of faith. We must walk the walk too.

My clergy colleague from seminary serves a church in Roanoke, VA. He recently shared a story about the way a young adult parishioner, named Jordan, heard God’s call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Jordan begins saying: I want to tell you how God is using my life.

Most Saturdays since September, I have been riding back and forth to Charlotte with my new friend Jen. Now that is 6.5 to 7 hours in the car. So we are pretty tight now.

Within the first month of getting to know her, she told me about this idea she had, after hearing about a similar program in Northern Virginia. Jen’s idea was to start a program in Roanoke, VA with the goal of rejuvenating the West End area and crossing socioeconomic barriers. Women who had recently been released from incarceration could apply to this program where they would be given a mentor, learn job and life training skills, and earn a certificate called ServSafe at the end of the program. This certificate would give them a leg up in interviews for jobs in the service industry.

Jens vision is ecumenical too. Volunteers would come from all different communities of faith in the Roanoke Region uniting churches and other faith based organizations. Jen plans to name the program House of Bread, which Jen didn't know it initially, but “House of Bread” is what Bethlehem means in Hebrew. The product that would be made in the training would be bread because of both the metaphorical and literal roles that bread plays throughout the Bible. House of Bread would be feeding people literally and spiritually. The loaves would be sold to raise awareness and the proceeds would roll back into the program.

Jen had most of the logistic details worked out. But she could not find the leadership needed for the program. Jen knew it was not meant for her to lead it alone. She felt she had hit a wall. I asked her if she felt like God was telling her to give it up. She said, no, she had a strong sense that God was telling her to wait.

I told Jen, “That's funny. My pastor, Andrew, is always talking about how our church is being called to cross over to parts of Roanoke which might make our church uncomfortable. He specifically talks about the West End area. He'd probably like your idea. Anyway, good luck!”

And that was that. I mean, it did not occur to me to become involved. I had a lot going on and baking is NOT my thing.

A couple weeks later I was at the bible study that a friend somehow convinced me to lead. As I talked with another friend we agreed how feelings of restlessness are often part of a discernment process. She talked about the stuff she is really good at, which is most things, versus what she actually feels fulfilled doing. At one point, she made a throw away comment about being really really good at bread baking and buying groceries on a shoestring budget.

And I thought...Nothing of it.

A week later in Bible Study, another friend, Kristin, mentioned she was being promoted to a supervisory role at work and that as part of it she was undergoing this ServSafe managerial training.

And then I went home and thought, "Oh no."

I clearly saw what I was supposed to do. Because I had never ever ever heard the term “ServSafe” before, and I had now heard it twice, in a short span of time, from people that God had put me purposefully together with.

Ugh!! I don't like this part of serving God; the ‘being called to do’ stuff. I mean it is not convenient. And it is hard, really hard. God’s calling pushes me out of my comfort zone, God makes me do things I don't actually like, and God has me do things I am not good at. And I like to be good what I do.

But God moved my heart past my selfishness. The next Saturday I said to Jen, "I think you need to come talk to my bible study group. There are some people there whom you need to meet. I think we might be able to help you get House of Bread off the ground".

House of Bread is a real ministry now and has applied for nonprofit status. We have an actual budget and a mission statement for heaven sakes! We are helping women begin anew through God’s grace one loaf at a time.

Jesus told his disciples, "YOU give them something to eat." We're trying, Lord. I know we will do it imperfectly and we will sometimes fail, but we are trying.

As your pastor, I want nothing more than for God’s character to lead each of us to walk the walk of faith. And at the very center of God’s character is the ministry of compassion.

That word, compassion, means to suffer with. We see God’s loyal and steadfast compassion in Jesus Christ as walked alongside children, neighbors in need, the sick, the marginalized, the prisoner, and he welcomed the stranger. Christ calls us to ministries of compassion that bring God’s restoration, justice, and reconciliation.

We walk the walk of faith as we prepare hygiene kits for our homeless neighbors this afternoon. Our work honors their dignity with gifts of God's hospitality to be renewed with hot showers and clean laundry.

