Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources Referenced:

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is something to be grateful for.

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

Sources Referenced:

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Unworthiness Steal Your Gratitude (Part 3 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
Don’t Let Unworthiness Steal Your Gratitude" Part 3 of 5)
Matthew 22: 1-14; Philippians 2: 1-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 15, 2017

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

'But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’
- Matthew 22: 1-14

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
- Philippians 2: 1-11

The past few weeks the lectionary texts have been our guide in highlighting common struggles that steal our gratitude for God’s grace. Today Jesus uses another parable to underscore a common obstacle to living into God’s abundance. Remember that Jesus’ parables reveal hidden truths of God’s kingdom. His parables instruct how we might grow as kingdom people.

The kingdom of heaven gives us a framework to understand gratitude. Jesus says the kingdom is like a banquet of God’s lavish hospitality and provision, bar none. It gives our God great joy to throw such a feast for it is the anticipated Messianic Banquet, the wedding feast to honor the Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is joined by his bride, the Church.

At this heavenly banquet, the Lord’s work of redemption and reconciliation is complete (Revelation 19:9). At God’s heavenly banquet table each seat has a place card saying, “My Delight” (Isaiah 62:4). All gathered savor the fullness of salvation, as compared to the foretaste we receive at Communion around the Lord’s Table in our houses of worship.

Each time we gather here to commune with God and one another, we take the bread of life and the cup of salvation and we can’t help but say, “God’s grace tastes SO GOOD!”

In Jesus’ parable the prophets and apostles extend the invitations to the heavenly feast. The first ones to receive the grand invitations made light of it (Matthew 22:3). Some were offended by the invitation. Others went back to their farms and businesses because they determined their self-worth through their work. Jesus said this made them unworthy. Their unworthiness was an obstacle to accept God’s invitation because these individuals kept trying to prove their worth on their own terms.

The next invitations went out to those who never imagined themselves worthy to sit at such a feast of lavish abundance. I love this parable because God welcomes a real rag tag bunch of folks. They are folks who are unassuming and good natured; you know the ones who have a heart of gold but still never feel they are enough. Also included are folks who have hearts filled with pain, troubles, and deeds that society claims to be unworthy of a second chance.

Regardless of how these guests saw themselves or how society labeled them, each one received a new robe as they entered God’s house. Each one was clothed equally in God’s merciful love. The more I read Jesus’ parable the more I sense that many remained reluctant to fully enjoy the moment of such amazing grace.

Martin Luther was one of those reluctant ones. Luther was one of our Reformers in the Protestant faith. He struggled with a great sense of unworthiness a good portion of his life.

He was born in 1483 and raised in a large family in Mansfeld, Germany. Luther’s parents were hardworking; his father leased property for copper mining. His father had high hopes for Luther to become a lawyer, but Luther was really searching for assurances in life and was drawn to theology.

Luther went against his father’s wishes to study theology and spent years trying to make his father proud.

After Luther was ordained at the age of 23, he stood before the church to lead the Mass; at that time the only church was the Roman Catholic Church. The words he was to recite were engraved upon his heart since childhood. But when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. He had forgotten the words for the sacrament of Communion.

For Luther, this was not a case of nerves or a lapse of memory or God’s sense of humor. He felt a grave sense of unworthiness. His self-worth reached an all-time low as he called himself “a bag of maggots, food for the worms.” [1]

His mentors and colleagues tried to help him reframe his view of God and self. But the more Luther worked to study Scripture, fast, and pray, the more Luther felt the weight of God’s judgment. He asked out loud where a God of grace was to be found. I cannot help but wonder if his deep struggle resulted from a childhood shaped by harsh discipline and the ebb and flow of depression, which is common for many of us.

It was not until Luther studied the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans that God turned Luther’s unworthiness inside out. Luther read Paul’s words, “But now, apart from the law, [God’s work of making things right] has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified [our unworthiness is removed] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24).

These words from Romans changed Luther’s life. The chains of unworthiness were broken. Holy Spirit opened God’s Word to free Luther to discover that Jesus took our unworthiness and made us right with God. We are made worthy because of God’s love for humanity. It is by God’s grace alone, by Christ alone, and through faith alone; it is all a gift of God alone.

From that moment onward, Luther invested his time, passions, and energies to teach, preach and write about God’s revelation of a love that will never leave us where God finds us. But more importantly, the Spirit empowered Luther to discover the gratitude of being clothed in Christ’s worthiness.

Our value, our self-worth is found in knowing that we are a beloved child of God and have a place of belonging in the kingdom of God.

Friends, there is truly nothing we can do to earn God’s gift of salvation. There is no job, career, vocation of ministry, or even a checklist of faith that allows us to find God’s favor. The kingdom of heaven does not allow for you and me to define worthiness on our own terms.

