Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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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.



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Sermon: Bread Bowls and S(o)uper Bowls

Bread Bowls and S(o)uper Bowls
Matthew 14:13-21

I always feel sad for Jesus at the beginning of this story. Immediately before our passage begins, he has just heard is the news of the death of John the Baptist – his cousin, mentor, and friend. It is possible that when he died, John was better known for his ministry than Jesus was for his. The day Jesus was baptized, the crowds came because of the word John was preaching – Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. It is possible that John is the only one in the world who had a clue what Jesus’s life was like. When our passage opens, Jesus is grieving. He wanted some quiet time to mourn; he went to a deserted place to pray, thinking he could have some time to regroup before facing the crowds again. Jesus took a boat to find solace, and the people followed him by foot from the towns. I wonder what the scene looked like – Jesus pulling ashore in his boat, sights set on some time for prayer and perhaps tears, and then seeing all the people who are waiting for him.
As an introvert who needs quiet time to decompress and re-energize, I can imagine all too well how Jesus felt when he saw the crowds. Perhaps he felt like a parent who has spent all day dealing with the needs of multiple children with multiple demands who won’t take a nap. One more “Daaaaad – I need juice” is one too many. Or a nurse or doctor in the hospital who, in the middle of a full and crazy night slips into a room for a moment’s peace, only to have a pager sound, phone ring, or patient call. I wonder if Jesus wished for a moment that he was back on the boat, in the middle of the water. Jesus looks at this crowd and sees people in need, people who want to hear what he has to say, and who want to be healed. Jesus squares his shoulders and responds not with irritability, not with annoyance, not with the air of one who has been inconvenienced, but with compassion.
It is this compassion that shapes Jesus’ entire ministry, really his entire life. In this story of bread and fish and leftovers, we see the compassion flow from him. The followers are so desperate for his words, his touch, his healing that they have followed him out into the middle of nowhere to starve. Their need for the peace, healing, mercy, love and word of Jesus is stronger than their need for physical food. Jesus looks out across the crowd, and he is deeply moved. The people are in the wilderness, they are hungry, hurt, longing for something more, and crave the mercy that Jesus can offer (Russell-Jones 312). Today, in the desert, mercy takes the form of bread and fish. We remember that God is love, and that Christ is Immanuel – God with us. Despite the temptations he faced in the desert with the devil, despite the pressures to be something besides what he was, Jesus was motivated by compassion for humanity. He was not motivated by power, money, prestige, comfort, or accolades. He was love, and was motivated by that love. The compassion we see in Christ shows us that Christ cares deeply about each of us – even down our most basic needs.
The crowd wanted someone to help them with the basic physical and spiritual necessities of life. There were families who had no place to stay at night. There was a woman in need of clothing for a job interview. The 101 people we fed at Friendship Table on Tuesday were there. The folks seeking assistance for rent– they are standing there looking at Jesus too. Men and women who are addicted to drugs and need counseling were there, as were battered adults and abused children. Children whose only substantial meals come from the school lunch program and weekend and summer feeding programs cried out to be fed. There were individuals seeking physical healing form illness, and spiritual healing for broken hearts and lost souls. This crowd of unmet need would be overwhelming to any of us. The problems seem too big to solve, there are too many who need help, and so we get stuck in a place of indecision and feeling powerless. Imagine if you were one of the disciples facing the people. How would you know where to begin? If it had been a “crowd” of just 6 or eight following Jesus, the disciples may have felt better equipped to face the task ahead. If it had just been a few, they could have sat down and done intake interviews and needs assessments to find ways to solve the problem. It there were fewer people gathered, the disciples may have felt that they could actually do something. But a crowd of 20,000? In the face of that crowd they felt powerless standing there in the wilderness without any resources or ways to help.
I don’t think it is any accident that Matthew tells this story, or that it happens in the wilderness. In Matthew’s gospel, we see a lot of Jesus going to be alone, and a lot of events in the desert. It is in the desert where Jesus is tempted by the devil to claim political power and turn bread into stone, and it is in the desert that Jesus says no to these temptations. The desert is a significant place in this gospel, as it is in our lives. During Advent, Ted preached about John the Baptist in the wilderness, and he said something that is still running through my mind, that helped me reframe what the wilderness is all about. I used to think of the wilderness as dry, dusty, desolate, and empty of everything – including God. Yet, Ted described it not as a place of desolation, but a place where God is still with us, and is a place of prayer. This space that can be described as hopeless, is actually one where God can be at work the most in our lives, if we can be open to that happening. That thought shapes how I look at this wilderness today, and how Jesus responded to those who were crying out to him in it. The question is not “how do we make them go away since we can’t do anything”, but is instead the one asked in Psalm 78 as the story is told of the Israelites wandering through the desert. The question is, “Can God spread a table in this wilderness?”
