Sunday, July 15, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: Will We Know Each Other in Heaven?

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
From the Scriptures Will We Know Each Other in Heaven?
Genesis 1: 26-27; Revelation 7: 9-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 15, 2018

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. - Genesis 1: 26-27

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
- Revelation 7: 9-17

The gift and grit of faith is walking along the path of life with those who know us most; our Maker and our fellow sojourners. Jesus sets this path of faith apart to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, mind, soul, and strength and also to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).

This path is trod by the footsteps of God’s people –the saints past and present. We know this to be true because we are created to live in relationship with God and with one another (Genesis 1:26).

And yet when a loved one dies, we continue to walk this hallowed path right beside our beloved to her or his eternal home. Our beloved’s baptismal journey is complete in death. The community of faith lifts up her voice to proclaim the gospel story once again. We lift our voices to thank God for all that was good and kind and faithful in this beloved child of God.

After we celebrate this gift of life in song, prayer, and story, after God’s promise of resurrection is proclaimed, after we commend our sister or brother to God’s eternal rest, and after the hugs and casseroles start to embrace us we cannot help but ask the question:

Will be really see our loved one again? “From the Scriptures will we know each other in heaven?”

Shirley Guthrie helps us to frame the question about the future life that awaits. He says, “We must remember the clearest clue to what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past.”[1] So what does Scripture say?

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell a story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John to a mountain top. It is there the disciples see Jesus glorified by God’s love. They also recognize and see Moses and the prophet Elijah talking with Jesus. And the disciples were scared out of their tunics to see eternal things flash before their earthly eyes. And yet Jesus said, “Do not be afraid!” (Matthew 17: 1-7; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36).

Luke’s Gospel tells a story of two men who were once acquainted in life had both died; a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. In death, the rich man saw and recognized Lazarus, the one who had been longing for help on the street in his earthly life. In death, the rich man recognized and conversed with Abraham, attempting to make amends for his regrets of not helping Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31).

Before Jesus was tried before Pilate, Matthew’s Gospel remembers the way Jesus forever unites us in God’s eternal love through the Last Supper; the bread of life and the and cup of salvation. For Jesus said to his disciples as they shared the foretaste of God’s eternal kingdom, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it NEW with you in my Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26: 26-30).

The disciples were promised to sit with our Risen Lord and commune around God’s heavenly banquet together! It is an intimate experience to gather around table in God’s hospitality, look into one another’s eyes and see, touch, and taste the grace of God. I can only imagine how much more amazing that will be when we are in heaven face to face.

Scripture gives us a yes to the question from the pew today. We will recognize one another in heaven and we will probably be surprised by some faces we see in heaven too! God is the One who holds the keys to the kingdom!

But the most encouraging affirmation comes when others recognized the Risen Lord on this side of heaven. Mary Magdalene recognized the Risen Lord when he said her name (John 20:16). The Apostle Paul says, “[Jesus] appeared to Cephus and the twelve. The he appeared to more than 500 hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, and then to the apostles. Last of all, he appeared to Paul” (1 Corinthians 15: 5-8).

“If we share in a death like his, then surely we will share in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

As I hold up Paul’s words with how God has acted in the past, then I trust we too will not only know each other in heaven, but we will continue to experience the blessing of the relational ties that bind us in Christina love.

When I read and study and proclaim the resurrection, Holy Spirit brings about a peace that surpasses human understanding to me. The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that nothing in all the world can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ – not death or life or things present or things to come…there is nothing in all of creation that will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8: 35, 38-39). There is but a breath between this life and life eternal.

But there is one part of all this that gets in our craw. There is a question that nags many of us about what life will be like in heaven. And there never seems to be a satisfactory answer to it. That question is, “Will there be marriage in heaven?”

Jesus was asked that question (Matthew 22: 23-34; Mark 12: 18-27; Luke 20: 27-39). The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. They could not find biblical support of it in the first five books of the Bible. The Pharisees believed in resurrection. But they got caught in literal and logical interpretations of heaven. For example, one commentary states when a person died, they believed that in the resurrection the individual would be wearing the same clothes at death.[2]

One day the Sadducees walked up to Jesus. The Pharisees were there. And the Sadducees asked Jesus a hypothetical question about marriage according to ancient Levirate law. The question was to take a jab at the Pharisees, dismissing resurrection, and also to trick Jesus.

According to Old Testament law, when a husband died childless, it was important for the man’s lineage to continue through his wife. The family name and the family inheritance were critical to survive and thrive in society. Therefore, the law stated the brother of the deceased would marry the widow to bear sons (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10).

You see, the Sadducees’ question, “In the resurrection, if this woman had married seven times, whose wife will she be?” was meant to be absurd. William Barclay says Jesus’ answer spoke into the Sadducees error in thinking.[3]

Jesus said if you read the Scriptures and knew the power of God then this question is irrelevant. Barclay says that Jesus’ answer warns us about thinking of heaven in earthly terms and thinking of eternity in terms of time.[4]

The Old Testament covenant of marriage held a purpose of procreation. Therefore, Jesus considered this earthly understanding of marriage out of place.[5] Jesus understood the depths of love that bind two in marriage like a three-way chord with God.

The greatest things in life are faith, hope, and love, and yet the greatest of these three is love; unconditional and sacrificial love. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Therefore, in heaven, we trust will see our beloveds again however our eternal relationships will transcend what we know and experience on this earth.

Guthrie says, “Heaven is an eternal life of genuine and completely free realization of our humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the life originally willed for us by God the Creator of heaven and earth, lived for us by Jesus Christ, and promised and worked in us by God’s life-renewing Holy Spirit. It is the eternal life of self-fulfillment that comes in loving, praising, and serving God, and in living in peace with fellow human beings.”[6]

Jesus speaks to us in our limited understanding about heaven, saying, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14: 1-3).

When Jesus says that word, “you,” it is not singular but plural' Jesus is saying "You all". Jesus is speaking about the eternal community in which we will live fully present in God’s covenant love.

The whole of Scripture says that from our beginning to our end that God lives with humanity and walks with us. God says over and over, “I will be their God and they shall be my people…God will be our Father and we shall be Almighty God’s daughters and sons (2 Corinthians 6: 16b-18).

Every ending brings about a new beginning. And God’s resurrection promise will gather us as a great multitude in heaven– so many that no one can count – from every nation, standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God with celebration and singing God’s praise like nobody’s business! (Revelation 7:9-10).

To be made in the image of God is to be God’s family on earth and in heaven. We are created by a love that will never let us go. We are bound and tethered to God’s love yesterday, today, and forever. Believe it and trust God’s truth with your life!

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] Shirley Guthrie, "Christian Doctrine" (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 395.
[2] R. T. France, “The Gospel of Matthew” (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), p. 838-839.
[3] William Barclay, “The Gospel of Matthew” (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975) p. 276.
[4] Barclay, p. 276-277.
[5] France, p. 838-839.
[6] Guthrie, pp. 395-396.

Monday, July 9, 2018

FAQs Sermon Series: How Do We Understand the Soul and Body in the Resurrection?

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
How Do We Understand Our Soul and Body in the Resurrection?
1 Corinthians 15: 1-4, 42-57
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 8, 2018

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4, 42-57

Every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed we reaffirm our faith with the words, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” And so, our question today asks what does that actually mean? How do we understand the immortality of the soul and our mortal bodies in light of the resurrection?

The Rev. Dr. Tom Long shares the story of a radio talk show who picked up some hot news that Costco has gotten into the discount casket business (Yes, it’s true but only valid in 37 states!):

“Geez, can you imagine,” said the dj. “You go into Costco and say, “I think I’ll buy 48 rolls of toilet paper and, hey, while I’m at it, I’ll pick up a casket!”