In the same vein, are we to remain imprisoned by our sense of unworthiness? Are we to live below the humility line telling ourselves that we are not enough? I can certainly hear the Apostle Paul say, “By no means!”

Paul encourages us saying, “Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:2-3).

Paul encourages us to be intentional to allow our inner faith convictions to shape our outward actions and behaviors. Faith is to keep us from living above the humility line in pride or below it in self-deprecation. For Paul the only thing that counts…the only thing that is worthy is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). And that is revealed in Jesus’ faithful obedience working through God’s love on the cross. (Philippians 2: 9-11).

It is that kind of sacrificial love that equally clothes us in Christ for the journey of faith. It is that kind of unconditional love that opens our spiritual eyes to see ourselves and others the way that God sees us: welcomed, accepted, forgiven, and worthy of a love that will never let us go. It is that kind of humble love that frees us to take the next right step in our highs and lows and in our struggles and doubts.

So, who does God see at the banquet table saying, “Friend, how did you get in here without a robe?” (Matthew 22:12). That friend is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is not wearing a robe because he has given it to you, and me, and this rag tag bunch whom God has invited to the greatest party, bar none.

Christ took off his prestigious robe of God’s glory. He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave in the thin skin of humanity. He humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 6-8).

God desires for all to come experience this amazing grace revealed in Jesus Christ. We are called to respond to such an invitation with a healthy sense of humility for we have all fallen short of God’s glory. Thank God that falling short is never the end of our story.

We are clothed in Christ’s worthiness because Christ welcomes us in God’s hospitality, meets us where we are, assures us of God’s power to change our lives, and promises to stand by our sides from now into eternity.

Don’t let unworthiness steal your gratitude. You are enough because you are a beloved child of God and you have a place of belonging found alone in the kingdom of God.

And that is something not only to be grateful for. That is something to celebrate!

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] James A. Nestingen, “Martin Luther: A Life” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003), p. 9.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let Worry Steal Your Gratitude (Part 2 of 5)

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
"Don’t Let Worry Steal Your Gratitude" (Part 2 of 5)
Matthew 21: 33-46; Philippians 4: 1-9
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017

[Jesus said] ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower.

Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
- Matthew 21: 33-46

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
- Philippians 4: 1-9

Jesus spent time in the house of worship and out on the streets. He drew near and met people where they were in life. He knew their concerns and the ways they saw the world around them. He taught in parables to speak into the everyday highs and lows. Jesus did this in order to reveal hidden truths of God’s kingdom and to instruct how we might grow as kingdom people.

Today’s parable of the wicked tenants is a powerful telling of God’s greatest desire for us. It points back to Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5: 1-4).

Creator God is the landowner and great master gardener, if you will. God joyfully got his hands in the dirt to prepare the soil and care for the land with a dream to plant a rich and fruitful vineyard. God set boundaries around the vineyard. God built a watchtower as a stable refuge of strength and entrusted the community to keep and care for God’s gifts. God placed a wine press in the center for the community so that all may see the yield of good fruit and taste the goodness of the Lord.

However, Jesus’ parable echoes the great tragedy that unfolded from Isaiah’s parable. God intended for the vineyard, which symbolized God’s people, to be cared for with justice and right relationships. However, humanity’s sin left bloodshed and the vineyard cried out in pain.

Creator God lifted up a deep lament saying, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” Jesus knew the heart of God and knew how God’s plan would unfold next. Jesus’ parable foreshadowed that God would send his Son who would be disregarded, seized, shamed, and killed. The One who humbled himself was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Thanks be to God that we have the gift of faith through the obedience and unconditional love of our Savior who willingly took the pain, the brokenness, and sin of the world.

While this parable bears a deep conviction that we hold true, it also reveals a hidden truth about the way we are to grow as kingdom people. And I have to be completely honest with you. This past week as I have held our biblical texts in one hand and the current events in the other hand, this parable haunts me. I have needed this parable and the Apostle Paul’s words to ground me because worry has been stealing my gratitude. I know worry has been stealing your gratitude too.

This past week we have seen violence rear its ugly head again, this time in Las Vegas. Fifty-nine of our sisters and brothers lost their lives and over five hundred were injured. We worry for friends and family members that we know who were in that area. We worry because we feel helpless to stop the violence; the debates sharply rise and fall on gun reform and the shadow of shame still looms over efforts to bring awareness to mental health. We worry from compassion fatigue as each week unfolds with another natural disaster and destruction. We worry for the sufferings that remain here in our own backyards.

Certainly, God weeps with us. God laments with us as the Lord’s beloved community is subjected to the sin of violence and hate. God laments as the world groans in labor pains. God laments with us when our worries get the best of us. God laments when fear disorients our trust that God is still in control.

