Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Face of Faith Sermon Series: The Mind (4/5)

The Face of Faith: A Sermon Series on James
The Mind
James 3:13 – 4:10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 7, 2018

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
‘God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.’

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
- James 3:13 - 4:10

Last weekend I had the great privilege of leading a women’s retreat in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Friday evening that we gathered together I was so nervous because I knew only two of the women there – my mother who I invited to come with me, and my dear friend from seminary whose husband is the pastor of the Fairbanks congregation. But God is good and so are overnight retreats with a diverse group of women. You get to know each other rather quickly sharing meals, laughter, small group discussions, sleeping quarters and bathrooms!

My greatest hopes for the retreat were for God’s presence to be made known, for the each of us to grow stronger faith muscles together, and for the women’s shared spiritual wisdom among to build up one another.

I took the wisdom I have learned from our Van Wyck women among us; I asked the women of Fairbanks to participate in Secret Sisters. Each woman’s name was placed on a piece of paper and drawn from a basket. Over the course of the weekend, each woman was to write two notes of encouragement to their secret sister…a strength admired about her or a prayer to lift her up. By mid-morning on Saturday and Sunday, each woman was blessed with a word of spiritual insight and strength.

I was fascinated to learn about the woman whose name I drew. She has an unassuming and gentle smile. She is a lover of adventure. She is a pilot and a motorcyclist. And she feels strongest when she does not depend upon anyone but God alone.

This woman discovered I was her secret sister and before we parted ways she shared some intriguing wisdom with me. Her sending words seemed to be out of the blue, but in that moment, she wanted me to go with a part of her lived experience. She looked into my eyes and said when she was learning how to drive a motorcycle two truths had been life-saving to her.

First and foremost, as you drive a motorcycle along the twists and turns of the road, it matters where you focus your mind’s eye. If you look out into the wild blue yonder or at that tree as you take the turn, that is where the motorcycle will go. In order to keep the motorcycle in the line of the road your mind must be intentionally focused on the path ahead of you. Distractions that break your focus can be costly.

Second, when you are on the bike and when (not if) you get stuck in a rut – do not keep spinning your wheels. Just stop. Be still. And then allow the power of the motorcycle to drive you up and out of the rut.

I received those words and just said, “That is proverbial and prophetic.”

This morning we are receiving another prophetic word from James. In the twists and turns of life it also matters what the mind’s eye of faith focuses upon. So James is moving us to look at our minds in the face of faith. And James lifts up two very different sources of wisdom: godly wisdom and earthly wisdom.

Like a wise sage, James begins with godly wisdom: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done in gentleness and born of wisdom” (James 3:13). James encourages us to keep our minds focused on God’s Word.

James knows what it means to stay intentionally focused on God’s path that leads to life: “For the ones who find wisdom and gain understanding are blessed; her income is better than silver and her revenue is better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, nothing can compare to her” (Proverbs 2: 13-15).

Godly wisdom is practical wisdom gained through the course of our lived experience as the book of Proverbs entails. Attaining godly wisdom begins with the gentle force of God’s inspiration and it leads us by the empowerment of God’s direction.

James says the wisdom from above is holy, unfailing, and trustworthy. It is peaceable because it always moves in the direction towards God’s wholeness. God says, “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:20) therefore as disciples we are to discern God’s path and follow it in obedience. God’s wisdom is gentle because it is equitable and available to all. It is willing to yield in perfect obedience to God’s purposes. It is merciful because it loyal to God’s steadfast love and marked by love for neighbor.

Remember for James the greatest marker of our Christian identity is the Law of Love.

On the other hand, earthly wisdom persuades us to rely on human insight. When we are wise in our own eyes, our face of faith turns inwards towards envy and selfish ambition and turns away from God. Earthly wisdom disquiets the soul with disorder, conflict, and disputes. It leads us off God’s path and into the ravine of unrest and untruth.

At the fast pace of life today, it matters what our minds are focused on. If we get caught up in the conflicts and disputes of the day and our minds are not focused on the Law of Love, then we will do nothing less than my secret sister’s proverbial motorcycle wisdom – our faith will spin out into the foolishness of the world. A divided focus can be costly in the twists and turns of life.

James is leading us to confess that our minds get stuck in the ruts of earthly wisdom. He says, “Draw near to God and he will be near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8).

James recognizes how tempted we are to divide our loyalty between God and the world. A divided focus is costly and leads us where God does not want us to go. A divided focus leads us to partiality and hypocrisy.

Therefore, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not - to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1 :27-29).

Holding these Scriptures in one hand and the news in the other, I cannot help but wonder if God is saying how foolish we are to lean into earthly wisdom.

Teresa of Avila lived in Spain in the 16th century. She was a Carmelite nun, an author of faith, and a preacher. She once said, “Fix your eyes on the crucified Lord and everything will become small for you.”

Fix your mind’s eye on God’s wisdom and the path of faith will come into focus. Fix your mind on the humility and sacrificial love of Christ you will find life-saving truth. “God is the source of our life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Today is World Communion Sunday we unite with sisters and brothers around the world as we approach the Lord’s Table. The bread of life and the cup of salvation reveal the mind of Christ for us:

“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (less than and despised), being born as one of us, and he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

God desires the face of our faith to have the mind of Christ. We are to have the same love and compassion for others as Christ did for us. That means we are to “do nothing for selfish ambition, or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves. Let us not look to our own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

If you find your faith is in a rut of earthly wisdom today, know you are in the right place.

Be still. Draw near to God and the Lord will draw near to you.

Let us share our need for God’s gift of grace. Let us ask God to break our hearts for what breaks the Lord’s heart.

And may the power of God’s Spirit lift us up in godly wisdom to go and continue Christ’s ministry of humility, compassion, justice, and peace.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Face of Faith Sermon Series: Mouth (3/5)

The Face of Faith: A Sermon Series on James
James 3: 1-12
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
- James 3: 1-12

It really could have happened to anybody.

It was Thursday evening and the sanctuary was nearly full. Everyone gathered to remember the Last Supper that Jesus had with the disciples before his arrest and death on the cross.

The lights were dimmed and the choir sang that slow and solemn hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?....Oh-oh-oh-oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble….” The song made everyone sit with bated breath, just listening for the Spirit’s presence.

Suddenly, a woman’s high heeled shoe flew off of her foot and went flying over head through the sanctuary. In that split second, her mouth opened and yelled, “SHOOT!” except that was not the word that fired off. Hearing that word fly out of her mouth in that sanctuary caused the woman to tremble.

The pastor was singing baritone in the choir and could not quite restrain himself from laughing. Some silently wondered, “What just happened!” A mother gave her child “the look” when he giggled.

This gives a whole new meaning to James’ words, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3: 10). We never really know on any given day what might fly out of our mouths, do we?

James holds up the mirror of God’s truth today. He invites you and me to look at our mouths within the face of our faith.

The mirror of God’s Word encourages us to mature in our Christian character. Maturity comes through the wisdom of reflecting upon our lived experiences; the good, the bad, and the ugly in our successes and failures.

