Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays


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Sermon for Sunday: Matthew 5:1-12

This is the first in a series of 4 sermons focusing on The Sermon on the Mount

Who are the Disciples?
Rev. Julie Jensen
Nineveh Presbyterian Church, Nineveh, NY
Jan 29, 2017

beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

         Do we have any Monty Python fans here? The movie The Life of Brian offers a glimpse into a comedic view of what Jesus life and ministry could have been like – if the British sketch writers had written the gospels. The movie opens with Jesus’s first public act of ministry in the book of Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount. We see Jesus on a mountain preaching to a large crowd. Not all of them can hear his words, and when he reaches what we know of as verse 9 those gathered don’t hear “blessed are the peacemakers”. What they instead hear is Jesus saying “Blessed are the Cheesemakers”.   A spectator looks at her husband and says “what did he say?”:

 

Spectator I: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.

Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

And then the movie begins.

This movie clip not only makes me laugh, but it also makes me remember that things are not always what we think they are at first listen. I tend to be what’s called a “lectionary preacher”. The lectionary is a 3-year cycle of common readings that many mainline protestant denominations follow through the church year. These readings tell the story of Jesus and our faith, and are usually thematically connected. For the next few weeks, the Gospel readings are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and we will be listening to his words and seeing how they apply to our lives as disciples today. At the end of the series, I will be doing something I have never done before, and invite you to join in.

One of my preaching professors recommended we memorize the Sermon on the Mount and always have it ready in our back pocket “just in case we needed it.” It is Jesus’s most well known sermon and one that can be preached almost anytime. Her advice was to have it ready for the day when you may need to preach without notice or warning. Looking at the lectionary readings for the next few weeks from the beatitudes, I thought it would be interesting for us to study the sermon with the readings for each week, and then listen to it in it’s entirety, preached as a sermon. So in a few weeks, we’ll do just that. The hope is that the preaching and reading we have done from now until then will let you hear this passage with new ears, and gather something from it as a whole. We can put ourselves on the mountain with the disciples and hear this familiar sermon through new ears with fresh insight, focusing on discipleship – who are the disciples, what are the responsibilities of discipleship, and what does discipleship look like in the community and the world.

 

The fact that Matthew places this sermon as Jesus’s first public act of ministry in this gospel is important. When you consider what Jesus’ first public act was in each Gospel, you see how that author of that Gospel saw Jesus, and how they want us to see Jesus. In Mark, Jesus performed an exorcism setting him up to be the ultimate boundary crosser. The subtext of this gospel is the tearing apart of that which separates us from God – the tearing of the temple curtain is a stunning visual reminder that the things that keep God at bay, or keep us separated were torn apart when Jesus entered the narrative.[1]

In Luke, Jesus goes home to preach a sermon and tell his hometown what his ministry will be like. He lays out that his ministry is for the unseen, the marginalized, the outcast. Jesus’ people rejected his message and wanted to toss him off a cliff. The subtext here is that those who listened were just fine with God as long as God was for them and not for those they dislike or want to oppress. Jesus is telling him that he is here for everyone, including those whom we despise.

In John, Jesus attends a wedding and helps out with the bar tab by turning water into wine. But the point is not the act itself, but that abundance – 6 jars of 20-30 gallons brimming with the best wine. It is the way John sees Jesus – overflowing and brimming with grace. Grace that overflows, grace that pours out, grace that flows abundantly.

So what about Matthew? How does his sermon tell us who Jesus is for him? Throughout Matthew we see Jesus as a teacher. And who is he teaching? His disciples. What that says to us is that to be a disciple is to be a student of Jesus. To quote Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary, Jesus being a teacher means that “being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner. Being a disciple in Matthew demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as teacher.”

Who are the disciples? They are those who followed Jesus, those who were with him while he fulfilled his ministry. Those who listened to his teachings and followed them. As Dr. Lewis continued, she named something that is important in how we learn from what Jesus is teaching in this passage. How we think of who Jesus is reveals who we are too. In hearing the Beatitudes, we are hearing that we are blessed, that we are children of God. Jesus wants us to not only hear that, but also feel it.

In the beatitudes the characteristics of disciples are named. Characteristics of the faithful, the attributes of those who believe. They name the truth about who we are, and what we will encounter when we follow Jesus. And we, the disciples of Jesus, need to hear them on the front end of Jesus’ ministry. Those who heard these words first needed to know what was at stake in the blessings of Jesus, in their identity as disciples. “They have to know who they are in order to be able to hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be”. And who he needs us to be. They need to hear this first sermon so that they might live out the Great Commission.

This sermon is an identity piece for the disciples, and for us. The disciples are learners, students, listeners. All that learning happens covered by the promises of God. The promises that we are bless-ed. That we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Once we claim the identity that Jesus gives us then we can live out what we have been asked to do as disciples.