It is through the compassion of Jesus that we receive the answer – yes. The disciples try to send the crowd to the villages and towns to find food, and Jesus says no. The miracle of this story is that in fact, God can, and did, spread a table in this wilderness. I honestly don’t know how it happened – if folks pooled what little they had as the bread and fish were passed around, if there was a secret stash somewhere, if they were filed spiritually rather than physically – these are all theories that have been advanced by scholars. What I do know is that it was a miracle that all had enough to eat. There was a table spread in the wilderness, and Jesus and the disciples met the need of all who came to eat.
It is critical to note that it was the disciples who did the physical feeding that day. When John was killed, Jesus recognized that the same thing was likely to happen to him. He would not always be on earth, and would not always be the one able to do the ministry. There is urgency to his work, perhaps that was not felt before. So, in a sense he passes the torch to the disciples. It is the beginning of their time to do the work of God, their time to act. I’m sure the disciples were beyond baffled when Jesus took the bread, prayed over it, broke it, and distributed it to them, along with the fish. “I’ve done my part, now you get to work.” Here’s the secret – Jesus didn’t feed the 5,000 men who were gathered there that day, he did not feed this crowd that possibly approximated 20,000 when you added in the woman and children. He blessed the bread and told his disciples to get to work. He fed the disciples and told them to pass it along. He set the table for the feast in the desert, supplied the meal, and told them to do their part – It was the disciples who did the work, and that is what Jesus is saying to us today. The disciples stepped up and answered their call. We may feel powerless in the face of the needs we see every day, but as followers of Christ, we are called to share his compassion. In an article in the Christian Century, Trygve David Wilson makes the point that the ministry we serve in Christ does not pivot on what we have to offer, but on how much God gives, multiplying what we have. The disciples did not think they had anything to offer. Jesus said to them, bring your nothing to me. Five loaves and two fish were enough to fill everyone when all was said and done (Johnson, Blogging Toward Sunday). We may not think we have much, we may not think we can do much, but Jesus says to us, bring me your nothing. That is the call of discipleship. To bring what we have for the service of Christ, and let him work with it. We are not called to stand passively by and let folks suffer, but do what we can to do the work of compassion. We have enough. We have enough to grab a can off the pantry or supermarket shelf to put in a food pantry box. We have enough to give just a little bit more to the church. We have enough to offer our time to serve. When we give what we have for Christ, it is enough.
We are called to active ministry. Jesus did not feed 5,000 – Jesus fed the twelve, who in turn fed the crowd, and now it is our turn. We are not called to be passive in the face of all the need in the world, we are called to be fed by Christ and to turn around and feed others. Feeding others may be acts of physical labor and service, it may be serving on a committee or board, it may be a financial contribution, or it may be lifting prayers.
Today, as a congregation, and with our friends from Heritage Baptist, we will participate in active ministry. We will be fed physically with soup and bread and dessert, and we will feed others with our contributions. The requested minimum donation is how much you would spend to take your family to lunch today. Together, we can feed a lot of children. Each weekend, the Backpack Buddies program sends food home in backpacks to at-risk children. The backpacks contain enough food for two breakfasts, two lunches, three dinners, and two snacks. It costs approximately $7 per child per weekend, or 78 cents a meal or snack. If we wanted to provide 5000 meals, it would cost $3,900. Together, we can do that, easily. For these children in the wilderness, God will spread a table, and we will provide the food. Active ministry this morning looked like those who woke up and were here at 6 am to bake bread. It looked like those who picked up soup, or baked desserts. It looks like those who will wash up in the kitchen after you have eaten. How has Christ fed you so that you can in turn feed others?
It is appropriate that today is a communion Sunday. The story of the feeding of the 5000 is one that was recited when the early church gathered for the Eucharist. It is the only miracle story that is found in all 4 Gospels, though it varies among them. When we read this story, we remember God’s faithfulness to us, and Jesus’s call for us to be in action. God fed the Israelites in the wilderness, raining manna down from heaven. God set a table in the desert so that the hungry could be fed, and with 5 loaves and two fish, the disciples actively served in his name. They took the nourishment Christ had given them, and they shared it with others. When we come to this table, we remember the compassion of Christ, compassion that led him to the cross in love. He showed compassion to his friends, serving them the last time they dined together. We come to the table to experience that compassion. We come to be nourished, to be fed, so that we can feed others with what we have – it may only be seventy-eight cents, a can of food, or an hour of our time. We may offer extravagantly from our own sense of compassion. We are fed at the table so that through Christ, our offerings can feed others. We are the disciples – Jesus has blessed the bread, broken it, and given it to us to share with those who need it most. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Rev. Julie Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
February 3, 2013