We walk the walk of faith by advocating for justice in the town square like Micah did - by calling our representatives with concerns for the well-being of our children, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.

And we walk the walk of faith as we listen deeply to hear where God’s Spirit of compassion is leading us to serve others with faithful and ethical integrity.

My heart aches for each of us – as individuals but also as a church - to have that defining moment where we clearly sense God’s Spirit showing us where we are to walk next in our ministry.

May we do nothing less than clothe ourselves with God's character. In doing so, the Spirit will open the eyes of our hearts to see the justice, the kindness, and the humble walk that God alone desires.

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Pastoral Perspective by Andrew Foster Conners, p. 292.
[2] Feasting on the Word, p. 292.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sermon: Words of the Teacher

"Words of the Teacher"
Isaiah 50: 4-9; Matthew 4: 18-23
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2017

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
- Isaiah 50: 4-9

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.

And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
- Matthew 4: 18-23

The words of a teacher have a way of shaping us.
Do you remember that one teacher in your life – that coach, or mentor - who saw something special in you? Their words of encouragement empower us to rise to the occasion and soar above our challenges to accomplish amazing things.

God is the greatest Teacher in the life of faith. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God saw something special in the Servant. The Servant had a unique openness to being taught by the Lord God. Those words Isaiah uses to speak of God – Adonai Yahweh (Lord God or Sovereign God) – actually describe the intimate spiritual relationship between God and the Servant.

The Servant was constantly instructed by God for Isaiah states two times that it is God who helps the Servant (Isaiah 50:7, 9). His compassionate and sacrificial love was shaped by learning how to sustain the weary with a word. In Scripture God draws near to the weary because God desires to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless (Isaiah 40:29). Therefore the Servant was called to humility in order to rise up and bring about God’s reconciliation for God’s people.

As the Servant took on flesh and lived among us as Jesus Christ, he walked by the Sea of Galilee. He began his ministry by seeking out his disciples. Jesus looks for the ones who have that unique openness to come and follow him. Jesus sees God’s possibilities in this rag tag bunch of followers. The disciples were ordinary people like you and me. I am always struck by Matthew's way of describing their sense of urgency to respond to Christ’s call to follow. They dropped everything without question and without exactly knowing where Christ would take them.

To follow a Rabbi (or Teacher) meant spending every moment walking in the Rabbi’s ways. The existing knowledge and skill a disciple had would be further honed and shaped by the Rabbi’s vision. That takes a unique openness to being constantly instructed by the Teacher. Doesn’t that sound like the relationship the Servant had with God in Isaiah?

Jesus would, therefore, hone his disciples’ unique skills according to God’s vision and God’s Way. This vision the disciples would follow was being paved with Jesus’ faithful obedience to God through his teachings, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing the brokenness of humanity.

The disciples see the big picture of Jesus’ teachings, proclamations, and healings in the story that comes right after our text today, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We will actually begin a sermon series on The Sermon on the Mount in February – so stay tuned.

But Jesus instructs how we are to live in the abundance of God’s kingdom. We are to love God and love neighbor as we work for God’s justice and reconciliation. This faithful love is a sacrificial love. God's Servant draws near to weary to hear their stories therefore knowing how to sustain them with God's Word. Gods' Servant in Jesus Christ models this for us as Christ drew near to the marginalized and ultimately models this sacrificial love through the cross and empty tomb. Jesus’ teachings invite us to actively work with Christ – our Teacher – to bring about God’s reconciliation in our homes, in our community, and in the world.

This past week we have observed two historical events that are filled with the pressing need of reconciliation.

Monday we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., an amazing preacher and a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. We pause to remember the lessons history has taught us about how far we have come in embracing human diversity and honoring the image of God in one another. We also pause to confess that the moral arc of the universe is long, as King said, and we must press on and work together as this arc bends towards God’s justice.

Friday our forty-fifth President was inaugurated into office. Inauguration Day is always a historic day. It always begins with a special worship and prayer service. It moves to ceremonies of the change in leadership. Oaths are taken; speeches are made; parades are celebrated.