The best thing we can ever do is learn from our mistakes and help others to do the same. James implies that our spiritual growth allows for us to keep the whole body in check by honing the Holy Spirit’s gift of self-control. Spiritual maturity also acknowledges when our sense of restraint breaks down.

Therefore, the mirror of God’s Word challenges us too. When we look into God’s mirror of truth it reflects the shadows of human sin in the light of God’s mercy. James’ words today are moving us to confess the sin of our speech: All of us make mistakes…but no one can tame the tongue, a restless evil, full of deadly poison…With it we bless the Lord and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:2a, 8-10).

As we become adults we are to put an end to childish ways. There was a time we all have said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that is not really true, is it? The truth is we wield words like weapons that create deep wounds in others. Our words dishonor God and dishonor the gift of faith.

Jesus taught that our words matter to God. He said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11; Mark 7: 14-15). The heart in the Jewish culture is the gut; the center of human will. And the words we choose to say come from the heart.

If our hearts are far from God and if we are not daily keeping in step with the Spirit then we easily talk the talk and do not walk the walk. This is what disgraces the face of faith we project to God and to others.

We bless the Lord while we curse those who are made in the image of God (James 3:9). Our rash words become sword thrusts and our harsh words stir anger for death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 12:18; 15:1; 18:20). And if we honor God with our lips but our hearts are not Spirit-filled and if mouths do not embody the gospel we proclaim, then our worship and faith are worthless (Isaiah 29:13; James 1:26).

The greatest temptation in our society today is to say words behind a computer screen or a cell phone that we normally would not say face to face.

Our words are like fire that fuels the embers of dissension in an already polarized world.
We dehumanize those we disagree with. We have lost the finesse of civility and decorum.
We fail to revere the image of God in the face of the other – the poor, the immigrant, the refugee, the prisoner, the disabled, the Republican, the Democrat.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters this ought not to be so (James 3:10).

And yet the confessional nature of James’ words today asks us to look in the mirror and ask:
How has my mouth, my tongue, my words stained my face of faith and the larger body of Christ?
How am I complicit in fanning the flames of dissension?
When have I dehumanized those I disagree with?
Do my words embody the gospel I proclaim?

The past few weeks I am again deeply reminded that our human divisions are leveled when a national tragedy or national disaster strike. When the day that no one imagined arrives, we go out of our way to reach across the road, the sidewalk, and the aisle to help the other – the neighbor we do not know and to speak words of love. Every time we do this, we act with a renewed spiritual reality - we need each other.

We need one another in the midst of all our differences to rebuild a sense of meaning and purpose in life. This is a God-given insight and it is intrinsic to who we are and whose we are.

The world and all of creation was brought into being through the power of God’s spoken Word (Genesis 1:3). God breathed life into humanity, making all of humankind in the image of God (Genesis 2:7). God gave humanity the gift and responsibility of naming all creatures of the earth (Genesis 2:19). Therefore, speech is a gift from God to bless all God has created.

We are called to speak and teach the language of God’s steadfast love. But we can only speak and teach the language of love if we are committed to be students of God’s Word. We teach by living into Jesus’ example. We speak and teach by walking the walk and using words when necessary. James says as teachers we are held to a higher example. But truthfully – as disciples of Jesus Christ we are held to a higher example just the same.

All of us make mistakes, but we must look into the mirror of God’s Word daily to see ourselves in light of the Law of Love.

I put my foot in my mouth daily, so Psalm 141:3 is an important verse to keep in my back pocket: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” As we grow in God’s wisdom, the Spirit will be at work in us to restrain our tongue.

The Apostle Paul says our face of faith is most authentic when we remember Christ teaches us to put away our old self and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. You and I are children of God, created in God’s image of righteousness, and connected as members of one another (Ephesians 4: 22-25).

We are God’s co-creators of right relationships. Our mouths are to use the gift of speech to speak with words that build up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear. We are to be kind to one another, compassionate, and forgiving. We are to be imitators of God, as his beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us. (Ephesians 4:29, 31-32, 5:1).

God sends us back out into the world this morning with a new word in our hearts and on our tongues: love. God’s self-giving love is the bridle that keeps our individual bodies and the communal body of Christ in check. God’s love leads us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19). God’s love shapes our mouths with wisdom to speak words of healing (Proverbs 12:18).

God’s love leads us to be patient, kind, and rejoice in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:4, 6). God’s love leads us to bear God’s truth with our actions and especially with our words when the society says, “It’s a dog-eat-dog-world”. God’s love leads us to believe God’s truth will rise up to reveal the best of humanity in times of turmoil. God’s love leads us to hope for and endure in God’s truth against all odds (1 Corinthians 13:7).

You and I are members of the body of Christ. We each have an individual and a communal responsibility to remember the purpose of our speech is to glorify God and to build up one another. Our speech is to be infused with this rich vocabulary of faith. The power of our words reaches well beyond the church walls and into our homes, our schools, our work, and our civic life.

In a polarized world it is time for the Church to reclaim God’s influential voice of mutual respect, humility, and Christlike love. The transformation God desires does not point fingers at other Christians. The transformation God desires begins with me (please say these 7 words with me).

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God.

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

Sermon Influenced by the Following:
New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 655-656.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Face of Faith Sermon Series: Eyes (2/5)

The Face of Faith: A Sermon Series on James
James 2: 1-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2018

James holds up the mirror of God’s Word again and invites us to look into the face of faith. Today we are focusing on the eyes in James 2: 1-17. Listen for God’s Word to you this morning.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
- James 2: 1-17

You have heard it said, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Anatomically, the pupils are the centering windows to the human eyes.

The word “pupil” comes from Latin, meaning “little-doll.” The name references the” tiny image one sees of oneself reflected in the eye of another.”

Scientifically, our pupils truly do reveal something about our inner thoughts when we look at another.

The pupil regulates the amount of light coming into the eye. Just as light and darkness cause the pupils to either contract or dilate respectively, the levels of our emotional interest do the same. All of this is involuntary; our eyes are always working on a subconscious level.

“Psychologists consider pupil dilation to be an honest cue to social interest.” If we fake our interest while engaging someone, then our pupils get smaller. Our eyes switch gears to a visual sensitivity mode causing our pupils to dilate when we get excited, when we need to detect something around us, or when we go into a fight or flight response. To really see someone and or something, we need our pupils to be wide open [1].

To spiritually see the gift and responsibility of faith, we need our teachability to be wide open.

James holds up the mirror of God’s truth for the community of faith to look into. His words are both encouraging and challenging.

James says if we are to truly recognize the face of faith which God projects to us then we need our spiritual eyes to switch gears. He encourages us to adjust our spiritual sight. The pupils of our eyes must move from being narrowed by a human point of view and become opened wide to a God point of view.

James also makes a prophetic challenge: we as Christians who profess our faith in Jesus Christ are not fully living into the ministry of Jesus Christ that God’s Word proclaims. These are hard words to say and equally challenging to hear.

