Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon: Keep Climbing!

"Keep Climbing!"
Genesis 28: 10-22a; Romans 8: 26-39
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2017

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’
- Genesis 28: 10-22a

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8: 26-39

Jacob was a man whose mind and body stayed in motion looking for the next opportunity. Last week we learned he deceived his father Isaac and stole his brother Esau’s birthright. The whole fiasco resulted in great hardship that weighed heavily upon Jacob’s family and upon his own shoulders.

Jacob followed his mother Rebekah’s instructions to leave their home until Esau’s fury had turned. He was now on the move towards Haran to stay with his uncle’s family. Jacob began to put some distance between himself and the family chaos behind him. He was all alone. He came to a certain place, rested his head on a rock, and settled in for the night.

As Jacob’s story continues to unfold, it reveals something important about God’s character. God chooses to work through unexpected people and unlikely situations to bring about God’s purposes.

As Jacob slept, God seized the opportunity to grab Jacob’s attention with a dream. Jacob was mesmerized by the stairway to heaven. It kept Jacob’s mind focused to listen to God’s plans for his life. God stood beside Jacob and claimed Jacob had a purpose in God’s plans.

God claimed Jacob with the same promise which began with his grandfather Abraham: land, countless offspring, and every generation going forward would be blessed by God through Jacob.

But then God said something amazing. God said, “I will keep you, I will bring you back, I will not leave you until I have accomplished my purposes in you” (Genesis 28:15).

God was saying that from now on, Jacob did not need to climb upon the backs of others to grab the next opportunity. Jacob was not to solely live for himself. From now on God had Jacob’s back. Jacob only needed to climb God’s steady and faithful support to overcome any obstacle, conflict, or hardship o reach God’s promises.

Jacob was completely surprised by God in the dream. More importantly he was moved to respond by the encounter. Jacob said, “If God will be with me and will provide so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). Jacob even went as far as marking his God sighting. He anointed the stone from that very place in order to tell his story to others. Jacob’s story would be one of the many ways future generations would be blessed through him.

Jacob’s words echo another man’s response to God; the Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about God working through hardship and conflict. Half of the New Testament is filled with Paul’s writings about hardship from personal experiences and from his church flocks. “If God is for us, who is against us? We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8: 31, 28).

Cherie and Larry Steele are like family for many here and within the Van Wyck community. They have endured many ups and downs in life just like every family. Their daughter Shannon was recently asked to share her story. You see a childhood friend was inspired by Shannon’s story of enduring hardship. Her life was also impacted and changed by it.

At eight years of age, Shannon had a horseback riding accident that resulted in an ER visit. Testing and follow-up doctor appointments revealed something the family never expected. Shannon had a tumor on her spine and she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the nervous system (stage 4).

Months turned into years as Shannon endured treatments from that young age and on into high school. The hardest part of Shannon’s journey was trying to reconcile feeling different than other kids her age. Cancer was isolating and it brought about an inner conflict that deceived Shannon to feel that she would never be enough; it stole Shannon’s self-worth.

But Shannon kept going. The love and support of her family kept her going. Her parents, Larry and Cherie, felt God’s love and provision and that kind of faith support kept their family going.

Throughout her health struggles Shannon kept climbing into the saddle to horseback ride. The family’s horse farm was like a sanctuary for her. As Shannon shared her story with me, this is the place where I see God seized the opportunity to do something amazing in her life to bring about God’s purposes.

Shannon’s horses were a tremendous source of healing. She went on to travel and ride competitively as an accomplished rider. Shannon also said, “There’s nothing more empowering for a young girl who feels less than or not enough to [sit in the saddle] and control a 1,000 pound animal. When you get down you feel like you can handle the world.”

Shannon is now in her forties. She no longer rides competitively but she trains young riders and she loves empowering her clients to discover new found strengths, talents, and self- confidence.

Shannon looks back on her life and sees there has been a greater purpose. Her experiences and struggles have shaped her to become more patient with herself and more compassionate towards others who endure hardships in life. She sees God has put certain people in her life so that she can encourage them even as God has worked through many to encouraged her.

