Archive for the ‘Teri’ Category

“Where Two or Three are Gathered”

Matthew 18: 15-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 29th, 2011 – Monmouth College Chapel Service


I have always appreciated the sense of family one can feel as a member of a church.  This is particularly true in the small church.  My husband, Dan, and I have both served as pastors of small churches.  After finishing his coursework for his Ph.D. in California Dan was wooed across the country to a small, rural community in Jefferson, SC by me (oh…the things you do for love) where he pastored Rocky Creek Presbyterian Church and worked on his dissertation.  To this day, I am still impressed by the way the small town, blue collar, deeply Southern members of Rocky Creek welcomed Dan….a liberally minded intellectual type, moving to South Carolina from Los Angeles, California.  Their worlds couldn’t have been farther apart.  But Rocky Creek adopted Dan (and me) as their own.  We were a part of the church family.

Later, I served as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church in North Carolina and Dan directed the church choir.  This was where our babies were born and baptized.  While both of us were busy leading worship our babies were being passed from one member of the church to another because Isaac and Ella were not just our children there…but the church’s children…and they were loved extremely well.  In fact, when Dan and I announced the news that we were moving to Monmouth the folks at Cameron were sad, but they understood our sense of call.  They were willing to send us off with their blessing…..but, they said, you have to leave the children.  J Eventually we negotiated their release by promising to send lots and lots of pictures.

Now that we are here in Monmouth, Dan and I have both appreciated the sense of community we have found here…in our churches…Dan is the part-time supply pastor for Sugar Tree Grove Presbyterian Church….a church as sweet and welcoming as it sounds…in the community of Monmouth….and here at Monmouth College.  One of the benefits of serving a small, residential college is that it does feel like a family.  We live together and we work together.  We know each other and each other’s lives.  We are a family…in fact we often refer to ourselves as the Monmouth College family.

In our scripture text for today, Jesus emphasizes the importance of community.  Jesus tells us today that community is sacred; “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  Jesus also tells us that community is family.  We are to care for and respect our community members as we care for and respect our family.  We won’t pick this up from the New Revised Standard Version of the text that we read today, but Jesus uses familial language to speak of community.  A more literal translation of verse 15 is “If a brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”  By using this familial language Jesus raises the bonds of community to a higher level.  As a community we are to care for one another.  But as a family, as brothers and sisters, we are obligated to care for one another.  No matter what happens….you can’t leave your brother behind…he will always be your brother.  No matter how much you fight and squabble with your sister….you are bound together by your birth…you are family.  This, Jesus says, is how we are to relate to each other in community.  We have an obligation to care for each other and respect each other, even when conflict arises.  And conflict always arises…whenever human beings live together in community conflict is inevitable.

In the church conflict arises when marriages break apart and members are forced to choose sides.  Heated debates take place over the interpretations of scripture or the use of church polity.  Feelings get hurt and people sulkingly and silently disappear.  And, of course, there is always the color of the carpet…we never really can agree over the color of the carpet.

Conflict also inevitably arises in a college community…especially one such as ours that values a diversity of voices and encourages questioning and debate.  Students will know conflict with other students, faculty with other faculty, staff with other staff, and roommates…well how can you not fight with your roommate when you are sharing such a small space….just don’t hurt each other, okay?  (I hear a lot of crazy stories as a part of the Student Affairs staff…so just don’t hurt each other.)

But we are a family, Jesus says to us today.  We are a family in this sacred space of community.  So we are obligated to each other.  We are obligated to respect each other and care for each other even in the midst of conflict.  I appreciate Jesus’ advice today for the practicality of it.  When someone offends you, or sins against you, go to that person directly.  Speak to him or her about it.  Work to resolve it.  Don’t talk to everyone else about it, except for the person with whom you are angry.  Don’t blast off an angry email or post your gripe on Facebook.  Have enough respect for the relationship, for the relationship with your brother or sister, to deal with them directly.

If this doesn’t work, then, Jesus says, get the community involved, because it is a community issue.  Unresolved conflict is a festering wound that affects the whole community.  If two sorority sisters are at odds with each other…everyone feels the conflict and the whole sorority suffers.  If two church members can’t stand the sight of each other…the whole church body is forced to tiptoe around the tension….and how much good work can we actually do on tiptoe?

