Archive for June, 2011

Preaching Jacob

I thought I’d try to get the blog rolling a little again by inviting you into a sermon series that I’m working on.  I’m going to be ‘preaching Jacob’ for six weeks starting July 10.  I’ll try to post thoughts as I develop these sermons and, of course, I’ll post the sermons after I’ve preached them.  The series is below.

I’ve begun ‘wrestling’ with the first text, which is the birth of Jacob and Esau and the first stealing of the birthright.  There are lots of binaries here:  the birth of the twins as fulfillment of promise and healing of barrenness vs. the beginning of the struggle which causes Rebekah to ask, “Why me?”;  God’s declaration and foreordination vs. Jacob’s careful conniving; Jacob as the younger, powerless brother and simple tent-dweller vs. Jacob as the hard bargainer.  Throughout the series I really want to highlight the humanness in these texts.  Jacob bargains, and wrestles, and loves, and seeks forgiveness.  He’s humbled before God, but also lifted up and blessed.  Maybe these texts can help us to think about what it means to be human in all our ambiguous humanness before God.


Genesis 25:19-34

“Introducing the Heel-Grabber”


Genesis 28:10-22

“Even at the Gate of the Heavens – A Bargain”


Genesis 29

“The Trickster Gets Tricked:  A Love Story”


Genesis 31:23-33

“On Wrestling with God(s)”


Genesis 33:1-17



Genesis 35:1-20, 23-29

“And the sons of Jacob were twelve”

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“Be My Witnesses to the Ends of the Earth”

Acts 1: 6–14

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 5th, 2011 – Faith United Presbyterian Church


I don’t know what your Facebook friends were doing on Saturday, May 21st but mine were taking a roll call of those of us who were “left behind” after Harold Camping’s highly publicized prediction of the Rapture came and went. I don’t know what this says about my Presbyterian clergy friends and I, but none of us were surprised that we were not included in the 144,000 to be whisked away.

A lot was made out of Camping’s “biblical” and “mathematical” prediction that the Rapture would occur on Saturday, May 21st….the day when all true believers would be taken up to heaven, while everybody else—Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and anyone who supports gay marriage or accepts evolution or rocks out to Lady Gaga on her Ipod—will be stuck here on Earth for another six months while war and pestilence rains down on us.[1]  The media frenzy over this prediction was actually fueled by Camping himself as he invested millions of dollars into publicizing the event and encouraged others to do the same.  The humor many of us found in the situation was dampened, though, by stories such as Robert Fitzpatrick’s – a 60-year-old retired transit worker from Staten Island who invested his entire life savings of $140,000 into the campaign to publicize the event – and stories such as 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez who gave up her dream to go to medical school so she could invest in Camping’s ministry and spend every last penny she had during her final days here on earth.[2]  Camping himself turned into a somewhat tragic figure come May 22nd when he issued an embarrassed statement about some sort of mathematical mistake and then slipped away to an undisclosed location.

In light of these sad situations, I respected the position of a Baptist pastor in California who stated that he and his parishioners would be outside of Camping’s headquarters the day after the supposed Rapture because, as he said, Camping and his followers would more than likely need some love and prayer when that day arrived and the world had not come to an end.  This pastor’s concern was valid.  I too was concerned about what Camping and his followers might do the day after.  I searched for news but found none, leaving me to wonder and to ask:  How do you return to the world after you have let it go, said your goodbyes, and squandered all your resources for the future?   What does this world look like after you’ve been so focused on the heavens?