So who are disciples? The disciples are those who are blessed. This is not the #blessed that we see in social media or other facets of modern life. This is not the prosperity gospel where we are blessed because we ask God for wealth and God complies. God is not a celestial vending machine dispensing winning lottery tickets. When you think of being blessed, what comes to mind? If someone did not have a faith vocabulary, how would you respond when they asked you “what does it mean to be blessed?” The greek word makarios can take on many meanings and interpretations. It can include facets of happy, well off, fortunate. It can indicate special favor, unique standing, permission, empowerment, endowment.” David Lose reframes the question as to “what does it feel like when you are blessed?” You cannot pursue a blessing, he writes, but you receive it as a gift. By thinking of blessing in these terms, we begin to get a sense of Jesus’ promise. Being blessed feels like “you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth – not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are…”[2]

So Jesus says that if you are poor in spirit, if you are meek, if you mourn, you are blessed. You are accompanied, you are not alone. If you are meek, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, if you are merciful you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances. If you are a peacemaker – or a cheesemaker – if you are pure in heart, if you are persecuted, or reviled, you have worth.   If you are a disciple, you have the promises of Jesus to be accompanied, to know you have worth, to move forward from the past into the future. That is an important message for the disciples to hear as they begin to minister with Jesus. And it is an important message for us as modern day disciples who need to hear these promises as we live out our lives of faith and live into the Great Commission and the work Jesus has called us to do.

I invite you to claim your identity in Christ as a disciple. To hear the claim that Jesus has placed on you. To hear the comfort offered as we listen to his teachings as students who want to learn.   To hear these familiar words in a fresh way. I receive a daily e-mail from Steve Garnaas-Holmes entitled Daily Light. In this week’s, he sent a poem/prayer I’d like to share with you:

I will stand[3]

Beloved, by your grace

I willingly accept my poverty of spirit;

for you bless me with your Realm of love.

I honestly mourn,

for you bless me with your comfort.

I will be gentle,

for you bless me with the gift of the earth.

I continue to hunger and thirst for you,

for you fill me with yourself.

I will show mercy,

for you shower me with mercy.

I seek to be pure in heart,

that I may see you.

I will be your peacemaker,

for I am your child.

I will accept persecution

for you bless me with your Realm of grace.

I gladly accept that justice and peacemaking

attract persecution and resistance,

for so people treat all those

who do justice, who love kindness,

who walk humbly with you.

In my poverty I will stand unbowed,

for in your grace you bless me.

You, disciples of Jesus, are blessed. You are loved. You are accompanied. You are more than the sum of your past, and you are a child of God. Claim these promises and live into them as you follow the teachings of the Great Teacher. Be reminded of them today and everyday. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3155

[2] Lose, David. On Beatitudes and Blessing. Dear Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3020

[3] Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Unfolding Light http://www.unfoldinglight.net

Image from: http://www.wciujournal.org/uploads/photos/beatitudes.jpg


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A Prayer for Pastors as Holy Week Begins

I wrote this today as I was thinking about all the thoughts that used to run through my mind before Palm Sunday.  While I’m participating this year, rather than leading, many of my close friends and colleagues begin one of the busiest weeks of the year.This is my prayer for them (You may share this, with attribution.  I’d love to hear in the comments if you do.):

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Oh God, it is here…

The week that starts with palms and ends with flowers.

And there is so much to do in between.

Did we remember the juice or wine for Thursday?

Where are the palms for tomorrow?

And did someone order the lilies?

Bulletins and sermons and music – so much to do between here and there.

So many details, so many needs of so many people…

(Did we remember the Easter baskets for home? And tights and shoes for little ones? What happened to my white stole? And why on earth does my dress not fit!)

 

Help us stop, oh God.

 

Remind us that no matter what we do this week, we cannot crucify him.

And we cannot raise him from the dead.

Those were yours to do.

Our job is to tell the story and remind the people of what has already been done.

So release us from our stress.

Fuel us for this week. It will be a marathon and then a sprint to the finish.

 

And yet,

Even if we lose the shroud for the cross

Even if the communion bread is burnt. Or stale. Or missing.

Even if our best efforts fall short, all will be well.

Christ will be risen, and we will proclaim it.

 

Give us energy. Hope. Love. Patience. A good sense of humor. We will need all of them.

Give us peace and quiet.

And on Sunday afternoon…

Once the tomb is empty.

Once the meal – be it takeout, a full dinner, or a Lean Cuisine on the couch – is eaten,

Give us rest.

Amen.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen


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Sermon: Philippians 4:4-9

Philippians 4:4-9

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.

“Think on These Things”
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
October 4, 2015

     

Paul wrote these words from the depths of a Roman prison. To be exact, he dictated these words from the depths of a Roman prison. Until we watched the DVD that goes along with this week’s Bible Study, I hadn’t realized how wrong my conceptualization of a Roman Prison was. I imagined, in my mind’s eye something akin to what we have today. I should know better – I took a class that spent three weeks discussing the history of prisons and prison layouts when I was in college for my Criminal Justice major. So, I should know that the designs I was picturing –of cells or rooms with inmates separated into groupings of 2 or 3 or 4 in a cell was not what prison in Rome in Paul’s day would be like. There would have been no daylight, no creature comforts. I’ve watched one too many adaptations of the story of Anne Boleyn -the Queen of England who was executed after a stay in the tower – and so I expect that of course Paul would have had someone with him to offer assistance and comfort in his time of imprisonment. In all my imagining, there was some source of daylight, some way to mark the passage of time. And yet, when I watched the Hamilton DVD, I saw how wrong I was.

