Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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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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Mission Trip Meditation: Allen Weirick

This is the meditation Allen Weirick preached on Sunday, the 29th of July at First Pres. in Cartersville

We tend to think of nature as a wonderfully beautiful gift of God, and in it we see the glory of God’s creation or a place to commune with God. Many of our favorite hymns or choir anthems deal with one or more of these themes: For the Beauty of the Earth, The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God, This is My Father’s World, and Morning Has Broken, to name just a few. God’s creation does indeed contain incredible beauty and scenes which foster grateful solitude and reflection. But what happens when nature seems to turn against us, as on that day in April last year when tornados ripped through the American south and mid-west with a destructive force that is beyond imagining? When I helped with tornado clean-up efforts here in Bartow County last year I was amazed at the destruction I saw, but as bad as it was it could not compare with the more wide-spread destruction that Tuscaloosa experienced. Having seen that in person, I cannot imagine what Joplin, Missouri experienced with its even larger and more powerful storm.

Numbers don’t give the whole picture, but they do give us an idea of how bad it was:
The guide on our tour of the tornado area told us that enough debris was collected to fill the University of Alabama football stadium – an immense structure that holds over 100,000 spectators – seven times. Over 1200 residential structures were destroyed and another 1600+ were severely damaged, as about 12% of the city of Tuscaloosa was destroyed. The human toll was huge, with 52 people killed by the storm and well over 1000 injured. Thousands of people were temporarily or permanently homeless, thousands of others became unemployed as their workplaces were destroyed, and pretty much everyone in the city was directly or indirectly affected by the storm.
So what happens to people’s faith when faced by such enormity? It is not surprising that some people lost their faith, and some gave up on their hometown, leaving, never to return. Others found strength in their faith and did not falter. By being there to help we were able to increase their hope and their confidence that things would work out for them. I am confident that our presence there and the work we did – along with that of the thousands of other volunteers, literally from around the country – provided part of the answers to many, many prayers by the people of Tuscaloosa.
The people who will be living in the houses we worked on are good examples. The man at the main site was handicapped, but he sat there in the immense heat to be connected with the effort emotionally. His faith was remarkable. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that he may be weak physically, but he was powerful in prayer, and we witnessed several examples of his powerful prayers.
The owner of the site where I spent most of my time was a disabled veteran of the first Gulf War, and his pelvis was crushed when his house collapsed on him and dragged him several yards. He clearly is not capable of putting in the sweat equity hours that Habitat for Humanity usually requires of people who get their houses, so we unfortunately did not get to meet him. Without Habitat for Humanity and the various groups of volunteers who rebuilt his house he would never have been able to rebuild on his own. His new house, which was on track to be turned over to him this past week, was built on the site of his old one, just better and much more secure. (All Habitat houses built in Tuscaloosa after the storm are built with a safe room in them.)

One of the women of our group spoke with a young man from the university who volunteered on his own at the build site, and he said he was the only one he knew of who was doing that, and added that he was disappointed that most local people seem to think only of themselves, and don’t care enough about others to help out. He didn’t see the big picture, though, and didn’t realize that many people were doing a lot – like the church where we stayed, which had made a mission – which they carried out very well, I might add – of providing space and support for groups to come to help out. They may not have been out on the sites helping to build, but they were making it possible for literally hundreds of outsiders to do more work than their own members ever could have. There are many other examples of churches, other organizations, and individuals who are helping in numerous ways with the rebuilding.

You know when you sign up for a mission trip that you are going to be surrounded by special people; they are pre-selected to include only people who care, because to put it bluntly: jerks don’t go on mission trips. You have people who volunteer to give up their time – in many cases, their valuable vacation time – to work hard to help people who are less fortunate than they are. Some I had known for years and have worked with on the Session like Nanette and Mary, or with other organizations, like Lori, whom I know more from her work with the Friends of the Cartersville Library. Some I barely knew, like the teenagers from our church, while others I met for the first time on the trip, like Xavier, a wonderful young man from Rockmart whom you should get to know if you haven’t already had the pleasure. It’s a whole lot easier to enjoy work when you are sharing it with likable people, and you want to make sure you do your part and don’t let the group down. I quickly learned that I am not capable of keeping up with Paul, whom I think of as the energizer rabbit because he just keeps on going and going, all the time with a great attitude and an ability to explain things and help out without ever talking down to us more-or-less beginners. Seeing these people in action is a very special feeling, and it makes me proud to have been a part of their team. I have always been impressed with the giving spirit of our church, and this mission experience has only strengthened that feeling. As others have said before, when you return from a mission trip, you are strengthened in faith, more connected with your church, and very tired, but it is a good tired, a very good tired.