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Building on One Foundation: Sermon for August 26, 2012

John 15:1-9

1 Corinthains 3:5-16

Building on One Foundation

I had a little extra time on my hands the last month or so, and spent some of it watching home renovations on HGTV.  Lots of them.   One of the shows that I kept running into was a show about converting basements into apartments to create rental income for homeowners. It seemed like every time a basement renovation was begun, there were major issues.  As rooms were reconstructed and the drywall ripped off, moisture was often the culprit of whatever the crisis was.  Water came in through bad foundations and made messes, grew mold, and in one case, peeled paint off the wall.  Time and time again, the necessary repairs to the foundation wound up doubling the cost of the renovation and made homeowners throw up their hands in despair.  I have to admit, it was interesting to see how the foundations of these basements had to be dug up to make the repairs – to fill cracks or seal concrete required excavation on the outside of the house to see what work had been originally done when the house was first built.

            In Paul’s letter today he talks about foundations.  I don’t think he is planning a basement renovation, but he is trying to prove a point to the church at Corinth. In this letter, Paul is attempting to point out to them that some things need to change.  In his absence, the church at Corinth was experiencing some growing pains and a leadership crisis.  The members of the church are rallying behind the work that either he, or Apollos, were doing in the name of Jesus. They were choosing sides offering praise to one and complaints about the other.   The recipients of the letter were more enthralled with the individual messengers of the Gospel rather than the Gospel itself.  The churchgoers are trying to give credit to one and place the blame for failure on the other.  Paul and Apollos, however are untied in their ministry and Paul is writing to re-focus the church.  He uses two metaphors to describe what he sees happening in the church – the metaphor of the garden and the metaphor of a house foundation.  Through these descriptions, Paul reminds the people of whose work is being done in the church at Corinth.

            Let’s go back in time  – 32,000 years.  Way before Paul, into the Upper Paleolithic Era.  This is the time when tools were long stone blades, and some of the well-known cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux and Coa were created.  Humans lived in houses, some made of mammoth bones, and others with dugout areas for windbreaks, floors, and hearths.  It was during this time that the first hunter-gatherer economy was developed.[1]  And, somewhere in the area we now know as northeastern Siberia, a squirrel was at work.  This squirrel buried a seed deep into the permafrost of the tundra and there it remained.  We don’t know why the squirrel never came back to dig up it’s food.  Maybe it forgot the location, maybe it died, maybe it decided that the other seeds it buried were tastier.  The seed stayed buried for 32,000 years after it was planted.  This winter, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that they had found the seed and cultured some of the cells.  “Team leader Svetlana Yashina re-created Siberian conditions in the lab and watched as the refrigerated tissue sprouted buds that developed into 36 flowering plants within weeks.”[2]  While Paul was writing his letters, those seeds were cocooned in the permafrost of Siberia at a cozy -7 Celsius.  They had been frozen about 30,000 years at that point, and they continued to remain frozen until now.  So, the question becomes, who gets the credit for the blooms that have grown from the cells of this seed?  The scientist who cultured them in the lab and watched and waited?  The team who found the seed and brought it back?  Or the squirrel who buried it?  Perhaps we could read the letter this way:  “The squirrel buried, the scientists cultured, but God provided the growth.”  God provided the growth, and flowers bloomed from a 32,000 year old seed.

In the first passage that Ted read today, we heard from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower….Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Apart from God, there is no growth.  Apart from Christ, there is no fruit.  We may begin programs, start Bible Studies or classes, initiate ministries and become frustrated that they are not all we want them to be.  We may even fail sometimes.  But in God’s garden, perhaps it is not a failure, but a seed we have planted.  Perhaps when we say “what if”, someone else tends to that idea and it grows into something beyond recognition.  I think about this when I think about how we raise children in the church.  We plant seeds through their lives – the prayers spoken at baptism, the songs sung in choir, the trips to Montreat, and confirmation class.  We, as the ones who make promises, plant the seeds of faith in their lives.  But, thank God it is not up to the planter to also do the watering and harvesting.  As a family of faith, some of us plant seeds, and some water and tend as god provides the growth.  What a Sunday school teacher says may make a lifelong impact that is not felt for years into the future.  As adults, we are continually watered and fertilized as well.  When we gather together for supper or Sunday School, some seeds are watered, and new ones are planted. However, no matter who plants, or who waters, it is God who provides the growth.