This being the last Sunday of Easter, and the last Sunday before Pentecost, today’s text from Acts describes Jesus’ ascension…or the moment when he (Jesus) is whisked away to the heavens and the disciples are left behind to carry on his mission and ministry.  After he goes, the disciples appear to be stunned as they stare after Jesus, their eyes transfixed on the clouds into which he had disappeared.  I imagine they would have stood there, staring up at the heavens for quite some time, had it not been for the two angels who suddenly appeared to ask an important question. “Men of Galilee,” they asked, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Their question almost seemed to mock the disciples as they stood there transfixed.  But the angels’ intent, I believe, was to remind the disciples’ of the mission Jesus had left them prior to his dramatic departure.   “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem,” Jesus told them, “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the angels asked.  You are to be Jesus’ witnesses here.  You are to be Jesus’ witnesses in this world.  You are to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Dispensationalist theology, or the apocalyptic theology that supports the idea of a coming Rapture, has been rightly criticized by scholars as unbiblical and as irresponsible in the type of escapist worldview it promotes.  For instance, I recently heard of a frightening discussion a Sunday School teacher had with her class of teenagers. In this class the students and the teacher were discussing the issues of world hunger and poverty and how these issues could be addressed.  Into this conversation a young student interjected, “Well, I won’t have to worry about those problems because I’ll be raptured up to heaven before things get really bad here on earth.”[3] It doesn’t take a Masters degree in Divinity to understand the horrible implications a theology such as this has.

But before we come down too hard on Harold Camping and other dispensationalists, we should carefully examine our own and the, albeit more subtle, ways that we too devalue, disassociate, and even seek to escape this world in which we live and to which we are called.  Oftentimes we Christians use the phrase “the world” or “the world’s ways” to describe that which is evil, or wrong, or sinful.  Oftentimes we church folks use language meant to distinguish those of us who are in here from those who are out there in “the world.”  We are quick to draw a line in the sand between “us” and “them.”  We are quick to seek to separate ourselves with sectarian thinking and theology so we won’t be led astray by “the world” and its seductive, secular culture.

So, perhaps we all need the angels’ reminder today not to get so transfixed by the heavens that we lose sight of our mission and ministry here, in the world.  And perhaps we all need to be reminded of the consistent scriptural message (even in the apocalyptic scriptures) that God created this world, God loves this world, and God has both redeemed and is in the process of redeeming this world.

After the angels broke the spell the heavens held over the disciples and reminded them of their very earthly, worldly mission, it is important to note that these disciples retreated back to the upper room in Jerusalem where they devoted themselves to prayer.  Their actions suggest that they realized they had a lot of worshipping to do, they had a lot of thinking to do, they had a lot of communal discernment to do before venturing out into “the world” to commence Jesus’ mission on their own.  And…we do too.  We do too because this mission of Jesus’ will not be well served by evenly defined lines in the sand that separate the “good” from the “bad.”  Instead we must acknowledge the good and the bad within all of us and within all of creation.  We must acknowledge the complexities of this world and the issues we face.  We must acknowledge the theological thoughtfulness, the constant prayer and discernment that it takes to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Sometimes it’s a real drag being married to a man who has his PhD in theology.  You can’t get away with a sermon illustration you pulled off the internet.  You can’t have a glass of wine or two without getting into a conversation about pragmatism, or justice, or the plight of our democratic process.  You have to proof read papers with monstrously long words in it.  But, that said, it certainly also has its benefits.  Like when you get stuck in your sermon-writing and he can produce just the right theologian and just the right eight pages you need to read in order to get you back on track.  That’s what Dan did for me this week (and often does.)

So as I was considering just how we should be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth

Dan hands me a book by Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Seminary.  In this book, Wink helpfully teaches that the Greek word kosmos, which we translate simply as “the world” can actually be translated into a variety of meanings according to its use in the New Testament. Depending upon its use, kosmos can refer to the created universe or to humanity as the object of God’s love and concern.  But kosmos can also refer to the alienating system of oppression that Jesus stood against; the alienating system of oppression that had Jesus crucified because he was such a threat.  So because of these multiple meanings (some positive, some negative), Wink suggests that when we think of the kosmos, or the world, we should think of it as being simultaneously God’s good creation, fallen, and capable of redemption.  The kosmos is all of this, all together, all at once.  It is good, it is fallen, and it is capable of redemption.[4]

So in order to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, we need to be in the world, not separated from it.  We need to be in the world doing as Jesus did; naming the good, good, naming the fallen, fallen, and working to redeem what needs to be redeemed.

