Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays


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Sermon for Sunday: Matthew 7:1-5 Specks and Logs

Matthew 7:1-5  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Judging Others

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye.

 

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(Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash)

            What are some of the words of wisdom you follow in your everyday life? I’m not thinking specifically about scripture, though some of those may apply. I’m thinking more about the practical advice we learn from our parents and friends as we grow up. Some I hear my sister and I saying to my niece, just as our mom said them to us. Fred, my stepfather is famous for saying, no matter the weather, “take a sweater or jacket, it might be cold in the restaurant.” From a good friend of mine in college as we were writing out thesis and surviving on caffeine and ramen noodles “remember, vitamins are not actually food.” When I got my first GPS as a Christmas present one year, the tag from my mother said “remember, you are always smarter than the computer.” Which was her way of reminding me to use my own brain when or if the GPS told me to turn into a river or drive on the railroad tracks – both of which happened in the infant days of the technology.

One phrase that sticks with me is one I received from a colleague. We were reading a news article online and at end was a comment section where anyone who wanted to could say anything they wanted to about the piece. Or they could say anything they wanted to about anything. I started to scroll down to see what other people thought of what we were reading, and he stopped me with these words “never read the comments.” Have you ever read the comments on a news article online? They seem to fall into several categories – the spammers who say “now that you’ve read about this, let me tell you how I make $5000 a day working from home.” Those who enjoyed the piece and offer positive feedback. These are rare. Then you have those who disagree with the piece, but do it in such a way that they remain civil and maintain a place where dialogue can happen.   Or maintain a place where they can show off their knowledge. “While I see where you are coming from in saying that Eat at Joe’s is the best restaurant in Nineveh, Joe hasn’t cooked there in years. To really get the best food in town, you need to go to his new place, Eat at Joe’s 2.” And then you get to the comments that are mean and hurtful and judgmental for no good reason. I broke the rule yesterday reading a piece about Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, racing against a shark in the ocean.   He’s going to swim in a shark cage and they’ll time him, then they will time a shark – it’s all part of shark week. One of the first comments listed said “this is the stupidest thing I have ever read.” As my colleague remarked about most of the comments on internet articles, “they don’t do anything to make the world a better place, and instead just make the authors feel bad about themselves, and serve the purpose of picking fights with people they have never met.” If you want a really depressing afternoon, find a news article online – political ones usually yield the best results, and read the comments. People who have never met in real life attack one another as they pretend to discuss the article, and the individuals involved. It’s brutal.  And often, someone trying to help will toss out this verse – judge lest not you be judged.

I think somehow we as followers of Jesus have forgotten this nugget of Jesus’ teaching. And so we go about or lives judging as much as we can without even realizing we are doing it. How many of the summer programs on TV are talent/music/dancing shows with contestants and judges? My sister and I were bemoaning the fact that Food Network is now so much more a food competition channel than a channel with shows designed to teach people to cook. Society also makes judging the norm. How quick are we to respond with criticism when someone makes a choice that we do not agree with or think is the right one? How quick are we to dismiss ideas simply because we do not like them rather than based on their actual merit? When have we lumped a group together and questioned their life choices. I will admit, every time I see someone who may be in the millennial age group with a man bun, I make a snarky comment in my head.

What does judging look like? In a competition it is making an evaluation based on what is presented, assigning value to it, and forming an opinion. I tried to use light examples above, but we do it all the time. We form opinions about how others raise their children. We form opinions about how others should dress or act. We form opinions about things we know nothing or little about. And often we are quick to do so.

Jesus knew this about us. That’s why he lifts up this particular teaching. He knew that we would spend our lives presented with information and encounters and we would make decisions about them. Judging, in the pure sense of the word does not have to be negative. But, so often judging is just that. Because of often instead of judging, we move straight to criticizing or condemnation. We respond in ways that are hurtful, harsh, and, well, judgmental.

