Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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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:


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.




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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.


[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.

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I did a few updates tonight.  There is a new section here for articles I have published here.

Now, you can hear me preach from your own computer!  So far, just one sermon is up, but I’ll be adding more as I get more comfortable with the process.  Click the orange button to hear me!

I also realized how far behind i am in posting manuscripts.  I’ll work on that soon.  FPC Cartersville has removed the sermon page, so mine are no longer posted there.

Also, if you come here often (or at all) you may notice the photos int he headers all change.  Those are my photos, taken at various places.  They change each time you visit, or reload the page.  Take a look!

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Sermon for Easter: The End is the Beginning

Mark 16:1-8


The End is the Beginning
Rev. Julie Jensen
April 5, 2015 First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville GA

We don’t often think of approaching Easter with fear. This is the day we sing “Christ is Risen” and say “Alleliua” as many times as we can count to express our joy at Christ’s triumph over death. We wear bright colors to celebrate the resurrection and our return to joy after the sorrow of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. This is the high point of the liturgical year for us as Christians and a chance to celebrate that in his Resurrection, Christ’s work is complete. Yet the Gospel reading for today is not filled with joy, it instead tells the story of the women who went to anoint Jesus. They had been delayed in this task by the approaching Sabbath, and wanted to complete what they thought would be their final act of service to their Lord. They were still serving him even in his death.

They were so preoccupied when they approached the tomb; they almost didn’t notice at first that the stone had been rolled away for them. They hear the news that Jesus is not there, and they are told to go and tell Peter and the Disciples that Jesus has gone ahead and will see them in Galilee. The women are scared. Which is understandable – there is a stranger in the tomb and the one they came to see is gone. They are seized with terror and amazement – ecstasy in the Greek – and they run away and don’t tell anyone what they have seen.

This was the original end of the story. There was no Jesus in this account, no one telling the good news, no one rejoicing that Our Lord has risen as he said he would. There is no encounter with the resurrected Christ, to call the disciples to faith, which is what we get in the other Gospels. There is just an abrupt ending leaving us all a little confused and wanting more. So it makes sense that if you look at this passage in your Bibles – you will find it on pages 55 and 56, you will see a shorter and longer ending containing what we may hope to see – an end to the story.

But what if – what if this is exactly where Mark intended to end the story. Not with Alleluia, but with the failure of the women to share the good news, and an abrupt ending? It actually makes sense. If you go all the way back to the beginning of Mark you hear this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

Mark set us up for the abrupt ending with an abrupt beginning. The entirety of the Good News of Jesus Christ is not contained in this Gospel. No, the beginning of the Good News is what we see here. Even in the first verse we read that Christ has been sent ahead of us to prepare the way. So the Gospel ending with the words that Christ has gone ahead of the women to Galilee echoes back to where we began. Many times we see what one scholar has pointed out – “that the people who should know what’s going on, like the disciples, don’t. Jesus predicts his passion three different times and yet they still don’t understand, are surprised by what happens, and don’t believe what he said. Again and again, the disciples disappoint, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that these women who, let’s remember, had the courage to stay with Jesus to the end and then ventured to his tomb to tend him, nevertheless fail like the other disciples.” (David Loose.

Then we realize that “the people who do realize who Jesus is can’t be trusted to tell. Take, for instance, the demon who possesses a young man at Garazene. He recognizes Jesus, asking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7). The demon knows who Jesus is, but can you count on a demon for a testimony?! And then there’s the Roman centurion, who immediately after watching Jesus dies states, “Truly, this man was God’s son” (Mark 15:39). But can you count on a Roman centurion for a testimony?”

“So here we are. All the people who should know, don’t. And those who do, can’t be counted on. So it appears we’re in a bind. Except … except there’s one other person who has seen and heard everything Jesus has said and done. One other who heard Jesus’ predictions and then watched as they came true. One other who listened to the amazing news at the empty tomb and heard the order to go and tell. Do you know who what other person is? It’s you. And me. And all the readers of Mark’s gospel” (

We, the ones who have been with Jesus since the beginning, since we lit candles on Christmas Eve and sang Silent night at his birth, know all that he has said and done. We, the ones who heard the stories of miracles and listened to his parables, know what he has done. We are the ones who ate at table with him, and watched his crucifixion. And we are the one who heard him predict his death and resurrection, and know that this is good news.