“Right!” said the other. ‘Can’t you see yourself wheeling that thing out to the parking lot on the buggy?”

The first dj replied, “Really, I think this is great. It’s American free enterprise, competition in the marketplace, bringing prices down…When I’m gone, if you need to cut a corner, cut it out on the casket. I don’t need it. This body is just a shell. The real me will be gone somewhere else….”

Long commented, “It really was just a silly exchange tucked between the traffic report the weather and sports, but in some ways, it was a snapshot of contemporary cultural attitudes about death… The “real me” had nothing to do with the dead body.”[1]

The concept of an immortal soul and a body as two separate things is not new. It actually goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher Plato, who lived from 428-347 B.C.. “Plato affirmed life beyond physical death. He believed in the immortality of the soul.”[2]

This philosophy has long held that bodies are cheap imitations of the soul, they are technically not real and could be considered as evil. The soul, then, is imprisoned by the body and longs to be set free by means of death, whereby it is then joined to the True–the Forms, a non-physical reality.[3]

The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee in the Jewish tradition, an interpreter of God’s word and a well-trained debater. He was a fine-tuned orator and was quite knowledgeable of the Greek philosophy of the day. When Jesus Christ turned Paul’s world inside out, Paul was sent to proclaim Jesus Christ and to reinterpret the culture through the lens of our crucified and Risen Lord.

He says in the beginning of his first letter to the church in Corinth, “Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20).

Paul specifically addresses the pinnacle of Christian hope in our text today. Our ultimate hope does not lie in the immortality of the soul but in God’s promise of the resurrection, revealed in Jesus Christ.

When Paul writes “the perishable body must put on imperishability,” he is reinterpreting Plato through the Christian hope of resurrection (1 Cor 15:53).

Paul knows because humanity is created by God. But God did not stop there; Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. This proclaims that our Maker desires to redeem all of our humanity and make us new. His word for “body” always points to the problem of the human condition of sin which touches all of humanity. It is Christ’s dying and being raised to new life that frees us from sin and death.

Paul begins preaching and teaching of the resurrection from Jesus’ own death and being raised by God. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised then our proclamation and our faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14).

Jesus’ resurrection is not something we can fully explain or understand.

What Paul understands about resurrection is through the Jewish perspective and the Christian prespective. “The Hebrews accepted death as a limit ordained by God as told in Genesis 3:19. The notion of immortality is a Greek Helenist idea. “The Jewish teachings regarded the “soul” as the unity of the human person. The Hebrews were living bodies, they did not have bodies.[4]

And Paul understands resurrection through the Christian perspective. He goes back to the Creation story in Genesis when God created the heaven and earth (Gen 1: 1, 14-19). God created humankind in God’s image; God created us from the dust and breathed the breath of life into us (Genesis 1:26; 2:7). Paul understands we are created by “the physical first and then the spiritual,” but they are united (1 Corinthians 15:46).

Paul knows “From dust we were created and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And yet by the Creator’s hands, the Redeemer’s sacrificial love, and the life-giving breath of Holy Spirit these dried up bones shall live (Ezekiel 37).

Even in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John, it is revealed that Jesus was fully resurrected physically and spiritually. Our Risen Lord was touched by human hands. He ate with the disciples. He was seen in his newly glorified body.

Paul says, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we will also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus Christ]” (1 Cor 15:49). “For if we have been united in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

One of the most comforting Scriptures of Jesus’ promise of resurrection is that merciful and hope-filled conversation which Jesus had with the criminal who was nailed to the cross beside him. The criminal said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me I paradise” (Luke 23: 42-43). We read Scripture and interpret Jesus’ own words to be true.

Therefore, resurrection is understood as both individual and communal. Our Reformed Confessions strive to articulate what we believe and how we interpret God’s Word. And our confessions strive to put words around the mystery of death and resurrection in ways that we might understand.

The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) was written to instruct our younger disciples in a question and answer format. It says:

What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of faith was written for adults, saying:

What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?
We are to believe that, at the last day, there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust; when they that are found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the self-same bodies of the dead which are lain in the grace, being then again united to their souls forever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ….immediately after the resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of angels and men, the day and hour whereof no one knows.

Notice that as the confessional statements strive to keep a unity regarding the physical and spiritual within body and soul; these confessions interpret the Scriptures regarding a general resurrection in the last day.

“…With the sound of God’s trumpet, the Lord will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore, encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-18).

God’s resurrection promise is surrounded by mystery. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but one day we will know fully (1 Cor 13:12) We do not grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We stand on the promises of God.

The greatest truth is that God’s promise of resurrection not only embraces us in the hope of God’s future eternal presence. The resurrection power of Jesus Christ also completely changes our lives today as the eyes of our hearts are enlightened.

May each of know the hope of our calling in heaven and here on earth too (Ephesians 1:18).

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

Sources Referenced:

Abstract Artwork, "Resurrection," by Philippin Inge.

[1] Thomas G. Long, “Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 22.
[2] Justo Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity Volume 1 (New York: Harper Collins, 1984), pp. 16, 54-56.
[3] “Plato versus The Apostle Paul,” February 11, 2016
[4] Paul Achtemeier, “Bible Dictionary” (New York: Harper Collins, 1996, "soul" definition.
[5] The Book of Confessions Study Edition (Part 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 232, question and answer 36 and 37.
[6] The Book of Confessions, The Larger Catechism, p. 262 questions and answers 87-88.

Monday, June 25, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: 'What Is the Best Way to Hear from the Lord?"

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
"What Is the Best Way to Hear from the Lord?"
Psalm 5: 1-3; Romans 12: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 1, 2018

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
- Psalm 5: 1-3

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
- Romans 12: 1-8

When people of faith are trying to make a decision or get a sense for what the next right step is, we long for clarity. Naturally we search for ways to hear from the Lord.

In my own times of waiting, I have just wished for that Fed-Ex envelope to show up. You know, the big one with your name printed on it – so you cannot miss it. And inside God has sent divine instructions of why, what, when, and how. I have prayed for and even pleaded for God to speak directly to me in that way. Guess what? I still have not received it.

And yet, our spiritual ancestors heard from God in mysterious ways. In my study this week, I needed to be reminded how they heard God.

Adam and Eve heard from God by living in harmonious relationship where they heard God’s very presence (Genesis 3:8).
Noah heard the Lord’s voice directly (Genesis 7-9). Abraham heard from the Lord as an old friend (James 2:23).
Jacob heard through a wrestling match (Genesis 32:24). Moses heard through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2).
The Israelites heard through the prevailing cloud, a pillar of fire, and through the prophets’ challenging words (Exodus 19:9). Samuel heard while lying on his bed (1 Samuel 3: 3-9).
Elijah heard through fasting (1 Kings 19:4-9).
The Psalmist trusted he would hear from the Lord through prayers of praise and petition (Psalm 5: 1-3).
Isaiah heard in the context of worship (Isaiah 6:8).
Daniel heard through dreams.
Mary heard by way of an angel (Luke 1:28-37).
The Magi heard by way of a star. (Matthew 2: 1-2, 9, 12).
The disciples heard from the Risen Lord during worship, a fishing trip, and when Jesus broke bread with them (Matthew 28: 16-17; Luke 24: 30-31; John 21: 4-7).

In reading God’s Word, I cannot say that there is one way to hear God which is better than the others. Our spiritual ancestors did not choose the way God spoke to them. God always takes the first step in speaking to us.