Shannon also shared that faith has been a foundation in the face of fear. After years of silence, today Shannon lifts her voice to tell others what her personal story has taught her:

“Do not let fear be the narrator of your life story. Don’t let your struggles tell you that you are not enough. When you share your story do not apologize for who you are. The point of life is to live so if you are doing anything less than that, you are wasting time and I don't want to waste anymore time.”

Consider the place where you are standing in your life today. Our struggles can easily leave us feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. The twists and turns of life are unpredictable and we might not know how or when to take the next right step towards a place of certainty, a place of healing, a place of reconciliation and peace.

God’s greatest desire is to free us of our fears and insecurities so that we will trust that God has our back. As we grow in our trust of God, faith helps us to focus on God just as the stairway to heaven helped Jacob focus on God. Faith helps us to see hardships, distress, and conflict in a new way.

These hard places in life are not an end but become an opportunity to see God’s power at work. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and empowers us to keep climbing in the support of God’s strength. God says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye on you” (Psalm 32:8).

Don’t let life’s struggles deceive you to feel less than others. The truth is that our struggles are stepping stones to see God how big our God is. Every step we take is in God’s faithfulness.

When we take steps to overcome our struggles, our strength comes from Christ. We have the hope to overcome because Christ has overcome for us on the cross. This gift of faith says that we are more than conquerors. We are more than our struggles because nothing in all the world can compare to knowing the love of God in Jesus Christ.

We are embraced by a love that will never let us go. We are loved by an amazing Savior who will always be beside us. God’s Spirit will use our broken pieces and our stories to peace you and me and the world back together as the Spirit intercedes for us. God will never leave us until God has done what God has promised.

The stories of Jacob, Paul, and Shannon tell us to keep climbing.

Keep climbing because God has our back.
Keep climbing because if God is for us who can be against us?
Keep climbing because there is no experience that God cannot use to reveal his greater purposes, power, and glory.
That is the kind of support worth clinging to.

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

* artwork entitled, "Jacob's Ladder," by He Qi

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sermon: Hate - An Unlikely Teacher

Hate: An Unlikely Teacher
Genesis 27: 41-45; Matthew 5:43-48
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2017

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’

But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, ‘Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him for a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?’
- Genesis 27: 41-45

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- Matthew 5: 43-48

The truth was sinking in. Isaac trembled violently as he told his oldest son Esau the news. The instructions Isaac gave to Esau to hunt game and prepare the ritual blessing meal were intercepted by Jacob. Therefore, Jacob disguised himself as Esau, presented Isaac with the ritual meal, and received his father’s blessing (Genesis 27: 5-33).

When Esau heard his father’s words he cried out, “Bless me also father!” Isaac reluctantly replied, “Your brother came deceitfully and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightfully named Jacob? For he has supplanted me (grabbed the heels of opportunity) these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing. Have you not reserved a blessing for me?...And Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Genesis 27:34-36, 38).

When Esau left his father’s bedside, all he saw was red. Esau’s anger towards Jacob burned like a forest fire out of control. The flames of his anger now raged into hate. And the only way he sought to console himself was through vengeance. Esau planned to kill his brother Jacob.

Esau’s hatred towards Jacob reminds me of another brother’s hatred in the book of Genesis – Cain (Genesis 4: 1-10). Cain was the older brother and a tiller of the ground. Abel was the younger brother and a shepherd of sheep. The brothers each brought an offering to God. And for reasons we do not know, God favored Abel’s offering.

As a result, Cain was filled with anger. And God asked Cain, “Why are you so angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:6). But then God spoke into Cain’s anger, “If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it (Genesis 4:7).

God knows that hate is an unlikely teacher. While anger is a natural human emotion, it has a way of lurking in the shadows of our hearts. Anger that grows into cherished animosity will turn into a tempting beast we call hate.

It seduces us to think we are not our brother’s keeper. It erodes our relationships and becomes a cancer that spreads. Hate is destructive to the wider world and yet corrupts the heart that holds it. God’s words to Cain reveal a powerful truth: as children of God we have a spiritual, moral, and ethical responsibility to disarm hate.

God does not speak directly into Esau’s hate. But God does work through Rebekah. She felt the division between Esau and Jacob heating up like a ring of fire. It is Rebekah’s empathetic love that sets a new path forward for both brothers. She could not bear to lose her two sons to hate, for if Jacob were killed then Esau would be executed for murder.

