Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon for Sunday: Matthew 5:1-12

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

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


Matthew 5:1-12

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


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

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

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

And then the movie begins.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will stand[3]

Beloved, by your grace

I willingly accept my poverty of spirit;

for you bless me with your Realm of love.

I honestly mourn,

for you bless me with your comfort.

I will be gentle,

for you bless me with the gift of the earth.

I continue to hunger and thirst for you,

for you fill me with yourself.

I will show mercy,

for you shower me with mercy.

I seek to be pure in heart,

that I may see you.

I will be your peacemaker,

for I am your child.

I will accept persecution

for you bless me with your Realm of grace.

I gladly accept that justice and peacemaking

attract persecution and resistance,

for so people treat all those

who do justice, who love kindness,

who walk humbly with you.

In my poverty I will stand unbowed,

for in your grace you bless me.

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

[1] Lewis, Karoline. Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12.

[2] Lose, David. On Beatitudes and Blessing. Dear Working Preacher.

[3] Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Unfolding Light

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Sermon: Philippians 4:4-9

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Today is a day I want to encourage us to think on good things, and to embrace Paul’s words to us. To remember our call to remain faithful to the God who is ever-faithful to us. After serving for 6 years, today is my last Sunday as one of your pastors. As I’ve thought about what to say to you this week, this passage kept coming back to mind.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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

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

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

And, when all else fails, continue to pray, and continue to come to the table. Come to Jesus. Taste the grains, taste the grapes and see that the Lord is good. Look into the eyes of those around you and recognize that this is where we come to find Christ when we are our most broken, our most sad, our most – whatever we are on any given day. For, you see, our story as Christians is not one of endings, but of new life coming from the darkness. That is the story we live out, each and every day. As the light moved around the globe today, Christians came to the table and told that story. They reminded each other over and over again that the death of Christ was not the end. In that death we find resurrection. So my friends, as we part ways for a time, I encourage you to live out these words of Paul:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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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 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?