The end of the Gospel of Mark is not the end of the story. We knew this even before we walked to the tomb with the women. We had seen and heard and believed, and today we know that we have the same task given to those who discovered the empty tomb. Our task is to tell what we have seen and heard and know.

God is not finished with us. Not by a long shot. Easter is just the beginning. The Alleluias we sing today should not die on our lips as we walk out the door. The music filling our souls should not be silenced when we sit down to brunch. We are called Disciples, and it is our job to continue the story.
How do we do that in this day and age? That is a central question to out faith. How do we continue to be witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

We continue when we answer his call to love one another.
We continue when we serve those we consider the least of these, those who are marginalized, bullied, cast aside.
We continue when we gather around font and table, and come to church to hear and re-hear the stories of our faith.
We continue when we teach our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and students and all we care for what it means to follow Jesus.
We bear witness to the Good News when we remember that in his death, Christ has overcome death once and for all, for all of us.
We bear witness when we refuse to participate in business practices that hurt rather than help, which cheat or rob rather than model the ethics of Christ.
When we fight for justice, when we stand up for what is right, we continue to tell the story.
When we model care and compassion we model what it looks like to be a faithful Christ follower.
When we step up to serve in the church as part of the body of Christ, we continue the story.
And, just as the Gospel is the beginning of the story, this list is the beginning as well. God is not finished with us, not even close.

Yesterday, my niece went to see her first live performance of a Broadway show. She is 4, and for Christmas their family received tickets to see The Lion King Musical. If you have not seen it, the first act is pretty long, and the second act is shorter. Act 1 ends with an exiled Simba – the lion king -who has been found by a meer kat and a warthog and taken into their family. If you are 4, it seems like a good place for the story to end. As the curtain came up for intermission, Charlotte looked at my sister and said “Is the story over? Is it time to go home?” No, the story was not over, and there was more to see.
Friends, this is only the beginning for us, and the story is not yet over. Mark invites us to enter into the Easter story as the ones who have seen it all – from the beginning to the – no, not the end — how about the intermission? It’s time for us to pick up where the women left off, and share the good news and rejoice! Christ is risen – Alleluia! Share the joy, the good news, and be part of the work God is doing now and always. Amen.

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Sermon: Luke 1:26-38 Mary Answers the Angel

Mary Answers the Angel
Luke 1:26-38
Preached at First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
Rev. Julie Jensen

The Annunication

The Annunciation (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Artist: South Netherlandish Painter (ca. 1460) Medium: Oil on wood, gold ground Dimensions: 39 x 37 in. (99.1 x 94 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 Accession Number: 32.100.38

Hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a painting of a teenage girl being visited by angels.  She leans against a tree, looking resigned, worried, stoic, and resolved to do what she is being called to do.  In her face is a mix of determination and fear.  Behind her are 2 angelic figures, looking very ephemeral and blending into the background.  The painting is large  -almost 8 feet by 9 feet – and the girl seems lifelike – looking as if she will walk off the canvas and into her future.  The painting is called Joan of Arc, painted in 1879 by French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage.[1]  In it I see what I imagine was also in Mary’s face the day she was visited by the Angel Gabriel.  Resolution, fear, wonder, awe, and determination.

Most of the artistic depictions of the annunciation have a few things in common.  Mary is dressed in blue, obviously pregnant, with a book in hand, and is looking over at the angel quite calmly.  In the depiction I like the best by a Netherlands painter, Mary has her hands raised and an expression of “what will be will be”.[2]  The painter has not given her a look of resignation or excitement or joy but of bemused acceptance.

Whether she looked like the painting of Joan of Arc or the way the painter from the Netherlands portrayed her, one thing is evident – -Mary certainly was caught off guard, and no artist can capture that exact moment.  Here was a young teenage girl, engaged to be married, which is the happy way to say she was property ready to be transferred to her husband, trying to figure out her future.  She probably could not read and write, and was certainly not expecting the news she was about to receive on this day.  So imagine her surprise when one day Gabriel appears, and says “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Surprise may be putting it mildly.  How about shock, fear, or confusion?  We may have responded with the words “who are you and why are you in my house?  I’m calling the police.”  But there was no 911 for Mary, and so she ponders the greeting.  Gabriel must have figured out she was more than a little nervous, for he gets to the heart of the matter quite quickly.