The image in today’s reading is quite comical, if you think about it. The greek word for “log” in this passage was not really a log. Think about instead a huge wooden cross beam – the size to support a ceiling perhaps. If you watch any of the home renovation shows, you may be familiar with the people who want to tear down a wall for a more open concept look. 90% of the time those walls are load bearing, so a beam has to be put in elsewhere to support the weight. So cranes or groups of 6-10 people bring in beams that are 10 feet long to hold the weight. That’s the scope of what Jesus was talking about. So, picture something that large sticking out of your eye – I don’t know how it actually works, but pretend with me. And then, somehow, you see a speck in someone else’s eye. The thing that should not be there. And you try to reach out to remove it. But the log in your eye gets in the way. It sticks out too far. You can’t reach past it. It bumps into the other person. Until you deal with the log, you can’t possibly remove the speck from the other person’s eye.

Sometimes children’s sermons can offer a better way for us to hear the truth: Do you think Jesus was really talking about sawdust and boards in this verse? No, he wasn’t talking about that. What he was talking about is judging other people. Sometimes we look at other people and we see something wrong with their life, like the piece of sawdust, so we judge and criticize them. We think that they have a problem and then we try to fix it for them. But often times we have an even bigger problem in our own life, the board, and that gets in the way of us helping others. We all have logs. Sometimes we call them baggage. What are the logs in your eyes? What are the problems and issues in your own life that need fixing before you can think about the issues of others? If you were going to label your logs, what would you write on them? Think about that for a moment, write it down if you want. Is your log named gossip? Greed? A tendency to jump to conclusions before you know all the facts? Fear? Selfishness? A need to control or be right? Maybe your log is one that is made up of a sense of being better than others. A sense that you know best. Self-reliance can be a log if it gets in the way of our offering or receiving help from others. Maybe your log is something you need to move past – grief is one that comes to mind. The grief that comes with a death, disappointment, a beloved pastor’s leaving, not getting what you wanted. Sometimes logs are more basic – we want to criticize, judge, someone for how they spend their money when we are having financial issues of our own is one example. We are criticized for giving our children candy before bedtime by the parents who are alienated from their own children.

 

One of the things I love about being Presbyterian is our belief in the connectional church. It is how we have ordered our polity (church government) and is foundational in who we are. We model that each congregation is a smaller part of the body of Christ, and that we are all connected with one another. Congregations can rely on one another for resources, for inspiration, and for companionship on the journey as we all serve Christ together. In some presbyteries, smaller congregations share pastors or bookkeepers or administrative assistants. In others, congregations partner together to hold joint VBS. In this presbytery, there is a group of pastors that gathers on Tuesday mornings to read the scriptures for the upcoming week and discuss them and share our collected wisdom around the table. It enriches the worship life of each congregation touched. Something that has come out of that is our sermon series from Matthew about the Teachings of Jesus. I said this when we first began the series – that we are not doing this series alone. Rev. Mark Piedmonte, the pastor at the Gilbertsville and Garrettsville churches, and I are preaching and teaching his series together. The liturgy is the same in all three congregations, though the hymns are different. The scriptures are the same, though the sermons are different. We are hoping to find a way to bring all three congregations together for a Bible Study – a one time event – to share what we have learned about the teachings of Jesus in Matthew.   Mark shared this story about the text and his recent mission trip with the youth to Broad Street Mission in Philadelphia on the church’s Facebook page today:

While in Philadelphia some youth and adult leaders (including myself) had the opportunity to stand in the shoes of homeless men and women and try to sell newspapers – the proceeds of which benefit homeless people and help them get back on their feet. That’s good news! (It would have been better, of course, had we sold any. We did sell a few – but mostly we were all shooed away by the many people who passed us by that day.)

It is quite a humbling thing to receive the judging stares of thousands of pairs of eyes. It takes a toll on your spirit and mind. You might even begin to judge the passers-by; judging their clothes, their priorities, their Starbucks lattes. 