As Rebekah sends Jacob away and waits for Esau’s fury to turn, she has a great hope for her children to be set free from this bondage to decay. And freedom comes through God’s hope of peacing together all that is broken and divided within our families, humanity and creation (Romans 8: 21-23).

Rebekah had a hope for this peace which she could not see. She would wait for it with patience; twenty years spanned between the day Jacob left home and the day Jacob would seek Esau’s forgiveness (Genesis 31:38). Rebekah shows us that the first step in disarming hate is love.

Gal Gadot plays the character of Diana Prince (Wonder Woman Trailer)...the Amazon Warrior Princess who left her homeland of Themyscira, a utopian island. She set her mind to end the second world war that divided the brothers and sisters of humanity. She saw first hand the ways that hate put one against another and nation against nation. As Wonder Woman, she entered the battlefield where there was no perceived hope, only darkness and depravity loomed.

Wonder Woman faced opposition and heard over and over that humanity did not deserve her, much less deserve being saved. Her response was nothing less than prophetic wisdom: “It's not about "deserve". It's about what you believe. And I believe in Love.”

From that point on Wonder Woman came to know hate as an unlikely teacher saying, “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring [complete] peace to mankind; but then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learnt that inside every one of them there will always be both [darkness and light]. The choice each must make for themselves — something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know... that only Love can truly save the world. So now I stay, I fight, and I give — for the world I know can be. This is my mission now - Forever.”

Faith convicts us to behold the power of love. It means we are to love our enemies because it is the Jesus way. Jesus chose to love those who had wronged him; to love those who had betrayed him; to love those who even lived in opposition to him; to love those who disagreed with him. Jesus even loved those who nailed him to the cross. And Jesus calls us to live into his way.

While Jesus Christ is our Rabbi and Teacher, hate can be a teacher too. And in today's world it scares me as a pastor and a mother. Hate can lure us to aim our actions, words, posts, and tweets through the cross hairs of uncontrolled anger to injure others. This is what we already see in the newspaper, on our social media feeds, and in our personal experiences.

Or hate can do something else – it can reflect the image of the person we do not want to be. Remember God called hate for what it is – a sin that is lurking at the door and we must master it. The anger we see in the world and even in ourselves can teach us how to be more compassionate. Love that is rooted in compassion works to stop hurt instead of perpetuating it – one act of faith at a time.

Our sweet Wilma (90 year old elder) rode with a neighbor and the neighbor’s adult daughter to the grocery store one day. As they were driving, the neighbor’s daughter got angry with her mother in car. The argument between the two quickly escalated and the daughter’s anger raged. Soon her words were sharp as daggers as she cussed at her mother. At first Wilma just sat in the back seat and closed her eyes. When the car stopped and the women got out of the car, sweet Wilma looked at the daughter and said, “Your mother has cared for you and she loves you and it hurts me so much to hear you speak to your mother and my friend that way.” Wilma went on to say, “I love you and care about you too but please speak words of respect and kindness to your mother.” Wilma’s compassion spoke into that space of hurt and hate and kept it from perpetuating that day.

Rev. Farouk Hammo is a native of Baghdad, Iraq and is a Presbyterian minister there. Our presbytery is in direct partnership with Farouk’s congregation as well as two other Presbyterian churches in Iraq (Iraq Partnership Network). I had the privilege to meet Farouk last week to learn about his ministry. Farouk lives in a dangerous and war-torn area. And yet when a car bomb explodes on the streets, Farouk and a group from the church have committed to go to the bombing sites and pray for the victims and the enemies. The enemy is not Islam; it is ISIS militants. As a result, the number of car bombings in their area have decreased. Farouk’s ministry of compassion is proclaiming the power of love into spaces of hate.

Love can be our mission in the ordinary spaces of life; at school and at work. Rachel Stafford teaches children how to redirect hurt and hate by the power of love: “We can support someone’s dream no matter how far-fetched it is. We can choose to accept someone instead of judging their appearance or difference. We can consider who we are excluding. We can choose not to dismiss someone’s feelings just because we deal with them differently. We can pledge to not call people bad names just because they have a different opinion.”

We are at another social impasse where it is critical to disarm the dangerous language of hate. We live in a society where the language of hate is becoming more and more normalized.

