Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2010

All Together in One Place

God leads us in many ways.  This week God led me to leave the lectionary texts behind and preach on the Pentecost text for my congregation.  Dan and I recently announced that we have accepted new positions at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL beginning in January.   I will be the college chaplain and Dan will be teaching.  We are excited and hopeful about this move, but we are also grieving the goodbyes that will soon need to be said to our friends, our colleagues, and our church. So in the midst of this congregational context, God led me to preach on our Pentecost text that offers the church, and the church’s people, a vision of hope.

“All Together in One Place”

Acts 2: 1-21

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 26th, 2010

It’s tough being the church.  It always has been.  Throughout our history as Christians who are called together to worship and serve, we have had some glorious moments and some not-so glorious moments.  Some of our not-so-glorious moments might include the times when we misinterpreted God’s will by endorsing slavery, or when we forced indigenous people to accept Christ at the point of a sword, or when we subjugated women saying they had no right to speak and lead in the church.  Some of our glorious moments, though, include when the Confessing Church courageously stood up to Hitler in Nazi Germany, when the African American churches led this country in a Civil Rights revolution, when the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century led us to affordable, public education for God’s children.  We’ve had quite a history, we, the church.  There have been low moments and high moments, dull moments and exciting moments, joyful moments and painful moments as we traversed through history as a group of fallible human beings trying to be faithful to our specific mission of BEING Christ’s body in the world.  Such a mission brings difficult and unique challenges.  Such a mission brings risks that we might not otherwise take if we were not called to be the church.  Yes, it’s tough being the church.  It always has been.

Today’s passage of our Pentecost story celebrates what we consider to be the birth of the church.  In today’s scripture we hear of a disheveled and mournful band of disciples who gathered together for worship.  They were a religious minority at the time, easily persecuted for their “strange” beliefs, easily eliminated had they not had each other.  But they did.  They gathered together in one place for support and for comfort and for accountability.  They would remain faithful, they promised each other during worship.  They would not let the Good News go unproclaimed.

We often bemoan the secularization of our society, the fact that more and more people are “unchurched,” that more and more people do not consider themselves the “religious” type.  But rather than bemoaning this fact, I’d like to celebrate all the faithful people who gather together, week after week, month after month, in this community and around the world, to keep the mission and ministry of the church of Jesus Christ going.  I’d like to celebrate this fact, because it is tough being the church.  We have had our ups and downs over the course of history.  But….we keep coming back.  We keep gathering together.  We, like those first disciples, keep gathering together in one place.  Why? Many might ask.  Well, first of all, because Jesus promised to meet us here.

Ronald Byars, in his book on worship, writes, “I know a couple who have a son who is developmentally disabled.  The family is active in the church, and they seldom miss worship.  One winter Sunday morning they awakened late and breakfast took longer than usual, and everything seemed a little off-balance.  So the parents decided, for this one Sunday, to stay home from church.  They told their son, who seemed to accept their decision.  But after pondering this news for a while, he asked his father, “Won’t Jesus miss us?”

Byars continues, “I think this young son may have grasped something that many others have not quite grasped…that the Sunday assembly is about meeting the risen Lord.”[1]

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.[2] Jesus meets us here, as promised, in the community of faith, in the Word read and proclaimed, in the bread broken and shared, in the water poured out like a never-ending stream.  Jesus meets us here and even the children know it.  They know it because here they are loved and here they too participate in rituals that bear the spiritual weight and spiritual significance of rituals that have been practiced for generations, for centuries, from the very birth of the church by faithful people who gathered together.

We gather together in one place because Jesus promised to meet us here and because the Holy Spirit promises to move us here. I know I’ve told you before that I consider it an awesome privilege and an incredible responsibility to stand up here and proclaim God’s Word.  So I take great care in crafting these sermons.  As I sermonize I think about you.  I pray for you.  I pray over a certain scriptural text.  And then I write, and rewrite, and then I practice preaching my sermon in front of the mirror.  On Saturday night, after the kids have gone to bed, I preach my sermon in front of the bathroom mirror with the bathwater running so Dan won’t complain about all my shouting…. I practice all of this.  But you know what?  It’s not the same.  It’s not really a sermon until I preach it in front of you.  And more often than not I get this feeling while I am preaching here, with you…it’s a feeling I don’t get when I’m preaching at home all by myself….I get this feeling of energy, and passion, and adrenalin that I know is the Holy Spirit.  I know it in my heart.  The Spirit promises to move us when we gather together.  It’s not the same when we’re all alone.  There’s something about gathering together, there’s something about assembling on Sunday mornings in the name of Christ that fosters the Holy Spirit’s work among us.