Receiving these shoos, it dawned on me:
Judgement is always a two-way street. 

Jesus, I believe, knew this about human nature. That’s why he commanded his disciples – Do not judge! Rather – try to recognize the logs in our own eyes. Let go of the judgements we hold over others – and we’ll find we have more room for loving our sisters and brothers.

 

Mark poses a question for us – what happens when we can let go of our logs? How will letting go of judging others change our lives and our encounters? I know there are times when I have been judged unfairly. The speck in my eye was overshadowed by the log in the eye of the other party – the log of not having all the information or knowing what was really happening. As a pastor, it happens. And, sometimes I judge. As a person it happens. When I was in my last congregation, I was the front line for people coming in the door seeking assistance. We had policies in place – I wrote them, and I sometimes broke them when needed, with the blessing of the Diaconate who oversaw the fund. I also realized very early on that I would never ever know the whole story of the person who walked in the door asking for help. I could act from a place of compassion and grace and offer what we could, or I could act from a place of judgment and critique and not live out the gospel. I didn’t always call it right. I’m sure, even with our policies and checks and balances with other agencies and offices, that I overhelped on occasion. That giving the mom with the baby an extra voucher may get them diapers for another few days but would not solve their problems. I also remember a time when a Deacon got upset because I had paid a cell phone bill for a man who had come in. All this person saw was a line on a church credit card statement for a card for prepaid minutes. They thought I had paid for a luxury for someone who didn’t deserve it. What they had not considered was that this person had applied for multiple jobs, and without the cell phone – an inexpensive one – he could not get calls about interviews or make calls to follow up on job leads. It didn’t happen every time. I’m sure I made some bad calls the other way too. But by letting go of my hold on being the arbiter of help only if it met some impossible standard, I was able to show the love and mercy of God to those in need.

Think of a time when you were able to set aside your judgment and act in love. When our first reaction is condemnation rather than love, when it is to focus on a speck rather than our own stuff, when we write words in the comments that are hurtful just because we have a platform – or we speak words that are hurtful or judgmental just because someone will listen – -we are not giving God room to work. When we criticize our neighbors in the congregation who want to try something new, perhaps that is shutting down the creativity of the Holy Spirit. When we discount someone simply because they may look or act differently than we do, the log of discrimination is much larger than the speck of not being just like us. We are not truly loving one another.

I ask you this today – again write down answers if you want as we go. What person or groups of people might you be judging? In the world? In our life together? How might letting go allow you to find a way to show them love rather than condemnation? How might doing so help people? Communities? Nations?  Where is God trying to help you release the log in your eye so you can love and serve others in the name of Christ?

Sometimes we don’t like what Jesus teaches us. I wonder if that is why this passage, which is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke does not appear in the lectionary? This can be some hard stuff. I encourage you this week to pray about your logs. If you think you don’t have one, ask God to show you what it is, because we all do. Pray for God to show you how they may be impacting your interaction with the world. Imagine what it would be like to have the freedom to love not from a place of judgment and condemnation, but from a place of remembering that we all have logs and we all have specks and we are all called to remove them together. In the name of the F, S, and HS, Amen.

 

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Sermon: John 10:11-18

John 10:11-18

11″I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Image source:  https://unsplash.com/search/penguin?photo=-oGSMD7DVMU  Used under Creative Commons Zero license.