However, the Apostle Paul reveals what was common among our ancestors and what is true in preparing our posture of faith. We will become more fully aware of God’s activity when we prepare with anticipation.

Cultivating a relationship with God is primary in order to hear from the Lord. Henri Nouwen says, “Getting answers to my questions is not the goal of the spiritual life. Living in the presence of God is the greater call.”[1]

From the beginning we are created to live in relationship with our Creator. When our desire to be with God increases, then we trust Holy Spirit is already at work to tune our hearts to God’s heart alone.

As we grow in deeper relationship and spiritual maturity with God then we become as Paul says, “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2). We are changed by the power of God as we make room for God to renovate our hearts and minds.

It is just like renovating a house. The project always begins on the inside to ensure the whole structure is sound. This allows the renovation to take the shape of the builder’s hands and greater vision.

Our hearts and minds are renovated through prayer. If we are to live by God’s Spirit then we must be guided and keep in step with God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:25).

Prayer creates a spiritual renovation to ensure we have the necessary gifts of the Spirit: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5: 22-23). We need God’s Spirit to hone these gifts as tools within us to be spiritually in tune with God.

Our relationship with God and our daily commitment to prayer are essential to reshape us by the Creator’s hands and will. As we are re-shaped we are being equipped to discern the ways God’s is speaking into our lives.

Paul says that God’s will is: good (honorable and upright); God’s will is acceptable (pleasing to God);God’s will is perfect – not in the way that you and I think of perfect as without blemish. But the Greek word for perfect is “telos” like a telescope…it yields a gradual development of integrity and virtue. And this is what we are trying to listen for in our lives.

To discern is to look through our circumstances with God’s will as a telescope to search for God to what is honorable, pleasing and virtuous.

There are four ways to discern and listen for God speaking to us.

1. Listen. Nouwen says, “The great movement of the spiritual life is from a deaf, non-hearing life to a life of listening…Living a spiritually mature life requires listening to God’s voice within and among us.”

The best way to listen for God is to set a daily time and space to be with God. There will be days that life’s responsibilities and distractions sidetrack our best plans. But the more we ask the Spirit to help discipline our time with self-control, the more receptive we will be to hear, accept, and affirm God’s leading.

2. Meditate on God’s Word. Scripture is a primary means in which God speaks to us. Nouwen says, “By selecting a particular scripture verse from the gospel reading of the day, a favorite psalm, or a phrase from a devotional reading, a safe wall is [placed] around our heart which allows us to pay attention.”[2]

I meditate on God’s Word using a slow reading called Lectio Divina (Divine Reading). This entails reading a short passage of Scripture three times slowly. Between each reading is a space to pause and reflect on what the Spirit is saying. The beauty of Lectio Divina is that even as we are reading and listening for the Lord to speak to us, the Spirit is actually reading our hearts and minds [3]. It is also helpful to keep a journal to reflect what you may be hearing from God.

3. Pray. God will speak to you and me in a variety of ways and settings, but there is no substitute for hearing the Lord through prayer. At its very core, prayer is a two way dialogue with God; listening and talking. The Psalmist always trusted that God would hear his praises and petitions and that God would indeed answer.

As we wait to hear from the Lord, talk with God as a beloved friend and share whatever and whomever the Spirit places upon your heart and mind.

Pray for God to really see your life and then write down the areas of life that you want God to look deeply into. Be prepared for God’s challenge that leads to transformation and just know that it usually is not easy.

Praying Scripture is one of the most powerful ways I have heard from God. Such as Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God,” I pray, “ Lord, help me to be still and know that you are God.”

A colleague in ministry is encouraging me to pray by fasting. I have not fasted in prayer before. But she is teaching me that fasting is not necessarily giving up food for 40 days. Rather we can fast from eating lunch for 30 minutes or by giving up that one-hour t.v. show each day and use that time window to pray and listen to the still small voice of God.

4. Community. The truth is that we cannot hear the fullness of God’s voice all alone. We will hear bits and pieces by ourselves, but we hear the Lord best when in community. Growing in spiritual maturity means that if we are to have the mind of Christ we must humble ourselves and lean into the rich and diverse gifts of the spiritual network that surrounds us. This is the hope of Paul’s words to discerning God’s voice in our lives.

We need one another to hear from the Lord and discern what is good, acceptable, and perfect.

The prophet among us reveals the truth with words of challenge said with care. Those who serve in the ministry of compassion helps us to gage our direction according to Holy Spirit’s compass. The teachers among us instruct us how to apply God’s Word. The exhorter renews our motivation with words of encouragement when God’s direction seems too hard. The giver shares the generosity of Christ to sustain a weary heart. Those who lead help us to diligently discern the better part over and above the good. Those with hearts of compassion hold us in God’s mercy when we need it most (Romans 12: 6-8).

God speaks to each of us in a myriad of ways and through people, places, and venues that we cannot imagine choosing for ourselves. God is free to surprise us and speak through nature, books, the wisdom of strangers, movies, art, music, and those nudges of the Holy Spirit that we cannot explain not easily turn away from.

Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest, professor of religion, and author; she says, "The effort to untangle the human words from the divine seems not only futile to me but also unnecessary, since God works with what is. God uses whatever is usable in a life, both to speak and to act, and those who insist on fireworks in the sky may miss the electricity that sparks the human heart"[4].

What is the best way to hear from the Lord? Well, Frederick Buechner says it best:

Listen to your life…There is no event so commonplace, but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Henri Nouwen, “Discernment” (New York: Harper One, 2013).
[2] Henri Nouwen, “Discernment,” p. 4.
[3] Henri Nouwen, “Discernment,” p. 11.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Leaving Church” (New York: Harper One, 2006).
[5] Frederick Buechner, “Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner” (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 2.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: "How Do I Stay Focused on My Prayer Life?"

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
"How Do We Stay Focused in Our Prayer Lives?"
Psalm 1: 1-3; Acts 1: 12-14
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2018

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, r sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. - Psalm 1: 1-13

[After Jesus ascended to heaven] then [the disciples] returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
- Acts 1: 12-14

The question we hold today is one that many have on their minds. It is a question that even I ask myself: “How do we stay focused in our prayer lives?”

The Psalmist recognizes the wisdom that comes from being spiritually attentive to this gift of faith.

We are blessed by meditating on God’s Word day and night. We become like trees planted by the streams of water. The living water of Jesus Christ allows the roots of our faith to soak up God’s grace to bear spiritual fruit, to grow and endure, and to advance in God’s will (Psalm 1: 1-3).

Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, remained focused in his prayer life by retreating often to deserted places and going to the mountains alone [1]. He taught his disciples to pray by praising God, trusting in the coming kingdom, asking for God’s daily provision, confessing our need to be forgiven and forgiving others, and asking for our trials to be turned to triumphs for God’s glory [2].

In the days of the early church the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer. It is a hallmark of the Christian life [3].

And yet, how do you and I stay focused, faithful, and persevere in prayer?

Jane Vennard is an ordained minister and a spiritual director – one who is a certified coach of the Christian spiritual life. She says in order for us to receive instruction on how to pray we must first prepare our hearts [4].

So, we look inward into our personal experiences.

Who first taught you to pray? You may have been a cradle Christian, or your first experience of prayer may not have happened until adulthood. It matters whether we had a positive or negative experience because it shapes our approach to prayer.

Thomas grew up learning the Lord’s Prayer as a song in which his family would sing at mealtime. But when a Sunday School teacher invited him to also talk to God like a best friend, prayer suddenly became a casual conversation with God [5].