While many are hopeful in a different Presidential vision for the next four years, there are just as many who are fearful. That fear stems from concerns of justice hanging in the balance for the poor, the marginalized, and those with no voice.

And yet no matter where we stand, the uncertainty that the future holds has brought a lot of questions and division in our country, in friendships, within families, and even among marriages. We cannot deny there is a great need for reconciliation among us, around us, and within us.

And this past week an encouraging word from Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to claim my heart and mind. King looked to the humble teachings of Jesus Christ as a primary model for engaging the world. King said we are to “be the first in loving, be the first in moral excellence, and be the first in generosity” in order for us to achieve greatness.[1]

The humble faithfulness of Jesus Christ teaches you and me how to be God’s servant. It is God alone who helps us, who strengthens us, who sustains us, and who works through us in order to bring about the greatness of God’s kingdom.

And King went on to say, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And we can be that servant" [if we are open to Jesus’ teachings].[2]

Jesus Christ says “Everyone who hears my teachings and acts on then will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock; The Holy Spirit will teach you everything that I have said to you” (Matthew 7:24; John 14:26). Christ’s teachings are foundational for shaping us to serve as the body of Christ.

God has chosen us in Jesus Christ to bear the weight of grace for "the church has been entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation. Christ has called the church to this mission and given us the gift of the Holy Spirit" to do so.[3]

To be chosen means to be a beloved child of God. Being a beloved child of God means that God sees something special within us which God will shape to bring about God’s purposes. God's purposes point us to the important work which Christ began as God's Servant so long ago.

A dear ministry colleague told me last week that a teacher once imparted a real gem of wisdom that daily saves her from moments of pride and discouragement: “Christ calls us to obedience, the results are his.”

May we go out today seeking the one thing that God treasures above all else. God treasured this in the Servant. God treasured this in the disciples. And God desires for you and me to have this too.

This one thing God treasures above all else is to strive daily to have a teachable spirit. A teachable spirit empowers us to worship, study, fellowship, serve, and reconcile with Christ's humility, love, and mutual forbearance.

If we are open to having a teachable spirit then God will surely accomplish more through us than we can ever hope, ask or imagine.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1]Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct," February 4, 1968.
[2] King, "The Drum Major Instinct."
[3] Part I of the PC(USA) Constitution, The Book of Confessions, "The Confession of 1967," 9.31

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sermon: Second Guesses and Doubts

Second Guesses and Doubts
Isaiah 49: 1-7; John 1: 29-42
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 15, 2017

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’

But I said, ‘I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.’

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
- Isaiah 49: 1-7

The next day John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’

He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
- John 1: 29-42

No matter how young or how old we are - uncertainty is a fact of life that always has some effect on us. It usually leaves us questioning things, therefore planting seeds of doubt. I always love when the facts of life come through the eyes of a child. They have a way of transcending our life situations with a light heart and a good laugh.

During snack time, a kindergartner asked the teacher this question: Why are some raisins yellow while others are black? The teacher didn’t know the answer off the cuff, so she walked down the hall and asked her friend if she knew; the friend was a first-grade teacher. “Yellow raisins are made from green grapes, and black raisins are made from red grapes,” her friend explained.

The teacher reported her findings back to her classroom. And you can probably guess that one of her students had something to say about that. One little boy suggested, “Maybe that’s why she teaches first grade, because she’s just a little bit smarter than you.”[1]

Today we are looking into Isaiah’s second Servant Song. Even before the Servant was a witty child – like that kindergartner - having a mouth sharp as a sword – he was chosen by God for the sole purpose of glorifying God. And in doing so, Israel would be drawn back to God.

And yet Isaiah gives us a priceless dimension of the Servant. We are allowed into the Servant’s internal dialogue. The Servant says: I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity (Isaiah 49:4).

Did you hear that? The Servant allows himself to be vulnerable and honest with himself and also with God. The Servant second guesses and doubts his ability to fulfill his God given purpose and mission in life (Working Preacher). His words capture the deep recesses of the human heart when we wrestle with our perceived limitations, inadequacies, and weaknesses. We question ourselves when we are faced with great change, or added stress, or when we sense the expectation of working at a higher performance level.