In a sermon on this passage, Barbara Lunblad describes a picture she once saw of Jesus’ ascension.  It was a black and white woodcut print, finely etched.  In the picture Jesus is rising up as the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds.  If you look closely at the picture, though, not in the clouds, but on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth.  The artist has carefully etched Jesus’ footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open wide in astonishment.[5]

My friends, the uniquely Good News of the Gospel is that our God took on human flesh in order to walk the earth with us.  God loves us.  God loves God’s good creation.  God has redeemed and is in the process of redeeming this kosmos.  This is our hope.  This is our Christian worldview.  And this is our calling.  To be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth means following in the footprints he has left behind, it means following Jesus into the world in order to name the good, good, to name the fallen, fallen, and to work to redeem that which needs to be redeemed.  May God bless us and keep us as we go out into the world in response to this mission and ministry.

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


[1] Lauri Lebo, “May 21 Rapture Scheduled for 6 p.m.”, Religion Dispatches, May 12, 2011.

[2] Lee Warren, “Christians Respond to Camping’s May 21 Rapture Prediction,” The Christian Post (www.christianpost.com), May 17, 2011.

[3] From Barbara Rossing’s video, “The Rapture Racket”

[4] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1992), pgs. 51-59.

[5] Barbara Lunblad, “Footprints on the Earth,” http://day1.org/937-footprints_on_the_earth.

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On Loving Jesus

“On Loving Jesus”

John 14: 15-21

Daniel J. Ott


Our text for this morning is part of what is often called Jesus’ final discourse in John. Jesus is giving his disciples some final instruction and encouragement before he moves on to lay down his life for his friends.  He wants them to know above all that he will not leave them orphaned.  He wants them to know that they can continue to love him.  And he wants his disciples to know that he will continue to love them.

But how does this work.  How do we love Jesus?  We might say that we can love Jesus through contemplation and worship.  We can have a personal relationship with him through prayer.  We can experience Jesus’ presence in the sacraments.  We can even show Jesus our ardent passion for him through song or verse or art.  And none of these answers are wrong.  But none of them are the answer that Jesus gives here.  Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to show their love for him even after he is gone, then the best way to do it is to remember and do what he taught.  And what is it that he taught? – He taught them to love, of course.  He taught them that there are two great commandments upon which all the others hang:  To love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Love is the great theme of the Johanine literature.  The first letter of John beautifully sums up our call to love:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Over the years, I’ve sort of latched onto a few definitions of love that I thought helped me to love.  One that has stuck with me is the one that psychologist M. Scott Peck gives in his book The Road Less Traveled.  He defined love as:  “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”[1]  I like this definition because it moves us out of thinking of love as an emotion.  Love is not a mere feeling, it is an act of the will.  We decide to love and love takes effort.  We have to extend ourselves and take risks to love.  I also like this definition because it has to do with growth.  Love is not static.  If we love someone, we need to let her – encourage her to grow and change and better herself.  If we love ourselves, we will have to be ready to take risks and venture growth.

Another definition of love that I like a lot is the one given by Christian ethicist Beverly Harrison.  She understands “love as the power to act-each-other-into-well-being.”[2]  Harrison emphasizes that love is an action.  Love can’t stay at the emotional or even spiritual level.  Love has to become concrete.  Love demands that we act so that others can be well spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  In order to love we need attend to issues of justice.  We have to make sure that people can eat and have clean water.  We have to change structures that oppress or suppress people.  To love as Jesus loved is to do as Jesus did:  to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.