On that first birthday of the church, on that Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit arrived, as promised, and moved the faithful disciples who had gathered together.  When we gather together in God’s house the Holy Spirit promises to move us through the words of a hymn or a prayer or a neighbor’s voice.  The Holy Spirit promises to move us through an anthem that raises us up or through a word of scripture that hits the mark. In this place our hearts beat a little stronger. In this place our eyes get a little clearer.  In this place our hands reach out a little easier because the Holy Spirit moves us here.  And so we come.

We come, and we are met here by Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit, and by the God who ties it all together in a vision of hope.

In today’s text after the disciples had gathered, and after they had been moved by the Holy Spirit at work among them, Peter stood up to preach.  For his text he chose the prophet Joel who reminds us of God’s promise to pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh.  Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.  Your young men shall see visions.  Your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

I imagine Peter standing there, preaching these words, sharing this vision with all the disciples and all of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia.  I imagine Peter all full of energy, and passion, and adrenalin…I imagine Peter reminding his people of God’s vision of hope and…I know how he felt.  I know how Peter felt because I feel it every Sunday with you.  I feel it every Sunday when we gather in this place.  I know how Peter felt because I know God’s hope for you, for me, for the church of Jesus Christ, and for Cameron Presbyterian Church.

I will admit, though, that I floundered a bit this week…I wasn’t sure what I should preach on this Lord’s day….but by about Wednesday it became pretty clear….it became pretty clear that God wanted me to remind us of all that is not changing in the face of all that is. And what is not changing is Jesus’ promise to meet us here, and the Spirit’s promise to move us here, and God’s promise to offer us hope here, in this place, when the people of faith gather together.  Yes, it’s tough being the church.  It always has been.  There are highs and lows, exciting moments and dull moments, joyful moments and painful moments. But through it all the people have gathered, and gathered, and gathered because we know we do not gather alone.

Now to the God present with us in this place, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Ronald P. Byars, The Future of Protestant Worship: Beyond the Worship Wars, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2002), pg. 72.

[2] Matthew 18:20

Read Full Post »

What does God provide?

What follows is my sermon from the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Grace and peace, everyone.

“What does God provide?”

1 Kings 17: 1-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 19th, 2010

John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and the editor of the Christian Century wrote once that “every now and then I read a book for the simple reason that everyone else is reading it.  After all, a faithful preacher needs to exegete the culture and the congregation as well as the lectionary texts.”  Working on this theory, Buchanan picked up a copy of the popular TV evangelist Joel Osteen’s book called Your Best Life Now. Of Osteen’s book Buchanan writes, “I had trouble with the initial pages and had to put the book down after two chapters.”  “Enlarge your vision,” Osteen urges in his book. “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you…God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, creativity.”  As Buchanan read these words he said he kept thinking about all the people he knows who face challenges that do not and will not respond to such an “enlarged vision”.[1]

I too, have trouble with such simple, formulaic, and one-size-fits-all theology as Osteen’s.   It may sound good, but it doesn’t hold up in the real world.  I cannot stand up here and preach that if you have faith or if you “enlarge your vision” then God will provide you with health, happiness, and financial abundance.  I cannot preach this because I know and you know that this simply isn’t true and it simply isn’t how life works.  Osteen’s theology ignores the plight of good faithful people who have lost their jobs, of good faithful people who have suffered tragedy and loss, of good faithful people who are suffering with interminable health issues, of good faithful people who no matter what they do, or no matter how hard they work cannot escape the cycle of poverty. Bad things happen to good people.  We do have to suffer through things that we can’t explain.  And no one can easily explain away such sufferings through a simple formula of faith.