I sense that John the Baptist had some second guesses related to performance anxiety. John the Baptist grew up with the prophetic calling of preparing God’s people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1: 13-17). John’s father, Zechariah, was in complete disbelief with this news, saying, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18). I can imagine John’s childhood was filled with stories of his prophetic calling and Zechariah hoping it would all work out as God said.

Always pay attention to repeated words of Scripture. According to John’s Gospel, the Baptizer is quoted two times saying, “I myself did not know him” (John 1: 31, 33). He kept baptizing for the reason of pointing to the Messiah but he did not know exactly who he was looking for. I wonder if John the Baptist questioned his ability to bring about God’s purposes like the Servant did in Isaiah?

The disciples certainly wrestled with their questions and doubts. Nathaniel second-guessed Jesus’ credentials, “Can anything good, much less a Messiah, come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Simon was the third disciple Jesus met and called. He was chosen and claimed with the new name of Peter which means Rock, for Christ would build his church, the body of Christ, through Peter (Matthew 16:18). And yet Peter allowed fear and uncertainty to second guess his calling from Christ. The cock crowed as Peter denied being Jesus’ disciple three times and Peter wrestled with that (John 13:38; 18:17; 18:25-27; 21: 15-19).

Second guesses and doubts are familiar to you and me because they are part of the human story in Scripture. They are a part of our stories. And sometimes it seems that second guesses and doubts get the best of us.

We second guess our effectiveness when our work does not bear fruit.
We doubt our qualifications when God points us in a new direction.
We doubt our uniqueness when we compare ourselves to others.
We second guess our parenting when life gets hard and we are just trying to survive.
We doubt that healing will truly come based on the logic of the situation at hand.
We second guess God’s timing to close the gaps with that opportunity we are praying for.

And yet no matter what direction our questions take us, God is on the move to speak into our internal dialogue.

God spoke to the Servant calling him to remember that above all else God’s steadfast love would equip him for God’s purposes.

God spoke to John the Baptist calling him to keep preparing the people for the Lamb of God; God would open John’s eyes to see God’s timing.

God spoke to the disciples calling them to come and see what God is doing through Jesus Christ.

And God speaks to you and to me calling us to focus on God’s actions over and above our abilities, limitations, and weaknesses.

God’s Word reveals that it is not by our own efficacy to succeed; it is not by our own actions that bring change; it is not by our own merit that we are delivered.

What a reassuring word that God alone is the One who qualifies our calling; God alone is the One who changes the course of history; God alone is the One who saves us from our doubts and despair.

We are to lean into a deeper trust of relying on the source of God’s grace, strength, and transformation. And that source is none other than God’s Servant and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brian found himself in a spiritual season of second guesses and doubts. He began questioning his life and faith. So Brian called a mentoring friend as he scrambled to hold on.

"My faith in God has been like a walk on the beach. I’ve taken off my shoes, and as I stand at the water’s edge, the tide rolls across my feet. It feels wonderful. Up to this point, my spiritual journey has been incredible but in the last six months doubt has begun to paralyze me.

It’s like when the water goes back out to the ocean. It is washing away the sand beneath me and my feet keep sinking lower and lower and lower. If this keeps up there won’t be anything left to stand on."

Without hesitation the mentor replied:

"Brian, I have stood where you are standing. I’ve felt the water cascading across my feet. And it is wonderful as you say. But I’ve also had the water go back out to sea and I have felt the sand getting washed out from my feet. But listen to me when I say this. When it feels like the last grain of sand is finally gone, you’re going to discover that you are standing on a rock."[2]

No matter what you may be second guessing – no matter what you may be doubting today – I want you to consider this.

There are two things in life that guide us during the times when we are the most vulnerable. Fear or trust.

Fear will tempt us to believe that our life situations hold us captive. Fear will paralyze us with our second guesses and doubts. It is like we are sinking down into a pit and everything is closing in on us. Fear makes it seem there is no escape, there is no way out.