Have you ever noticed that Angels do not enter quietly, they usually cause a fuss, and they always have to tell people not to be afraid? They know their arrival is going to change things, going to toss the world upside down a little bit, and so they begin by reminding the person they are visiting that God is with them.  The angels come to make announcements from God that topple kingdoms and make us open tombs looking for those who are not there.  They come and deliver news that we did not expect, and often are not excited to hear.  These are not the cherubs from Greeting cards  – they are forces to be reckoned with.  Gabriel has been busy.  Before he visited Mary, he visited Elizabeth to tell her the good news that she would bear a son, even though she was past the age of this being possible.  Gabriel has already begun to deliver the news of God that will shake up the world.  His presence announces that God is bringing salvation and redemption, and not in the way we most expect it.  Angels come and things change.

Mary is still recovering from the shock of Gabriel telling her God is with her, when he tells her the big news, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And then everything changed.  For you see, it can be argued that Mary had a choice.  She was not pregnant yet – -the reading says “ in the sixth month” referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not hers.  Mary can still say no, theoretically.  How you say no to the angel Gabriel is a question I can’t answer.  How you say “no” to God, –  well, usually when we say “No”, God gets God’s way someway or another.  I know lots of second career pastors who can tell that story better than I can.  When she asks her question “how can that be, for I am a virgin” we hear her begin to make up her mind.  Gabriel explains to her about Elizabeth becoming pregnant and tells her that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary gives her answer.  “”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When the movie Doubt premiered, lead actresses Meryl Streep and Amy Adams were interviewed by the ABC News film critic.  One of the questions he asked was “what are you sure of, and what are you not sure of?”  He was asking them what they were certain of in themselves, and what they doubted about themselves.  The tension was palpable, as neither actress was going to admit her insecurities about herself on national television.  But Meryl Streep said something interesting.  She said actors live with constant uncertainty, about themselves and about when they will next work again; or where their next job is coming from.  She still wonders when one project finishes, what the next one will be and who will offer it to her.  This woman that seems so secure, has doubts.  I wonder if we asked Mary the same question, what she would have said.  Mary, of what are you certain, and what do you doubt?

Mary was certain of one thing – -that nothing is impossible with God.  She would have clung to that certainty as she dealt with the aftermath of Gabriel’s visit.  In her time, unwed mothers were stuff of stonings and complete exile from the community and all that you knew.  You were outcast and disowned, if you were lucky, dead if you weren’t.  Mary knew all of this.  I imagine her trekking to see Elizabeth, the only one who might possibly understand, muttering to herself over and over again “nothing is impossible with God.”  I imagine that as the days drew near for her to deliver that she had doubts that many first time parents have – doubts about her readiness, her ability to deliver, in her case, doubts about where she would be physically.  But instead of focusing on them, she praises God, using some of the words Miriam used.  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Mary’s response to the angel shattering her world as she knew it was to say yes and praise God.

Anne Lawson, in the Iona Community Book Hay and Stardust has some different questions for Mary, questions that I imagine many of us ask.  Listen to the beginning of her poem:

Is this what you had in mind Mary?

Is this what you dreamed of,

idly planned and chattered of with the girls in Nazareth?

Did you dream that your first child would be

born out of wedlock

of an unknown father?

Born miles from home

in a place fit only for animals?

Is this the birth you dreamed of for your first child?

Did you dream your firstborn son would be

greeted by strangers?

Greeted by shepherds,

Outcasts of society?

Greeted by wise men

from strange far-off countries?

Greeted by the host of angels?

Is this the welcome you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of this life for your firstborn son?

A birth in a stable?

A desperate flight for safety?

A life as a refugee?

A peripatetic life?

A life in which other women cared for him?

A life with no wife, no family?

A life lived in the shadow of hostility?

A life ending in a criminal’s death?

A horrific death?

Is this the life you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of your own life?

A happy marriage?

A growing family?

Sons and daughters to care for you in your old age?

Did you dream of this for your own life?