Paul is speaking in a metaphor to tell those at the church in Corinth that it is not about the worker individually, but about the work that God does to provide growth in the church, and growth of those who call themselves disciples.  We are part of the same church that Paul was – sure there have been divisions, expansions, and changes, but at our center, we are all the same.  It has taken the work of many over the centuries for the church to get where we are today.  Seeds were planted long ago, others cared for them, and sometimes we are lucky enough to see them sprout.  God provides the growth, and we bear the fruit.

Once that was made clear, Paul moved on to a new metaphor.  I think one of my High School English teacher would have loved this passage – she liked metaphors.  Just as we settle in the garden and dream about the garden that we may see grow in our lifetimes, Paul directs our attention elsewhere – to the house that is being built next door.  Well, really, it is just the foundation he wants up to look at for now.  When I read the passage from Paul, and the description of the foundation, I immediately thought of 2 things – the first were those renovation shows I mentioned to you before, and the second was the house we worked on in Tuscaloosa last month.  When we arrived on the first day, all that was finished was the foundation.  A stack of cinderblocks in the basic rectangular shape of the house that would be finished there.  The storm room was portioned out as part of this process, and that is where we began.  I remember as we built during the week – well, Ok, for me until Wednesday, that we kept measuring not from the last part of the work that had been finished, but from the foundation.  We knew that the foundation was straight and level, and so relied on it for all of our other measurements.  I did not really understand this until we started laying the floor.  A chalk line was drawn so we would put the individual pieces of wood in a straight row.  If one row was crooked and we measured from it for the next piece, then all the rest after that would be crooked too.  But, by marking our line from the foundation we stayed straight and solid.  Everything that was attached and framed was calibrated as straight and level from the foundation to avoid compounding errors.

Paul describes the church, and us, as what is being built upon a straight and solid foundation.  And he names the foundation as Jesus Christ.  We are to measure what we do based on our lives in Jesus Christ.  The church can be like the Habitat house – one group lays the foundation, the next the floors, the next raises walls and outs on a roof.  The work of each team is dependent on the work of the team that came before.  Each team has to remain true to the measurements of the foundation to ensure that the house will stand.  If the house is solid, it is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  If it is to stand, that must be the case.

One Hundred and Sixty Nine years ago, our congregation was founded.  The foundation of the life and work for this particular community of faith was laid.  Those who began our church founded a place with Christ at the center, and built from there.  It is a solid foundation that has stood strong.  As time has passed, we have continued to build on that foundation of Christ.  We teach, we minister, we worship, we serve in His name and as a response to His love for us.  My prayer is that 500 years from now, we can still say that about ourselves.  That as we move into the future, we do not simply measure and build on the last piece we built, but that we go back to what we hear Christ calling us to do as His people and build from there.

If you were given three words to describe our church, what would you say?  I find myself paying attention to many of the church signs and websites as I travel around, and wonder what another community of faith might be like.  I see words like “committed, connected, rooted, and fellowship”.  Every day in my inbox I get e-mails about how to market the church, how to get our message out to the community, to tell people that we are “contemporary” “Christ seeking” “welcoming” “casual” “inviting” etc etc.  These e-mails remind me of being at the circus or being on the boardwalk surrounded by carnival games.  Voices call out from all sides to step right up and see the oddity or play the game.  Barkers call out that they can guess your weight or age, and you can win a stuffed animal if you shoot straight at the target.  Sometimes, the church landscape can feel a little like the carnival midway, with voices competing for our attention.  “Step right up where our pastor is cool and hip, and we can solve all your problems.  Our band rocks, and we have great powerpoint.  Oh, and our choir is amazing too, and we have the best youth group in town.”  None of those are bad things, and we could say many of them too.  But, on what are those claims based?  If they are not based on a faith community with a firm foundation in Christ, they will leave us feeling empty and deceived, much like when you play the carnival game and walk away empty handed.  What do we claim about ourselves as a congregation, and how do those claims reflect our foundation in Jesus Christ, against which we measure and plan everything else?

Those are not only questions to ask about ourselves as a congregation, but also as individuals who also claim that Christ is our foundation.  Can we really say, deep in our souls, that Jesus Christ is our foundation?  Jesus helped the poor without judgment – do we?  Jesus reached out to those that repulsed most people – what do we do when we encounter someone who is ill, homeless, or dirty?  How about when no one is looking or asking?  When we have a hard day, week, month, or year, who do you turn to for support?  I have seen a saying that asks the question: “Have you prayed about it as much as you have talked about it?”  How did Jesus feel about gossip or the exclusion of others?  When we read in Acts that the members of the first church gave up all their possessions for the common good, do we squirm inside or rant about healthcare and food stamps going to the undeserving?  Yeah, having Jesus Christ as our foundation and measuring point can make us uncomfortable.  But that’s also what makes us able to say that we are Christians – we follow the one who died for all of us, even when we don’t measure up. 