Sharon was told that God would not love her if she did not pray every night on her knees. As a result, prayer became an obligation. It was a struggle to imagine prayer in a relational way when God seemed to be nothing but judgmental [6].

Our personal beliefs about prayer will differ. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on how we have understood prayer, accept our past experiences, and then keep what is useful and discard what is not.

While I grew up in a Christian home, prayer was not something we talked about as a family; it was a private matter. I first began learning how to pray as an adult in a women’s Bible study. I learned so much from the wisdom of those women. They showed me prayer was speaking to God from the heart. We didn’t always need to have the right words. Sometimes “Thank you, Lord” or “Help me God” was enough.

It was a gift to see the value of praying together as a community, like we do here in worship or Bible study. The space of community helped me to grow in praying on my own. Since then I have explored lots of ways to pray: silent prayer, turning Bible verses into prayer, writing prayers in a journal, praying during mundane tasks and even praying when I am on the move.

As a fellow disciple of Jesus, prayer is so very important. Our tradition says that “In prayer, through the Holy Spirit, people seek after and are found by the one true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. They listen and wait upon God, call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer themselves to God to join God’s work in the world.” (Book of Order, W- 2. 1001).

The way I focus on prayer changes. I am like anyone else – I get bored, I become frustrated when it seems God is silent, and sometimes all my words are gone and I do not know what to say to God. I have even needed the help of a spiritual director when my faith has become dry and stagnant.

So, I share with you what I have learned over the years to persevere in prayer.

First, consider the rhythm of your daily life. What is the most realistic time window that you will reserve to connect with God?

If past plans have failed, then set apart 10 minutes each day. It is an incredible thing to get up with a good cup of joe or diet coke and watch our Maker paint the sky with a new color palette of grace. Ten minutes without interruptions means a good session of talking and listening to the One who loves us beyond measure.

I have a friend who has a standing lunch date with God. Each day she sets apart that time by turning off the distractions of computer and cell phone.

In this particular season of my life, I pray for between 15-30 minutes before I get out of bed in the morning and then again before I go to sleep at night.

Second, I want you to think about what helps you connect to God? I always encourage people to connect to God through the reading of Scripture. God’s Word is a primary way that God speaks to us.

A good place to start is by reading a daily devotion. Our church provides “These Days;” each edition covers 3 months. It is written by pastors and includes a short Bible passage to focus on, a reflection, a prayer, and an action step to put what you have read into practice.

Last year the Session and I read together “Jesus Calling,” by Sarah Young. This devotion will guide you through the year. Young includes 2-3 Scripture verses and her daily reflections of Scripture are as if God is speaking directly to you.

Keep a prayer list with your devotion for your praises and concerns. Sometimes I choose to designate certain days of the week to pray for specific areas: global, national, state, and community leaders; church members; ministry; family; and so on.

I am currently using the Presbyterian Church Daily Prayer App (purchase for $2 on your cell phone). You can choose a morning, midday, evening, or night time prayer entry. It begins with an opening sentence of Scripture to set apart this time window. It then leads to a psalm, an Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and a reading from one of the New Testament letters (epistles).

I read those Scriptures slowly and Holy Spirit usually makes a word, a phrase, or a verse stand out; I try to keep that phrase with me through the day. The prayer app then includes written prayers to thank God for a diversity of areas, and then a guided prayer to pray for different places in the world and various situations and people. This app has really helped me to focus and grow in the width and depth of prayer.

The Psalmist says, “Be still and know I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Those words, “Be still” simply mean to relax or wait. If you wait for God best by being on the move, then pray in motion.

Designate a separate time for Scripture reading and then go for a run or take a walk and connect with God. Thank God for the blessings you have noticed. Ask God to provide for areas of our world, country, community, friends and family that the Spirit brings to your attention. Pray for God to break your heart over what breaks God’s heart. Open your heart and share whatever is on your mind with God in your personal life.

Maybe your mind races and you get easily distracted like me. I have found that prayer doodling is helpful. Grab a paper and pen or colored pencils. Write the names of loved ones or areas of concern down. Allow your doodles to become prayers to God. I have written down names of church members who need prayers for healing and then color circles of yellow around their names as a symbol of God’s healing presence and light embracing them.

I have a friend who writes circle prayers. She places the name of a loved one or friend in a circle. She then writes inside the circle Bible passages of God’s promises to pray over that person. For example, praying Isaiah 41:10 for Emily – “Lord I know you are with Emily. Help her to not fear. Strengthen her and help her as she serves in Germany. Allow Emily to know that you uphold her with your victorious right hand.” It is powerful thing to pray Scripture.

Third, listen for God. Prayer is not just about us talking to God. It is also a communication line to listen for God speaking to us. As you go through your day, re-center yourself with God using a breath prayer. A breath prayer is a holistic way to connect our heart, mind, body and spirit. We need a space to just listen for the whispers of God’s grace.

Begin by slowly breathing in and fill your lungs with air. Hold the breath for a moment and then slowly exhale from your mouth. Repeat this to quiet yourself and focus on your breathing.

Then slowly breathe in while thinking the words, “Be still and know.” Slowly exhale out while thinking the words, “I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Breathe this breath prayer at least 10 times. Reflect on your experience by asking:

What do I notice right now?
How easy is it for God to get my attention?
When am I able to hear God’s still, small voice best?
In what ways has God been inviting me just to be with him?

The practice of prayer is just like the practice that an athlete, musician, student, or any skill requires. The more we devote ourselves to it, the more proficient we become.

My hope is that each of us will explore ways to seek God and be found by the Lord. Pay attention to Holy Spirit’s lead as we persevere in prayer one day at a time.

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


[1] Hebrews 12:2; Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32; Luke 4:42; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18
[2] Luke 11: 1-4; Matthew 6: 9-14
[3] Acts 1:14; 2:42; 4:24-26, 31; 6:3-4; 6:6; 7:59-60; 9:40; 11:18; 12:5; 13:3
[4] Jane Vennard, “A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice” (Herndon, The Alban Institute, 2005), pp. 3, 23, 27-29, 35.
[5] Jane Vennard, p. 27.
[6] Jane Vennard, p. 27.

Monday, June 11, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: "What Is a Worry?"

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
"What Is a Worry?"
Philippians 4: 4-9
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
June 10 , 2018

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: 4-9

One of the great privileges of the pulpit is for God’s Word to speak into the questions that our children, youth, and adults in the pews are asking. One question came in response to last week’s sermon about “Not Yet Knowing” in times of uncertainty: “What is a whrie (worry)?”

The Apostle Paul talks about worry in his letter to the Philippians. When he uses that word “worry” it means “to be pulled into different directions, or to be distracted by a concern.”

You know that feeling when the alarm goes off and you don’t want to go to school because you are worried about that test? Your tummy hurts, and you just want to hide under the covers.

Or when the teacher calls on you to give the answer and your heart races because you are worried that your answer won’t be the right one.

Or when we show up for the first day of a new job and our hands get all sweaty and clammy because we are worried that we might not fit in.

And parenthood worries are a whole other category. A friend recently shared, “Telling a parent not to worry about their child is like telling water not to be wet!”

It is human nature to worry. Our concerns run the gamut. And guess what? Our spiritual ancestors in the Bible had worries too.

The sisters Mary and Martha welcomed their dear friend Jesus into their home. Martha worried about making everything perfect for Jesus (Luke 10: 38-42).

If you dig into the Bible, you find that worrying is not just something that girls or women do.

God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. And Moses worried that the people would not listen to him. He worried that he had no qualifications to be a public speaker and leader (Exodus 4:1, 10).