The ministry of Jesus Christ proclaims that God is with us (Matthew 1:23). Jesus Christ became poor, vulnerable, and helpless – a little babe lying in a manger - for our sakes so that by his poverty and humility we might know God’s spiritual abundance today and into eternity (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Jesus’ God-given mission was to usher in God’s upside-down kingdom; lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry while bringing down oppressive authority by scattering the proud (Luke 1:50, 52-53).

Jesus’ self-giving love proclaims, “Good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight of the blind, and freedom to the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus’ mercy announces, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone” (John 8:7).

Jesus mandates that we love one another as Christ has already loved us, for by doing this everyone will know that we are his disciples (John 13: 34-35).

The ministry of Jesus Christ embraces all of this because God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11). God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Not some of us, but all of us.

When we read God’s Word asking Holy Spirit to shine God’s light something incredible happens - God’s Word actually reads us. This is why God’s Word is a mirror.

If we really allow our hearts to be honest with God and ourselves then God’s Word will show us the contradictions in our faith. I call these contradictions 'growing edges;' these are the area of our faith which need to grow and mature.

James says the faith we enact is not the gospel we proclaim.

When we pass judgment making others feel less than human then we dishonor the image of God in one another (James 2: 5-6a).

When we pick up the stone of vengeance then the measure of judgment we give is the measure we will get (Leviticus 19:18b; Matthew 7:2; James 2:10).

When we refuse to forgive we fail to remember God has already forgiven the inexcusable in you and in me (Leviticus 19:18b; John 8: 10-11; James 2:11).

The truth is that all have fallen short of the glory of God.

While God alone is the one who executes judgment, our God says mercy triumphs over judgment (Psalm 75:7; James 2:13). God’s mercy and steadfast love shine brightly in the darkness through the cross.

The Law of Love in the whole of Scripture points to God’s kingdom vision which is already here and not fully here yet. God's kingdom has already come in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet we are still waiting for it to be fully revealed.

The vision of God’s upside-down kingdom is what we are to focus the eyes of our faith on. We are called as the body of Christ to continue Jesus’ ministry of faith, hope, love, justice, and peace.

James’ letter is not about pointing the finger at what other Christians do and say. James’ letter is about seeing the log in our own eye.

Bringing about the change, the transformation, that God desires to see in the world and all humanity begins with one word: “me.”

Say it with me: The change God desires begins with me.

We cannot put the gift of our faith into action unless we behold the Law of Love. If our convictions and conduct of faith embody anything less than loving our neighbor as self, then we miss the mark. This is why James says faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Faith without the works of God’s merciful love is dead – it is powerless, inoperative, bankrupt.

In our Call to Worship this morning we said: Open the eyes of our hearts Lord. Open the eyes of our hearts – we want to see you!

We want to see God’s eyes of unconditional love.
We want to see the eyes of Christ’s mercy.
We want to see the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

The gift of faith gives you and me a deep longing to see God.

God’s truth is always on the move to open our spiritual eyes. God wants us to see the face of Christ in God’s Word and in the world.

I want for you to imagine the face of Jesus Christ and his unwavering faithfulness to God. Christ wants nothing more than for you and me to look for his faith in everyone we meet.

To see through the eyes of God’s love is to be on a mission to re-family all who have been marginalized by the world’s standards. To re-family means that we are to look into the eyes of the poor in spirit, the condemned, and those who are struggling to lift their voice. Look into their eyes and if you dare get close enough look for that mini-reflection of yourself shining in their pupils.

To re-family is to see our shared humanity and to work as agents of God’s love to restore unity in God’s family among our sisters and brothers. This is to see the bigger picture of God’s love for all humanity.

To see through the eyes of Christ’s mercy is to look at the cross and remember that because God said you and I deserved a second chance then we are to forgive as we have already been forgiven.

To see through the eyes of Holy Spirit’s wisdom is to deepen our commitment to join God in this holy work of reconciling the world.

This morning after the Word is proclaimed, and after the prayers are said, and after the songs are sung God will once again send us back out into this beautiful yet broken world.

This week there will someone who crosses your path and mine whom society has judged by the world’s standards. And he or she might see you or me and expect us to look down on them just like the rest of world.

When she or he looks into your face or mine, they deserve to be held in the light of God’s love. The light of world is Jesus Christ. The light shines dignity, mercy, and self-giving love. The light abides in you and in me.

May you and I take James’ words of encouragement and challenge to heart.

I pray God will nudge us when our spiritual vision is narrow and soften our hearts to look for our shared humanity- even the best of humanity - in our sisters and brothers.

I pray Jesus will open our pupils of faith to teachable moments of mercy.

And I pray Holy Spirit will deepen our commitment to see the work of faith that Christ has called us to do.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] David Ladden, PhD., “Your Eyes Really Are the Window to Your Soul,” Psychology Today, December 31, 2015.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Face of Faith Sermon Series: The Mirror (1/5)

The Face of Faith: A Sermon Series on James
The Mirror
James 1: 17-27
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018

James is a letter of wisdom.
The author puts pen to paper to persuade Christians to grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Just as I shared in last week’s sermon, faith is both a gift and a responsibility.

For James, the greatest marker of a Christian’s identity is that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves[1]. So, he goes to great lengths teaching about the Law of Love. James raises his prophetic voice to encourage us and also to challenge us to look deeply within the image of faith we project to God and one another.

James is not only concerned about one’s personal image of faith, but also the faith which is projected by the community of believers. This includes our moral attitudes and behaviors, our intentionality to see one another as sisters and brothers of God’s greater family, and our commitment to seek the wellbeing of all.

Listen for God’s Word in James 1: 17-27.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James uses a rich metaphor to gaze into the face of faith: the mirror.

Legend holds the first person to look in the mirror, so to speak, was the young Greek hunter Narcissus. He was born from the Greek river God and a nymph. Narcissus was known for being devastatingly handsome. When he looked at his reflection at the water’s edge, Narcissus fell in love with his face and never left his reflection [2]. His name gives us the word narcissist; one who is engrossed in self-admiration.

During the first century, mirrors were more than reflected water. They were made of polished metal – commonly bronze or copper. The progress of the Roman empire began to make glass mirrors with a metal layer finish [3].

Mirrors like we have today were not crafted until the 16th century. Both ancient mirrors of the 1st century gave quite a distorted image; you literally looked into a mirror dimly as the Apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Therefore, in order to get a more accurate reflection of one’s image, you had to look into the mirror from several different angles.

James holds up a metaphorical mirror for the community of faith to look into. So, let’s join him in looking at the face of faith together – yours and mine.

Gaze into the mirror. Whose image do you see?

One angle reflects the projection we generate for others to see.

This reflection is not our true selves. James says when our commitment of faith only goes skin deep then we are mere hearers of the word and not doers (James 1:23). We are merely playing a part and living behind a “stained-glass masquerade”.

Some of you have heard of the Christian worship group, Casting Crowns. They sing about this; listen to these lyrics:

The performance is convincing
And we know every line by heart
Only when no one is watching
Can we really fall apart

But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be?
Would your arms be open?
Or would you walk away?
Would the love of Jesus
Be enough to make you stay?