Tonight is the last training class for our 10 new church leaders – 5 Ruling Elders and 5 Deacons.  They have spent weeks learning about what it means to be a leader in the Presbyterian church, and how to think about following Christ as they seek to make decisions, and care for us as this particular congregation.  What are our expectations for them as leaders?  Many times, there can be as many expectations for church leaders as there can be for pastors.  Sessions can be expected to provide every desired program to every age group of the church, keep a pristine and perfect facility, recruit hundreds of new members each year with flashy marketing and ads, all while balancing the budget and paying off the capital debt.  The Deacons are expected to know what is happening with every congregation member at all times – whether that information is given to the church or not – visit everybody who needs visiting, feed the hungry and plan mission trips, pray for everyone and never let a single need of the congregation or community slip through the cracks.  It can leave us with the impression of our leaders as the barkers at the carnival – “step right up and see what we have done to make this a great church!”  But, when you go behind the tent, what do you see?  Do we expect programs and events so that we can say we have them?  “I go to FPC because there are 2 children’s choirs, we feed the hungry, and worship on Sunday is awesome. “  Or, do we have these programs and events because they are foundational to who we are as Christians? 

The ordination vows that our Ruling Elders, Deacons, and Pastors take are all centered around the authority of Jesus Christ, and that first confession that Jesus is Lord.  This is the same confession each of you make when you join a congregation – who is your Lord and Savior?  Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  That is the foundation of our beliefs.  Jesus Christ is the place we begin to measure in all the building that we do.  Perhaps a more fair expectation of our leaders is not flash and awe, not what is cool or sexy, or trendy, but to expect them to begin with Jesus in all that they do, and to support them in that.  To help our leaders ask the questions “how will this help us see Jesus?   How will this help us show Jesus to the world?  What would Jesus think about this?” We support them by helping labor in the vineyard, the garden, and the construction site, recognizing that the outcome of our labor does not come from us, but from Jesus.  I for one am grateful for this new class of leaders, as I am grateful for every class.  They remind me that the work of the church is eternal, stretching out from the past into the future.  They do not have to bring in the kingdom of God in the next three years.  They merely need to plant seeds, water what has been planted before, and get out of the way and let God provide the growth.  So, I encourage each of us to go back and look at our own foundation.  To measure from Christ, and build on him.  Only a house built on a solid, level foundation will rise to stand the test of time.  The only level foundation we have is Jesus Christ – everything rises from there.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen
            First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
            August 26, 2011

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Sermon from World Communion Sunday

This is the sermon from October 2, 2011, as preached at FPC in Cartersville.


(Image from PC(USA) )

Isaiah 25:1-9


Praise for Deliverance from Oppression


25O Lord, you are my God;
   I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
   plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
2 For you have made the city a heap,
   the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
   it will never be rebuilt.
3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
   cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
4 For you have been a refuge to the poor,
   a refuge to the needy in their distress,
   a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
5   the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
   the song of the ruthless was stilled.

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
   of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
   the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
   the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
   and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
   for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
   Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
   This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
   let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

“A Feast of Rich Food”


            How did you celebrate the last major milestone event in your life, or the life of a family member or friend?  Chances are, as you remember the event, there was food of some kind.  Good food – food you don’t usually eat, food that is bad for your diet and waistline.  Food that drips and oozes or was crisply fried.  Food and drink that stays in your mind as a part of the day.  When we attend weddings, food is an integral part of the celebration – even the simplest of receptions usually have something to eat, and cake – really good cake!  Birthday parties have cake and meals – often the meal at the birthday party is the choice of the Birthday Girl or Boy.  Couples often celebrate anniversaries by going out to dinner.  When we graduate, there are parties and celebrations with yummy eats.  Milestone birthdays as we age often include a special meal; when we die, that event is also marked with food.  Friends and neighbors bring meals to the house, there is often food after the service – -even simple snacks show the hospitality and care of a church family for the deceased.  From the casseroles dropped off at the door when we are born, to the casseroles eaten by our families after we die, our lives and celebrations are marked by meals of rich food.