As people of faith, it is time to unite our voices with intention to speak the power of love into spaces of hate. The light must shine in the darkness. Let us pray for the Spirit to strengthen our conviction to follow the Jesus way so that you and I may be the change we want to see in the world.

The kingdom of God IS breaking in one act of faith at a time. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon: Struggling Together

Struggling Together
Genesis 25: 19-34; Romans 8: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other,the elder shall serve the younger.’

When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!’ (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
- Genesis 25: 19-34

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
- Romans 8: 1-11

You have heard it said before that the Bible is the greatest story ever told. It is not just a story of our spiritual ancestors. It is also our story – our shared human story. Today we hear an important piece of our shared story in Genesis. It shapes the way we see the world around us and even ourselves.

Isaac and Rebekah are chosen to plant seeds of the second generation of our big family tree of faith. Not only did Rebekah conceive to bear a son, she became pregnant with fraternal twins.

But then the story intensified. Rebekah’s joy was disrupted. The author of Genesis says “the children struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22). That word “struggled” in the Hebrew means to crush and to strike one another. Even in the womb these brothers were at odds with each other physically and emotionally.

Jacob and Esau were fighting and shoving and competing to be born first. In Old Testament culture, the first-born son got a double portion of the inheritance and a sense of authority in the household. But all of the fighting took a toll on their mother.

Rebekah was pained and discouraged. She was a strong woman who could endure a lot, but she could never have imagined this journey being so incredibly hard. I am struck with Rebekah’s boldness to speak to God with a raw honesty. She prayed, “If it is going to be this way, why do I live? (Genesis 25:22). It was a lament and a cry for God’s help.

God spoke into Rebekah’s space of disruption and tension. God said her sons, who were descendants of Abraham, represented two nations who shall be divided. The story of Jacob and Esau sets the biblical stage for the historic rivalry between the nations of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). And on this biblical stage an arc is drawn that bends towards God’s power to reconcile the greatest divide.

But the story of Jacob and Esau also set the stage for humanity; “this family conflict will have consequences on the future of God’s people.”[1] The consequences reside in the ways God’s people respond to human conflict that disrupts life.

The world teaches us that in times of conflict someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. The world teaches us that in times of conflict it is every man for himself so let go of relationships and walk away when there is no resolve. The world teaches us that in times of conflict there can be no peace in the midst of chaos.

And so often we respond to conflict in worldly ways to seek peace. It comes so naturally because it is our universal struggle with the human condition of sin.

This past week at Montreat the theme was “A Missing Peace.” We learned that the way the world defines peace is not biblical peace. Through the lens of faith peace is not the absence of conflict but rather a state of being to help us to live into the tension and the disruptions of life. Peace is rooted in our conviction that God’s love never fails and conquers all. The peace that God provides is present in the midst of our struggles, pains, and conflicts.

At Montreat we heard stories of God working through youth and adults to bear peace with acts of patience, kindness, and love. Through worship, small groups, and back home conversations we learned about God’s way to respond to conflict. We discovered faith creates a space in the midst of conflicts to find understanding and common ground.

Instead of seeing our sisters and brothers as the opposition in conflict, faith moves us to value our sisters and brothers as children of God. Then we are humbled to enter a different kind of struggle: to work and serve together with intentionality to find the missing peace in our broken pieces. It is when we struggle together in God’s holy work that the Spirit empowers us to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

I am grateful for the prophetic voices at Montreat week who were honest with our youth in claiming that being a Christian is hard work. This calling upon our lives to follow Jesus Christ is not always a journey of joy. It disrupts our lives and calls us to do hard things and to be challenged to carry God’s love and bear God’s peace into the world.

God chooses to work through us to piece the world back together through one act of faith at a time. The good news is that it is through the gaps and the cracks of our broken pieces that the light of Christ breaks in.

Some days we will feel discouraged and like Rebekah say, “Why does life have to be this way with all the pushing and shoving and competing against one another? How are we to truly live if the human story continues to be this way?”

It is worth being connected to our shared story of human struggle because God will never let go; God will never disconnect from us. The apostle Paul says, “God sent his own Son in the likeness of human flesh to deal with our human condition of sin” (Romans 8: 1-11). On the cross Jesus entered our human struggle to conquer sin and death and ultimately bring the hope of peace. Through the empty tomb Jesus brings the hope of new life and reconciliation.