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Mission Trip Reflections: Sharon Dunlap

On Sunday, July 22 the Mission Trip Team led worship at FPC.  One of the preachers of the day was Sharon Dunlap, and her reflection is here.  Tomorrow I will post Allen’s.

1 Peter 5:5-9 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

I think the thing that stayed with me the most from the mission trip to Tuscaloosa, was the work of the youth. I’m not just talking about our youth that went on the trip- even though we had five incredible young men and women who were driven and composed well beyond their years. I was astounded by the number of dedicated young men and women from around the country that devoted their time, effort and energy to such a worthy cause. They didn’t just do it for one day, or one week. They were there week after week, month after month doing God’s work. There was the group from AmeriCorps. Young men and women ages 18-25, who have dedicated ten months of their lives to travel the United States helping communities in need. They worked in teams of 8-12 people and went right to work on whatever project they were given. They radiated a joy and contagious energy that some of us older folks wished we had more of. As we complained and grumbled about the intense heat and how out of shape we were, they lifted, hauled, pounded, and carried whatever like champions for Christ. Then there was Harrison- we called him a Greek god. A handsome, young man who was getting ready to start his first year of college at the University of Alabama, he displayed a maturity and wisdom not often seen in kids his age. He lived across town in an area that was not affected by the tornados. I asked him why he was volunteering his time at the site, and his answer was very genuine. He said, “I had to volunteer. So many people around here who weren’t affected by the tornados have forgotten the people who were. They just don’t care about the things that don’t affect them. I knew that I had to get involved and help where I could, because that is what I would want someone to do for me if I were ever in that situation.” Eighteen years old and he wasn’t thinking about his social life, or how late he got to sleep in that morning, or what latest movie he was going to see, no he was thinking about others and how he could help out their situation. What an inspirational young man. Then there was Chandler, a young girl from the University who was studying to be a civil engineer and volunteered her time at the site gaining experience in her field. I was blown away by the fact that she was studying to be a civil engineer-as a young girl, how do you become interested in that field of work? That was easy she said- she and her parents had been on a number of mission trips where she had grown up helping to rebuild houses for others and just knew that she was destined to become an architect of some kind. I met Beth a local student studying law at the University, who interned at the federal court house in Tuscaloosa. Her boss allowed his interns to come to the Habitat for Humanity work site once a week instead of going to work. She stated that she would much rather be here at the site in the blazing heat and humidity helping others than be in her air-conditioned law office. I couldn’t help thinking what a sacrifice these young people were making. Instead of putting themselves first, they put others ahead of their own needs. From Philippians chapter 2,

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

I choose to go on mission trips because of the joy I receive  from helping others- this time I received an abundance of joy from watching the youth of tomorrow give so much of themselves to help others in need. It offers me a hope, a faith, and the assurance that our young people are compassionate and caring individuals who are willing to be disciples of Jesus Christ in a world that is so in need of God’s grace. These youth did not attain these wonderful attributes all by themselves. It takes a community of faith to grow and nurture these wonderful youth. When a child is baptized, we the congregation answer the following question :  Do you, the people of the church, promise to tell this child the good news of the gospel, to help him/her know all that Christ commands, and, by your fellowship, to strengthen his/her family ties with the household of God?

In making this vow, the congregation reaffirms its understanding that the child is already a part of the covenant family of the church and needs to be nurtured in the Christian faith to the end that the child will one day publicly proclaim Jesus Christ as his, or her, Lord and Savior. We take very seriously this vow we make at each infant baptism. We tell the child about Jesus Christ and God’s love and mercy as revealed in scriptures in several ways such as Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Children’s Choir, Youth Group, Confirmation Class, and mission trips. It is also done informally simply through association by the child with committed Christians at worship and other church functions.

It really does take a village to raise a child and I for one am grateful that all of you have taken that challenge seriously and have given our youth a firm foundation to stand on as they go out into this world to make a difference.

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Gratefully Received

My summer mission trip ended early when I took a bad mis-step on an unsecured porch edge and fell 4 1/2 feet to the ground, breaking both bones in my right ankle.  The last 2 weeks (tomorrow starts the third) have included an ER visit, surgery, a cast, crutches, and now the addition of a knee walker (which I think will be a lot of fun when I figure out how to use it!).  In an instant, my plans for the rest of the summer changed.