            So often these meals are eaten in community.  We mark the passages in our lives with our friends and loved ones.  In these meals we make memories.  In these meals we find comfort.  We find familiarity.  Often the best part of some of these meals is the anticipation – -the excitement, the planning, the desire for a time to see folks and dine together.  The anticipation can be just as exciting as the event.  In our reading from Isaiah, we hear about anticipation of such a meal.   The 24th chapter of Isaiah, ending just before today’s passage picks up, does not end well.  The last verses contain predictions of terror and trembling for the whole earth.  The earth will be torn asunder and be violently shaken (24:20), and it will fall and not rise again.  Isaiah and his people were experiencing chaos and turmoil that may feel similar to what we may feel in our lives today – with an “uncertain economy,” wars in other countries, and all the other events that can cause us to feel like we are trembling right along with the people of Judah.  In fact, the 24th-27th chapters of Isaiah are called the “little apocalypse” because of their description of “a sense of crisis in the world giving rise to a belief that the present world is so evil that it must soon come to an end, to be replaced by a new and glorified cosmos where only the righteous will live.”[1]  The people were living in the fear of punishment for having broken God’s covenant.  And in the midst of this fear, is a word of hope.  In our lesson for today, Isaiah boldly proclaims that there is hope, and there will be comfort.  Not only for those who heard Isaiah then, but also for us as we look to see God at work today.


The passage begins with an affirmation:  “O Lord, you are my God.  I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”  In the midst of the distress comes the affirmation that the Lord is our God.  Isaiah makes the choice to claim God in the midst of despair, and to proclaim the faithfulness of God; to confess that God is real and worthy of praise – even in the sorrow and confusion the people experience.  There is something to be said for that – for the first reaction in hard times to be “God is here, God is present, and God is my God,” rather than rejecting God.  When we can affirm God in the midst of whatever life throws at us, we can begin to see our way out. 


After we proclaim God, we remember God.  How many of our meals and celebrations revolve around story-telling?  How many times have you heard the story told by your aunt about the time that she and your father got lost at the fair, or got in trouble for not weeding the garden?


 The story my mom and her siblings tell is about the milk delivery.  My grandparents lived in Portland, Oregon with their three children – -my mom and her 2 brothers.  When I asked her to fill in the details of the story for me for today, we had the best time laughing over it.  It is one I have heard many times before.  So this was back when milk was delivered to the house every day.  The milk order was large and complicated in a house with three growing children, my oldest Uncle was a teenager and drank a lot of milk, the youngest uncle had to drink goats’ milk, because he was allergic to cow’s milk for much of his childhood, and so the daily order was often large and complicated. Every night, they would leave the empty bottles and the order out on the porch.  In the early morning hours, the Alpenrose Dairy would deliver the various quarts of milk my Grandmother had ordered the night before – sometimes she would order chocolate as a special treat.  Well, one night, my oldest uncle changed the order and got up early to bring in the milk without her knowing.  It was not until hours later that my grandmother opened the refrigerator to make breakfast and discovered 5 quarts of chocolate milk – which was not what she had ordered at all!   




We tell stories that make us laugh, and also tell stories where we remember the hard times, and what brought us through them.  Seeing where God is today begins by remembering where God has been in the past.  We remember the times God has been faithful, even when we did not see it, and draw on those experiences to move forward.  In our communion prayer, at our common meal, we remember how God has always been faithful to God’s people, and we trust that God will be faithful still.  In our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, as it is called, we remember the work of God throughout time and in our world.  We hear, and the Israelites heard then, that God has been acting- -God has provided shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.  They remember this, as we remember it.  They remember the promises God made through the book of Isaiah for lions to lie down with lambs, for God to do a new and different thing, for God to go with us through the waters, and we know that God will continue to keep God’s covenant with us.


 No matter how scattered they might become, the people of God will know salvation.  The consolation offered in our reading for today is for all the nations, past present and future, north, south, east and west.  The banquet Isaiah describes is full of rich food that satisfies, and wine that quenches the thirst.  This meal is made from the rich marrow of the bones that gives food a deep flavor and wine that has been strained of it’s impurities. Those at this feast eat the best food provided by God as a tangible reminder of God’s promises to us, as a way to taste and see that the Lord is good.  This is a banquet for everyone, celebrating the eventual end of death, despair and pain when the Lord hosts the eternal feast for the people. 


From memories of God’s action in the past, come thanksgiving for what God continues to do for us.  We give thanks to God for the refuge and shelter given to the poor.  We gave thanks to God for the ways God has ensured the poor will be cared for.  We give thanks for the ways in which God cares for our community, as we recognize the call of God to us to continue to care for those in our community.  We see God in the midst of chaos and tragedy and give thanks for that presence. 