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain?
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade.

When faith is only skin-deep, one of two things is happening in life. We either mask our inadequacies or we mask our fear of vulnerability.

We mask our inadequacies – our fear of not being enough. So we project that we have our lives all together, when really on the inside everything is falling apart. We hear God’s word, but we cannot do it. That inner voice deceives us to believe that if our faith was stronger then we would be a better Christian and life itself would be better too.

We mask our fear of vulnerability. So we project that we are in control. We hear God’s word, but we cannot do it. We resist being honest with God and ourselves and it just leads us to pride. Instead of fully relying on God, we rely on ourselves and the self-made "ideals we espouse.” We project a faith of “self-deception” [5].

Marrianne Williamson says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure (through God’s grace at work in us). It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us” [6].

And yet to get a more accurate image of faith, James needs us to look at another angle – look deeper into the mirror. Although the reflection is distorted, look past the inadequacies, fears, and the self-made projection.

And by all means look past that awful chin or nose hair you missed while tweezing or the Mount Rushmore pimple about to pop!

Look into the mirror for the projection God wants you and me to see. God renders a deep truth about our nativity; something honest and authentic about our true selves. Look into the mirror and see the true face of faith; we are beloved children of God.

Marianne Williamson says, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; It's in everyone” [7].

We are more than we can ever imagine because of God’s great faithfulness. In fulfillment of God’s own purposes, God gave us birth by the word of truth. “We belong— body and soul, in life and in death - not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” [8].

You see, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh – the word of truth, is the truest reflection of our humanity.

The person and ministry of Jesus Christ reflects nothing less than love for humankind and creation; joy that praises God’s grace; peace found in God’s wisdom; patience in trusting God’s presence; kindness in serving others; generosity in extending mercy; faithfulness in submitting to God; gentleness in being empowered by God’s strength; and self-control in using godly actions and words to build up [9].

The word of truth is the true mirror that corrects all human distortions. God’s Word rectifies our spiritual sight so that we might see ourselves and the world as God sees.

The Christian life is dying to our old selves and claiming the new life of Jesus Christ. James implies the Apostle Pauls’ words, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit [and the word of truth] then let us also be guided by the Spirit [and the word of truth] (Galatians 5:24-25).

The mirror challenges us to reflect God's Law of Love. On any given day, at any given time - you and I might be the only reflection of Jesus Christ that someone else sees.

What a privilege! And what a scary thought! Sometimes we reflect Jesus Christ in beautiful ways. And sometimes we get it all wrong. Sometimes I get it all wrong.

But when we take a good look in God’s mirror we see our truest image of humanity is to strip away all the layers that oppose God’s righteousness.

Just imagine the liberation of peeling away conceit, competition, and envy. Imagine the Spirit stripping away fear and anger, pride and self-interest. What might your and my face of faith look like without the mark of complacency?

Would the love of Jesus be enough to make you stay and look into the mirror to behold the person and the community God desires us to be? This week look into the mirror of God’s truth and just imagine.

It all rests on this – when you and I look into the mirror of God’s truth, we are looking for all that sustains you and me from the inside.

When everything else falls away, the reflection that will never fade is the power of God’s love.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22: 37-40; Mark 12: 30-31; Luke 10:27
[2] “A Brief History of Mirrors,” Bite Size History, November 17, 2017
[3] “A Brief History of Mirrors,” Ibid.
[4] Lyrics from “Stained Glass Masquerade” on Lifesong album. Unofficial video
[5] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Volume X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), pp. 640-641.
[6] Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love” (New York: Harper Collins, 1992)
[7] Williamson, Ibid.
[8] The Book of Confessions, Part 1 of Presbyterian Church (USA) Constitution, The Heidelberg Confession Question and Answer 1.
[9] Galatians 5: 22-23.....Love (James 2:8); Joy (James 1:2-4; 5:13); Peace (James 3:17-18); Patience (James 5:7-8, 10); Kindness (James 2:26); Generosity (James 1:17); Faithfulness (James 1:27; 4:7-8; 5:19-20); Gentleness (James 3: 13,17); Self-Control (James 1:19; 3: 3-5).

Monday, August 27, 2018

Sermon: "Does This Offend You?"

“Does This Offend You?”
John 6: 56-69
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2018

Jesus makes people nervous.

Just look through the gospel accounts. The Rabbi who is our Teacher of God’s mysterious ways did not bring everyone a peaceful, easy feeling.

The rich young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus told the young man to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. The young man was so shocked by Jesus’ answer that he walked away grieving [1].

A man named Legion lived among the tombs in the Gentile country of Gergesa. Legion (the Gerasene Demoniac) was marginalized because the people did not understand his torment. When the compassionate actions of Jesus brought healing and wholeness to the man, the townspeople were afraid of Jesus’ power to change things. They begged Jesus to leave their neighborhood [2].

The Pharisees had the responsibility of interpreting God’s Law (first five books of the Bible) and empowering the people of God to live into a holy way of life. They took great offense to Jesus’ street ministry. The Pharisees could not comprehend the notion of mixing the holy and unholy. They sneered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” [3]

The crowd gathered around Jesus as he taught in the streets. Jesus professed God, his Father, had sent him, and if the people truly claimed to be God-loving decedents of Abraham then they would accept Jesus’ teachings. The crowd grumbled and then Jesus had a mic drop moment. Asserting his divine authority Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The anger was palpable, and the crowd picked up stones to throw at Jesus [4].

The day after Jesus fed five thousand with five bread loaves and two fish, the crowd followed him. They had never experienced such a miracle of abundance. They had their fill and wanted more. Jesus told the crowd, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…I am the bread of life” (John 6:27, 35). This is where we enter the biblical text today:

Listen to how Jesus’ words were received in John 6: 56-69:

[Jesus said] Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’

For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Not only did the crowd dispute Jesus’ words, but the disciples questioned Jesus’ teaching. “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” (John 6:56). That statement was the most extreme the disciples had yet heard their Rabbi utter. And they had heard a lot after walking in the dust of the Rabbi for three years.

A disciple would eat, sleep, dream, and breathe in every word of the Rabbi. A commentary from my study says:

Studying their rabbi’s view of Scripture and wrestling with the texts to comprehend God’s way for the conduct of their life was the main priority of a disciple…As part of this how-should-we-live interactive process, the disciples would debate various rabbinic interpretations of the texts pertaining to a real-life issue. This might involve weeks of dialogue and debate, for the rabbis were in no hurry to resolve these issues and questions.

However, when the rabbi ultimately did declare his authoritative interpretation on an issue, all further debate ceased. His declared interpretation was now known and therefore binding on his disciples’ lives for the rest of their days. As such, the rabbi was the matrix, the filter, the grid, through which every life issue flowed, as well as the lens through which every life issue was viewed [5].

Jesus makes an authoritative claim that now binds his followers for the rest of their days. Jesus is not telling his followers to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood like a cannibal, vampire, or zombie. To eat the bread of life and to drink the blood of the new covenant bring God’s spirit-filled power and abundant life (John 6: 56, 58, 63). Jesus is pointing to the truth of God’s plan of salvation.