A commentary I recently read warned against preaching such a simple, formulaic sermon on today’s text from 1 Kings.  An obvious sermon theme from this text is simply that “God provides.” When Elijah, the widow, and her son were in need in the midst of a terrible drought, God provided them with food and water. But, as this commentary warned, preaching the obvious point often reduces a text and runs the risk of making a wrong point.  For instance, we cannot reduce this story of Elijah and the poor widow to the assurance of God’s provision.  The text does not speak of God providing unconditionally, or in all cases.  Here, God provides in one instance, to one prophet, a widow and her son.  The ravages of drought are not abated beyond the provisions for these three.  We can presume that many others suffer the full weight of the drought, and among them may well be widows and children.[2]

After reflecting on this commentary’s warning, I decided to focus my sermon not on the simple assurance that “God provides”, but on the more practical question of “What does God provide?”   With this question I believe we can return safely to our text without the risk of reducing it to a simple formula and take something away that we can all apply to our lives of faith.

So what does God provide?  Well, let’s see what the text has to say.  In the midst of a terrible drought, our story begins with God sending Elijah eastward to a brook named Cherith.  God tells Elijah that he should stay there drinking from the brook and being fed from the ravens.  But, after a while, the brook dries up and Elijah is once again threatened by the drought.  So God sends him to a poor widow in Zarephath who will continue to provide him with food and water.

Today’s text, then, does not deny the difficulties or the struggles of life.  We know there are times of drought in life.  We know that the brooks by which we plant ourselves or on which we learn to rely sometimes suddenly dry up.  But, according to our text, when these difficult times arrive, God does seem to provide ways to persevere.  God provides ways to persevere through guidance and direction.  God leads us to new sources of life or new resources for help.  The trick is, though, that we need to be open to where God is leading us.  Because sometimes God guides us to sources of life and help that are completely unexpected.

The widow to whom God guides Elijah would be completely unexpected.  In the fight for survival during a time of drought, this widow would have been in worse shape than Elijah.  In a time of national crisis, her needs (as a widow) would be considered last, especially under the regime of arrogant King Ahab.  When Elijah shows up and asks this poor widow for a drink, she is in the process of gathering sticks to warm a last supper for herself and her son.  The widow wants to be hospitable, but when Elijah asks for bread to go with the water, it’s too much.  She tells him that she’s gathering wood to bake the handful of meal and bit of oil that’s left for herself and her son, and that they will eat this meal and await death.[3]

This was who God expected to help Elijah?  If we were Elijah, which one of us would have thought that this poor widow was the one to whom God was guiding us?  But, as it turned out, she was the one with the resources.  She was the one willing to take a risk, willing to trust in Elijah’s God, willing to try just about anything to get her through one more day.  God provides us with guidance and direction, but we need to be open to the unexpected in order to follow where God is leading us.

This reminded me of a day when I was chased down by a cute little boy on roller blades as I was driving into our neighborhood.  He was trying to raise money for his church’s mission trip.  At the time, we were also in the midst of planning for a mission trip so I was very interested in hearing about what this boy and his church would be doing.  I asked him where they were going and he said that they were going to a Native American reservation.   Wonderful!  I said.  Then I asked him what they were going to do on the reservation.  And the little boy responded, “We’re going to go teach the Indians about God.”

I admit at this point I had to bite my tongue because the preacher in me wanted to preach.  I thought about all that I have learned and appreciate about Native American spirituality and I thought of the beautiful book of Native American prayers sitting on the shelf in my office and I wanted to ask this little boy, new in his own faith, how he knew that the Indians didn’t already know about God?  But I didn’t.  I held my tongue… until this sermon.  Because it seemed pretty obvious that this boy was simply sharing what the adults in his life had taught him.  I did give him some money, though, in the hopes that God might provide an unexpected moment through an unexpected person (such as a Native American) who might teach him something about God, and life, and faith.

The character of the widow in this text certainly is an unexpected provider for Elijah.  She is also a woman of great faith.  She is a woman of great faith who accepts God’s provision of a new vision.  We need to recognize that this widow was resigned to her fate of death by starvation before Elijah came into the picture.  But through Elijah God awoke her to a new vision for her future.  God provided her with a new vision to see a hope for survival that she had not seen before.  God provided her with the understanding that what she believed was inevitable, may not really be inevitable.  God provided this widow with hope.  And with this new hope kindled within her, she found a way to persevere, she found a way to carry on.