When 5 of us went to Tuscaloosa this summer, we had no idea what to expect.  The town had been torn apart by the tornadoes of April 27th.  Not the whole city, but swaths and paths of it.  On one corner was a building that had been unscathed, and on the other was an empty lot that used to be a business.  You may remember when the roof of our Hobby Lobby crashed in after severe flooding last year.  The Hobby Lobby we drove by in Tuscaloosa was a shell.  The sign lights were blown out, the front walls are gone.  It looked ghostly almost, certainly abandoned.  And this was a place where clean-up had begun – there were full dumpsters in the parking lot and debris in piles ready to be taken away. I had never seen such devastation first-hand, and it was overwhelming. 


In the midst of this tragedy, God was present. A community agency that operated similarly to our Community Resource Office became the hub of distributing food and supplies. Volunteers run this center 6 days a week.  Six weeks after the disaster, volunteers were still coming from near and far to help.  Everyone had a story, and so many of the stories we heard praised God that they had been spared, or that it was not worse for them.  We saw a church that had been completely demolished all that remained was the parking lot.  On their now-empty lot, they had set up an RV/Food truck and were continuing to feed the people in their neighborhood.  God was active in this community, providing refuge, providing help, offering solace, providing a banquet for those who needed to eat.  We knew God was at work in lives of the people of this community, and in those who came from other places to serve stranger they had never even met before.


Seeing God at work in other places and offering thanks for what God has done helps each of us see God at work in other places in the world.  On this World Communion Sunday, we remember our brothers and sisters in Christ the world over, who dine with us today.  God is not American, God is the God of all people, all over the world.  Do you remember all the excitement surrounding the new millennium when we changed the calendars from 1999 to 2000?  News channels began showing places around the world as it was midnight in each place.  I believe they started on a small island away from Australia, and then moved to the continent of Australia and followed cities and countries all the way to the International Dateline.  Midnight in Sydney, midnight in Japan, China, Russia, Africa, Europe, South America – all the way around the world people celebrated the milestone with parties and celebrations.  It allowed us to see how the world was doing the same thing together – watching time move forward, and waiting to see if this was the end of the world or a new beginning.  There will not be news cameras in Christian churches today, our worship service will not be on the news tonight, but for me, this is a chance to imagine the body of Christ at one table, seeing God at work together.  While we were finishing supper and putting little ones to bed last night, a congregation in Australia gathered around the table and took the bread and the cup. As we were sleeping, congregations in Vietnam heard the ancient words, “this is my body broken for you”.  Around the time I woke up this morning, the drums and chants of those in central Africa were beginning.  And as we are sitting down to Sunday Lunch, churches on the West Coast will begin to sing their hymns.  As the sun makes its way around the globe, the body of Christ sits at table today – to share in a meal that is but a foretaste of the meal God has planned for us.


In reading the words of Isaiah, we find hope.  In this meal, a heavenly banquet spread out in a sacred place, believers come to meet their God.  And Christ comes to meet us at our table.  At the table, we share a feast rich with memory, with history, with the knowledge that one day we will all be at the heavenly table.  We yearn for the future feast when all will sit at the table of the Lord and eat rich, delectable food and drink together.  God promises this to us.

God’s plans for us extend throughout time, around time, and in time.  The feast when God comes will be grander than any feast we can imagine.  It will have the best food, the best wine, and the best company – -all of God’s people through time and space and around the world.  We will all dine together.  Our meal on this World Communion Sunday is just a hint at what is to come – -the taste of the bread and the juice are reminders that God is at work in the world now and always.  Christ is with us as we dine, even in the midst of chaos.  The table is set with our china and linen, let us go to the banquet.

[1] New Interpreters Study Bible.  987-988.  Isaiah 24 study notes.


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Mission Trip Reflection: Denise Manning

Denise Manning is one of the church members who went to Tuscaloosa last weekend.  I asked the group to provide some reflections, and sent them some guiding questions for their writing.  Here are Denise’s thougths about our time of service.

Why did you go on this trip?-I was so moved by all the coverage on the television and the devastation.  I just wanted to do anything to help.

How was it different from what you expected?-I was surprised at the clean up that has taken place so far but at the same time surprised at how much is left to do.  I really did not have many expectations.  I think on these type trips you know you may be walking into any situation.

Where did you see God during our time away?-I saw God in so many places while we were there.  One example that I kept going back to was the sun peeking through the clouds each day. I noticed that a number of times while we were there.  This made me think that God is always there even in the bad times when we think we do not see him, he is like the sun peeking through the clouds to give us hope and remind us he is always with us.  I also saw God in the many individuals we met.  From the stories we heard about people helping people they have never met to the many volunteers we met along the way.  It is refreshing to see all the good that does happen in the world that mostly goes unnoticed. The news was filled with the devastation all over the world but not the wonderful things that are happening in Alabama today.