Jesus sees and hears the disciples struggling to interpret his words into their daily living. And in typical rabbinic fashion Jesus asks his disciples, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:61).

In other words, does my teaching cause you to stumble in your belief or trust me less?

To eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation were beyond the disciples’ comprehension. Jesus’ words anticipate the fulfillment of biblical prophecy for God’s plan of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Scripture holds Jesus’ mandate to break the bread and drink the cup – to “do this in remembrance of me” [6]. It is to remember the costly grace for God to forgive human sin and yet celebrate the new life which God promises today through eternity.

And yet for some today, the violence of Jesus’ death makes it incredibly hard to find comfort in that old rugged cross. Some ask, couldn’t God have saved us another way?

In our text today, John’s Gospel moves us to place our primary focus on our relationship with God in Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. The cross, bread, and cup are symbols for God’s abiding presence and steadfast love reshaping us by God’s intentions and purposes.

These symbols are a gift and a responsibility. The cross, bread, and cup are gifts revealing God’s willingness to go beyond all human comprehension to wipe away the offense of our sin; our greatest stumbling block to follow God (John 3: 17).

These symbols are visible signs of God’s invisible grace. We all need to experience God’s amazing grace with our senses. We see, touch, and taste the signs of God’s faithfulness when we see the solidarity of human unfaithfulness on the cross and we give thanks to God.

But these symbols also proclaim that we as disciples of Jesus Christ have a responsibility to wholly live into the teachings of our Teacher, Lord, and Savior.

Jesus’s words are binding to our discipleship for the rest of our days. Jesus said our greatest calling is to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves [7]. And yes, this teaching is difficult; who can really hear it?

It is hard to love God when we are tempted to give other aspects of life greater priority.
It is hard to love our neighbor as ourselves when they do not fit into our personal ideals or judgments.
It is hard to love ourselves because we are our own worst critics.
And it is hard to really hear and live into our greatest calling without the Spirit’s help. Apart from God we can do nothing (John 15:5).

And so, we look at the cross and take the bread and cup. And every time we approach this table we trust this is where God’s holy presence dares to touch our unholy and broken lives. Our faith is nourished and strengthened by the gifts of God for the people of God.

We taste God’s grace and mercy and it is so good.
We learn that we are more than our limitations and mistakes.
We lean into a deeper trust that we are being made new.
We grow a little more as disciples in trusting God with our very lives.
We are bound to a love that will never let us go.
We gather around the table of God’s hospitality and we are always amazed at God’s unwavering abundance.

But disciples are not meant to solely receive the gift. We are to boldly live into Jesus’s teachings at all costs. The gifts of God for the people of God remind us of the work that Jesus has called us to do to glorify his name.

Richard Stearns says in his book, The Hole in Our Gospel, “If Jesus loved the world so much to die for it, maybe we should too.”

If God’s love for humanity took on flesh, then God’s love and Jesus’ teachings must take on tangible expressions in every aspect of our lives.

The Rule of Love touches our personal devotion, the community of faith to which we belong, school, our young adult years, our work ethics, our public discourse and even our politics. It all goes back to the integrity of relationships we have with God and one another.

Jesus said the world will know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35). But if the Rule of Love offends us, then it is time for yet another lesson with our Rabbi and Savior.

None of us will live into the mind of Christ perfectly. But we are called to follow Jesus and we are called to his commandment to love one another.

I close with this prayer:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Sources Referenced:
[1] Mark 10: 17-22; Matthew 19: 16-30; Luke 18: 18-30
[2] Mark 5: 1-20; Matthew 8: 28-34; Luke 8: 26-39
[3] Luke 15:2; 5:30; 7:39; 19:7
[4] John 8: 39-59
[5] Doug Greenwold, “Being a First Century Disciple,” March 2007
[6] Matthew 26: 26-29; Mark 14: 22-25; Luke 22: 14-23; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
[7] Matthew 22: 36-40; Mark 12: 29-31
[8] prayer written by Bishop Ken Untener in 1979 (often misattributed to Oscar Romero)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: "How Should We Overcome Thoughts and Feelings of Inadequacy?"

How Should We Overcome Thoughts and Feelings of Inadequacy?
Exodus 1: 13-20; Number 27: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 19, 2018

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’

So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
- Exodus 1: 13-20

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans.

The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.’

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter.
- Numbers 27: 1-8

The Israelites had a long history of feeling inadequate. Egypt oppressed God’s people for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). God’s people were enslaved by the words “You are not enough.”

And yet there are seven women named in Israel’s history that empower young girls and women today – and boys and men as well – to rise up in God’s strength.

The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, did not fear inadequacy; they feared God alone and it made all the difference. God not only made these women strong, but Shiphrah and Puah were God’s instruments of grace to empower the people to become very strong (Exodus 1:20).

After God’s people walked through the wilderness for 40 years, they entered into the Promised Land of Canaan. A census was given to all male descendants over the age of 20 to receive a portion of the Promised Land (Numbers 26). At that time the law prevented daughters to receive their father’s inheritance. Again, the circumstances stated certain people were inadequate and not enough.

I have no doubt that Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – the daughters of Zelophehad - knew the strength of faith passed down by the midwives. God’s strength was present in the sisters’ time of need as they entered God’s Promised Land.

And their story speaks into our last question from the pews today: How should we overcome thoughts and feelings of inadequacy?

As people of faith these women overcame inadequacy by nurturing their voices with the voice of God’s Word. And God’s voice of truth is louder than our internal voices of not being enough.

Overcome inadequacy by naming it. The daughters of Zelophehad named the source from which their reality of inadequacy originated. Their culture had created a system which disadvantaged daughters to receive their fathers’ inheritance. This was a threat to the future of the family lineage and the tribe to which it belonged.

Reflect on your story. Where do your feelings or perceptions of inadequacy come from?

Maybe you feel just like the daughters of Zelophahad; the odds have been stacked against you from the beginning. Sometimes thoughts of inadequacy originate from a parent’s or loved one’s negative messages since childhood. Perceptions of not being enough can come from a pattern of negative outcomes like a string of bad grades. Thoughts of inadequacy can come from failure, struggling with depression or change, or grappling to come to terms with a tragic life event.

Naming the source of our insecurity is hard internal work. But it is the first step on God’s path to healing and wholeness.

Overcome by claiming the truth. The daughters of Zelophehad claimed the truth that it was not their fault Zelophehad had no sons (Numbers 27:4). These young women had reached a tipping point. They refused to compromise their future as the new generation of God’s people settled into God’s promised land. These sisters knew they, too, were God’s children and they belonged to God’s promises just like every tribe in the holy lineage of faith.

Whenever that inner voice within you says, “I am not enough,” it is a lie.