God invites us to join Jesus Christ to be peacemakers. Being a peacemaker is to extend God’s peace which is missing in our homes, our community, and in the wider world. Our keynote speaker, Rev. Paul Roberts, encouraged us to follow the Jesus way in conflict. Roberts challenged us to risk placing ourselves in the disruptions and struggles together in hopes to bear God’s peace into the broken pieces of life.

If we respond to our struggles and disruptions with the world’s influence then conflict builds dividing walls. Any kind of division or disruption can make us feel estranged from God and one another. But Rev. Paul Roberts says if we “use our disruptions courageously” then they become opportunities to be changed by God’s amazing grace.

Roberts went on to say: “Leaving home becomes a new start; anxiety opens doors to empathy; illness paves a way towards courage; divorce weaves together blended families; grief walks us towards healing; death opens the womb to new life; natural disasters reveal a rainbow; discrimination is chipped away by acceptance; war lays down hostilities to lift up the hopes of rebuilding.” This is what God’s peace looks like as our Creator works through us to restore order out of chaos and peace us back together.

The joy we felt at Montreat was an incredible mountaintop experience in our faith formation. Today we are truly beginning to walk back down the mountain. And I have to be hnest: it is a matter of time for this amazing experience to feel disrupted as we re-enter daily life. The story of our broken pieces and the gaps where God’s peace is missing will begin to feel heavy again.

But remember this - the human story of struggling against one another is being rewritten. God promises to reconcile all of creation and humanity back to God. The finger of God is writing the Lord’s hope of peace upon our hearts and minds.

May we be led by the Spirit to find the gaps and broken pieces that are calling out for the hope of peace and new life. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you and me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume I: Genesis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 178.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon: Who Is In Your Path?

"Who Is in Your Path?"
Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 9, 2017

So [Abraham's chief servant] said [to Rebekah's household], ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, “You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.” I said to my master, “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” But he said to me, “The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful. You shall get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house.

‘I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

‘Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, “Please let me drink.” She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.” So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, “Whose daughter are you?” She said, “The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.” So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.’ And they called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
- Genesis 24: 34-40, 42-49, 58-67

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
- Song of Solomon 2: 8-13

He was focusing his eyes on the path ahead.
The chief steward had taken Abraham’s words to heart, “The Lord, before whom I walk, will send his angel with you and make your way successful” (Genesis 24:40).

With every step of his journey, the chief steward was praying for God to not only show him the way ahead, but to place in his path the woman God desired for Isaac. I can even hear the chief steward singing as he walked along, ‘Every move I make, I make in you – you are my way, Jesus!”

When God placed Rebekah in the chief steward’s presence at the well, the chief was quick to study the situation. He was paying attention to Rebekah’s interactions to discern if God’s hand was involved. The chief took notice of Rebekah’s gracefulness, her strength, and her decisiveness.

Rebekah was graceful to extend hospitality to the chief by giving him a drink of water (Genesis 24:18, 46). She was strong to draw water for ten camels and patient as she waited for them to be refreshed (Genesis 24:19-20, 46). And she was decisive in her own discernment to remain connected to Abraham’s lineage. Rebekah was the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. She was given the choice and made the decision to go with the chief steward to be Isaac’s wife (Genesis 24:58).

God’s hand was certainly at work in this encounter. God encouraged the faith of the chief steward. He was moved to put words around his experience to share with Rebekah’s family what God had done to answer the chief’s prayer. God was at work in Rebekah’s household for they recognized this situation could only come from God. And they responded by offering a blessing over Rebekah. God was at work in Rebekah’s life. God was calling her to be the matriarch of the next generation of Abraham’s promised lineage. And God continued to be at work in Abraham’s son Isaac. When Isaac met Rebekah he loved her and she comforted Isaac as he grieved his mother’s death.

When God’s hand touches the paths that we travel upon, God’s steadfast love creates a ripple effect in our lives. God places particular people in our paths not for our own prosperity, but to bring us together in the unity of God’s love. Jesus Christ joins our hands together one person at a time to see glimpses of God’s grace on this path of faith. The connections God makes through us ultimately serve to glorify God and bring about God’s purposes of changing the world.