So God provides us with a way to persevere through hope and through a vision to see hope in situations and circumstances where there seems to be none.  Such provisions enable us to carry on…to move ahead in life, day by day, and step by step, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Heidi Neumark, the pastor of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, writes that this poor widow of Zarephath bears witness to a death-defying hope.  This widow’s story reminds her of the story of a woman in her congregation named Burnice.

Neumark writes, Burnice was a single mother who’d dropped out of school when her first baby came along.  A series of men battered her, just as her alcoholic father had done.  She sought relief in beer and crack, and ended up selling her body to get more.  She moved to the Bronx to escape an abusive husband, but she couldn’t get away from drugs.

One day, after dropping off her children at school, Burnice came by Pastor Heidi’s office.  She’d heard that they gave out Christmas gifts to children.  Burnice’s plan was to pick up presents for her children and then sell the presents to buy enough drugs for an overdose.  She told Heidi later that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  On Christmas morning, she came to get the gifts and met the church intern named Janell.  Janell saw something in Burnice’s face that made her stop and invite conversation, listening and prayer.  When Heidi noticed them, they were sitting in a wordless, tearful embrace.  Burnice later said Janell’s tears opened her heart.

Burnice came back for their women’s Bible study.  They focused on women whose messed up lives had issued forth miracles.  Hagar, Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and many others who are not prominent in our tradition, but whose stories resonate with marginalized women.  She asked if she could detox by sleeping in the church and everyone agreed.  She slept on the rug by the altar and made it through that first week clean.  By Easter, she was baptized.  Then Burnice began to help other women, reaching out to addicts as they hit bottom and listening and counseling them into detox and rehab programs.

Burnice’s story is a real one, so her struggles didn’t simply go away.  Her own relationship problems continued.  One man she’d been with broke her ribs.  The next one was unfaithful.  Hoping to hold him closer, Burnice became pregnant.  Twice.  The apartment they shared became infested with rats.  When city officials didn’t respond to the situation, Burnice took her children to a shelter.

She went through training and found a part-time job as an HIV/AIDS outreach worker and met her future husband.  But before long, he began using crack.  Later she found that he’d infected her with the HIV virus.

Still, Burnice did not give up.  She began working on a GED in preparation for a full-time job.  And she serves as the president of Transfiguration Lutheran Church.  “From crackhead to council president,” she likes to say, “Transfiguration has made a transformation in me.”

On Sunday, she stands before the altar of her church holding out bread to share with all who come to receive it from her hands.  Just as Elijah received the bread of life from a widow who defied the certainty of death, the folks of Transfiguration Church come to take the bread of life from Burnice, a woman who carries on day by day, step by step, with a death-defying hope provided by her church, by her faith, and by her God.[4]

Our God may not provide us ways to escape the pain or ways to avoid the tremendous challenges life brings, but, according to today’s text, God does seem to provide a way for us to persevere through that pain.  God provides us with guidance and direction, often leading us through the unexpected.  And God provides us with a death-defying hope, a hope that can lift our heads and lift our spirits when everything else in life is dragging us down.

To this God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] John M. Buchanan, The Christian Century, (Editorial, May 1, 2007), pg. 3.

[2] David Greenhaw, “Preaching 1 Kings 17:8-16”, Lectionary Homiletics, found on http://www.textweek.com.

[3] Heidi Neumark, The Widow’s Hand—Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, The Christian Century, Sept. 27, 2000, found on http://www.textweek.com.

[4]Heidi Neumark, The Widow’s Hand—Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, The Christian Century, Sept. 27, 2000, found on http://www.textweek.com.

Read Full Post »

A Story of Grace

I am not preaching on a lectionary text this week.  So instead of my usual reflection I thought I would share a story about grace that touched me this week.  This is an excerpt from an essay entitled, “Grace Notes” written by Brian Doyle.

“When have I been filled with grace? One time above all others when my son was under ether.  He was born with a broken heart, an incomplete heart, part of a heart.  Not enough to keep him alive.  Twice doctors cut him open and cut into his heart.  Twice I waited and raged and chewed my fingers until they bled on the floor.  Twice I sat in dark rooms with my wife and friends and savagely ate my skin.

The first operation was terrifying, but it happened so fast and was so necessary and was so soon after the day he was born with a twin brother that we all, mother father sister families friends, staggered through the days and nights too tired and frightened to do anything but lurch into the next hour.