Listening for the Voices

Today’s reading always reminds me of the movie, “The March of the Penguins.” The subjects of the documentary are the Emperor Penguins who live in Antarctica. It chronicles a year in the life of a breeding colony. The emperor penguins are the only penguins that breed during the arctic winter. At the beginning of the Antarctic winter -right about now, actually, the female penguin lays her one egg and passes it off to the male for safekeeping. She then makes the long journey to the sea to eat, leaving the male to care for and protect the egg through the worst of the winter. When she returns, she finds her mate and child, feeds the chick and then the male breaks his 9 week fast and goes to hunt for himself[1]. What I find most appropriate about the penguins for this Sunday is the penguins use of vocalization. You see, the penguins do not have a fixed nest that their partners can uses as a landmark to come back to after eating. The Emperor penguin must rely on voices and vocal cues for identification of mates and offspring. The chicks have a unique call, and the parents do as well. It is through calling out to each other that partners can find each other, and parents can find offspring.[2]

 

Picture it – – you are at a crowded event with someone – -perhaps the movies or a baseball game. Maybe you are with a child, maybe with a friend. But there are 2 of you and you are walking to your seats when suddenly you look around and the other person is not there. What do you do? Do you stop walking and look around, hoping to catch a glimpse of a baseball cap or ponytail that you can hurry and catch up to? If you don’t see the person you are separated from, then what? Our next response is to call out the name of the other person. Have you ever been in the mall and heard a small voice call out “Mom? Dad? Where are you?” Two weeks ago I was at the grocery store and saw just such a thing. A preschool boy had turned left when his mother had turned right and he lost sight of her. He was standing by the cash registers calling out “mom?” in a very small voice. A passing cashier went to page her – the boy knew his mom’s name– and we stayed put. He still called out “Mom…Mom….” His voice growing stronger each time he said it.   Now, lest you cast the mom in a bad light, this whole series of events took maybe 15 seconds – before her name was paged over the loudspeaker, she was at his side. As his voice got louder, she came down the aisle, calling his name. When he heard his name, from his mother, he turned and ran to her. When she heard her name she was visibly relieved. It was the calling out to each other that enabled them to find each other. She knew his voice, and he knew hers. If I had called out her first name, she would have responded – -we have all had it happen to us – -but not with the emotion of a parent finding a lost child.

 

And what I find so interesting about the penguins, what I witnessed that day in the grocery store, is what Jesus illustrates in today’s reading. But today’s reading is part of a larger story. To get the full effect, we go back to the 9th chapter of John and read through chapter 10.   The condensed version is this: There was a beggar who was blind. The disciples following Jesus asked why the man was blind – -what sins his parents had committed. Jesus said it was not the sins of his parents that caused the blindness, and knelt in the mud and made a paste with his spit and rubbed it on the eyes of the beggar. He then sent the man to go wash the mud off of his eyes. When he did, his sight was restored. Upon returning to the place where he had been, the neighbors kept asking – -is he the one who was blind? I don’t know, do you? The beggar kept saying “it was me!”. The neighbors kept asking – where is the one who healed you? The beggar had no idea. He didn’t know what Jesus looked like – he had never seen him. It’s comical really. But then the Pharisees got involved and investigated the matter – the healing had happened on the Sabbath. Jesus eventually found the blind man and the man recognized him by his voice and his deeds. Which leads into the parable for today. Jesus begins describing the thieves and the wolves who want to hurt the sheep in the first 10 verses of chapter 10. He is still speaking to the Pahrisees as he continues with todays’ reading. He says that he is the shepherd and he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.

 

Jesus knows us – -the sheep of his flock. He knows what we sound like, what we do and he guides us along the way. I learned this week that shepherds do not lead the sheep in the same way cattle are led. Sheep are led from behind, guided by the voice of their shepherds. They hear his encouragement that moves them through rocky places to the nourishing grass. They know that while he is behind them, he knows the way. Sheep know their shepherd is tending the sick and the lame, all the wile directing them where they need to know. They listen for his voice, and they trust him.

 

They listen for his voice. Think about that for a minute. The emperor penguins can call out all they want for their mate, but if the mate is not listening for their voice, the two will not be reunited. When we are separated from our companions, we listen for their voices even though we cannot see them in the crowd. The mother and son at the grocery store were listening for each other even as they were calling out. Before we can recognize and respond to a sound, we must first listen. Susan Hedahl, Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA talks about 5 different kinds of listening in her commentary on this text. Each of the 5 are interrelated – but they all begin with the ability of an individual to hear sounds and move to different levels of analysis, critique, concern and appreciation.