When Paul was taken to the Mamertine prison in Rome, he was taken to what looked like a manhole. This small round hole was the way prisoners were lowered into the room below – the basement that was dark, damp, and where people died. Paul had no light, so he dictated his words to those above. I may have chosen my words differently, but as he was composing this letter the words that came out of his mouth out of the depths, out of the dark were these, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.”

Wait – what? The words we hear from the horrors of a Roman prison are to rejoice? Why? How could Paul even get into that mindset? Not only does he say it once, he says it again. Rejoice. When we read forward, we see that Paul offers us a good reason to rejoice – the Lord is near.

As we read and reread the scope of Biblical history, we see over and over again the promises of God not to leave us alone. Time after time, the people of the world acted in ways that should separate us from God. We killed, plundered, enslaved, stole, lied, cheated, excluded, warred, and flat out turned our backs on God. We have had times when we as individuals and as the people of the world have been plunged into darkness – much like the darkness Paul experienced in his prison cell. And God never left. God stayed with us. God was and is faithful. God went so far as to come in the form of an infant born in a manger to be with us. And we still didn’t get it. So, after he died, was raised, and ascended, God sent the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and Paul was right. His knowledge of our collective story is what gave him the confidence to proclaim that the Lord is near, and so we can rejoice.

Today is a day for rejoicing. It is one of my favorite days of the Christian year. Well, after Easter and Christmas and Pentecost. Today is World Communion Sunday. One reason I love this day is it is a chance to step outside of my context, and outside of what I know. As I prepared liturgy for the 11:00 service using words from traditional across the globe, and found the prayers and communion for today, I was reminded that we here in Cartersville are a tiny fraction of those around the world who will celebrate communion today. In my first congregation, there was a man named Bill Walling who wrote a gorgeous piece for us to use in the bulletin on World Communion Sunday. Sadly, I no longer have his exact words, but I remember his description of following the sun across the globe as Christians gathered at table. In it, he described the day beginning with the first sunrise in New Zealand. When it was 11:00 Sunday morning there, we were sitting down to supper and watch football here. As we were going to bed last night, congregations in the Middle East were gathering at table. As we move through the night, following the clock, those in Europe and parts of Africa gathered at the table as some of us woke up. As we finish the reception this afternoon, churches on the West Coast will eat the bread and drink the cup. This day reminds me that we are all in this thing we call Christianity together. On this day, we make a point to remember, and celebrate that coming together. We celebrate different liturgies and traditions, we eat different breads, we speak different languages. Yet, all who proclaim to follow Christ do the same thing today as the earth moves around the sun– we tell our story, we eat, we drink, we remember our salvation in Jesus Christ and look forward to the day he comes again. We rejoice in our unity and focus on what brings us together rather than on what separates and divides us. For me, this is a day to think on the good things we can do when we come together to worship and celebrate our lives in Christ.

Today is a day I want to encourage us to think on good things, and to embrace Paul’s words to us. To remember our call to remain faithful to the God who is ever-faithful to us. After serving for 6 years, today is my last Sunday as one of your pastors. As I’ve thought about what to say to you this week, this passage kept coming back to mind.
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.

We may not feel like rejoicing today – we may not feel like the Lord is near. But, I know this- the Lord is near. God was at work in this congregation over 100 years before I was born, and God will continue to be at work here long after we are gone. My prayer for us today is that we can know the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
I’ve been reflecting on our time together, and thinking on the things that are true, honorable, just, pleasing, commendable, and excellent. I leave here surrounded with love and prayers, and with the knowledge that you all will be OK. In our time together you have welcomed me into your homes and hospital rooms as your lives changed with life and death and all that happens in between. You allowed me to bring you reminders that God is with you and offer prayers in your hardest days. I think about the winter when we had a funeral almost every week from Thanksgiving to Epiphany, and the ways we came together in faith as a congregation to love and serve one another in that time. I have been at the baptisms of your children and poured the water as the body of Christ promised to love, nurture, and care for them. And, as I have said many times before, those promises don’t expire just because children grow up. You entrusted me, each week, to sit with them on the steps and tell them about Jesus. It has been my privilege and my calling to bear witness as this congregation cared for one another, for the community and the world.