Share one story from someone you met.-The one story would like to share is of the individual who I assisted at the warehouse.  She was looking to replace some of her things.  I was assisting her in trying to find some clothing etc.  She would ask me, does this look good together, what do you think?  Here is a person who has lost everything but trying to make the most out of what she can and really looking to me for assistance.  In truth I had no idea what I was doing but felt I truly am helping this person.  It broke my heart when we could not find some of the items she needed and made me realize once again how lucky we are each day.  Here is she wanting ANYTHING, she did not care of it matched or was used she just needed some items.  Even something little such as socks that no one thinks about.  Just imagine the items they do not have?!  I was helping her load the items she had chosen in her car and I asked her, did you lose everything?  She responded, “yes I lost everything, my trailer is completely gone.”  We cannot imagine what that must feel like to lose ALL of your possessions and your home as well.  She was not bitter though just thankful for everything she was able to find in the warehouse.  It makes me think about how much more I can/should do to help people in need.  It does not take a lot of time just a willing heart. 

How did it feel to see the damage firsthand?  How did that compare with what you expected? For me it was surreal to see the damage firsthand.  Seeing things on the television of course hurts your heart but being there is so vastly different.  On the television you do not see the people helping each other.  You do not hear the stories of what they have lost and how they all pitched in to help each other.  Neighbors who had never met were helping each other.  I do not think there are words to describe how you feel when you are seeing all the damage.  There is just no rhyme or reason.  Five houses may have tremendous damage and then one house right next to them is standing tall with no damage whatsoever.  It just does not make sense.  I took a number of picture but found again when I was sharing them with others they cannot feel what I felt being there and seeing it in person. 

What was the best/worst part of the trip?-The best part of the trip to me was getting to know some people in the church a little better and hearing the stories that people had to tell about assisting each other.  The worst part of the trip  would be the heat. 

How are you different now than you were before?– I would like to think I am a little more understanding and sympathetic to what people may be going through.  It is hard though when you are away from it and get back to the day to day to keep those images fresh. 

What else needs to be done in the area?  How can our church(es) continue to support this community? EVERYTHING.  They need so much help.  I mean we worked for two days and there were a number of volunteers at just that location and we could see there was still so much to be done.  We can donate our time, send giftcards so they can give to people in need.  We can send donations of specific needs etc.

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Mission Trip, Day 2: Pictures

I ran out of words last night (Friday night) to use to describe what we have seen and done.  Instead I offer you a few pictures.  On the itinerary for today is driving around and looking more closely at the damage, and heading back to the Temporary Services Warehouse to continue sorting and organizing.  Then a trip to TCBY and we will be on the road home!

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Guest Blogger: Courtney Farnon

What follows is the thank you note that Courtney Farnon, one of our Deacons, wrote to those who attended the Mini-Mission trip on Saturday.  A group got up early on Saturday and drove 2 hours to Mansfield to the Impound Barn, the place where horses are taken if they are removed from their “homes” due to neglect or abuse.  She has given me permission to post it here.

Hello All!

I just wanted to personally thank EVERYONE who went yesterday – we had an amazing day and got so much accomplished.  I have gotten feedback from the two ladies at the barn as well as others who worked last night and today.  No one can believe how willing everyone was to work and how much work was completed.  This meant the world to me to have you guys get to see what I do for a living and for the church to give a little bit back.  The horses didn’t have a choice in what has happened to them, but once they come into state custody, it is nice for them to have facilities that are well-maintained and make their rehabilitation that much easier.

Now I can think of our fun every time I chase a horse around the pasture that has been newly dragged by Tzelda, Austin, Savannah and her friend (with the newly painted fence thanks to Sean, Mr Steed, Nanette and Marge).  I can appreciate our church every time I nearly get bucked off test-riding horses wearing the bridles that are so newly polished by Katie, Allison and Mary.  I can let out an evil laugh every time I watch the horses NOT be able to bend the fence down to reach the grass that is “always greener on the other side” of the new fence that Tommy and Jake constructed.  The roof of the run-in shed that Clay, Kathryn and Mike so carefully (and crazily if you ask me!) repaired will bring a smile to my face every time I watch a mother and her young foal be able to get out of the rain.  I will think of Denise next time that I drop feed into the freshly cleaned feed buckets.  I will think of the “little engine that could” attitude that Wes and Pat maintained as they continued to try to get the pressure washer started.  Every time I see an overweight (formerly half-starved) horse, I will think of the hay that Ross and Charlotte so lovingly donated (and handled more than they imagined!).  These acts, some of which seem so small, really do mean the world to the horses, and to me!  You guys are one reason why I love FPC so much!

Thank you!