But by the second operation my son was nearly two years old, a stubborn funny amiable boy with a crooked gunslinger’s grin, and when a doctor carried him down the hall, his moon-boy face grinning at me as it receded toward awful pain and possible death, I went somewhere dark that frightens me still.  It was a cold black country that I hope never to see again.  Yet out of the dark came my wife’s hand like a hawk, and I believe, to this hour, that when she touched me I received pure grace.  She woke me, saved me, not for the first time, not for the last.

As I finish writing these lines I look up, and my heart-healed son runs past the window, covered with mud and jelly…

We think of grace arriving like an ambulance, just-in-time delivery, an invisible divine cavalry cresting a hill of troubles, a bolt of jazz from the glittering horn of the Creator, but maybe it lives in us and is activated by illness of the spirit.  Maybe we’re loaded with grace.  Maybe we’re stuffed with the stuff.  Maybe it’s stitched into our DNA, a fifth ingredient in the deoxyribonucleic acidic soup.”[1]

May we all know grace and share our grace with others.


[1] Brian Doyle, “Grace Notes,” in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski, (Harper SanFrancisco, 2001), pgs. 55-58.

Read Full Post »

Losing Our Way — Luke 15: 1-7

Grace and peace, everyone.  What follows is the sermon from the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Losing Our Way”

Luke 15: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 12th, 2010

Maybe I am more neurotic than most, but I think it’s natural for mothers to get a little nervous when her child is out of sight in a public place.  Recently, I went to Camelot Park with my children.  It was the first time I had taken them to this park by myself.  If you haven’t been to Camelot, it is a fantastic playground for kids, a wooden castle with all sorts of twists and turns, slides, and jumpy-things.  The kids have a ball whenever we go there.

But it’s a big playground and sometimes it gets crowded and a parent can’t always see her child because he is in some tower or some tunnel somewhere.  So…I get a little nervous.  But on our way to Camelot, I explained all of this to my 3-year-old son.  I told him it makes Mommy nervous when she can’t see him.  So he needed to be careful and try to let me know where he was.  Well, believe it or not, my son got it.  He ran and he played all over that playground but he seldom lost sight of me and when he did he would call out, “Mommy!  I’m over here!  I’m right here, Mommy!”  What a good boy!!

I remembered this playground scene as I was reading Jesus’ parable for us today.  I remembered it because I don’t think we ever intend to get lost.  Isaac didn’t want to get lost on that playground.  He wanted to stay connected to me, stay connected to what he knew.  Getting lost is scary.  We don’t want to get lost.

I got lost once while driving to my parents’ new place in downtown Chicago from my seminary in Kentucky.  By the time I reached the city I was tired and it was getting dark.  My dad had given me good directions but I accidentally got off on the wrong exit.  I drove around for a while, trying to find my way, but I just got more and more confused.  Then I realized that I was not in a safe part of town, it was dark, and I was afraid to stop to ask anyone for directions.  (This was before I owned a cell phone.)  To add to your mental picture here…I also had my adopted greyhound with me in the car.  I had put the back seats down for her to have more space, so while I was driving around lost in the streets of Chicago, my greyhound was standing right over my shoulder, trying to see what was going on for herself, and also completely blocking my view in my rearview mirror.  So here I am swatting at my greyhound, trying to get her to lay down so I could see, driving around and around and around and just getting more and more lost.  It would have been a ridiculous, hilarious scene (me and my greyhound) if it weren’t totally scary.  Finally, I saw a police car patrolling up ahead of me.  So I blinked my lights and pulled up alongside of her.  When we rolled down our windows to speak the police officer took one look at me and my funny looking dog, shook her head, and said, “Girl…you are in the wrong part of town.”  Then she led me back out to the highway and I was on my way again.  Phew.

Getting lost is scary.  We don’t want to get lost.  But sometimes we do.  Sometimes we take the wrong exit and get all turned around.  Sometimes things happen, things that we cannot control, things that leave us swimming…in deep water…with nothing solid to cling to. Sometimes we wake up and realize that something is off, something is wrong, something is not right in our life.  “Why can’t I get myself together?” we ask in the midst of feeling lost.  Why can’t I figure this out or find my way or get my life on the right track?  What is wrong with me? I feel so darn lost.