God loves you and me for who we are, right here and right now. It does not matter what gender you are - you might be a glorious mess, but never forget you and I are made in God’s image and you are a child of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:26). Never forget the Psalmist’s words: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Remember God’s word of truth - “God does not look on our outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

So, look into your heart and claim God’s truth in your life. Grab a pad of sticky notes, write down God’s truth and your truth, and place it where you will see it every morning when you get out of bed. Write down God’s Word to remind you who you are and whose you are. Write down what you love about yourself:

With God all things are possible (Matt 19:26).
I am a child of God (Galatians 3:26).
I am enough.
I am caring.
My laugh is more contagious than the flu.
The past does not define me or my future.

Overcome by connecting with others. The five daughters of Zelophahad stuck together. They had each other’s backs. Their community of faith raised them with a strong communal connection with other women, like Shiphrah and Puah.

I can only imagine the talks these five sisters had among themselves when their future was uncertain. When all seemed hopeless, they nurtured each other’s voices.

When we are feeling insecure and low, one of the worst things we can do is isolate ourselves. Our souls continually think about our affliction and we assume the fetal position of defeat (Lamentations 3:20).

Each of us needs someone to confide in to share the shadow side of life – our tears, fears, and angst. Each of us needs to know we have a tribe whom will listen to our story with compassion and empathy. That tribe includes a trusted parent, a sibling, friends, a pastor, a guidance counselor at school. There is no shame in needing the special skills of a licensed therapist or even a psychiatrist to help us navigate the storms of life.

And please hear me on this – if our first words of comfort begin with “At least…” then the response is not empathy but sympathy and pity.

I cannot tell you how many times I have searched for the right words to bring comfort to a loved one and what I actually said was not helpful. Rather my good intentions were perceived as hurtful.

I have found when searching to say the right thing, it is best to first pray, “Lord, set a guard over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). God’s Spirit will help us to say words of grace when they are necessary.

Overcome by making a goal. The daughters of Zelophehad made a goal. As the new generations were about to settle in the Promised Land, they decided to lift up their voices to change their situation (Numbers 27: 2-4). The sisters stood before the ones who could bring about this change – Moses, the priest, the leaders, all the congregation, and God.

This story is so very empowering because these young women are courageous to step forward with a goal and they followed through with it. They told their story and they claimed what they needed to live in God’s abundance. And God paved the way forward with measures of accountability to make the goal of inheritance possible for all surviving families who had no sons.

Consider your own goal to overcome the obstacle of inadequacy. What is your big picture goal, but don’t stop there….the next part is just as important. Consider what do you need as smaller goals to live into God’s promises of an abundant life? You are more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. Prayerful action changes things!

Share what you are working towards with someone you trust – an accountability partner, if you will. Ideally this partner is a trustworthy individual with an encouraging spirit. This person is vested with the responsibilities of praying over your steps with you; sharing the truth with you in life-giving ways; and cheering you on when the going gets tough. Everything an accountability partner does is done in love and with the mind of Christ. Apart from God we can do nothing (John 15: 5). We need one another to abide in God’s strength and love.

Overcome by persevering one day at a time. The first step of perseverance always seems to be the hardest because it requires us to take a risk. We can only take the next right step in God’s strength, because God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Saint Teresa of Avila was an inspiring woman in church history who lived in Spain during the 16th century. She once said, “For God denies himself to no one who perseveres but gradually increases the courage of such a one till she or he achieves victory.” Her words are gospel.

Throughout the course of Scripture, God’s people gradually increased in courage through reflection. In order to go forward one more step towards God’s victory, God’s people always had to look back and remember God’s deliverance in the past.

So, as each day draws to a close, write down your positives. What small good did you experience or decide to do that day?

I have to say, the first time you start this, finding one good thing to write down is hard when all the previous days have been so bad.

That one small thing might just be a good breakfast or even a smile from a stranger. But one small good experienced today means you will encounter at least one ray of hope tomorrow.

And you will be surprised that within a week’s time – one or two small positives turns into a long list of 50 small revelations that God’s mercies are indeed new each morning. Great is God’s faithfulness! Persevering one day at a time means to give thanks and celebrate each small step towards your goal.

Every single one of us deals with a sense of inadequacy, including me.

In Saturday’s devotion from “Jesus Calling,” Sarah Young says, “Anticipate coming face-to-face with impossibilities: situations totally beyond your ability to handle. This awareness of your inadequacy is not something you should try to evade. It is precisely where [God] wants you – the best place to encounter [God’s] glory and power. When you see armies of problems marching towards you, cry out to [God]. Allow [God] to fight for you.

God will always fight for you – you need only to be still and listen for God’s cue to go forward (Exodus 14: 14-15). Be still as God empowers you to lift your voice.

Make room for Holy Spirit to nurture the voice within you. Name the source of inadequacy, claim the truth, connect with others, make a goal, persevere one day at a time.

With every step you take forward, and even with the steps that take you backwards, the God of peace will be with you until you achieve victory.

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: "How Should We Reconcile Logic and Faith? Science and Religion?"

How Should We Reconcile Logic and Faith? Science and Religion?
John 1: 1-4, 14
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 12, 2018

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
- John 1-4, 14

The year was 1969 - July 20 to be exact. The Eagle had landed – Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module that is. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Mike Collins were on a 9-day trip of a lifetime. They were sent by NASA with a mission to walk on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin would walk on the moon for 3 hours while Collins would stay in orbit taking pictures and doing experiments [1].

Aeronautical science requires thorough preparation; this mission was in the making for over a decade with the work of nearly 400,000 people [2]. Our own Rob Johns was a part of this effort at NASA too!

Before Armstrong and Aldrin even put a foot on the moon, they had an hour to recover from the long space flight. And Buzz Aldrin prepared for this audacious mission in a unique way.

“Aldrin got on the comm system and spoke to the ground crew back on Earth. ‘I would like to request a few moments of silence,’ he said. ‘I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way" [3].

Then he reached for the wine and bread he’d brought to space—the first foods ever poured or eaten on the moon. “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” he later wrote [4].

Then, Aldrin read some scripture and ate. Armstrong looked on quietly but did not participate [5].

Aldrin later confessed that “he’d come to wonder if he’d done the right thing by celebrating a Christian ritual in space… Aldrin said, “But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God [6].”

It leads us to the next question from the pews today: How should we reconcile logic and faith, science and religion?

Barbara Brown Taylor give some insight into how the divide came to be between religion and science in her book, “A Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion.” She says:

In the ancient world, religion and science were little more than two ways of being curious. The truths each of them told were assumed to be divine truths…The [divorce papers for science and faith were served] in the sixteenth century when Copernicus guessed that the earth circled the sun instead of vice versa.

For the first time, the truth that could be observed in the real world conflicted with the truth revealed by God in Scripture. Copernicus and the Bible could not both be right about the placement of planets, and the scientific revolution began.

As soon as Charles Darwin wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 the debate raged among Christians and scientists. There seemed to be no chance for religion and science to reconcile. Ever since people have looked at logic and faith, science and religion as if they are oil and water; they do not mix.

It is important for us to know that not all subscribe to a complete divorce between faith and science. Remember a few weeks ago I shared with you that faith and science are asking two different questions. Faith asks why we were created to find purpose in our lives. Science asks how.