If getting the community involved still doesn’t resolve the conflict then Jesus says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Oftentimes we read this line with relief…oh good, we say to ourselves….if I can’t resolve the conflict then I can just let that person go…I can be done with them.  But this is not how Jesus intended this line to be read.  All we have to do is remember how Jesus, at every turn, extended himself graciously to Gentiles and tax collectors, to prostitutes and lepers, to all those pushed outside of the community…to truthfully interpret this line.  Jesus commands us never to give up on our brother or sister.  Never stop reaching out in love to them.  Never stop yearning for grace to restore what has been broken.  Never stop caring for and respecting the members of your family.  “In the next few verses beyond this passage in Matthew, Peter needs to make sure he has heard Jesus correctly, ‘Lord, if a brother sins against me how often should I forgive? Jesus’ ‘seventy times seven’ response means, ‘as long as it takes.'”[1]

I recently had a wonderful conversation with a student in which he asked me, essentially, why I choose to follow Jesus.  Now there are lots of reasons why I choose to follow Jesus, lots of reasons why I love Jesus.  But the answer that came to me in that moment was “Because Jesus teaches me not just how to be a good Christian, but how to be a good human being.”  People, all people, are important.  Healthy relationships are essential for a healthy life.  And community is sacred, because it is God who draws us together.

Now to this God who has brought us to this community be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Charles Hambrick-Stowe, “Theological Perspective”, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2011), pg. 48.


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Christian FAQs

Teri and I have noticed that the posts that tend to get the most hits on our site are the ones that answer common questions that Christians and others might have.  I think Teri’s sermon “What Does God Provide?” is our all-time leader.  So we thought it might be fun to do a little series of questions and answers.  I did a very unscientific and non-exhaustive search of the web and came up with ten FAQs of Christianity:

  1. How do I become a Christian?
  2. Why go to church?
  3. How should I pray?
  4. Will God solve my problems?
  5. What is sin?
  6. Is pornography a sin?
  7. What is the ‘rapture?’ And what is the ‘second coming?’
  8. What happens after death?
  9. Who is God?
  10. What is Islam?

There are, of course, lots of sites on the web that answer these questions already.  The problem is that many of them answer the questions by belting the reader with the Bible.  We hope to give more humane or pastoral answers.  Our answers will of course consider what the Bible says and they will be influenced by the fact that we are Presbyterian ministers, but we will not be trying to give THE BIBLICAL ANSWER or THE REFORMED ANSWER or even THE CHRISTIAN ANSWER.  We’ll be giving Teri’s answer or Dan’s answer that will hopefully be of help to you.

Look for these answers in the coming weeks!

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Why is faith so difficult?

I am writing a sermon on Matthew 14: 22-33, the passage wherein Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him…in the midst of a storm.  Peter has always seemed to me to be the naïve, overeager, overachiever type.  He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks.  Peter is far from perfect, but he wants so badly to be perfect, he wants so badly to please Jesus and to prove his faith. So when Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat, walking on the water, overeager Peter thinks he should walk on the water too.  So he asks Jesus to command him to come to him.

Even if you don’t know the story you can see where it is headed.  Jesus invites Peter to step out of the boat. Peter gets out, takes a few shaky steps on the water, then panics because the wind, and the storm, and the waves are still raging around him.  Peter sinks.  Jesus has to save him.  Then they both get in the boat and the storm, miraculously, ceases to rage.  This is the point where I imagine Peter, wet and water-logged, traumatized by his near drowning, and humiliated for being told he had so “little faith,” is thinking to himself, “Okay, Jesus.  Couldn’t you have made this a little easier?  Couldn’t you have made the storm cease before I stepped out of the boat?”

Have you ever found yourself asking this question?  Why is faith so difficult?  Why does Jesus call his followers out of the safety and security of the boat into the middle of a storm?  Why does faith require so much courage, and effort, and strength of will?  Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?

But faith isn’t easy.  By its very nature, faith isn’t easy.  Faith is not something that we can rationalize, or explain, or even obtain with any measure of success.  If we were to attempt to explain it we might talk about reaching for the unreachable, finite hands grasping for that which is infinite.  Faith is the bridge that is built between stark dichotomies; it is hope in the face of despair; it is love in the face of hatred; it is peace in the face of violence; it is beauty in the face of ugliness; it is justice in the face of injustice; it is courage in the face of fear.  Faith is a dynamic, spirited force that moves us from the place where we are to the place where we ought to be.

Which is why it is so difficult.  Faith is supposed to move us.  Faith is supposed to change us.  Faith is supposed to better us and open us, deepen us and mature us. And that journey isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s the most difficult, most intimidating, most risk-filled journey we will ever take because it means consistently stepping out of the safety of the boat into the wind and the waves and the storm.

Theologian Paul Tillich describes faith as “dynamic.”  If faith becomes static, if it fails to move us, open us, deepen us, better us, then it is no longer faith.  Instead it is an idol; it is simply another idol that we put up on the mantle to worship but with which we don’t actually do anything.

Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?  Thanks be to God the answer is “No.”


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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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Wait on the Lord

What follows is the sermon from Monmouth College’s Baccalaureate Service on May 14th, 2011.