And yet the Apostle Paul says, “Do not worry. Stand firm in the Lord in this way. Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything. Pray. Focus on things worthy of praise.

But there is something hidden in Pauls’ words that shines some light on Jesus’ parable, for Scripture always speaks to Scripture. Those words are “Let your gentleness be known to everyone; the Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:5).

In Jesus’ parable the Lord is near for God is in the watchtower. For “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). The watchtower stands tall with a 360 degree view of God’s beloved community. God sees the seeds of faith taking root and bearing fruit. God also sees what threatens the beloved community.

Our faith cultivates a great sense of gratitude in knowing the strength we find in God as our strong tower. But God also invites us to climb up into the watchtower. God entrusts you and me with the caring and keeping of God’s beloved community. It is in the watchtower that we gain a new point of view to see into the world. We are given an opportunity to see both the blessings and the brokenness around us.

You see our world is wounded and it is hurting and it is crying out. The world does not need for us to be up in the watchtower giving knee jerk reactions. The world needs for her pain to be recognized.

Pain that is not addressed in a constructive way metastasizes into bitterness, anger, resentment, hate, and violence.

Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Her career the past sixteen years has been studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

In her newly released book, “Braving the Wilderness,” she says:

Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working. How much longer are we willing to keep pulling drowning people out of the river one by one, rather than walking to the headquarters of the river to find the source of pain? What will it take for us to travel together to the cradle of pain that is growing in all of us in such a rate that we couldn’t possibly save everyone?

Pain will subside only when we acknowledge and care for it. Addressing [pain] with love and compassion would take a miniscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it...Most of us were not taught how to recognize pain, name it, and be with it. Our families and culture believed that the vulnerability that it takes to acknowledge pain was weakness
… [1]

That kind of vulnerability seems illogical. However, God recognized our human pain a long time ago. God became vulnerable to point of putting on the thin skin of humanity in Jesus Christ to fully experience our brokenness and pain. On the cross, Jesus Christ took on all our pain to make known God’s steadfast love and compassion. Through the empty tomb Jesus Christ gives us the hope that pain may be transformed by the power of grace.

You and I are called to be stewards of God’s beloved community. We are to have the mind of Christ and see the pain that is wounding our world. Seeing that pain is not judging it, but striving side by side to allow faith to seek understanding. We seek understanding by living into Jesus’ example of unconditional love and compassion.

The mind of Christ moves us to see the pain in the lives of others by listening to the story of another’s pain even when that story is vastly different from our own experience. It is in our commitment to live in relationship with God and one another that we may let our gentleness be made known to everyone, for the Lord is near through the body of Christ.

But also our commitment to live in this way means we are to take what we have seen and heard and learned and work with God to make a difference in the world for the sake of God’s beloved community to flourish. That is how we grow as kingdom people. We live out our faith that is intentional to bear the fruit of justice and right relationships.

In these troubling times, don’t let worry steal your gratitude. God is still in control. Rejoice when you see God’s grace through others. Pray. Focus on things worthy of praise.

But more than anything, may you and I allow the spiritual reality of the cross to open our eyes and recognize the world’s pain. For God invites you and me to join the Lord in this holy work of transforming pain by the power of God’s hope, vulnerability, compassion, and grace.

That is something to be grateful for.

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

Watchtower photo from the Holy Land
[1] Brene Brown, “Braving the Wilderness” (New York: Random House, 2017), p. 67.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Sermon: Don't Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude (Part 1 of 5)

"Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude: Don’t Let the Past Steal Your Gratitude"
Part 1 of 5
Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 3: 10-16
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017
World Communion Sunday

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’

So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
- Exodus 17: 1-7

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
- Philippians 3: 10-16

Where does gratitude come from? How does it begin?

For many of us gratitude stems from the simple joys in life. A gorgeous sunrise or sunset where our Creator paints one-of-a-kind majestic landscapes. Watching the children play with a carefree freedom that reminds us adults to play and be present. The realization of an answered prayer where a deep need or longing was met.

The past month we have certainly seen gratitude coming from the most trying times of life. The sparing of life in the face of losing everything from home, possessions, and livelihood. An interaction of kindness that restores hope in humanity. It is hard to find words for these examples of gratitude.

From a Christian perspective gratitude is rooted in God’s Word pointing all the way back to our spiritual ancestors. For them gratitude was anchored deep in the waters of God’s covenant love.

Moses told God’s people in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth to be [God’s] people, [God’s] treasured possession. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6, 8-9).

God’s people crossed the Red Sea and saw the goodness of the Lord; they were delivered. It was so powerful that they could not help but sing and dance with tambourines (Exodus 15). They celebrated with a deep and abiding gratitude for knowing the joy of God’s deliverance.