Bill Brown is an ordained minister of the PC(USA), a theologian, lover of science, and my Old Testament Professor of Columbia Theological Seminary. I share his wisdom with you:

My conviction is that one cannot adequately interpret the Bible today, particularly the creation traditions, without engaging science… Central to the Christian faith is a doctrine that resists the temptation to distance the biblical world from the natural world: the incarnation.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it well: “Faith in an incarnational God will not allow us to ignore the physical world, nor any of its nuances.”

Such faith calls us to know and respect the physical, fleshy world, whose “nuances” are its wondrous workings: its delicate balance and indomitable dynamics, its life sustaining regularities, and surprising anomalies, its remarkable intelligibility and bewildering complexity, its order and chaos.

Such is the World made flesh, and faith in the Word made flesh acknowledges that the very forces that produced me also produced microbes, bees, and manatees.

This harmony Bill Brown speaks to is the Word made flesh as we read in John’s Gospel. The Word is God speaking creation into being. The Word is Jesus Christ who is the light of the world, who brought all things into being. And the Word is also God’s wisdom to bring about a “creative plan” to govern the natural order of all creation, humanity, and matter to live in relation to God our Creator [9].

There is a great freedom that comes from putting theology and science, faith and logic in dialogue. That freedom is expressed in two profound words: “awe” and “wonder”.

The late John Glenn was well known for being the first astronaut to orbit the earth, but he was also a man of faith (Presbyterian ruling elder). His career at NASA filled him with awe and wonder.

Glenn said, “Looking at the Earth from this vantage point [of aerospace], looking at this kind of creation and to not believe in God, to me, is impossible. To see [the Earth] laid out like that only strengthens my beliefs."

And Glenn’s congregation was filled with awe and wonder for his God-given talents in science. Before Glenn’s orbit mission, the church wrote a letter of “prayers and gratitude on behalf of the Presbyterian Church” saying, “John, your church is grateful for the service you continue to share with millions of Americans and citizens of the world.”

Krista Tippett is a woman of faith and the interviewer for the “On Being” podcast. For twenty years Tippett has interviewed individuals from diverse backgrounds on a multitude of subjects in search for deeper meaning within the human life. Her first question always begins by asking her subject to share the story of their faith background.

She once interviewed John Polkinghorne, a renown theoretical physicist who belongs to the Royal Society like Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Steven Hawking. When Polkinghorne hit mid-life crisis he didn’t go out and buy a muscle car, he studied theology. He became the first professor at Cambridge to hold a chair in the disciplines of physics and theology. He also became an Anglican priest.

Polkinghorne shared this with Tippett:

If working in science teaches you anything, it is that the physical world is surprising. And I was a quantum physicist, and the quantum world is totally different from the world of every day. It's cloudy, it's fitful, you don't know where things are, if you know what they're doing. If you know what they're doing, you don't know where they are. So that it's a complex world and quite different from what we expected. But it's an exciting world because it turns out we can understand it, and when we do understand it, we have a deep intellectual satisfaction.

Now, if the physical world surprises us and is different from everyday expectation — common sense, if you like — it would not be very odd, really, would it be, if God also turned out to be rather surprising. Things that are just on the surface, easy to believe, are not the whole story. There's a deeper, stranger, and more satisfying story to be found, both in science and in religion.

God deeply cares about the physical and sacred aspects of creation and humanity. The Psalmist said, “I praise you [God], for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know full well” (Psalm 139: 14). Both faith and science reveal this great truth in their own ways.

Our faith seeks understanding through the mystery of God’s grace and with the beautiful mind God has given us. Know that even as we might question the relationship between faith and logic – God has ordained them to dance together since before the world began.

The writer of Proverbs says: The Lord created me – WISDOM – at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…when he established the heavens I was there…When God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race (Proverbs 8: 22-23, 27, 29b-31).

Our Creator God knows how all things work. God also knows the unique purposes he has for each creature, person, microbe, and atom created. Maybe when we are united with God face to face we will know about all of this more fully. But for now there are many things we do not and cannot fully comprehend.

Let us give thanks to God for the gift of wisdom in the sacred and in the sciences. And may we strive to be good stewards of the mysteries of God’s grace.

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

Sources Referenced:

NASA photograph of Apollo 11 Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Mike Collins (1969)

[1]NASA website for education
[2] Erin Blakemore, “Buzz Aldrin Took Holy Communion on the Moon: NASA Kept It Quiet,” History.Com Stories, July 18, 2018
[3] Erin Blakemore, Ibid.
[4] Gregg Brekke, “John Glenn, Presbyterian Ruling Elder and National Icon, Dies at Age 95,” Presbyterian News Service, December 9, 2016
[5] Erin Blakemore, Ibid.
[6] Erin Blakemore, Ibid.
[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion” (Cambridge: Cowley Productions, 2000). P. 6.
[8] William P. Brown, “The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[9]The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “Volume VIII: Luke and John” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 443.
[10] Gregg Brekke, “John Glenn, Presbyterian Ruling Elder and National Icon, Dies at Age 95,” Presbyterian News Service, December 9, 2016
[11] On Being: Krista Tippett and John Polkinghorne, January 13, 2011

Monday, August 6, 2018

FAQ's Sermon Series: What About Sin? Do You Believe in the Devil and Hell?

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
What About Sin; Do You Believe in the Devil and Hell?
Romans 5: 12-21; Matthew 10: 26-33
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
August 5, 2018

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Romans 5: 12-21

Jesus said, ‘So have no fear of [those who persecute you]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
- Matthew 10:26-33

Elaine Benes was sitting in David Puddy’s living room. They made such a cute couple for a few t.v. episodes of Seinfeld. Puddy was in another room getting ready for the big Stanley Cup playoff; the New Jersey Devils were set to play the New York Rangers.

Puddy made a grand entrance into the living room. He’s got blue jeans, a team jersey, and his face was painted red and black like a devil. Elaine nearly tripped over herself – “What is that?”

Puddy: “I painted my face. Gotta support the team.”
Elaine: ‘Well you can’t go looking like that. It’s insane!”

When Puddy opened the door to let the rest of the gang inside, Jerry Seinfeld was speechless and Kramer was scared straight. Puddy was absolutely loving it as he walked out the door screaming: “Let’s get it on! Let’s go Devils!”[1]

You gotta love a devil mascot – maybe even a Duke Blue Devil - but what do we really think theologically about the devil? It leads us to our next question from the pew today: “What about sin? Do you believe in the devil and hell?”

John Milton thought so much about this question that he wrote Paradise Lost in 1667. His poem, which encompasses over 10,000 lines of verse, has since been acclaimed to the likes of Homer and Shakespeare.

Four years before he began writing Paradise, Milton became completely blind. He was mourning the death of his second wife and was in a dark place physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Milton dictated the poem for his daughters to write. “Paradise Lost is an attempt to make sense of a fallen world: to “justify the ways of God to men”, and no doubt to Milton himself.”[2]

Milton attempted to understand why Adam and Eve went against God’s orders. Milton wrote Satan was once a glorious angel created by God. Pride and ambition caused him to go against God, for he resented giving gratitude to God. Milton wrote as a result Satan lost a great war with God, was thrown into hell, and became the king of evil. Stirred up with envy and revenge, Satan escaped hell to come back to earth; he took the form of a serpent to trick Eve.