To say I was scared and worried in the Tuscaloosa ER would be an understatement.  What I did not know was how worried the rest of the mission team was when they saw me fall off a porch and then get loaded in a car and taken to the ER.  What felt like seconds to me was probably 15 minutes for the rest of them.  Several thought I had hit my head (which I did not!), and some did not get over to where I was before they had me in the car and on my way to the hospital.  When I got back to the church, Pat said to me “be positive”, and then we went in.  When I saw the mission team folks, their relief was palpable.  Their care was evident.  I was flooded with relief and gratitude. While I was being x-rayed and splinted and driven across town, they had made made get well cards (some of which still make me cry!) and packed up my things so I could head home.  The individuals who gathered to say goodbye to Maryellen and me were not just a church mission trip team – they were family.  I knew in that moment that the leadership team was going to be OK for the rest of the week – we had planned together, and they would finish out the week strong.  And they did.

Since the moment my foot hit the ground, I have been surrounded by so much love from our entire congregation (and from Maryellen, the pastor at Rockmart Pres.).  One of the things we talk about when we describe ourselves is our sense of community and how we are a church family.  This is not a trait that can describe every church, and I’m not sure our congregation always understands what a blessing and a gift that they are to each other.  It is a blessing to not have to worry about someone checking on you when there is an illness or surgery – around here, it simply happens.  We are blessed that we feel safe enough with each other to be vulnerable with one another.  I am re-learning the lesson that asking for help with meals means you have to let them in to see the not-perfect parts of your world.  But, there is a gift in being open to be loved, and then returning that love to one another in return.  This may not be the most articulate description, but I am surprised that I was surprised at our church just being who they are and caring for me in the same ways I have seen them care for one another.  That care is a gift I gratefully receive.

I think about how Christ modeled care for us.  I picture his hands breaking bread and feeding total strangers.  I think about him kneeling down to wash the feet of his disciples.  I picture his grief when he realized that Lazarus had really died.  I see the compassion he showed when he allowed an ill woman to simply touch his cloak.  In the meals brought, in the cards sent, in the words said by our congregation, I see the love and compassion and care of Christ.  The way my mother, a stranger to many, has been welcomed and fed and cared for as this church has cared for me reflects the way Christ taught us to live.    I realize that we as a church can take for granted the care we show one another and not realize that it is not natural in every church.  FPC Cartersville has the gifts of compassion, hospitality, love, and care, and I am grateful for them.  Not just tonight as I ice my ankle after a visit from one of our Deacons, but every night as I get to be part of our witness to Christ in the world.

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Mission Trip Countdown

It was about a year ago that a group of 5 of us from First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville, and Rockmart Presbyterian Church in (yup, you guessed it) Rockmart, GA went on a mission trip to Tuscaloosa, AL.  The photos and blog entries from that trip can be found here.  I’m not sure what to expect as we head back a year later.  I remember the shed devastation, that I still struggle to find superlatives to describe.  The foundations that used to be houses and parking lots that used to be businesses.  The erie shell of a building that used to be a Hobby Lobby, now blown completely open and the sign gone.  It has been a year of rebuilding for the city, and I am looking forward to seeing what has changed, and how much is left to be done.

on Sunday, 20 of us will be commissioned and depart for Tuscaloosa (there are a few coming later, bur our group is 20 total.).  We have families that are bringing youth, and I am excited to get to spend time with them.  All of the youth just spent 10 days on a mission trip in Ireland, so this will be quite a temperature difference for them.  We are staying at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, and working with Habitat for Humanity – Tuscaloosa.  I’ll be posting some on Facebook, and will also update here throughout the week.  On July 29th, the Mission Team will be leading all of worship, including the sermon, so that we can share our experiences of being the hands and feet of Christ in a devastated world.

Right now, I’m sitting on my couch, in my blue PDA T-shirt that I earned last year, remembering the people we met, and the places we went. My prayer for us is that we will shine the light of Christ to those we meet, and absorb the light that they reflect to us.  Please keep us in your prayers this week!  You can leave comments on the blog (please do!!!) and I will pass them along to team members.  I have a box full of notes and cards from our congregation to distribute during the week, and some surprises planned for the team as well.  The paperwork is finished, directions printed, and all that is left (for me) is to pack and hit the road!

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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.