One of our members shared with me this week that God places you and me in the paths of others to be God’s gift. God works through each of us to be an instrument of God’s grace. Our spouses are God’s gifts to each other. Our best friends are God’s gifts to one another. In the workplace God will intersect you and me with co-workers and colleagues to share our God-given talents to work for the common goal and the common good. In our daily interactions everyone who intersects our path is a gift of God in some way. God can even work through the most unlikely people and even that difficult personality to refine our faith in humbling ways.

The more we intentionally trust that God goes ahead of us on the path, the more we train our hearts and minds to read and discern our encounters through the lens of faith.

God chose to be revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And God still chooses to be revealed through our sisters and brothers on this journey. Through the eyes of another we see that the Lord does not give us a spirit of fear but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The path is where our eyes are lifted to see past the barren winter seasons of our hearts and to behold the promise of new life budding around us (Song of Solomon 2: 10-12). Our shared journeys empower the footing of our faith, for God is helping us to be strong and courageous knowing that the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go (Joshua 1:9).

This week our senior high youth will be going to Montreat Youth Conference. Savannah, Devon, and Ashley – you will encounter other youth from all across the country. Together we will worship in creative ways; learn through key note speakers; grow in faith and relationships in small groups; explore God’s beautiful creation; and serve in mission as the body of Christ.

Savannah, Devon, and Ashley - I want for you to pay attention to who God puts in your path. You just may encounter another youth in your small group or at a recreation event who will be a gift from God – someone who has a unique way of offering encouragement and understanding in this particular season of your life. They may even become a forever friend in faith.

And do not forget that God will work through YOU as an instrument of grace. God will intentionally place YOU in another youth’s path to be a faith support to them. What a humbling thought. Montreat is a very thin space that knits our faith formation in powerful ways.

We are all fellow sojourners of faith and we all need the gift of God’s grace to sustain us with every step we take. For God is leading us one step at a time into the coming kingdom!

As we leave God’s house today to step back out into this beautiful yet broken world, may we take the time for prayerful reflection to ask, “Lord, who are you putting in my path this week?”

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sermon: The God Who Provides

The God Who Provides
Genesis 22: 1-14; Hebrews 4: 14-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 2, 2017

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’

He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’

Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
- Genesis 22: 1-14

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. - Hebrews 4: 14-16

For certain, today’s story from Genesis is one of the most disturbing in Scripture. Whether you have read this story on numerous occasions or if you are hearing it for the first time, most modern readers have the same reaction: If God could test Abraham to sacrifice his son, then show me the door. I don’t want a God like that.

Rest assured of this. Old Testament Scripture abhors child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7: 30-34; Ezekiel 20:31). God does not call you or me to sacrifice our children. There is a word of truth and good news in this story!

God tested Abraham (Genesis 22:1). We read those words over and over again trying to make sense of this last call God placed on Abraham.

One of our members shared with me this week that maybe Abraham could have refused to obey saying, “Whoa God! Don’t you think you are asking a bit much of me?!” But that was not Abraham’s response. Abe was not a perfect man by any means. But his trust of God’s ability and in God’s promises are lifted up as a model of faith throughout the whole of Scripture. Abraham’s act of faith is one of the reasons why we are here today worshipping God.

The Hebrew translates that word “tested” also as “proved.” And this week I have been pondering that word “proved.” What if God was proving Abraham’s trust in God?

The writer of Hebrews says, “God desired to show [through Abraham] even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of God’s purpose” (Hebrews 6:17). You and I are heirs of the promise God made though Abraham. When we find ourselves in the impossibly hard situations of life, like Abraham found himself in, we need a model of faith to cling to.

Step by step God revealed Abraham’s trust in God’s ability to provide.

God provided Abraham with direction. God assured Abraham that God would open Abraham’s eyes to see the mountain God would reveal to him (Genesis 22:2). God had been strengthening Abraham’s compass of faith from the very beginning of their journey when God first told Abraham to GO with a sense of urgency to the land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1).

God provided Abraham with space to reflect upon God’s faithfulness. For three days Abraham, Isaac, and the two men walked. (Genesis 22:4). The silence in the story is heavy with time for Abraham to think back on the ways he found himself trusting God. Confidence grows when experiences of trust are reassured.