Well… for those who are feeling a little lost, Jesus has a parable for us today.  Speaking to the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling over the fact that Jesus was eating with the lost, Jesus said, Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. Jesus’ parable is actually quite absurd.  It’s absurd because what kind of responsible shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to go after the one who was lost?  A good shepherd just wouldn’t do that.  But Jesus’ parable isn’t supposed to be a “how-to” on good shepherding.  It’s a story meant to teach us about our relationship with God.  So the parable’s about us, when we get lost, and the God who searches for us and finds us when we are.

The series of parables that Jesus tells here in the Gospel of Luke are among our most favorite.  The series begins with this parable of the lost sheep, moves to the parable of the lost coin, and concludes with the parable of the lost son, or the prodigal son.  These parables are among our favorites because they vividly describe the amazing grace of God.  They vividly describe that once we were lost, but now we are found.  Now we are found!  We don’t like to get lost.  We want to be found!  So it’s no wonder these parables are some of our favorites.

But as I reflected on the parable of the lost sheep this week I began to wonder to myself if God didn’t have a hand in all of this ‘getting lost’ in the first place.  I wondered to myself, could it be possible that God left the gate open?  Could it be possible that God allows us to get lost? In this parable of the lost sheep a celebration ensues when the one who was lost is found.  The shepherd hefts the beast onto his shoulders and carries him home, rejoicing with each heavy, effort-full step.  What a moment of joy for that sheep!  What a moment of joy for that shepherd!  Was it meant to be so?

Sometimes I think it takes us getting lost to realize that we are found.  I read an interesting essay this past week entitled, “Strategic Withdrawal: A Tool for Restoration.”  In this essay the author suggests that it is actually good for us to get lost every once in a while, to withdraw strategically, to take an extemporaneous walk to a destination unknown, to step from a why into whylessness, to move toward formlessness through silence, stillness, emptiness, to lose track of the possible in order to take rest in the impossible. Getting lost every once in a while, this author suggests, can disorient us away from ourselves and reorient us back towards God.  This author concludes his essay with a prayer:

When I’m lost, God help me get more lost.  Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this…love-worthy world that is never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me.[1]

Is your life swirling out of control?  Are you having trouble figuring out which end is up?  Are you dizzy with grief?  Do you have no idea which way you should turn?  Take a moment.  Breathe.  Go inward.  Let yourself get lost.  Let yourself let go…of all your needs, all your desires, all your expectations, all your fears. Then, pay attention.  Listen.  Do you hear that grass being broken and trampled just over the next hill?  Do you feel the ground trembling beneath you as footsteps approach?  Do you smell the sweat of the shepherd who is searching for you with the determination and the anticipation and the conviction of someone who is searching for that which is most precious?  Go ahead.  Call out to him.  Let yourself be found.  Because only then will you realize that you were never really lost.

Now to the God to whom we are never lost, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore, Amen.


[1] David James Duncan, “Strategic Withdrawal: A Tool for Restoration” in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, Edited by Philip Zaleski, (Harper SanFrancisco, 2001).

Read Full Post »

Lost and Found

Did God leave the gate open?  In Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep a celebration ensues when the one who was lost is found.  The shepherd hefts the beast onto his shoulders and carries him home, rejoicing with each heavy, effort-full step.  What a moment of joy for that sheep!  What a moment of joy for that shepherd!  Was it meant to be so?

Sometimes I think it takes getting lost to realize that we are found.  Is your life swirling out of control?  Are you having trouble figuring out which end is up?  Are you dizzy with grief?  Do you have no idea which way you should turn?  Take a moment.  Breathe.  Pay attention.  Listen.  Do you hear that grass being broken and trampled just over the next hill?  Do you feel the ground trembling beneath you as footsteps approach?  Do you smell the sweat of the shepherd who is searching for you with the determination and the anticipation and the conviction of someone who is searching for that which is most precious?  Go ahead.  Call out to him.  Let yourself be found.  Because only then will you realize that you were never lost.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Read Full Post »

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

It’s a beautiful Sabbath day here!  I hope everyone is enjoying God on this long holiday weekend.  What follows is the sermon from the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 5th, 2010

Olivia the pig is a popular character around our house.  She is the creation of Ian Falconer who writes about Olivia’s many adventures in his books for children.  One of the reasons why Olivia is so wonderful is the fact that she is very cultured.  She loves the opera, the ballet, and seems to appreciate a good piece of art.  In one of our favorite books, Olivia tells us about her frequent visits to the art museum on rainy days.  Her favorite picture there is one by Edgar Degas of ballerinas rehearsing on stage….a stage on which Olivia dreams of one day performing herself.  But there is another painting, an abstract portrait of swirls and colors and paint splashes by renowned American artist Jackson Pollock, which Olivia says she just doesn’t get.  “I could do that in about five minutes,” Olivia announces to her mother.  Then, later on at home, Olivia is promptly put in time out after her mother discovers that she did do it, she had replicated Pollock’s famous painting all over her bedroom wall.