However, the wilderness tested Israel’s ability to remember they were God’s treasured possession.

In our text today the people were complaining and quarreling with Moses. They had forgotten that joy was a growing awareness of God’s grace. They had forgotten their response of gratitude were not determined by their present circumstances. In fact Israel’s complaining was not the real problem. It was a symptom, a biproduct of what was stealing their gratitude.

You see, God’s people were spending more time and energy focusing on the past. They looked back into the past generations whom had lived in Egypt. They remembered having a place to call home – a roof over their heads, food and water to drink daily, and having children. Each day in Egypt had the same repeated rhythm.

But this memory came with a sense of complacency about the past. For Egypt had dealt shrewdly with God’s people. They were oppressed, exploited, and dreaded by Egypt (Exodus 1: 10-12). Complacency led Israel to be more comfortable in the norms of Pharaoh’s oppression than to strive to find a new normal within God’s freedom.

The past was not as good as God’s people tried to remember it to be. Whatever gains Israel had in Egypt were to be counted as loss because of God’s unconditional and covenant love.

God was working through Moses to lead the people to risk following God’s direction to the Promised Land. This would require the people to trust God in the wilderness – a very uncomfortable place.

The wilderness was a place of discontinuous change; meaning change occurs in such a way that we do not have the lived experience to know how to adapt to it.

Israel’s story is our story. We too have a hard time with our present circumstances. Yesterday and yesteryear always seem to hold a memory of a better time and place. In times of change we become nostalgic for what seemed routine and familiar.

Today we are walking through another wilderness of discontinuous change and we truly do not know how to adapt to it.

We are going through individual life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle. It seems like our children are forced to grow up faster than we adults did and at the same time it seems like their childhoods are delayed with the advent of technology. It seems like the years fly by so quickly that age brings physical challenges we are not ready to accept. It seems like life will sarcastically pull the rug out from under us when change alters our careers, marriages, and health.

We are going through societal life changes that we do not feel equipped to handle either. There seems to be more acts of violence and more natural disasters that overwhelm our hearts and our world. It seems like we live in a post-truth society as the value of researching respectable primary sources to articulate the truth have been replaced with the turning tides of personal opinion. There seems to be a new normal as our language has become yet again more dehumanizing; words become weapons to belittle and deny God-given dignity.

The church is facing changes and challenges too as denominations across the board are declining. We wonder what will happen to the church as we hold so many dear memories of the past when a house of God was the center of community.

Through all these individual and societal changes, we look back into the past and ask, “How did we get here?!?” These kinds of discontinuous change create a lot of uncertainty. Who can blame us for wanting to live in the past?

I echo Moses’ sentiments as he met his flock with reassuring words. While we all treasure what was comfortable and routine and familiar about the past, we must remember that the past also had trouble of its own just as tomorrow will certainly have it too. God is leading us through another spiritual wilderness for God sees that we are in need of being delivered once again. God sees yet another need for reforming our hearts.

If God is leading us to something new just as God was leading Israel to something new, then we must step forward into the wilderness and let go of the past. We cannot remain in the past or be trapped by nostalgia. If we stay anchored to the past then we will always feel pulled apart from what lies behind and the hope that lies ahead. Therefore, we feel afraid and frustrated and start leaning more into our will rather than God’s will. That kinda sounds like Jonah and is far from an attitude of gratitude.

It takes a lot of trust to follow God’s lead in uncertain times. Trust requires remembering that our awareness of God’s grace and our response of gratitude are not dependent upon our present circumstances.

Trust calls us to hold onto the foundation of our faith…that foundation is a head and heart knowledge that we are God’s treasured possession. Therefore, we are to press on through this spiritual wilderness because the Lord has redeemed us in a love that will never let us go.

We know God’s story of redeeming love through the cross and empty tomb. Today Christians around the world gather together for World Communion Sunday.

At God’s table Christians around the world unite to remember the only story of the past that continues to reform our faith and reshape our hearts with an attitude of gratitude.

That story is to know Christ Jesus – God’s Anointed One Who Saves. For we remember the power of Christ’s life, ministry, sufferings, death, and resurrection that brings spiritual freedom. If the sacrificial love of Christ has delivered us from the death of sin to new life, then we should trust that Christ will equip us to walk through this crazy wilderness with God leading the way and providing our every need.

Like the Apostle Paul, we press on in Christ’s example because Christ has made us his treasured possession for the sake of God’s great faithfulness.

The Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation give our faith the courage to do this one thing: forget what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.

Don’t let the past, or the wilderness for that matter, steal your gratitude. The God we worship always provides a way when there seems like no way at all!

That is worth being grateful for.

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

Sources Referenced:

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