Today we are rejoicing as we celebrate all we have done in faith. We are rejoicing as we remember that we serve an average of 90 people a hot meal every week, without fail. We save lives with our blood and have rebuilt homes. We are rejoicing as we watch Sunday School classes provide learning possibilities for everyone who wants to participate. We are rejoicing as we worship, and as we pray for one another. We rejoice in the care we offer one another, formally and informally. I still remember the stream of you who came to my doorstep after I broke my ankle on the mission trip, and the care with which you treated me in my recovery. Paul says “if there is excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…” and there is so much of that here at FPC. We offer praise for the meals we have served to older adults in Fellowship Hall and the trips we have taken all over the state. Remember the rule – “as long as we bring back the same number of people we left with, they don’t have to actually be the same people, so don’t be late getting back to the bus.” We have practiced extending grace to one another – sometimes better than others – and we have mourned over losses as we have celebrated our successes.

I know many of you feel uncertain, many of you are worried, many of you ask “what now”? I encourage you to think on the good things, and follow the call to stay faithful. Focus on the good that is here and continue that. Concentrate on calling your next pastor and the places where God is calling you to next. Think on our outreach ministries, our music ministries, our education and so many other parts of the common life here that are pleasing to God. Continue those things. Let go of the others.

And, when all else fails, continue to pray, and continue to come to the table. Come to Jesus. Taste the grains, taste the grapes and see that the Lord is good. Look into the eyes of those around you and recognize that this is where we come to find Christ when we are our most broken, our most sad, our most – whatever we are on any given day. For, you see, our story as Christians is not one of endings, but of new life coming from the darkness. That is the story we live out, each and every day. As the light moved around the globe today, Christians came to the table and told that story. They reminded each other over and over again that the death of Christ was not the end. In that death we find resurrection. So my friends, as we part ways for a time, I encourage you to live out these words of Paul:
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.
Amen.


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Sermon for Matthew 10:1-26 – Because the World

Because the World
Rev. Julie Jensen
Preached July 26, 2015, First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA

Matthew 10:1-26

Cards from our first Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa, AL to help tornado victims

Cards from our first Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa, AL to help tornado victims.

You may have noticed a theme for worship today, with the missions of the church set up around the sanctuary for you to learn about, the photos behind me of how we see and do mission in the church and beyond, and the signs on the wall where we have asked you to sign your name where you serve in the community beyond the auspices of FPC. As I preach this morning, you will see the photos submitted during our “Mission Photo Challenge” for July. Yesterday a group of us served Bartow Give a Kid a Chance at the College and Career Academy.  We made and handed out lunches, helped children of all ages find the perfect color backpack and t-shirt, facilitated the program (Dennis  – I’m looking at you) and had a fun day helping the children in our community.  One of the things I love about this congregation is our heart to serve others in the name of Jesus.

The idea for a month to focus on mission came from a conversation the mission committee had this winter.  We were discussing plans for the coming year and wondering why sometimes we have a hard time finding volunteers for projects or trips.  As the conversation progressed, we identified one possibility.  Cartersville and Bartow County have an overabundance of non-profit agencies and opportunities to serve.  The question was asked – if service doesn’t happen through the church, is it still serving Jesus.  We agreed on the answer – yes.  In brainstorming, we developed a list organizations and ways we know our congregation serves the community in mission – even if it isn’t mission facilitated by the church.  Those places are the places listed on the signs around the room today, and I hope if you have not written your name where you serve that you will before you go.  Being “missional” means that we serve others where we are there they are.  So, instead of mourning a perceived lack of participation, we celebrate the ways our congregation serves God.

The reading from Matthew tells a story Jesus sending the disciples out for service.  It is part of Jesus’ mission discourse.  As New Testament Professor Stanley Saunders writes, “Jesus’ mission discourse is a “get-out-the-volunteers” campaign like no other. On the one hand, the disciples are granted remarkable powers to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead. But he also denies them money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23).”[1]

Jesus grants them power to do the work he has placed before them, and then sends them out in utter dependence on God.  No extra clothes, no hazard pay, no snacks, and no money.  Just what they carry and God go with them to serve in the world.  They are sent out to proclaim the gospel – in the broad daylight of the world, and to proclaim the good news Jesus whispers to them from the rooftops.  The disciples are sent out into a broken world to offer the hope of Christ, just as we are through our acts of service.

The second reading, which is a continuation of the first, portrays a scary world that the disciples enter into.  Jesus talks about all the things that might happen to them along the way, and when they return.  He describes sending them out like sheep among wolves, and being handed over to councils and flogging in the synagogues, being drug before governors and kings all because of the Gospel – the good news – that they share.   Jesus describes a life that launches the disciples out of their comfort zones and into something hard.

What faces us when we go out into the mission field?  What do we encounter in our service to Christ that we may wish we did not encounter?  How are we thrown out of our comfort zones?

When we step out to serve, we step into the lives of people and places that may be broken.  And it is when we are there that we have to acknowledge that we too are broken. Maybe not in the same ways, but that we have more in common with the poor person we serve a meal to on Tuesday or the family that we are welcoming into our congregation that we might want to admit.  Sometimes we are called to serve in places where we will be physically uncomfortable – in the heat or sleeping on air-mattresses, or far from home or learning an new skill.  Sometimes stepping out of our comfort zones means letting our guard down – wearing work clothes and not worrying about who sees us without makeup, dispelling the idea that we have it all together or are perfect.  Sometimes we are scared that “these people” will no longer be “these people”, no longer be strangers, but instead will be people with names and faces and stories, and we have to admit that we are all connected.  When we enter the mission field, we enter into places that may scare us.