 

Here is an example of the difference between hearing and listening. One of the cable news channels had a panel discussion about a political event. There were commentators from varying political perspectives and the host of the show asked a question. Each commentator then told what he or she thought about the question. Then they began the “debate” portion of the segment, and it became quite apparent that each of them was not listening to the others. They were so worried about what he or she would say next, that while they recognized the sounds they heard were of someone talking, they did not actually process what was being said, pay it attention, or respond to what was actually said. They heard a pause in the conversation and jumped in to say what was on their mind. There was no true listening, no true processing of the sounds he or she heard and giving it consideration.

 

I think sheep hear a lot of things – -they hear the sounds of the birds, the sounds of traffic if their pastures are next to highways. They hear the sounds of animals and farm equipment, the wind in the trees, the chewing of grass and falling rain. They listen for the voice of the one who guides them, the one who leads them and claims them as his own. They listen for and respond to the voice of the shepherd.

 

Here’s a true story.[3] There was a man who was a farmer and shepherd. One summer, he went to the county fair and ran into someone he knew from town. They had a conversation that left the farmer feeling uneasy. Upon his arrival at home, he noticed the tire tracks in the dust and the sheep pen open. Sure enough, all the sheep were gone. I don’t know the specifics of the conversation the two had at the fair that day, but it was just odd enough that the farmer suspected the man he had spoken with of stealing his sheep. Two weeks later, there was another fair and the farmer went. Sure enough, his neighbor was there with new sheep – -his sheep that had been retagged. The farmer knew the sheep by sight. He entered the pen, and the sheep could smell him – even with all the other smells in the barn, the sheep knew their shepherd. When he began to whistle, the sheep began to get excited and he was able to lead them away.

 

The sheep knew that shepherd and the shepherd knew him. This is not an occurrence that happens overnight. A relationship and trust are built between the 2 parties. The sheep learn to listen for the shepherd, to hear his or her voice and to trust where it leads them. They learn to listen for the shepherd’s voice and follow it.

 

How do we listen for the voice of our shepherd? In all the noise that we hear in a given day – the TV on as we get ready in the morning, the radio and voices in the grocery store, the continual hum of noise that surrounds us. All those things we hear and do not pay attention to, as they are just noise. There are a lot of them. It can be hard to find time to really listen – -to listen to those we have relationships with, to listen to those we are building relationships with. It takes time and energy to truly listen to each other. And to listen for the voice of our Shepherd, to listen for the voice of God can take even more. I wonder if often we just assume it is there in part of the din of the world. We talk when we pray – either in our heads or out loud, but how well do we listen to what Jesus is saying to us?

 

It can be hard to hear the voice of our shepherd if we are not listening for it. But there is a second part in there as well – -the response. The response is how the penguins find each other, how the lost child is reunited with a parent. How do we respond when we listen to Jesus?

 

I invite you to sit with that this morning. To take that question with you – -when we listen to Jesus, as sheep listen to the shepherd, how do we respond? If we do not respond, are we really listening?

 

One way we respond is by coming to the table. We come to the table with joy during the Easter season, remembering that as he promised, he was resurrected. We respond with gratitude for his death for us. We respond in service to those he called us to serve. We listen to our shepherd in worship – -we listen as we sing, as scripture is read and proclaimed, as we hear once again the telling of our story as we prepare to come to the table. Jesus speaks to us all the time. He knows us and leads us through the noise of the world. He tells us “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” Do we hear him when he speaks to us? Do we listen when we hear him? How do we respond to the voice of Jesus?

[1] http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/2000/1/penguinsthinice.cfm

[2] www.wikipedia.com Emperor Penguins

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx Brainwave 056: texts for May 3, 2009


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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