And if you had known, in those days of idle teenage chatter,

as a girl in Nazareth,

what you know now,

would you have said “yes” to God’s angel so quickly?

I am not sure Mary knew what all was in store for her son.  I am not sure she knew he was going to have the life he did, the death he did.  She knew that she was favored by God, and she was chosen to bear the son of God into this world.  Mary knew that through her God would come and be Emmanuel – -God with us.  Mary knew nothing was impossible with God, and that with God she would bear this child.  Mary knew that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel had changed her life, and changed the world.

I am sure though that God has not finished, not even close.  God continues to break into our world, to make annunciations and proclamations, and to be with us.  There may not be appearances of Gabriel or virgin births, but God did not stop working with the birth of our savior and redeemer.  God did not stop working when we reached the cross, and God did not stop working at the tomb.  I am sure that one of the messages of Advent is for us to continue to look for God at work in the world, to continue to be alert for the Kingdom of God that will come, to continue to watch for opportunities to say, “here am I, servant of the Lord” and to hear that “nothing is impossible with God.”  This advent is quickly coming to a close – -I can hear the bells and see the angels waiting to deliver the news, just on the horizon.  The cattle are getting restless and Mary and Joseph approach Bethlehem, wondering what will happen next, wondering what this birth will look like, and if they are ready.  Do they know the angels will appear again proclaiming the birth of their son, and that the world will never, ever be the same?  Do they know what this all means?  A teenage mother and her husband are getting ready to witness the birth of our salvation – -do they know?  How could they truly grasp what is about to happen?  They probably are not certain about much but this – God is with them, and with God all things are possible.  And for now, that is more than enough.



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Sermon from Sunday: Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings

Exodus 32:1-14
32When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 2Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.’ 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7 The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ 9The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ 14And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Golden Cows and Burnt Offerings
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, October 12, 2014

The wife of a colleague of mine who pastors a church in Kalamazoo, MI shared the following thought with me as she and her husband Barrett worked through their study of the book of Exodus. “Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement was not killing his people.” After the reading for this week, I have to say that I can agree. For you see, Moses did not lead a docile people. No, he lead a bunch of whining, complaining, grumpy, disobedient people. In the book of Exodus, we read the story of Moses and the account of his life. God speaks to Moses when God appears to him in the burning bush, telling him to go back to Egypt and get the Israelites released from slavery so that they may enter the promised land that God has prepared for them Moses and God argue about this for a little bit – Moses is sure he is not eloquent enough to speak to the king or to lead the people. In a bit of a comedy routine, God tells Moses to go and Moses says “but what if they ask who sent me?” God says “Tell them I am who I am sent you.” “But what if they don’t believe me?” Moses asks. I can see God sighing. God instructs Moses to throw down his staff – when he does, it turns into a snake. The God instructs Moses to pick it back up and it turns back into a staff. God gives Moses a second sign — he places his hand in his cloak and it emerges covered with leprosy. When he replaces it, the condition disappears. If that’s not enough, God gives Moses the ability to pour water from the river on the ground, where it turns into blood. Moses still is not convinced, and offers another excuse “I’m not very eloquent. I hate speaking in front of people. Really, God, I’m not your guy.” And like when a child that has pushed his parents too far, this was the last straw, and God got mad. “Well, too bad Moses. Take your brother Aaron, and give him the words to speak. He can do it – he will speak for you to the people. Now, take your staff and go.”

I wonder when we reach today’s reading if God wishes God had made a different choice in selecting the people who would lead the Israelites out of slavery. After the plagues sent by God convinced the Pharaoh to let the people go, God led them out of Egypt by the long way – even then God knew everyone was not happy about this decision. The Lord led them through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they draw near to the Red Sea, they prepare to battle the Egyptians to cross the border. As they get ready to cross the waters of the sea, not yet parted by God, the grumbling begins. “Seriously, Moses? You brought us all the way out here to die? We could have stayed enslaved in Egypt and been better off than this. A least there were graves there for us to be buried in. They crossed the sea unscathed and dry and continued on. When they reached Marah, the only water was bitter, and the people complained again. Moses relied on the Lord, and made the water palatable. And the pattern continues as the people cross the desert. Time and time again they complain – like kids on a road trip in the car “I’m hungry….I’m thirsty.” “I don’t like manna, where’s the meat? I’m thirsty and all you can do is make water come out of this rock.” And on and on and on. Each of their complaints in met with Moses looking to the Lord for answers, and the Lord meeting the needs of the people. Finally, they reached Mt. Saini. Moses climbed the mountain and God spoke to him the words he was to speak to the people – the Covenant.