But trust is different. Trust will guide us to a broad place where we gain a new perspective by naming our fears. Trust allows us to explore and discover the source of our strength. The source is not in our ability to rise above our vulnerabilities. The source of our strength is God in Jesus Christ – our rock and our refuge, our strong tower and deliverer.

When Christ’s strength works through our vulnerability then our questions and doubts become spiritual spaces for us to grow through the changes, the challenges, and the trials of life. Our second guesses and doubts are not the problem - it is what guides them. If God is for us and with us in Jesus Christ then what can be against us (Romans 8:31)?

Trust becomes a spiritual map that encourages us to press on even when we do not see God’s plans. As the Spirit moves us to trust God’s guidance then that broad space will open to God’s possibilities. God’s timing will allow us to see past the crest of our insecurities. We will see God connecting pieces of our lives to reveal God’s plans for the well-being of ourselves and others secured by a future with hope.

When we trust that we can do all things through the One who strengthens us - it will bring glory to God.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] “Those Kids Said What? Twenty-Eight Hilarious Real-Life Teachers’ Stories,” by Readers’ Digest Editors
[2] Brian Jones, “Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can’t See His Plan” (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2006), p. 15.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Prayer: Be Still and Know

"Be Still and Know"

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am your refuge and strength.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I help you in troubled times.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that you have no reason to fear because I am with you.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words
when you cannot pray.
Be still and know.

Be still and know that I am for you so who or what can truly be against you?
Be still and know.

Be still and know that even as My Word perplexes you, nothing is impossible for Me.
Be still and know.

Be still in My Word.
Be still and let it be.

Be still.

CMO 1/9/17 (Psalm 46: 1-3, 10; Romans 8: 26-28, 31; Luke 1:29, 37-38)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: Finding Our New Thing

"Finding Our New Thing"
Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 13-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2017

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
- Isaiah 42: 1-9

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ - Matthew 3: 13-17

It was another new beginning. The gospel stories really capture the adage that life passes in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, that sweet little Jesus boy is all grown up and ready to embark upon the next leg of God’s adventure in faith.

As Jesus stood in the Jordan River with John the Baptist, the waters of baptism flowed over God’s Beloved Servant. The waters of new life and God’s Holy Spirit anointed Jesus for the beginnings of his ministry. It is here that Jesus Christ is claimed to bring about the holy work in which the prophet Isaiah spoke of. In this moment, Jesus knew (with his heart and mind) his purposes to bring about God’s new things with Isaiah’s vision of mercy and justice.

Christ was called in God’s righteousness to restore the brokenness of humanity and creation. The work of “Jesus’ ministry takes great care with the bruised reed.”[1] He lives in solidarity with the weary ones in order to shine his light in the darkness. For those whose hearts are but a dimly burning wick, Jesus serves with great compassion to rekindle and strengthen the flame of faith. Jesus walks through the streets seeking to break the chains that bind individuals and communities so that they may experience the freedom found in God’s merciful love.

Standing in the Jordan River, Jesus is affirmed that as God’s Beloved Servant he would not fail in his mission because the One who calls and sustains him is the Creator and Sustainer of the world.

There is something so incredibly powerful that is revealed to us through God’s Word today. That truth is this: in order for us to know our greater purpose in life we must first come to know that we are God’s beloved. It was certainly true for Jesus.

The miracle of Jesus’ birth underscores the divine affirmation that we are made in God’s image. We too are considered God’s beloved for God loves us unconditionally. As a result, we are called to live in a particular response to our identity as a child of God. “Jesus’ whole life was a passionate response to God’s call for this new way of living.”[2] Therefore we are to live for the purpose of caring and cultivating and even advocating for that image of God in one another. This was incredibly important for Isaiah and for the sake of the gospel.

It is through our baptisms that we share this common calling in Jesus Christ to serve God and one another. This calling claims us as individuals, but it also claims us as a community of faith.

As we begin this New Year and remember how Jesus’ ministry began, we too have received the gift of a new beginning. We trust God will once again be doing a new thing within us, among us, and through us. But how do we tap into that? How do we come to find our purposes in life that intersects God’s will?