“Wait for the Lord”

Isaiah 40: 21-31

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

This is one of those occasions when I wish I had a really thick Scottish accent…a Scottish brogue…because I think a Scottish accent would make me more interesting.  I remember attending Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago years ago with my parents and a young, Scottish pastor named Calum McLeod got up to preach…and he was….interesting…very interesting….  (I don’t think I was married at the time.) So I think a Scottish accent might make me more interesting.  But I also wish I had a Scottish accent today because I’ve heard this scripture passage from Isaiah read with a Scottish accent and, if you can imagine, it made these poetic words even more beautiful.

As a runner, one of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire.   The movie tells the story of Britain’s Olympic Athletics Team (or Track & Field Team) of 1924 and one runner in particular, Eric Liddell, also known as “Scotland’s Fastest Man.”  As a man deeply committed to his Christian faith, Eric was frequently torn between pursuing his athletic gifts or following the call God had placed upon his heart to be a missionary in China.  Ultimately, though, he chose both as he explained to his sister Jennie that yes, God had called him to China, and he would go, but God had also made him fast.   To run, Eric explained, was to honor God.  When he ran, he felt God’s pleasure.  So Eric would compete in the Olympic games for Britain then retire as an athlete to enter the mission field.

It was the perfect plan, until a complication arose.  Eric’s qualifying heat for the Olympic 100-meter dash was scheduled to be run on a Sunday and Eric had always honored the Sabbath as a day of rest.  To run on a Sunday would have contradicted the practice he had observed his whole life, and it would have contradicted the advice he had given to so many to honor the Sabbath as well.  So to his teammates and his country’s great disappointment, Eric dropped out of the race and the Olympic Games.  Many people didn’t understand Eric’s decision and he had to endure some intense pressure (even from the Prince of Wales) to change his mind.  His naysayers tried to convince him that his loyalty to his country should come before his loyalty to God.  Eric struggled under the pressure and was tempted to give in.  But when Sunday arrived and Eric’s qualifying heat was being run he was in the pulpit at church reading these words in his beautiful Scottish accent:

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.

 As it turned out, one of Eric’s teammates was so impressed by Eric’s decision that he decided to give Eric his spot in the finals of the 400 meters.  And, of course, this led to a made-for-movie moment, when Eric won that race and the Olympic gold medal.

Isaiah’s words to us today are truly inspiring, whether read in a Scottish accent or not.  They are inspiring because they are the kind of words that make us feel like we can do anything…that we can soar to the highest of heights….that we can run faster than anyone….that we can do great things.  These words from Isaiah inspire greatness…which is why I chose them for today’s Baccalaureate Service.

I chose these words because I believe that you Seniors, as graduates of this fine liberal arts college, stand on the threshold of greatness.  The faculty and staff of this college have put their heart and soul into educating you and nurturing you to this moment; to this moment of your graduation.  We want you to be happy.  We want you to succeed in your chosen fields.  But more importantly we want you to live meaningful lives.  We want you to be people of integrity.  We want you to be thoughtful, thinking people who will use your education to make this world a better place.  We want you to be great.

But before you / we (any of us) can be great or do great things, we must acknowledge certain truths.  We must face what we, perhaps, don’t want to face.

I have always appreciated the prophets for being brave enough and bold enough to speak the truth that people need to hear but don’t really want to hear.  Isaiah is one of those prophets.  His words to us today are inspiring, but they also tell us the truth.

And that truth is that we, as human beings, are limited.  We cannot do everything.  We cannot be everything.  We will fall and we will fail.  Even the young are limited.  Even the young will come to the end of their personal resources.  Even the young will grow faint and weary and fall…exhausted.

As I prepared for this sermon, I asked some Seniors to describe how they thought they might be feeling this weekend.  They all said that they would be excited, happy to have finally made it, thrilled about what they had accomplished.  But they also all very honestly shared that they would be a little afraid.  They spoke about how they have lived here for four years.  This college is like home.  This college is what they know.  And now they are leaving what is known and stepping into the unknown.  That’s scary! That’s scary, and that fear, they imagined, would lead them to ask themselves some scary questions like, “Have I made the right choices?”; “Am I on the right path?”; “Will I be happy doing what I have decided to do?”

In the face of these fears, Isaiah’s words do not sound all that comforting because in the face of these fears Isaiah dares to tell the truth.  To these Seniors, Isaiah would say, that some of your fears will come true.  You may not have made all the right choices.  You may not succeed in the ways you want to succeed.  You may not get the job of your dreams. You will fall and you will fail because you are a limited human being.

Isaiah’s words may sound harsh and discouraging to us, especially when his words are directed towards the young, towards those who are just setting out in life.  From the moment they are born, we like to tell our young people that they can be anything and do anything.  We like to tell them that there is no limit to what they can do if they work hard and dream big.  We don’t want to discourage them with the realities of life.