We read in Exodus 19:5-6 “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.’” If the people keep the rules God sets for them, then they shall be God’s people. The entirety of the people agree in one voice that they will do everything the lord has spoken.

Moses ascends the mountain and received the 10 commandments, and shares them with the people. Moses gets a lot of exercise on this mountain – he ascends and descends 4 times bringing the laws and statutes and ordinances to the people to follow. The first 10 begin with God declaring that “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

And then, well, what happens next is what makes me think that Barrett’s words about Moses’ greatest pastoral achievement might be true. Moses gives them the first set of rules immediately following the promise of the people to do whatever God commanded them to do. He was gone 40 days and they broke the first two rules. The people get restless. Fredrick Buechner uses the wonderful turn of phrase, “With Moses lingering so long on Mt. Sinai, that some thought he’d settled down and gone into real estate, the people turned to Aaron for leadership.” It’s been 40 days. Not too terribly long – the same amount of time as between the Wednesday of Labor day and today. When you have been wandering as long as the Israelites, 40 days is not much time at all. They are still settling into camp, for all intents and purposes. Yet, they get bored. They get impatient. They get anxious. Can you hear them talking to Aaron? “Where’s Moses? He’s left us. That God we all agreed to follow isn’t doing anything for us. Make us new gods to keep us happy.” And for whatever reason, Aaron said “Ok.”

We heard the rest of the story this morning – everyone takes off their gold jewelry and Aaron melts it down and pours it into a mold shaped like a calf. When it is cooled, he presents it to the people “Here are your gods that brought you out of Egypt.” Many preachers preach this passage and focus on the sin of idolatry – worshipping other things besides God, and we will touch on that today. What I wonder though, is if the sin of impatience was perhaps at the root of the events of the day?

The worship Committee and I have been preparing some prayer stations to connect owht our fall Stewardship Season that begins next week. You will see one outside the Upper Room and one outside the sanctuary when you come to worship next week. As I’ve been preparing, I’ve noticed that many of the books I read about stewardship season remind me that “where your treasure is, there your heart also lies.” This is usually in the chapter that encourages us to take out our checkbooks and see where most of our money goes, especially the portion that we set aside as giving to God. I agree that our checkbooks, or online banking apps can be spiritual documents. I also have learned the same about our calendars. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, in her book Sabbath in the Suburbs describes our calendars as spiritual documents as well -how we spend the gift of time that we have been given. Where does our time go? One of the commandments given by God is to remember the Sabbath as a day of rest, and remembrance of the 24-7 work done in slavery. To remember that some of our time is holy time, meant to be spent in simply honoring God and resting from our labors. And then I look at my calendar, I hear about other’s calendars, and I wonder if we perhaps have made an idol of being busy. I wonder if we have placed such a high value on work, production, and results that we are unable to leave any time unscheduled. Do we make idols of our schedules? Do we see it as a badge of honor to not rest, but to be committed with activities that we “have to” do for the sake of ourselves and our families?

As the women in our Sunday School class can tell you, we have been wrestling with these questions for a few weeks. But posing that question next to the story of the golden calf raises some interesting points. For, I think many of us have made time an idol. We make it a commodity that is doled out to others not with joy, but with a sense of giving away something precious. It breaks my heart when I hear people say “you’re too busy to need to come visit” or “that’s time you need to spend with someone else.” There is enough time. Just as there was enough manna in the wilderness. But when we make idols of our calendars and schedules, do we lose sight of the fact that our days, weeks, months, and years are all a gift from God to be thankful for, not the god we worship and give our lives over to?