Yet, like the disciples, we do not go alone.  We may not take a bag or money or snacks, but we carry the compassion, mercy, and love of God into a broken world, where they are so needed.  And as we share the good news of that compassion and mercy, even as we receive them ourselves.

The words of our charge today send us out.   Jesus sends us out with what we need.  When we serve in the mission field, we don’t have to be the brightest, the best, we go with what God has given us.  We are sent to be the hands and feet of Christ.  Not for ourselves, not to make ourselves feel better, but to offer bread to a hungry world, truth to a world full of lives, courage to a world living in fear.  We are sent to offer hope to those in despair, joy to those who sorrow, justice for the unjust, and mercy for those who are judged.  We take peace into a world of violence.

Sent to do something.  Not just write a check, but be involved in the world.  Challenge you to do something today – take 30 minutes after worship.  Walk around.  Look at how the church serves our community.  Ask yourself how you might be called to stretch out of your comfort zone and serve Jesus in a new way.  Ask yourself what scares you and perhaps find a way to step into service that way.  Find something that brings you joy and a chance to share that joy with others, and serve there.  The disciples didn’t sit in their houses waiting for what would happen next, they stepped out of what they knew, what felt safe and took risks as they shared the good news of Christ by serving others.  To what service is Jesus calling you, and how as his disciple are you participating in Christ’s mission?  Because the world is broken, because the world needs hope, because the world needs love, and peace and justice, Jesus’ disciples – then and now – are sent out to bring them to those most in need.   Because we are in the world, we too need the love, peace, justice, hope, mercy, joy and love of Christ too.  When we offer Jesus to others through our hands and feet, we find him in ourselves.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2098


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Sermon: Mark 4:35-41

“Get in the Boat”
June 21, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville GA
Rev. Julie A. Jensen

(Listen at: https://soundcloud.com/knittinpreacher/mark-4-35-41)

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Job 38:1-21, Mark 4:35-41

I have a confession to make. This morning, I am jealous of comedian John Stewart. For those who are not familiar with the name, John Stewart is the host of Comedy Central’s the Daily Show – a nightly “news” program that uses satire and comedy to talk about the news of the day. But Thursday night, he did something different.   Rather than an opening monologue poking fun at politicians with an acerbic wit that points out what is sometimes painfully obvious about who we are as people, he opened his show with these words:

“I have one job, and it’s a pretty simple job,” “I come in, in the morning, and we look at the news, and I write jokes about it … But I didn’t do my job today, so I apologize. I got nothing for you, in terms of jokes and sounds, because of what happened in South Carolina.”

“And maybe if I wasn’t nearing the end of the run,” Stewart is nearing the end of his tenure as host of the show “or this wasn’t such a common occurrence, maybe I could have pulled out of the spiral, but I didn’t.”[1]

I’m about to break a whole bunch or rules about preaching this morning, and I hope you’ll forgive me. I don’t really have three points and a poem to offer. I don’t have many answers for us. I’m going to be vulnerable. I’m going to try not to be political. I’m going to do what I learned how to do when I trained to be your pastor – turn to the Bible, and hold up what I think God is saying to us today, offer that with prayer and study and let the Holy Spirit do what she does best by taking the words I write and speak and transform them as you hear them.

The good news is that this is not a comedy news show, and we don’t have “nothing”. Today we have two powerful passages of scripture that allow God to meet us where we are this week. I spent a good portion of the week thinking about what God appearing to Job in the whirlwind and Jesus stilling the storm had to do with us here at FPC. These texts seemed to speak to us as a congregation as a whole, as well as where we maybe individually. And it all starts with a boat.

Someone I turn to often when I am preparing sermons is Dr. Caroline Lewis at Luther seminary. Her commentary on the passage from Mark this week struck a chord with me – she begins by saying, “Sometimes, it’s just a boat.”[2] This passage is one that preachers like to take and turn into allegory – we become the disciples, the storm becomes something other than wind and rain, and on and on and on. We can make an allegory out of everything in this passage. And that’s not bad. But sometimes, a boat is just a boat.

This boat is a traveling vessel. It is what gets the disciples from point A to point B – from one side of the lake to the other. As Dr. Lewis says, maybe the point is that Jesus is trying to get us to the other side.