Paradise Lost has since shaped our perceptions of sin, the devil, and hell. Milton’s writing gave Satan quite a powerful and heroic persona. But Milton’s work is not a biblical commentary.

The Bible does not state a war of good and evil between God and Satan were brewing at the beginning of Creation; the Bible does not state the origins of the serpent; the Bible does not state the serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan or the devil; nor does the Bible state where evil comes from.

Last week we talked about interpreting the Bible through the Reformed tradition. “The Bible is largely a narrative of God’s people who are trying to figure out their lives in relation to God” (Hayner)[3]. This overarching narrative is written in different biblical literary genres.

Remember that these genres push against literal interpretation. To respect the Bible’s authority is to recognize God’s authority is always seeking to reveal deep truths about who God is and who we are in God’s covenant love. This is by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul interprets the beginning point of this narrative from Genesis’ third chapter. It sounds impossible to live in right relationship with God with the problem of sin.

Paul does not blame the serpent not does Paul blame Eve. Paul interprets the Garden account as revealing the truth about the human condition of sin – sin inhibits humanity’s ability to fully live into God’s will for our lives. It is a trespass that leads to death – spiritual and physical (Romans 5:12).

We were created to live in relationship with God and one another, for we are made in God’s image and God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Gen 2:26; Romans 5:5).

And yet Paul compares Adam and Christ as individuals whose acts had opposite consequences for humanity. Therefore, Adam and Christ stand at the heads of God’s old creation and new creation [4].

The consequences of sin that it causes us to hide from God, causing estrangement. We suffer from the hurt we cause ourselves and others “when we contradict our humanity in God’s image” (Guthrie) [5]. And we are left feeling the weight of shame. Sin led to humanity’s exile from the Garden.

But never forget that God’s grace covered humanity’s vulnerability in this first exile (Genesis 3:21). Never forget that we are created good in God’s love.

Sin entered the world and taints all human life and creation too. And God’s covenant love promises to redeem us through Jesus Christ through the free gift of grace that Paul calls justification (Romans 5:16).

That means that Christ’s death and resurrection has made us right with God – just as if we had not sinned – which leads us to eternal life through our Lord (Romans 5:21). This is the new creation that Paul is talking about; for God’s forgiveness of sin makes us a new creation in Jesus Christ by the power of Holy Spirit. God is faithful through Jesus Christ even when we are not (Romans 5:18-19; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Even as we proclaim this bold truth of who we are in God’s steadfast love the struggle to follow God’s will and ways continues in Scripture and in our lives too.

In the Old Testament there are 10 instances named as obstacles to follow God [6]. And it’s interesting to note that the Hebrew word is satan (saw-tawn). The Hebrew translation is “adversary” or “accuser;” it is not a proper name, enemy, nor a physical being. It is merely a military or legal obstacle to following God’s will but one in which God works through.

In ancient biblical times, it was the Persian culture that had a worldview of good and evil as a battleground of two opposing forces [7]. The Persians believed in a ruler over evil who had demons as servants [8]. Language brought forth additional words for satan, such as Belial, and Beelzebul, which was a mythical god worshipped by the Philistines.

In the culture of the New Testament, society believed that physical and mental sickness, natural disasters, and sin was caused by demons; an influence of Persian worldview. The gospels, the epistles, and of course the book of Revelation name the tempter (Matthew 4:3), Satan (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:10; Rev 20:7), the devil (Matthew 4:5, 8, 11; Luke 4:2, 5, 9, 13), the prince of demons (Luke 11:15), the ruler of this world (John 12:31), the accuser (Rev 12:10), and the great dragon (Rev 12:7-9, 13, 17).
Each of these accounts are held in relation to God’s victorious authority in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I share theologian Shirley Guthrie’s wisdom:

Christians do not ‘believe in’ the devil. We confess our faith in “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit… Our interest in the devil must not become so central and intense that its reality becomes more important to us than the reality and power of God. Whenever Satan and his demons appear in Scripture it is always the story of God’s power over them and of their defeat and destruction. The devil – as opposition to God’s will – is by definition power in which God in Jesus Christ has already opposed and defeated. Even now this power is limited and controlled by the risen Christ. And finally, God will utterly crush and destroy [the devil according to Revelation] [9].

The overarching narrative of Scripture proclaims God’s authority in all things and God’s steadfast love to redeem this broken and sinful world to bring forth a new creation that points to God’s glory.

So, you might be saying, ‘Well, preacher – what about hell?” In the gospels when Jesus speaks of “hell,” the word in Greek is translated as Gehenna. The first century hearers knew this to be a valley south of Jerusalem. It was also known as the Valley of Hinnom. Gehenna was Jerusalem’s smoldering city dump. It yields an expression of judgment, suffering and being cut off from the world.

Jesus’ words in Matthew urge us to revere God alone, the One who is the giver of life; the One who is right to judge; and the One who graciously cares for creatures and humanity alike. How are we to understand God’s judgment and grace, as well as the future of heaven and hell?

John Calvin said: Many persons … have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire by which the wicked will be tormented after judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture that it is a metaphorical expression … Let us lay aside the speculations, by which foolish men weary themselves to no purpose, and satisfy ourselves with believing that these forms of speech denote, in a manner suited to our feeble capacity, a dreadful torment, which no man can now comprehend, and no language can express [10].

And so, we read Scripture with a sense of humility knowing there are great mysteries that we cannot fully comprehend nor explain. The truth is that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. You and I - we deserve God’s judgment. But God is faithful when we are not.

Let us remember we are chosen, claimed, and tethered by God’s grace.

Whatever obstacle that interferes with your walk with God, remember “We shall not fear the battle if Christ is by our side / nor wander from the pathway if our Redeemer will be our guide [11].”

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

Sources Referenced:
[1] “The Face Painter” Seinfeld, episode 109
[2] Benjamin Ramm, “Why You Should Re-Read Paradise Lost,” BBC Culture, April 19, 2017
[3] Kristina Robb Dover, “Reading the Bible for All Its Worth
[4] The Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible 1989, National Council of Churches of Christ (New York: HarperOne, 2006), annotation note regarding Romans 5: 12-21, p. 1917.
[5] Shirley Guthrie, “Christian Doctrine” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 226.
[6] Numbers 22:22, 32; 1 Chronicles 21:1; 1 Kings 5:18; 1 Kings 11:14,25; Zechariah 3: 1-2; 1 Samuel 29:4; 2 Samuel 19:23; Psalm 109:6; Job 1-2.
[7] Michael Coogan, “A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures” (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 534.
[8] Paul Achtemeier, “Bible Dictionary” (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), definition for Satan.
[9] Shirley Guthrie, “Christian Doctrine” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 180.
[10] John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eedrdmans Publishing, 1989), p. 442.
[11] Glory to God, “O Jesus I Have Promised,” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), hymn No. 724.