For you see, when time feels in short supply, that’s when we get impatient. Which is possibly the root of all the issues in today’s reading. I will agree that the Israelites were stubborn. They were whiners. They complained when anything new happened, or when anything changed. They didn’t like the meal options or the beverage choices and made a big deal out of not getting their way. But I really, really don’t think they were evil. They just messed up. They got impatient because they did not see immediate results from their covenant with God. They got impatient when Moses went back up the mountain to get more rules and laws. This is a great example of a people who don’t like to wait, and who want things to happen immediately, on time and in our terms.

Have you had to wait this week? In line. At the grocery store. For children in the car-rider line. For your phone to ring? For the internet to load? When you sent an e-mail and did not get an immediate answer, or left a message and three hours later the call had not been returned. Are you waiting right now – for the preacher to stop preaching so we can get on with the service and get on with our days? If so, that’s another sermon for another day… I know I get impatient at times, as do we all. One of the blog posts I read this week, by Rick Morley, cast a different light on waiting:

“There is great spiritual treasure to be found in waiting—the practice of cultivating patience. It’s a practice that raises faith to a profound trust that God is working, and moving even when things seem to be going nowhere. And that God’s good time, is the right time. That glaciers move, even against all appearances to the contrary.
It’s a practice which forces us to put our own needs to the side for a bit, and focus on seeing the world and the unfolding of God’s plan and revelation as God sees fit to unfold it.
It can be frustrating. But, it can also be beautiful.”

Remember, while the Israelites were all getting impatient, God and Moses were hard at work. God was revealing the details of covenantal life to Moses. How the newly promised people of God were going to live that out. And these things take time. The practice of waiting is a practice that requires us to allow for the time and space for god to do God’s work. The practice of waiting means we do not get to dictate the terms, but instead must trust that somewhere progress is being made that will allow us to move forward. In waiting, we allow ourselves time to look for God in the midst of our days, weeks, months, and years. In waiting we relinquish our grip on the idols of business and calendars, and instead cling to the truth that God is indeed in the details of our days.

I wonder what would happen if we truly embraced the waiting. If we recognized that this was indeed the space where God is at work. I wonder what it might look like if rather than wishing the light would turn green so I would not be late – again – I recognized that I cannot make it go any faster, and simply was still for a moment. If instead of cursing the train and racing around to Church Street to beat it, if I waited for it to pass. What idols of time do you worship? What would it look like for you if you waited and looked for where God was at work rather than moved on to the next thing? How can we fill our lives not with more entries on the calendar, but with more spaces for God to be at work? I wonder.

For generations, the people of God have been impatient. For generations, we have wanted answers now, and wanted to know what will happen next. Since Moses ascended Saini the first time, we have wanted to know what God is saying and doing without delay. Friends, I invite us to spend this week waiting. Waiting patiently and seeking to find God at work in the time we spend paused before the next thing. I invite you to practice patience as a spiritual discipline this week and encounter God at work. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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Sermon for Sunday: If…Then

Philippians 2:1-13The Message (MSG)

2 1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.