The other side. Reading that, it hit me that we as a church are trying to do just that. With all the transition of this year, members of the congregation keep asking “how long until the permanent pastor will be here? How long until we can form a search committee?” Those questions and others are all really a way of us asking, how long until we get to the other side? I’m not the one with the plan to answer those questions – we’re all in this boat together. Moving from the safety of the shore of what we once knew out onto the sea of Galilee, which we seem to associate with storms. In her commentary, Dr. Lewis says that left to our own devices we would rather stay where we are. It’s human nature. We, as people tend to like our comfort zones. We like what is known and safe – we like our theologies, our lifestyles, our practices. Even when the known becomes unbearable, we often choose to stay in the unbearable rather than get in the boat and set out for the other shore. Jesus knows this about his disciples, and he knows this about us. You will notice that there is not a time for the disciples to stop and think about whether they want to get in the boat. There’s not a 48 hour discernment period, not a chance to really make a choice, or even any information about what’s on the other side. What we know as we read the next chapter in Mark is that they are going someplace really different. The next encounter the disciples and Jesus have is with the Gerasene demoniac – a man who lives in the cemetery possessed by demons that Jesus casts out into a herd of 2,000 pigs who then jump into the lake. There isn’t a chance to ask “what if there’s a storm? What if I get seasick?” Jesus just says “get in the boat.”

Actually, what Jesus says is “let’s go across to the other side.” Let’s – let us. Jesus goes out with them. He knows it won’t be easy, he can guess that there will probably be a storm – how many times do we read in the Gospels about Jesus getting in a boat and there being a storm? But Jesus crosses with us.

So they get in the boat, and – surprise. There is a terrible storm. This is the part where I think about Job, and our first reading. Job has been put through more than any one person should ever have to endure, and he asks God why. Why have you done this to me? Why – to use the language of the Mark reading – did you put me on this boat and in the middle of this storm? Why? God, where are you? God replies back in a manner that can be either really comforting or really sarcastic – God asks Job “well, where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you? Are you the one who measured it out? Are you the one who placed the mountains? Are you the one who went to the bottom of the seas and placed the wonders there?” As God continues beyond the reading for today – God talks a really long time in Job – God talks about two of my favorite creatures in scripture – the Behemoth and the Levithan. In my minds eye they look like the Loch Ness monster and the blue whale. Giant creatures that we cannot control. But when God talks about them to Job, God describes them divine pets, with rings through their noses and the Levithian – the one that I see as the Lochness monster in my imagination – on a leash.

God’s point to Job is this – I’m the one who is in control and you have to trust me. What Job needed at that moment was not a recitation of the history of the universe and the coordinates of where God placed the stars in the heavens, but rather a conversation and an encounter with God to remind him that he is not alone or abandoned. God’s question “where were you?” is not to belittle, but to remind.

“Where were you, when God laid the foundations of the earth?” Tell me, 8 “‘Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?—

9 when I made the clouds its garment,

and thick darkness its swaddling band,

10 and prescribed bounds for it,

and set bars and doors,

11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

For those in the boat, it offers comfort that mortals did not tell the sea where her boundaries would be, or that mortals did not contain her. We know from history that we cannot control the seas. We cannot control hurricanes or floods   – the people of Texas and Oklahoma can tell us that this spring. But when we are in the boat, we are not alone.

I love boats. I love the feel of the wind, the sights you see from a boat that you cannot see from the shore. Your perspective changes. In a kayak there is a deep peace, in a canoe there is company. I rarely return from a boat ride the same as when I left the shore. I am able to leave worries, fears, and anxieties out on the water, and find a peace that I may have been lacking. But, here’s a secret you may not know about me – as I break one of the rules of preaching and use another illustration about me. I’m scared of drowning. The summer of 2004 when I was working in Texas, I spent the weekend of 4th of July at my friend’s lake house in Austin. Her father built kayaks, and he had finished a sea kayak earlier that spring. Saturday afternoon we took the sea kayak and a canoe out onto the lake and decided to row our way out to the buoy near the main channel. I was by myself in the kayak with John and Suzie coming alongside in their 2 person kayak–we had a wonderful time. However, as we got close to the main channel, a speedboat raced by, ignoring the custom of slowing down so that it’s wake would not capsize us. I was not an experienced open water kayaker, and could not turn my kayak in time to avoid the inevitable. Spoiler alert -I didn’t die. However, the kayak flipped and I flipped in it and could not get out from under it. I was wearing my lifejacket. But I panicked and swallowed some water. As I struggled to get out from under the boat, I felt a hand grab my lifejacket and pull me to the surface. John and Suzi pulled me up to breathe, I got into the regular kayak, and one of them took the sea kayak and we went back to shore. Getting in that boat changed me. To this day when into deep water in the rivers of the South Carolina Lowcountry, I have a moment of uncertainty when I jump from the edge of the boat into the deep water to swim.

Getting in the boat changes us. It puts us in places where we cry out to God, “Why?” It puts us in places where we are not the same when we get to the other side. Yet we are to get in the boat.

What does that look like for us, here today in our lives and in our world? I think there are three ways we are being called to get in the boat and head to the other side right now.

With Pastor Ted’s retirement, and Pastor Coile’s arrival as our interim, Jesus has said, “get in the boat – I’m taking you to the other side.” We didn’t have much of a choice, we don’t know what is coming, but I assure us of this – God is with us. Jesus is with us. There may be storms. It may be scary – the disciples didn’t stop being scared until after the storm ended. But we have been called to go to the other side. As a congregation we will be changed when we get there, and as individuals we may be changed too. We are being called out of our comfort zone into new territory, and Jesus wants us on board. How do we do that? Be open. Be open to a change in perspective – see what the view looks like from here. Stay active – the disciples didn’t fall asleep, and neither can we. Continue to serve the church, to participate, to give your money and time. I know it’s easy to want to jump ship, to find a place that’s easy and not in transition, but change is a part of life, and right now it is part of ours. Pray for the church, for the staff, for the leaders. Find a ministry that needs you and participate.