God called Gideon to be a governor of Israel. And Gideon worried that he was not enough (Judges 6:15).

Naaman was the commander of the army for King Aram of Syria. He had quite a reputation for his strength as a mighty warrior. But he also had leprosy, a skin disease that made many feel weak and unaccepted. When presented with an opportunity for the prophet Elisha to heal him, Naaman worried. His emotions came out as anger because Elisha told him to wash and be cleansed in the Jordan River. Naaman was afraid to reveal his need for healing in a public place (2 Kings 5: 1-19).

The Psalmist had somehow missed the mark. He had made a wrong decision and did not know how to make it right. He kept his worries bottled up to the point that the worry bullies held him hostage (Psalm 32: 3-4).

And yet Scripture says that each of these worries did not have the final say.

The Apostle Paul knows we are prone to worry. So he says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything… let your concerns be known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Paul is not discounting our deepest concerns. It is so very important to really listen to one another’s worries with mutual affection and love.

Paul is talking about the level of worry that blocks the path towards living the abundant life that Christ promises. This kind of worrying is not productive because it disturbs our trust in God’s power. It will not add a single hour to our lives to help us fix our problems. (Matthew 6:27). When worry steals our days then it is time to get a new perspective.

Faith empowers us to reframe our circumstances. There are five keys to reframing worry.

1. Focus on the present. Jesus looked at Martha and said, “You are distracted by many things. There is only need of one thing.” Jesus lifted up Mary’s example of simply being present. God’s grace for the moment at hand is always worthy to take notice of. Breathe it in, and breathe it out. Being present with God guards our hearts from living in the past and getting too far ahead into the future.

2. Pray. One of my good friends often told her children and those she ministered to, “Have you prayed about it as much as you have worried about it?”

Prayer is being aware that the Lord is near. We are to share all of our concerns with God because the Lord cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). God hears. God knows. And God desires to live in relationship with us.

We share our shortcomings and God says, “I will be your mouth and I will teach you” (Exodus 4:12). We name our weaknesses and God says, “But I will be with you” (Judges 6:16). The Spirit moves us to be vulnerable to reveal we need help and God always honors the risk (2 Kings 5: 13-14). We confess our failures and God meets us where we are, forgives, and counsels us (Psalm 32:5, 8).

We pray about all this with thanksgiving. A thankful heart simply means our trust in God’s grace is growing day by day as we strive to live in the present.

3. Question. Is my concern a realistic outcome or is this a worst-case scenario? When the worry bully holds us hostage we go from one “what if” to another. It is a thought pattern that can be hard to break. It causes us to be ineffective.

For this very reason, we must make every effort to support our faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with a heart for God (godliness). For if these things are yours and mine and if these things are increasing among us they keep us from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1: 5-8).

4. Dig. What is the root cause of my worry? For many of us, the root cause is thinking that we are not enough… I am not good enough, likeable enough, smart enough, strong enough, healthy enough, or financially stable enough.

Another common root cause of worry is that we have not accepted the circumstances for what they are. Sometimes it takes the help of a friend, a school counselor, a pastor, a support group, or a therapist. We need a safe space to talk, to be understood and to understand.

God can turn our worry into a wake-up call to trusting God a little more. Whatever our deep concern, God will not leave us stranded in this situation. As we grow to accept the reality of our circumstances, the Spirit will move us to make changes in the rhythm of life to address our situation constructively.

5. Change the script. Nicole Schwartz is a parent coach with a license in family therapy. She says that “children [and adults] who struggle with worry or anxiety often have a negative “worry script” playing in their head. We can overcome our fears by creating a new positive script.”

Instead of allowing our worry to dictate a negative outcome, faith gives us a new positive script. The framework of faith redirects our worry into hope.

The Apostle Paul says we do this by focusing on the things in life that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).

Focus on what is true. I did not do well on that test, but I am tired of that worry bully telling me that I am going to fail the class. That bad grade does not mean I will fail the class. I am smart, and a tutor will help me learn what I do not understand.

Focus on whatever is honorable. I am humbled by all my friends who know my situation and have been praying so much about this mess. This has been so hard. But I am in awe of the people God is bringing into my life at just the right time to encourage me and give me hope.

Focus on those things worthy of praise. This diagnosis scares me. I don’t want to be sick. But I am grateful that my doctor caught this and is creating a medical plan to help me get better.

The Psalmist reframes his trust in God saying, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” (Psalm 138: 8).

When that worry begins to take on a life of its own, then call upon God. Allow this gift of faith to bring about a new perspective. Keep on practicing what God’s Word teaches and the God of peace will be with you and me one day at a time.

The hope is that as we frame our worry, it will be well with our soul.

May it be so for us today and every day.

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Sermon: Not Yet Knowing

Not Yet Knowing
Psalm 139: 1-6; 1 Samuel 3: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
June 3, 2018

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
- Psalm 139: 1-6

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’

Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
- 1 Samuel 3: 1-10

He was a child of the promise and he was born on the wings of a prayer. His name was Samuel. In Hebrew it means “God has heard.”

And God did indeed hear. God heard Hannah’s cries as she poured out her soul before the Lord (1 Samuel 1:15). She longed to have a son to dedicate to the Lord’s service.

God also heard the cries of Israel as they strived and wrestled to understand their identity as God’s chosen people. Young Samuel received divine and human favor. He was chosen by God to speak truth to Israel’s uncertainty.

Today we see such a tender scene between Eli and Samuel. The two needed each other in a time of transition. Eli had long been a prophet to Israel. And now he was preparing Samuel to carry the prophetic torch next.

Eli was up in his years and as a result his eyesight was growing dim. I know many wise one among us here today who agree with me when I say, “It takes courage to grow older!”

Eli needed to see through young Samuel’s eyes. And Samuel needed Eli’s guidance for he did not yet know the Lord. The text says, “The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7).

We all have life transitions where uncertainty makes our eyes grow dim. It feels like we are walking around in the dark; we are just trying not to stumble.

No matter what age we are or what stage of faith we are in, we are today or will be in a place of not yet knowing. In some way or another, we are all waiting for the word of the Lord to be revealed to us in our daily questions and struggles.

Some days the aches and pains of growing up and even growing older are just plain tough. Other days there seems to be so much conflict and sadness in the world. It makes us wonder if there are no more burning bushes, no more manna falling from heaven, no more rainbows in the skies reminding us of the hidden presence of God. There are days when it is just plain hard to hope. We cannot help but question where is God in the midst of it all.

The stresses of daily life create roller coasters of uncertainty.

The budget that was once steady is now strained by that unexpected change. The door to that job we have been hoping for has not yet opened. Family dynamics have their tug of war in our households and we do not know how to relieve the tension. The balancing act of life is like walking on a tight rope and we question our ability to even out our priorities and commitments. The diagnosis comes and grips the near future in fear.

It is quite a task to navigate through all our questions when life comes at us fast. You see – they’re the big questions with no easy answers.

But we are like Samuel. We all need someone to help guide us. We are trying to listen for God’s still small voice. We are trying to be attentive to where God is leading us to take the next right step. We are eager to listen for hope, but the fear and the doubt of not yet knowing can be louder than God’s whisper of grace.

This is what is called liminal space. It is a space of transition; a space of change; a space of preparing for the unknown.

John O’Donohue is an Irish poet and Celtic priest.

He writes these poetic words of blessing for this in-between space that he calls “Interim Time:”

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come...

You are in the time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn

As far as we can, we hold our confidence through this gift of faith. For the liminal space in which Eli and Samuel experienced, their confidence was knowing that the lamp of God had not yet gone out (1 Samuel 3:5).