OPIN Group
Rev. Julie Jensen
This scripture passage was lived out across Bartow County yesterday. Over 225 people from 5 churches scattered to 25 worksites to illustrate the verses of this passage, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Yesterday was “Operation Inasmuch”. This event takes months of planning and coordination, and a lot of behind the scenes work to make happen. Add in volunteers and site coordinators, local businesses, local agencies and their employees, and there are hundreds who spend a morning forgetting themselves and lending a hand for others. The work is not glamorous. There are folks who arranged and delivered flowers, climbed in attics to fix pipes, scraped moldy ceilings, walked dogs, sorted papers and clothing, cooked casseroles, painted parking lots, planted and cleaned up gardens and yards, moved individuals who had to leave their homes, and this was only the tip of the iceburg. We have congregation members who could not come because they spent the day out at Red Top with their spring clean up, sold mattresses to support the band, or spent a portion of the week helping others through Meals on Wheels, the Victim’s Assistance Office, Family Promise, driving for the Shelter, being at Friendship Table or serving on the boards of local organizations. We live out the verse “forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”
The question folks ask is “why”? Why do the members of this church and so many others give of themselves so freely and fully to help others? Why do we give up our time and energy and resources to help strangers? This passage gives us some light on the answer – this is the effect of our loving Christ. The passage for today is part of a letter Paul writes from jail. He writes to a people who are in disagreement in this particular congregation, and this is his response – to remember Jesus. He writes, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor:” There are 4 “if” statements here that tell us that because the love of Christ has made a difference in our lives, because being together in a community of faith matters to us, because we care, THEN we are called to do a few things, including lend a hand to those in need.
We can look at it like cause and effect. If it rains, then you will get wet without an umbrella. If you don’t brush your teeth, then you will get cavities. If your car is out of gas, then you will not be able to drive it. The cause of our actions is Christ. The effect Christ has on us is love of one another and helping those who need help. But, Paul is not saying that this is straight cause and effect. While there are some guaranteed outcomes – if you stand in the open during the rain you will get wet, Paul is talking about a different if-then. Not a direct effect, but rather a desired action as the result of the cause. I think about it as the Public Broadcasting approach. You may be familiar with the fund drives – I think they may being his week. In the fundraising, there are usually one or two segments detailing why people give. Usually it is as a result of what GPB has done for them – how it has changed their lives, or how they view the news, or how much they get from the programming offered. It is the inverse of cause and effect. “I get and so I give”, rather than “I give and so I get.” That’s where Paul is going – we have received and it has changed us and so we respond. Paul exhorts us to respond in some specific ways.
One of the reasons we are using the Message Translation today is that these are familiar words to us. We hear them preached here fairly regularly, read them frequently, and honestly, after spending a week with articles and commentaries, I found Eugene Peterson’s straight talk / modern language to be what we all might need to hear today. Paul tells us: “do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.”
These words are counter-cultural today, and they were when Paul wrote them. We live in a society that places great importance on individuality, self-sufficiency, and achievement as the marks of success. We, as people, and as a community, strive to be in the top: to have the best schools and businesses, to have the best homes, to be able to say “I worked hard and look what I got.” We want to show off our “blessings” to praise our children for being at the top of the class, to do what we have to do to climb the corporate ladder to get ahead and to the top. We like to claim the privileges of power, of being one of the “cool kids” or in the right social group. As a society we like to do what we have to do to get to the top so we can enjoy the executive suite, the sky box, the corner office, the luxury home or vehicle, the first class flights to exotic locales. How much of our media consumption focuses on people undermining, backhanding, or competing with one another to win the prize? How many magazine covers show us how to be the “best you that you can be” or tell us how we can get money, power, or fame?
As a society, we have also become one that thrives on discord and disagreement. We think we can do it better than anyone else (whatever “it” might be) and so we stop listening to one another. We think our view of how the nation should be run is the best and only way, and so we shout the loudest on cable news or morning shows and don’t stop to consider the other side – and both sides of the political divide in our country are guilty of this. We live in a time where divisiveness is valued – from both sides. “We” don’t want to look like “them”, even when we have common interests. Paul’s letter describes a way that is the opposite of this.
Note that Paul does not say we cannot excel. Paul does not tell us that we cannot reap the rewards of hard work. Paul does not say that we cannot enjoy what we have been given. But, Paul calls us to other priorities as a result of the love of Christ. If the love of Christ means anything to us, if being in a community of the spirit means anything to us, if we have hearts, or if we care, then we are called to go against the mainstream culture.

Paul asks us to do him a favor. To agree with one another, to love each other, to be deep spirited friends.” Paul exhorts us to be a community of faith – not only within these walls, but in our world. The call to service is last. It comes after the call to be in community, to build relationships, and to listen to differences. Only after we do those, can we move to acts of service that truly follow the example of Christ. Acts of service not done to make us feel good or done so we can say “I did that” but done because it is the selfless “then” that follows the “if”. The effect that follows the cause.