Olivia really is wonderful.  As an adult reader, I appreciate her quirky humor and her toddler-esque honesty.  As I parent, I think it’s fabulous that Olivia has made the work of Edgar Degas and Jackson Pollock popular among our 2 and 3 year olds.  Our son can quickly identify a Jackson Pollock painting now, thanks to Olivia the pig.

I first learned about Jackson Pollock when we rented the movie “Pollock” in which actor Ed Harris portrays the famous painter.  Pollock lived and worked in New York in the 40’s and 50’s and was hailed by Life magazine as possibly “the greatest living painter in the United States” at the time. He was sort of your typical tortured artist.  He was an alcoholic suspected of also having bipolar disorder and a social recluse.  But he was also brilliant.  He created a new way to paint where he took the canvas off of the easel and spread it out on the floor so he could approach it from every angle.  Then he used his whole body to drip, and pour, and splash paint in such a controlled, yet chaotic way as to create an extraordinary effect.  Pollock’s goal in creating such abstract paintings was to help people set aside their preconceived ideas of beauty so they could simply receive what the painting had to offer them.  In this way, Jackson Pollock created some stunning pieces of art.

Oftentimes I imagine God to be something of a tortured artist.  In both our scripture passages this morning God is portrayed as an artist.  In Jeremiah God is the potter, molding and shaping us as flaw-filled clay into the shape of his choosing.  In Psalm 139 God is the great weaver, with her fabric all laid out in the depths of the earth.  Her fingers stitch and knit intricate patterns into the fabric as she creates this thing of beauty, a creature of nobility, a work of art that makes her so proud.  But as this great artist, God is tortured because he creates, he sculpts, he paints, and he weaves with both fear and wonder.

In verse 14 today’s psalmist proclaims that he has been “fearfully and wonderfully made.”   All week I’ve been pondering what this means.  I’ve been pondering what it means to be “fearfully made.” Oftentimes we translate the Hebrew word for “fear” to mean awe, or respect, or reverence.  Yet, as Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis points out in her commentary on “the fear of the Lord,” the distinction between the “fear” of the Hebrew bible and ordinary fright should not be drawn too sharply.  “Fear” in the Hebrew bible is more than an emotional response.  “Fear” is an acknowledgement and recognition of the power and the authority that the other holds.[1] So when God made us, was God afraid?  Was fear palpable in the air as God formed my inward parts, knit me together in my mother’s womb, and created me in the depths of the earth?  I imagine so.  I imagine so because as the God who has searched me and known me, as the God who knows when I sit down and when I rise up, and as the God who can discern my thoughts from far away, God knows that I (as a human being) have the power to hurt, and to destroy, and to wander far away from God’s righteous path. With our power as human beings we can do great harm, or with it we can do great good.  We can create and foster that which is beautiful in this world, or we can create and foster that which is ugly.

I doubt I have to remind you of all that is ugly in this world.  All we have to do is recall the atrocities of the Holocaust, or the tragedy of apartheid, or the enslavement of African Americans, or the economic disparity between the first and third worlds to remind ourselves of all the ugliness human beings can create.  On a more personal level, we might recall hurtful words said behind our backs, back-handed-compliments and bullies in schools, prejudices that are too easily excused and knee-jerk reactions that lead to blame and shame.  We human beings can be ugly…to each other…to our planet….to our God whose hands, I imagine, trembled as he made us.