Despite all that we have yet to know and see – faith gives us hope. God’s light shines in the darkness of uncertainty and that darkness – that uncertainty - shall never overcome it (John 1:5). The light of God’s promised love finds each of us and speaks to us in the midst of all the uncertainty.

It is Jesus Christ who shows up as the light of the world. His light binds us together as a community of faith to mentor and encourage one another. We need each other to see the light.

And so Jesus equips us to follow the light that has come into the world. As we grow in our spiritual maturity, God’s Word is slowly revealed to us through whispers of grace.

Christ speaks into that strained budget: “Do not worry about your life; the Father knows what you need. Do not focus on making ends meet – but strive first for the kingdom of God and everything will fall into place” (Matt 6:25,33).

We wait with confidence for that job opportunity because God know the plans he has for us to give us a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

The fear about the diagnosis is calmed knowing someone is praying on our behalf for the peace of God to surpass our human understanding (Philippians 4:4-7).

As John Donohue says, “The more faithfully you can endure here – in the interim time - the more refined your heart will become.”

The interim places of life challenge us to be faithful to God alone; for our faith does not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). We might see uncertainty ahead, but we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light onto our path (Psalm 119: 1-5). As the Lord goes ahead of us, God is working things out.

God takes our suffering and struggles and produces endurance. We endure by God’s grace; for when we are weak that is when we feel God’s strength. That kind of endurance redefines our heart and builds up our character. And godly character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint because if God is for us then who can be against us? (Romans 5:3-5; 8:31).

The Lord God stood in the gap of the unknown between Eli and Samuel and the Lord God stands in the gap our uncertainties too. God not only stands in the gap with us, but also God will lead us through life’s uncertainties.

Scripture says God leads us out of the wilderness into God’s Promised Land. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). Be still and listen for God tell you when to go forward! (Exodus 14:15).

In all of our various places and stages of “not yet knowing,” God fully knows you and me. The Lord is acquainted with all our ways… The Lord hems us in, behind, and before and lays a hand of steadfast love upon us (Psalm 139: 1-6). And God will bring about God’s purposes in our lives in God’s timing to reveal God’s glory.

God’s Word challenges you and me to trust in the Lord’s presence, to look for the light of hope, and to listen for God’s whispers of grace. Let us hold our confidence by disciplining ourselves to remain in God’s Word.

The Good Book says we need the support of each other to do this. The love of Christ urges us on. And yet when we find ourselves in that interim time, the Spirit will quiet our hearts and help us to let go and let God.

The next time you see uncertainty do not fear. Trust God has got you. And let your prayer be, “Here I am. Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

For God has heard and God is with us.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] John O’ Donohue, “Blessing the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings” (New York: Double Day, 2008), pp. 119-120.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon: What's Your Passion?

What’s Your Passion?
Proverbs 16:9; Matthew 28: 16-20
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 27, 2018
Trinity Sunday

The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps. - Proverbs 16:9

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
- Matthew 28: 16-20

“The human mind plans the way but the Lord directs the steps.” These words from Proverbs 16:9 completely sum up the life of Jesus’ disciples.

From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples had planned to just live an ordinary life. They learned a trade and made a living with the gifts, resources, and family support they had been given.

None of them were looking for Jesus. But suddenly one day, Jesus showed up. Jesus met Peter and Andrew and James and John and even Matthew where they were. Jesus came alongside them and said, “Follow me” and I will take your God-given gifts and teach you how to use them to build God’s kingdom (Matthew 4:18-22; 9: 9-10).

Every time I read about the way Jesus called the disciples, I am fascinated that there were no excuses or balking, like you or I have given. The disciples did not know where Jesus would take them. The disciples did not know what they would have to give up. But there was something about Jesus they trusted enough to direct their steps.

All great leaders have a sphere of influence. And their influence is worth following if they have two character traits: passion and integrity. Passion is being moved to action at the risk of hurting or suffering for the cause. Integrity is having an attitude towards wholeness for self and others by adhering to moral and ethical principles.

Those whom Jesus called were drawn to his passion and integrity. The Son of God came to embody the power of God’s bold and steadfast love. God’s love changes everything. Standing in the presence of God’s love causes us to see ourselves and the world differently.

Have you ever met someone who embodies God’s love in such an authentic way that it left you saying, “I want that! I want what s/he has.”?

I think it was like that for the disciples. They saw Jesus embody God’s love in such a powerful way that they said to themselves, “I want to be like that.”

Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus preached and lived by the Beattitudes – lifting up the most vulnerable into the strength of God’s promises. Jesus taught to look for the new thing God is doing in the world; be the light; always be humble and kind. Jesus taught the disciples four keys to living by godly integrity: pray, do not worry, serve God alone, and the Golden Rule (treat others the way you want to be treated).

Jesus taught the disciples the ministry of presence to bring about God’s healing. Jesus taught the disciples the power of God’s love is hidden in the ordinary places of life. He instructed the disciples to look for it and help others see it because it is in those places that the kingdom of God is breaking in and we could miss it.

As Jesus directed the disciples’ steps, he revealed the way ahead would not be easy. All who follow Jesus will need to deny themselves and live into the self-giving love of the cross. Jesus prepared the disciples to handle conflict with prayerful integrity. Jesus was bold to welcome the children and ensure their valued presence in God’s family.

Jesus’ passion and integrity directed the disciples’ steps into a new way of living. Jesus revealed our true humanity is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the sum of the Law and the prophets; it is why we are called to follow Jesus. Therefore, we are sent to carry on Jesus’ ministry of making disciples of all nations.

We find Scripture’s marching orders in the same way the disciples did. We praise God for all God has done as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And we also doubt. We doubt that we are capable or even qualified to live up to and to live into the fullness of Jesus’ example and teachings.

Last Saturday The Most Reverend Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, had the great privilege of preaching the royal wedding homily for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Curry spoke with such candor about the power of love:

But love is not only about a young couple. Now the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we're all here. Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up….

But Curry also preached from a global pulpit. His words were filled passion to inspire the making of disciples:

Someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history.

A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world - and a movement mandating people to live that love, and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.

I'm talking about power. Real power. Power to change the world.

"If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way.

Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.

Curry delivered this sermon to more than 2 billion people globally. It is one of the most profound sermons I have ever heard preached. I have no doubt that some disciples were made and also encouraged that day!

Curry’s sermon inspired and challenged all who were listening to truly live into the transforming love of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. I know I am not the only one who listened to those words and said, “I want to be a part of that. I want to be guided by that way of love!”

The Apostle Paul says that God has given each of us gifts – a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

That means that God has given you and me a unique way of sharing the power of God’s love. God has a plan to give you a future with hope to bring about God's purposes like no one else can do.

The truth of our texts today is that God inspires us to follow Jesus’ passion and integrity through that of others. God fuels our passion to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. God directs the steps of our lives and work to continue Christ’s ministry of making disciples.

Our hearts might plan the way, but God directs our steps to bring about God’s purposes in the ordinary places of life. It’s not always about what we say (about faith) but rather what we are teaching through our actions.

Frederick Buechner says, the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. ... The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

Over the past seven months I have seen all this come to life in a program called Leadership Lancaster. For the past thirty years, our local Chamber of Commerce has created an environment to intersect the diversity of work in our community with a passion of bettering Lancaster. I had the privilege of learning about Lancaster’s layers of infrastructure with 30 cohorts who work for a variety of businesses and non-profits here.

The President of Lancaster Chamber of Commerce is Dean Faile and he began this program with one question: “What is your passion?”