When I looked at the group picture taken yesterday morning, I was moved. It is on the church Facebook album, or if you send me an e-mail, I can send it to you. When you look at it at first, it looks like any other group photo. Kids and short people in front. Those who want to hide are behind the tall people. Not everyone looks at the same place at the same time. 225 people in the Sanctuary at Heritage Baptist Church. We were 5 congregations with different practices and different beliefs. What moved me was what I knew about the behind the scenes. You see, Heritage Baptist does something like this monthly, on a smaller scale. The inclusion of the other congregations once a year came about partly as a result of our Thursday Morning coffee conversations. Each Thursday local clergy gather at Starbucks before we head into our churches for conversation and fellowship. I don’t know that y’all realize how rare this group is. Many communities have a “ministerium” that functions to plan community worship events, and meet weekly or monthly to conduct business. But this group did not begin to plan events. We began because our congregations were working together on Bartow Give a Kid a Chance, and as the clergy interacted during the planning meetings, we decided wanted to spend more time together. Not working, but as colleagues and friends. We talk about church in the broader sense – what is happening across the country or in the world with churches. We may discuss theology or local affairs. This group is open to any pastors who want to come. And it works because ingrained in the DNA of the group is the recognition that we will not all agree on everything. Theologically we are diverse, politically we are diverse. We are different ages and in different life stages. Our community in this setting is based on the common belief that Jesus is Lord. We all agree on that, and we all agree that we are not going to try to change one another’s minds about much else. However, we discuss, we listen, we debate (sometimes), we challenge one another. This is a place that models Paul’s letter. By our agreeing on the common tenet of our faith, we have been able to love one another and be “deep spirited friends”. We disagree with each other sometimes, we may not all share the same opinion, but we have been together long enough to build relationships with one another. There is no “our church is better than yours” or “look what we have done” or “our stewardship campaign beat yours because we did what we had to to get ahead.” This is not a place where we are trying to get to the top or put ourselves first personally or professionally. It is a place where we set ourselves, and our individual churches aside to help the body of Christ in this community succeed. It is because of the relationships nurtured over lattes and dark roast at a table that we can help others as a community in the community. If we put our ambitions aside, we can help others get ahead.

How are we building relationships here? Ask yourself this – when is the last time you spoke to someone new at church? Not new as in the sense of they have not been here very long – though I encourage that. New as in the sense of outside the group you normally encounter. When is the last time you sat at a different table at family night, or had a cup of coffee with someone you did not know very well? Have you – gasp – tried sitting in a different spot and making friends with the person whose head you have been looking at for years? I will confess it is hard to stretch in that way. We come to church to fellowship with those we know. We come looking forward to catching up with our friends that we have not seen all week. We want to nurture those relationships. I get it, and I am guilty of it myself. But what would happen if we actively sought out the company of those whom the only thing we have in common with is the fact that we confess Jesus is Lord? If we engaged in debate and discussion not worrying about what we will say next, but rather listened deeply to those who may be different. How can we build deeper friendships here, so that when we move to service, we have a solid foundation upon which to build?

I think sometimes we here at FPC are good at the serve others part. At the Mission Committee meeting last week we discussed the challenge of getting congregation members to sign up for mission at FPC because so many of us are involved in mission outside of our walls, and serve God that way. Where we can sometimes struggle is in setting aside our own wants and wishes, our own agendas and plans to simply be with one another, to listen without hope for personal gain, or a chance to show off our personal achievements.

This passage comes to my mind frequently in the life of this congregation. It comes to mind when I think about those who strive quietly to build relationships and then give a helping hand. I remember when I learned about one of our members who was instrumental in bringing a program for children and youth to Bartow county. He and I had spoken several times abut other facets of his life, but never about this. Yet the time and energy given to this endeavor were done quietly, and without a need for recognition. I was here yesterday after Operation Inasmuch and saw the car of a staff member and a volunteer in the parking lot – folks giving of their Saturdays quietly doing what needed to be done, not from a sense of needing recognition, not from a sense of personal advancement, not to be seen as better or a martyr, but simply because they serve. I listen to conversations where I know both parties disagree on a variety of social issues, and yet they plan an event together and think to myself, “that’s it, they got it.”

I know y’all well enough to know that the “if’s” of this passage are true. You all can proclaim that the love of Christ has made a difference in your lives. You can proclaim that you have gotten something out of following Christ. You value being in the community of the Spirit. You have heart, and you care – many of you care passionately and deeply. So if any of this is true for us, then what’s next? How will we then strive to agree with one another – not about everything but about the main thing? How do we then build deep-spirited friendships with the whole community? How then do we shift away from putting ourselves at the top of the list and the front of the line? How do we, as a community of faith do all of that so that we can forget ourselves long enough to continue to lend a helping hand where it is needed? The cause of our actions is Christ — what is the effect on how we live with one another and be the church together?