But…we are not just “fearfully made.”  We are also “wonderfully made.”  “Wonderfully” comes from a Hebrew word that means to be different, striking, remarkable—outside of the power of human comprehension.[2] We are so wonderful we don’t even know how wonderful we are!  We can’t comprehend it!  It’s beyond our power to know all the remarkable things we can do and be.  But God knows.  Again, God is the one who has searched us and known us.  God knows when we sit down and when we rise up; God can discern our thoughts from far away; God is acquainted with all our ways.  And this God who knows us so well calls us wonderful, striking, different, and remarkable.   God knows we can be ugly.  But God also knows and believes that we can be beautiful. This is why God loves us.  This is why God wonders at us.  This is why God made us.

You know the beauty we can create.  You’ve felt it, you’ve heard it, you’ve tasted it, you’ve experienced it.

It’s a warm embrace or a hand held in a time of need.

It’s a card sent in the mail that says just the right thing.

It’s food on a plate that not only fills your belly, but also warms your soul.

It’s words written on a page that can make your heart sing with hope.

It’s paint that transforms a canvas into another world, a dream landscape.

It’s music performed that can bring tears to your eyes.

It’s Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

It’s Nelson Mendela’s courage that led South Africa to reconciliation.

It’s Martin Luther King’s dream shared from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s Jesus of Nazareth’s whole life and death.

Beauty…our beauty…is everywhere.  We are not just fearfully made.  We are wonderfully made.  And it is the wonder of our Creator, the awe, the respect, the love that our Creator has for us that inspires and encourages us to reject ugliness, to aspire to beauty, and to live into our calling as the living art of the Greatest Artist of all.

In 1950, Hans Namuth, a young photographer, asked Jackson Pollock if he could take pictures of the artist at work.  Remarkably, the socially reclusive artist agreed to the photo shoot and even promised to start a new painting especially for the photographer.  But when Namuth arrived at Pollock’s studio a dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor. Pollock apologized to the young photographer saying that the painting was already finished.

Then, unexpectedly, he picked up his paint and brushes and started to move around the canvas. It was as if he suddenly realized that the painting was not finished. His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white, and rust colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that the young photographer was there; he did not seem to hear the click of the camera shutter. . . the photography session lasted as long as he kept painting, perhaps half an hour. In all that time, Pollock did not stop. Finally, he said ‘This is it.’

Later, Pollock was quoted as saying, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I just try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out [beautiful.]”[3]

My friends, our Great Artist is not through with us yet.  Our great artist creates us to have a life of our own, then works with us and stays with us until pure harmony, divine beauty is achieved.  Yes, we are fearfully made.  But even more so we are wonderfully made.  And there is art and an artist in us all.

Now to the God who inspires all beauty, be all honor, and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs: Westminster Bible Companion, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000, pg. 28.

[2] Nancy deClaisse-Walford, “Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, http://www.workingpreacher.org.

[3] www.wikipedia.org, “Jackson Pollock”.

Read Full Post »

Fearfully made?

Did God’s hands tremble with fear as our Creator knitted us together in our mother’s womb?  I’ve been pondering Psalm 139 this week.  In particular, I’ve been drawn to verse 14 of Psalm 139 in which the Psalmist proclaims that he has been “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Oftentimes we translate the Hebrew word for “fear” to mean awe, or respect, or reverence.  Yet, as Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis points out in her commentary on “the fear of the Lord,” the distinction between the “fear” of the Hebrew bible and ordinary fright should not be drawn too sharply.  “Fear” in the Hebrew bible is more than an emotional response.  “Fear” is an acknowledgement and recognition of the power and the authority that the other holds.[1] So when God made us, was God afraid?  Was fear palpable in the air as God formed my inward parts, knit me together in my mother’s womb, and created me in the depths of the earth?  I imagine so.  I imagine so because as the God who has searched me and known me, as the God who knows when I sit down and when I rise up, and as the God who can discern my thoughts from far away, God knows that I (as a human being) have the power to hurt, and to destroy, and to wander far away from God’s righteous path.  With our power as human beings we can do great harm, or with it we can do great good.

Yet, we are also “wonderfully made.”  “Wonderfully” comes from a Hebrew word that means to be different, striking, remarkable—outside of the power of human comprehension.[2] We are so wonderful, in fact, we don’t even know how wonderful we are!  But God does.  Which is why God made us.  Which is why God loves us.  Which is why God believes in us to do great good, rather than great harm.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs: Westminster Bible Companion, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000, pg. 28.

[2] Nancy deClaisse-Walford, “Commentary on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, http://www.workingpreacher.org.

Read Full Post »