Another way of saying that is: What do you have a great love and concern for in which you are willing to give up your time, talents, and treasures to foster positive change here in in our community and beyond? It is a question that has made a profound impression upon my cohorts and myself.

I have had the privilege of meeting so many leaders in our community who intersect their talents and faith with passion and integrity. They serve the county in our school district, hospital, social agencies, the arts council, businesses and industry, the city and state government, the police and sheriff’s departments, and in the military.

None of the individuals I met are perfect; nor are any of these institutions. But the individuals I met through Leadership Lancaster are trying their best to love God and love neighbor as self.

Through their unique God-given gifts and passion, they are working together to do one thing…. (and I borrow the words of Debbie Jaillette, Executive Director of the Lancaster County Council of the Arts): that one thing is “Becoming a formidable force for good, community, love and family.”

And that my friend is what it means to live into the power of God’s love. To be a formidable force is what it means to follow Jesus and to make disciples of all nations. That is what it means to obey everything that Jesus commanded and point to the kingdom of God.

What is your passion that parallels Christ’s teachings? It may be welcoming children to help them feel valued. It may be blessing the poor in spirit. Where is God leading you to intersect your deep gladness and the world’s greatest need?

When God’s love guides our motivations and actions then the way of love directs our steps to be a formidable force for good in our families, community, and world – not just for the common good but for God’s good.

When love is the way then God’s kingdom breaks in a little more and we cannot miss it.

And we are inspired, our passion is rekindled, and our integrity is strengthened to be all that God is creating us to be.

May it be so for each of us today and everyday.

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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sermon: We All Need a Pep Talk

We All Need a Pep Talk
Acts 2: 1-21
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2018
Youth Sunday (Pentecost)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Acts 2: 1-21

Robby Novack is fourteen years old. He has made quite a name for himself on you tube. When he steps in front of the rolling camera he becomes Kid President. In his dark business suit and red tie, Kid President looks at his global audience of all ages and says:

I think we all need a pep talk. The world needs to stop being boring. Yeah, you! Boring is easy, everybody can be boring. But you're gooder than that. Life is not a game people. Life isn't a cereal either. Well, it is a cereal. And if life is a game, aren't we all on the same team? I mean really, right? I'm on your team, you’re on my team.

This is life people, you've got air coming through your nose! You've got a heartbeat! That means it's time to do somethin'!

A poem. "Two roads diverged in the woods...and I took the road less traveled... AND IT HURT MAN! Really bad. Rocks! Thorns! Glass! My pants broke! NOT COOL ROBERT FROST!

But what if there really were two paths? I want to be on the one that leads to awesome.

It's like that dude Journey said, don't stop believing…

What will you create when you make the world awesome? Nothing if you keep sittin' there! This is why I'm talking to you today!

This is your time. This is my time. This is our time. We can make everyday better for each other. If we're all on the same team, let's start acting like it. We've got work to do. We can cry about it, or we can dance about it.

You were made to be awesome. Let's get out there! I don't know everything, I'm just a kid, but I do know this: It's everybody’s duty to do good, and give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!

The day the Holy Spirit was revealed to the church was like Kid’s President’s pep talk.

All those whom followed our Risen Savior knew firsthand the road less traveled. It hurt and yet it made all the difference. They had sacrificed a lot to claim Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). After our Risen Lord ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, the disciples and apostles had no idea what would happen next.

Suddenly, Holy Spirit filled the room with the breath of God like a rushing wind. God’s power of love touched upon each one gathered. It brought everyone to their feet. The time of waiting was over. Holy Spirit made everyone’s heart beat a little faster. In that moment Creator God was breathing new life into the lungs of those men and women. The grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit told them it was time to do something!

And it was Peter who gave the newly born church a pep talk. Peter told the church, ‘Don’t stop believing in God’s great vision of changing the world (Joel 2: 28-32). God’s Spirit would be poured out on everyone – our sons and daughters, women and men, the young and the old (Acts 2:17-18). Peter was proclaiming that the Holy Spirit was wrapping the church in God’s power of love.

The Spirit led the early church and is still leading us today on the path of awesome. It is awesome because God is the one paving the way forward. God is the one who show us signs of the Lord’s presence, the coming kingdom, and God’s ministry of reconciling all of creation and humanity back to God's intentions(Acts 2: 19-21). God's love never fails. As a result, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The past five months Carson Helms, Ashley Overstreet, and Mia Edwards have been reflecting on what we believe about God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, and the traditions of the Presbyterian Church. Once a month we have joined six other youth from our Presbytery to play games, build relationships, and learn about faith.

Carson, Mia, and Ashley – now it’s my turn for giving a pep talk! Today we celebrate the ways the gift of faith has shaped your lives through your families and your church family. I trust Holy Spirit is breathing new life into your soul. This gift of faith keeps you close to God’s heartbeat. As you follow Jesus’ teachings, they will remind you it’s time to do something with all you have learned!

Let this be known to you: God has already given each of you gifts and talents and passions to share with the church and the world. This is your time and God will continue to open your eyes to see God’s path that leads to awesome! God will work through each of you to share the good news that God’s love is still changing the world. God’s timing always has a sense of candor and humor. God will show each of you the next steps in your faith journeys in unexpected ways and through unexpected people . And God will help you know how you uniquely belong in serving the body of Christ!

And church – let this be known to each of us: we have promised to walk beside our youth in word and deed and with our love and prayers. Those Baptismal vows that we and the connectional church took imply we promise to raise and teach all of our children in the faith.

But those vows and our biblical text today also imply that we are to be open to our children and youth teaching us. God will teach us the way, the truth, and the life through the God-given visions and dreams of our children and youth. Our sons and daughters shall prophesy, revealing to us God’s Word, showing us God’s path and even challenge us to take the next right steps (Acts 2:17).

Our youth are not just the future of the church. They are a significant part of the local church and the church universal today.

Carson, Mia, and Ashley – confirmation is not the end. Rather it is a part of the journey of faith. Just as you go to school to grow in knowledge, so the church helps you to grow in spiritual formation. None of us are born knowing everything. But we all are born with a desire to worship God.

Everything you have learned thus far is a strong foundation and the beginning of wisdom. No matter how old any of us are, there is always more to learn. As Proverbs 4:5-6 says, “Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, do not turn away. Do not forsake [wisdom] and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you.”

The wisdom of faith shapes us to make every day better by the power of God’s love because we are all on the same team. We are on the Big 3 Team: God – Jesus – Holy Spirit.

Scripture tells us that a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6c). His name was Jesus and we all follow in his footsteps. Carson, Mia, and Ashley – you were made to be awesome because you are a beloved child of God.

May you lead the church to follow Jesus and give the world a reason to don’t stop believing!

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Mother's Day Prayer

Mother's Day is both joyful and dreaded.

Our Prayer for the People from Sunday May 13 reflects the light and darkness of the day.

May the Spirit of gentleness meet you where you are:

A Prayer for Mother’s Day, by Rev. Carson Overstreet 5/13/18

Holy God and Loving Friend,

We give you thanks today for your promised and steadfast love. You gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings. You are the patient father waiting to welcome your wayward children home. No matter how much we wander from you or even resist your love, you love us still.

Lord God we recognize both the joy and challenge of this Sunday.

We give thanks to the women in our lives whom we know and love as mother. For those of us who cherish healthy relationships, we do give you thanks for a mother’s selfless love, encouragement, support and rich legacies that have been passed down.

We also give you thanks for the women in our lives who are mother figures to us. Thank you for placing your Deborahs in our lives (Judges 4-5). These women teach us who we are in your love, inspire us to reach for the stars, and challenge us to seek your hope that we can hold onto everyday.