God repeated the everlasting promise (land, nations, fruitfulness, kings) to Abraham over and over on their journey together. God’s faithfulness extended to Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s first born son) when Abraham’s and Sarah’s faith wavered (Genesis 16:10; 21:12-13). God delivered Isaac to Abraham and Sarah against all odds because she was barren (Genesis 17:15, 19; 18:10; 21:1-2). God even gave Abraham a vision of what his future generations would endure and the steadfast assurance of God’s deliverance (Genesis 15:13-14).

And God provided Abraham with courage to follow God in the most impossible situation of his life. Abraham remembered that God had been trustworthy in the past and he trusted that God’s steadfast love was ever before him. So Abraham told the two men accompanying him that he and Isaac would return after worshipping on the mountain (Genesis 22:5). Abraham assured his son Isaac that God would provide the ram (Genesis 22:8).

It is through Abraham that God provides us with this incredible gift of faith that we cling to. This is nothing less than grace. What God asked of and provided to Abraham alone, God fully reveals through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As the apostle Paul says in Romans, “No distrust made [Abraham] waiver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore [Abraham’s] faith was credited to him as righteousness, not for his sake alone, but to us who believe in God who raised Jesus, [God’s only Son and] our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4: 20-24).

And God proves through Abraham and ultimately through our Savior that God will provide a way when there seems like no way. God will provide encouragement to see the grace and hope set before us.

Therefore, when we find ourselves in the impossibly hard situations of life we, as heirs of the promise, have a model of faith to cling to.

This church knows a lot about God providing a way against all odds.

When children of this church have faced a long journey of medical intervention, God provided a network of support and a community of unconditional love to the children and families.

When Emily made the decision to follow God’s call into Army Basic Training, God provided her with endurance and strength through prayer warriors and cards of encouragement; and she will graduate next week.

When beloved family members are welcomed home to see Jesus face to face, those of us left behind are held in God’s deep embrace in the ebb and flow of grief as beloved church members hold us.

When the invitation was given here to show the love of Christ to inmates who rarely see the face of genuine mercy, God provided without hesitation. Cookies were given to those behind bars and gently used clothes were given for those truly beginning a life of freedom and second chances.

Each of us has a story about God’s provision. All that we have been given is a gift from God. We find ourselves surprised by grace because when God provides it overwhelms us.

But the beauty of God’s provision is this: it is most tangible when you and I are faithful to freely give of ourselves to be the hands and feet of the body of Christ. When the Spirit moves us to not withhold from God what is precious to us, then our acts of faith mirror God’s faithfulness revealed in Abraham and ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Abraham’s trust in God’s provision to make good on the promise and to provide the ram is not a blind trust but a bold trust. It is bold because while God’s grace is freely given, it calls us to risk something of ourselves.

Faith costs something of us because it cost Jesus Christ everything; the ram caught in the thicket foreshadows the Lamb of God who takes the sin of the world. Faith calls us to risk our comfort, to sacrifice things we treasure, to be uncomfortable, and to follow God into the uncertain and even hard places of life. Faith not only costs something of us as individuals but as the body of Christ.

Our church constitution says the church is called to be a community of faith entrusting itself to God alone even at the risk of losing its own life (The Book of Order, F – 1.0301).

Rev. Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, shared this week, “Following Jesus demands that we take up our cross, lose our lives that we might find them, expect rejection [and sacrifice], and put nothing and no one before our Lord, trusting that God will provide.”

We truly are to hold nothing back from God because of our bold trust in God’s purposes to reveal the kingdom among us.

We know through Abraham’s example and ultimately through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, that no matter where God calls us, and no matter how terrifying the situation may seem, God guides our feet while we run this race.

The more we look back upon our past experiences we have an opportunity to see God’s faithfulness in our lives and in Scripture. God’s faithfulness has given us direction, reflection, and courage. And the more we do this, the more our trust in God’s faithfulness grows.

Our shared stories point to the truth: God will always go ahead of us to provide a way when there seems like no way.

Every step we take in this journey of faith we take in God’s faithfulness. The good news is that with every step God will provide encouragement to see the grace and hope set before us.

May it always be so for you and for me.

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

*Art, "The Sacrifice of Isaac," by He Qi