This week, I added one more definition to my list.  I was reading an author with whom I often disagree, Stanley Hauerwas, when his definition of love jumped out at me.  He defined love as “the nonviolent apprehension of the other as other.”[3]  He suggests that the biggest thing that keeps us from love is fear.  When we encounter someone different from us – a true other – we feel threatened and we respond in fear and sometimes even violence.  To the extent that others are other – different from us – they challenge our way of being.  Love is the ability to let the other be who he is without responding out of fear.  In some ways, love includes an acknowledgment that we are not in control.  I cannot determine who the other is or what she thinks, believes or does – she determines that and I have to work to understand her as I find her.

I hope it’s not too personal if I admit that this is the biggest challenge for me as parent and a husband.  None of us likes to feel out of control.  I do not like to feel out of control.  But living with a two-year-old and a four-year-old can make you feel out of control in a hurry.  You might be surprised to hear it, but my babies don’t always listen to what I ask or tell them.  They have their own little wills and personalities and they are determined to express them.  And I think that I love them so much that I want them to listen to what I say and do what I say so that I can keep them from harm, and show them the right path, and, darn it, keep them under control.  But true love is not controlling.  Yes – true love acts the other into well-being and keeps them safe from harm, but love does not coerce or control.  Love is never violent.  It is always patient, bearing all things.

And this applies to marriages.  We must understand our spouses in their otherness, always allowing them to grow and flourish.  This applies to our churches.  Churches should not be places where everybody looks the same and thinks the same.  Churches should be models of love where diverse people live together in community.  And this applies to nations.  Love demands that we not impose our will on others through violence, or economic coercion, or any kind of imperialistic endeavor.  If you love Jesus, then keep his commandments.  Love!

And Jesus promises that when we love him in this way, he will love us too.  He promises to be with his disciples even after his death.  He reminds the disciples that he will return to them in his resurrection after he dies.  And he also promises to send another Paraclete to be with them.  You can find different renderings of Paraclete in different translations:  Advocate, Comforter, Counselor.  We might add Lover.  The Spirit that will remain with the disciples after Jesus dies will continue exactly what Jesus started.  Jesus through the Spirit will continue to be among them teaching them, comforting them, counseling them, and loving them.

This same Spirit of truth and love is with us even today.  When we live in love, then we see this Spirit at work.  When we live in love, then we live in God and God in us.  When we live in love, we love Jesus rightly and Jesus lives in us and continues to show his love for us.

The day of my ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament was certainly one of the biggest days of my life.  My best friend gave the sermon.  My Dad gave me the charge.  My soon to be wife presented me with a stole.  Toward the end of the worship service, I knelt down in the middle of the sanctuary and all the ordained elders and ministers that were there encircled me and put their hands on me as a prayer was said for me and my new ministry.  I was overwhelmed and I wept.

I had a friend who was there who had fallen away from the church.  He was moved by the service, though, and especially by that moment when the elders laid their hands on me.  When we were talking about it afterwards, he said that he felt power in the room in that moment.  But the way he described it, it almost sounded like some sort of magic.  He gave the impression that he thought we were tapping into some sort metaphysical power source or something.

This is not the way I experienced that moment.  What I experienced in that moment was love.  I experienced the love of my family and my parents who knew well the ups and downs of a life in the ministry, but also new that I was called to serve the church and they were proud of that calling.  I experienced the love of the friends who journeyed with me through all of the schooling.  I recalled all the love of all the sisters and brothers in Christ who had encouraged me through the years.  I even experienced the love of the new community of faith that was just getting to know me, but was promising to love me and support me, even as I was promising to love them and serve them.  If there was any power in that sanctuary that day, it was the power of love.

And truly that is the power that is available to us today.  The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love.  The power of the Gospel is the power of love.  When we extend ourselves so that others might grow and flourish, then the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  When we make love concrete by acting others into well-being, healing, feeding, forgiving, liberating, then the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  When we seek to understand others in their otherness, without fear or violence, then the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us.  When we love, the Spirit of truth is at work within us.  When we love, we show our love for Jesus.  When we love God is in us and we are in God, because God is love.

[1] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 81.

[2] Beverly Wildung Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in Weaving the Visions, eds. Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1989), p. 217.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, (Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 91.

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