We are also called as individuals to get in the boat. To see the places in our lives where change is happening. Perhaps we feel like we are in a storm of illness, despair, depression, transition, hopelessness. Perhaps the changes happening are good – new jobs, young men and women going off to college, new babies. What is the “other side” you are hoping to see? You can’t get there unless you get in the boat. Unless you open yourself up to the possibility that it may not be a smooth ride. That there will be times when we want to scream out to God “where were you?” And that’s Ok. Scream. Cry. And then listen for the voice of Jesus. Pray, hope. Be open to the possibilities of the new perspective that will come when you reach the other shore. Help others see those possibilities.

The last way we may be called to get on the boat is in response to what happened this week. A week before the shootings in Charleston, I spent a day of my vacation on a walking tour of the historic city. I heard the stories of South Caroline welcoming all, and the diversity of the port city. I heard the stories of men and women who were sold as property – slavery, and stood outside a market where people were sold, and shopped in a market where the stalls that now sell t-shirts and benne wafers and art used to sell men and women and children. A colleague of mine posted this week about one of the victims that “she was one of us”. This victim was a mother, a track coach, and a pastor. And I heard Jesus whisper to me “get in the boat.” Which led me to my jealousy of John Stewart. It led me to my moments of crying out to God “Where were you?” Where are you? As we watch churches and the community in that area respond, I feel powerless. But, I know a couple of ways we can get in the boat. On Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 Katie Orth is organizing an event for children and families specifically, though all are invited to attend. We will be making peace cranes to send to the congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. At 5:00 she will be leading a time of prayer. This is one way we can do something tangible to send our love and support to our brothers and sisters in Christ. You can also participate in the conversation that happens monthly here in Cartersville to talk about race. You have heard from the pulpit about the Thursday morning coffee group that meets at Starbucks – local pastors meet for a time of friendship and conversation. The Bartow Community Diversity Council is a gathering of local pastors and community members who want to find ways to bridge the racial divide in our own community. They meet on the 4th Tuesday of each month at 7:00 at the Civic Center. Harold Parker is one of the faithful attendees, and can give you more information on how to join them.

“Where were you?” we ask God when we are swept up in the waves. Where were you? This is where I run out of answers and words. I see God at work after horrible things happen – to quote Mr. Rogers – who was a Presbyterian Minister – “”When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” God is there in friends and family who step up in times of crisis and turmoil. God is there in the aftermath. God speaks to us from the whirlwind and Jesus is in the boat with us. What I know today is this – Jesus is calling us to get into the boat and be carried to a new shore and a new place. It happens to us all the time – as a congregation, as individuals, as society. We will arrive on the other side changed, but we will not have made the journey alone. So, lets get in the boat and go together. In the name of the Father, Son, and HS, Amen.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/06/19/read-jon-stewarts-blistering-monologue-about-race-terrorism-and-gun-violence-after-charleston-church-massacre/

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3645


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Sermon: “Who Are You?”

Who Are You?

Rev. Julie Jensen
FPC Cartersville., GA

May 24, 2015

breakfast club

1 John 3:1-7

1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

4Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

“Who are you?”  I am a child of God.  These are the first words to the Shorter Catechism – -a catechism used to teach children about our faith.

“Who are you” is a question we ask ourselves all the time.  Who are you?  Do we define ourselves by our jobs or careers?  “I’m a teacher, I’m an accountant, I’m retired, I’m a parent.”  Do we answer the question in terms of relationships – -“I’m a parent, I’m a grandparent, I’m a sibling, I’m a …”  Do we answer the question in terms of hobbies and activities?  “Who are you?”  “I’m a painter, I’m a dancer, I’m a biker, I’m a soccer player, I’m a sports fan.”   There are lots of labels we can put on ourselves.  Lots of identities we can claim when we answer the question.  However, for us, as Christians, we claim to be a child of God first and foremost.

Perhaps the recipients of today’s reading may have been asking themselves the same questions – -“who are we?”  The Epistle of 1 John was written some time after the Gospel of John to a community that knew and loved the Gospel of John[1].  When you read the letter from beginning to end, you get a sense that the author is writing to a fractured community.  The community is fractured, it is in crisis and conflict.  We do not know the exact nature of the disagreement, but it seems to have created a schism between those who hold what the author calls “the right faith” and those who are “false prophets.”  The argument may have been about Christology – -those who held the “right faith” believed in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine.  Those who left the church community, the Docetists, professed a belief that Jesus was a spirit, not a physical human being, and that his death did not have any value for salvation.  Those are some pretty bold claims, and so it makes sense that there was a pretty heated argument happening.  This Epistle was written for those who stayed, to reassure them, but also to remind them to stay the course and be true to their beliefs.  This community believed that the return of Christ was eminent – -any day now – -and that when Christ returned he would divide the righteous from the unrighteous.