The first day of this New Year I was completely captivated by the Scripture my devotional book began with. This verse will not leave me. It is finding a way into my heart and mind every day, like a life verse for this year. I share it with you because Scripture informs Scripture. The verse is from Jeremiah 29:11:

For 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.

We all have questions about the future of our lives - what this year holds for our own well-being, for our families, for our community, and beyond. Fear, uncertainty, and change surround us. And that makes looking into the future scary.

The beauty of God’s words in Jeremiah (and also in Isaiah and Matthew) is that they surround us in an intimate relationship that gives each of us value. Remember God’s love conquers our fears. God promises to uphold us because God has chosen us. God delights in you and in me because we are loved just as we are.

God’s steadfast love moves us to trust God’s plans of a future with hope that will bring light into the darkness; healing where there is pain; comfort where there is grief and loss; peace where there is turmoil; reassurance where there is anxiety; calm where there is chaos.

As we pray for God’s plans for our well-being to come about, then we find renewed strength from God mending our hearts a little more – stitch by stitch and day by day. But we must remember that God’s plans for a future with hope are not for our sole benefit.

The hope is that God’s radical and steadfast love would touch our lives in such a way that we are moved to love and serve others. God’s hope is that you and I are shaped as instruments of grace to help others find their new beginnings.

As a young adult David had to find his own way in life. He had no father figure and his mother struggled with addiction. In his youth David had a great love for sports. When David realized that he was drawn to helping other youth who experienced broken homes he took a leap of faith. David got involved in a sports ministry with youth.

Jamie was the youth director where David plugged in. Jamie took David under his mentoring wing. Soon David began to help coach the youth basketball team. His eyes lit up when he was with those kids. And in turn the youth really looked up to David. On the court they all learned how to work together.

But something amazing happened when they were off the court. The youth began sharing their stories with David and Jamie; stories of the difficulties they had at home. It was sacred space for David as he began to feel like he was a part of something greater in his budding faith. And before every youth gathering ended, Jamie and David would read a devotional with the youth and pray for them. They also helped the youth to focus on their education and opportunities to have a better future.

Years later David met with Jamie. David now has a solid job and is married with two children. David shared a card he had received from a youth he had coached. David was surprised at how the youth thanked David for helping him.

David said, “Jamie, I should be thanking those youth. They helped me to see that I could do something positive with my life; I became a better person. It’s where my faith began to grow. Those youth gave me such purpose in my life. And your mentoring, Jamie, well, it has made me a better father too.”

Consider God’s purposes in your life. What is that new thing that God desires to bring about through your particular gifts that intersect the world’s needs? As our life situations change, God opens new opportunities to put our faith into meaningful action.

These are some helpful questions to be in prayer about:

1. Listen to your life. What past experiences have given you a sense of purpose and meaning?
2. Think about the talents or gifts God is honing within you which help others: a few are gifts of wisdom, discernment, mercy, empathy, sharing faith, missional service, and caring for others to foster healing.
3. What would you like to learn to discover yourself more fully?
3. As you look at the community and world around you, what situations is God’s Spirit breaking your heart over? What is God opening your eyes to see that breaks God’s heart?
4. What segment of the population are you drawn to help?
5. What do you hope to experience through God’s purposes in your life? [3]

As we think about God’s purposes in our lives and in the life of this church community, let us remember the truth that God has called us a beloved child of God; it matters. Each of us is valued and embraced by the intimacy of God; we see this truth in Emmanuel for God is with us. God delights in us. God calls us to jump into a new adventure of faith with Jesus. And whenever we feel inadequate God is our ever-present help and champions us on.

It is for that very reason that we must do nothing less than care, cultivate, and advocate for the image of God in one another. Let’s go and find our new thing that God desires to do in us so that others may experience a new beginning.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume IV (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 222 Pastoral Perspective by Stephanie Paulsell.
[2] Feasting on the Word, p. 222.
[3] Adapted from Julia Mateer,Christianity Today, "Finding Your God-Given Calling," February 7, 2013.