But in this space it is right to share our laments. For many, this day holds grief for the strained relationship that seems to be beyond repair. There is a piece of someone’s heart missing as that son or daughter is not able to come home and be with family today. There is sadness for the empty chair - the one we cannot call on the phone today. There are broken dreams of infertility, miscarriage, and child loss.

We lift all these to you Loving God and we pray for your Spirit to embrace each of us in your grace. Grant us peace that surpasses our understanding. And speak to us your truth once again that you will surely go with us to climb every mountain and to fight every battle with your strength that never wanes or wearies.

Lead us into the promises of your kingdom, for we pray for it with boldness using the prayer Jesus taught us say....Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil; for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Sermon: I Will Surely Go With You

I Will Surely Go with You
Judges 4: 1-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim.

Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement.

She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’

Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’

And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.
- Judges 4: 1-10

There is an old Polish proverb that states, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” That proverb makes me chuckle when there seems to be nothing but drama in life. In a comedic way, those words give permission to step away from the drama when you are not the ringmaster of it.

It’s a different story when all the rigmarole going on is in your own tent. The human mind wants to know who will lead us to find the calm in the chaos?

As the tent of God’s people moved to the Promised Land of Canaan, the history of God’s people reads like a drama.

In one circle the people follow God’s direction faithfully and do just fine. Jump into the next circle and the people began to lose focus; they followed every other influence but God’s and went in a thousand different directions. By the time you jump into the last circle, the people have completely forgotten who they were called to be, so they cry out for God’s help.

The history of God’s people started to look like a three-ring circus. As this cycle continued, God allowed the people to be taken over by their enemies. God hoped this consequence would lead the people to place their trust in God alone.

The Old Testament book of Judges tells us that God never had that proverbial mindset, “Not my circus.” God never stepped away from his people. Rather “God raised up judges for [the twelve tribes of Israel], the Lord was with the judge, and [God] delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them” (Judges 2:18).

A judge was a person called by God to act as a leader, a governor if you will. This individual gave the Law of God, decided controversies, mediated conflict, and interpreted the Law (first five books of the Bible). The Law touched the civil, religious, political, and social spheres of life.

Today we look into the life of one particular judge who is remembered with great respect and favor. Deborah is the only female judge listed among the twelve judges of Israel. And her story matters to us today.

God’s people had been oppressed by cruelty for twenty years since the last judge (Shamgar) and God raised up Deborah as a judge, a prophetess, and military commander for the tribe of Ephraim (Judges 3:31; 4:3-5).

Deborah wore a number of hats, as she was also a woman of God and a wife. While nothing more is stated about the life of her family, there is truth to the saying: If you want something done then get a woman to do it! The Lord knows we ladies juggle a lot of hats!

Deborah was a woman who focused on living in right relationship with God. Just as God would surely go with her to accomplish God’s purposes, Deborah went with God in a deep commitment to follow God’s call. That is the key to anything we women and men are called to do! Within the tribe of Ephraim, she sat under the palm tree – a sign of righteousness and fruitfulness (Psalm 92:12). In order to speak God’s word and interpret God’s law to those in her care, she needed to abide with God with prayer and integrity.

Deborah’s focus to live in right relationship with God led her to be equally focused on creating right relationships within the tribe of Ephraim. Deborah was committed to be with the people she was called to serve; she wanted the tribe of Ephraim to know that God would surely go with them too. As she sat under the palm tree, Deborah made herself available to her community.

As a result, God’s people came to her for guidance and judgment. That sentence is pivotal in Judges 4:5. It implies that the people of God trusted Deborah’s leadership and valued her call, character, wisdom, and encouragement.

Deborah was also willing to share leadership to create unity and to deliver God’s people. Remember Deborah also served in the role of military commander. Once God’s Spirit revealed the next steps for the military strategy to overtake the King of Canaan, Deborah summoned Barak, the general of Israel’s army.

She was not bossy, but she was assertive with her prophetic vision to Barak regarding God’s deliverance. And yet Deborah encouraged Barak when he was uncertain about the upcoming battle, saying “I will surely go with you” (Judges 4:9). As the chaos of war began, Deborah encouraged Barak once more saying, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera (the general of Cannan’s army) into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you!” (Judges 4:14).

And in response to God’s faithfulness to conquer Sisera and deliver Israel, Deborah sang a poetic song of victory naming all whom God worked through (Judges 5). As a result of God’s faithfulness through Deborah and those whom she helped to build up, the people of God experienced peace and rest for forty years (Judges 5:31).

Deborah reminds us of the special women you and I know who are heroes in their own right.

They are women who come into our lives and through them we see God’s faithfulness. They have a way of calming the chaos surrounding us. They ground us in wisdom of building bridges instead of burning them. They help us to see glimmers of hope in the dark valleys of life. They work to bring out the best in us. And they journey beside us to help us fight our battles and climb the mountains of life, trusting that by the grace of God we will overcome – for God indeed goes ahead of us.

We hold tight to our Deborahs in life because their story positively shapes ours. Therefore, we value these women for their strong character of faith. We treasure their trustworthiness, leadership, encouragement, and even challenge.

Thursday evening, I had the privilege to hear the Indian Land Middle School Choir sing. The youth on stage sang with joy, passion, and discipline under their Director Shonda Bradshaw. After their performance, a number of students came forward to give bouquets of flowers to Ms. Bradshaw in gratitude for her leadership.

But then something amazing happened; one by one - boys and girls from the choir took turns at the mic to share what Ms. Bradshaw meant to them.

Both boys and girls alike remembered the semester’s first day of choir saying, “I was not sure I wanted to take Ms. Bradshaw’s class. She was really strict and she would get after us.”

My hat goes off to any teacher who is able to command the students’ attention and be assertive. What an incredibly important responsibility our teachers have! It is truly a calling.

But what those students said next brought tears to my eyes.

They said the more they got to know their teacher, they realized how much she cared for them.

Ms. Bradshaw would hang out in the hallways of school to make herself available to her students. She took notice of the smiling faces and also the heaviness that our youth carry. It did not matter if a student had studied under Ms. Bradshaw for one semester or through all of 6th to 8th grades during middle school. Those youth sought Ms. Bradshaw out for guidance because she focused on right relationships. Ms. Bradshaw was a Deborah.

One student shared that Ms. Bradshaw had become her middle school mom, a woman she trusted and confided in when things in life got tough. Through thick and thin, Ms. Bradshaw’s students knew their teacher would surely go with them to help them climb their mountains and fight their battles.

Thursday evening, everyone in that auditorium was blessed to hear these stories of trustworthiness, leadership, encouragement, and even challenge. And I left that evening knowing that God is at work in Ms. Bradshaw’s life, in her students’ lives, and in the life of our schools in a powerful way.

Today we give thanks to God for the many Deborahs and other strong women in our lives.

They are teachers, mentors, soldiers, co-workers. They are grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and even mothers. I thank God for including strong women in Scripture.

As we celebrate the strong women among us, may we know them; may we raise them; may we be them.

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

* artwork, "Deborah," by Cody F. Miller

References Studied Informing the Sermon:

Lynn Japinga, “Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), pp. 74-78.

Caryn Rivadeneira, “Grit and Grace: Heroic Women of the Bible” (Minneapolis: Spark House, 2017), pp. 43-48.
Beth Lindsay Templeton, “Conversations on the Porch: Ancient Voices, Contemporary Wisdom” (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2011), pp. 40-43.

New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume II: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 180-188.