What we hear in this passage however goes deeper than the division.  It comes back to the question “who are you.”  What do you believe and how do you live that belief every day?  Listen again to the first three verses:  “1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

It is through the grace of God that we are called the children of God.  God claims each of us as God’s own child.  When I hear this passage, I hear echoes of a phrase we may recognize – being “in the world but not of the world.”  Living as the children of God, we are called to live in ways that the rest of the world may not recognize, in ways that they may not understand.  The world does not know us as Christians because the world does not know God.  We are called to live in a way that can be counter-cultural. This Epistle calls for community, a call that is just as important today.  The world calls us to live in a state of individualism, of looking out for ourselves and our individual families – not the larger community.  “What’s in it for me” seems to be the underlying context of a lot of what we see and hear. Even things that seem to be community oriented are presented in a manner that is just the opposite.  Take Earth Day and being Green for example.  Have you noticed that being green is portrayed as being good because it can save you money, not because it can save the earth for all of us.  We are encouraged to serve the poor and feed the hungry because it makes us feel better, not because it is the right thing to do or because of the difference it makes.

But we are different – -we are children of God and so we serve and conserve and minister because it is for the community, not only for ourselves.  The world may tell us we are to live for ourselves, but we, those who follow the commandments are God’s children know differently.   Listen to the first 5 questions of the Shorter Catechism:

Question 1. Who are you?

I am a child of God.

Question 2. What does it mean to be a child of God?

That I belong to God, who loves me.

Question 3. What makes you a child of God?

Grace — God’s free gift of love that I do not deserve and cannot earn.

Question 4. Don’t you have to be good for God to love you?

No. God loves me in spite of all I do wrong.

Question 5. How do you thank God for this gift of love?

I promise to love and trust God with all my heart.

Question 6. How do you love God?

By worshipping God, by loving others, and by respecting what God has created.

Our identities as children of God is this:  We belong to God who loves us in spite of what we do wrong because of the grace of God.    In response to that we promise to love and trust God with all our hearts, worship God, love others and respect what God has created.  Our identities begin there, and who else we may be grows from that.  So we live lives that may seem counter-intuitive to the rest of the world.

Thinking about identity led me to the classic 80’s movie “The Breakfast Club.”  The basic story is a group of high schoolers is sent to detention on a Saturday morning for breaking various school rules.  Each one is one of the high school stereotypes – -and at the beginning that is all they see in each other.  The principal has pigeonholed them all into the category of “troublemaker” and assigns them an essay to write about who they think they are.  Over the course of the morning, this odd group interacts with each other and a deeper level than they normally do, and learn that there is more to each of them than what is on the surface.  The identities they seem to have – brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal, are the identities they have on the surface – -how the world sees them.  So instead of writing an essay, they send a letter[2]:

Brian Johnson: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…

Andrew Clark: …and an athlete…

Allison Reynolds: …and a basket case…

Claire Standish: …a princess…

John Bender: …and a criminal…

Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question?… Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

Who are you?  What would you write in the essay for the principal?  Our day to day lives look like most everyone else’s, that’s for sure.  Being a child of God does not mean that we don’t make mistakes, or that we do not go to work and school, pay our bills and worry and celebrate.  But the difference is that our hearts rest someplace specific – -with God and Jesus Christ.  We know that God’s love made us God’s children.  That is our identity.

We have lots of documents that show our identity – -birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, passports, social security cards.  Those show our name and address and where we reside and if we may travel outside of the country.  Workplace ID cards and security badges and business cards offer our professional identities.  We tell the word how we identify ourselves in real time through social networking sites.  But our true identity is not revealed on any of those documents.  As Ronald Cole Turner puts it, “Our birth certificate states our natural identity.  Our baptism certificate declares our true identity.  By God’s love, we are no longer strangers, orphans lost in the cosmos, without hope or direction, except for our own imagination and self-rescue.  We are loved, claimed, and redefined as nothing less than God’s children.”[3]

“Who are you?”  I am a child of God.  In that simple statement is a deep part of our theology.  We are children of God.  We are loved by God, we are claimed by God, we belong to God.  In belonging to God, we make a statement about who we are and how we encounter the world.  We make the claim that being a child of God is the first claim we make about our lives.  The rest all stems from there.  We can be anything as a child of God – artist, engineer, athlete, teacher, parent.  Being a child of God is the foundation of our identities, the foundation of who we are.  That claim is made for us in our baptism, and we claim it for ourselves when we make an adult statement of faith.  “Who are you?”  You are a child of God, now and always.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2.   Barbra Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, editors. Third Sunday of Easter: Exegetical Perspective by David L. Bartlett. P 419-423.

[2] http://www.imdb.com

[3] Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 2.   Barbra Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, editors. Third Sunday of Easter: Theological Perspective. P 420.