But Isaiah dares to tell the truth because he knows we need to hear it.  He has seen his people fail and fall.  He writes during a time of hardship, and loss, and despair.  And he knows how quick we human beings are to make golden calves, worship false idols, and try to lift ourselves up with earthly, limited things.

We human beings, we are quick to buy bigger cars and bigger homes and more stuff thinking these things are the signs of success, thinking these things will comfort us and make us happy.

We human beings, we are quick to supersize our meals thinking food will fill our emptiness and indulgence will satisfy our inner hunger; we are quick to think we can lose ourselves and escape reality through the use of various drugs.

We human beings, we are quick to think that utopia lies at the top, so we climb and climb and climb the ladder without conscience and at any cost.

We human beings, we are quick to build walls and fences, we lock our doors and arm ourselves to the hilt thinking we can protect ourselves and those we love from all the evil, all the loss, all the grief of life.

And whereas these things might bring us momentary renewal, momentary strength, momentary power, there is no comparison, Isaiah says, to the power, and the strength, and the renewal offered by the One who is the Unlimited Source; the Power beyond all powers; the everlasting, unsearchable, unfathomable Creator.

So when you realize you can’t do it all, when you come to the end of your personal resources, when you are weak and weary, when circumstances have left you utterly powerless, when you fail and when you fall…WAIT…Wait for the Lord!  Isaiah implores! Wait for the One who is waiting for you. Don’t put God off for later.  Don’t move ahead thinking you have to go it alone.  Don’t forget about the One who will never forget about you.  Instead….wait….wait for the One who is calling you by name.  Wait for the One who can renew you and empower you to carry on.  Wait for the One who can pick you up and help you fly.

My predecessor in this position, The Rev. Dr. Kathleen Fannin, recently introduced me to a webcam that has been set up over an eagle’s nest in Decorah, Iowa.  The webcam shows 24 hour live streaming video of Mother and Father Eagle and their three eggs, which have hatched and are now three baby eaglets.   The webcam is pretty cool, I will say, and apparently, there are a lot of people who are watching because these parents and their babies have become quite the internet sensation receiving well over 90 million hits.  The site received the most hits, of course, when each of the eaglets were hatching…clawing and pecking and wriggling their way out…their little mouths opening wide for food and their little eyes blink blinking in the new light…while Mommy and Daddy hovered nearby…full of pride and love…ohhh….I’m sure the scene warmed many an internet viewer’s heart.

I wonder, though, how many hearts will be warmed when Mommy and Daddy eagle knock those babies out of the nest telling them “It’s time to get on with your life!”….because there does come a point when all babies need to learn how to fly.

But it’s a good thing to imagine…it’s good to imagine that eaglet falling from that nest…imagine her frightened, and panicked….imagine her thinking that all is lost as she falls and falls and falls….until finally….something clicks….and she remembers what she has been taught….and she spreads her wings….and the wind catches her….and carries her up…the wind carries her until she is flying higher than she ever imagined she could fly….higher than she ever imagined she could fly under her own power.

To our Seniors, let me conclude by saying again that today you stand on the threshold of greatness.  Tomorrow, as you cross the stage and receive your diploma, you step over that threshold into the rest of your lives.  As you do so, remember what you have been taught, remember Isaiah’s words to you today, remember to “Wait for the Lord”…and spread your wings.  Spread your wings and you too shall fly…you will soar to the highest of heights…you will do great and be great….knowing that you do not have to do great and be great alone.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.

Now to the God who encourages such flight, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Born from Above

“Born from Above”

John 3: 1-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

March 14th, 2011 – Monmouth College Chapel Service

A couple of weeks ago I remember our family had a particularly bad, cranky morning.  Maybe it was one of those mornings when our daughter Ella woke us all up at 5am, I’m not sure.  But we were all tired and too short with each other and at the end of our collective-family rope.  So in the midst of this cranky, terrible morning, as I am driving the kids to daycare, as I am trying to will myself to be more patient and to be less cranky, Isaac, our 3-year-old, blurts out from the back seat, “Mommy, can we just start over today?”  And I said, “Yes. Yes, honey. That’s a very good idea.  Let’s just start over.”

Sometimes you just need to start over.  Sometimes you just need another chance, another shot to do better and be better.  How often in life do we think to ourselves, “You know if I could only start over, if I could only do that again, I could do it so much better, I could be so much better.”  Then, if by some act of grace, you do get a second chance, that second chance is SO appreciated.  When Isaac (in all his 3-year-old wisdom) asked me if we could start over that morning, I was so grateful.  I was so grateful to be given another chance.

I imagine this may have been how Nicodemus felt at the end of his conversation with Jesus.  Because Jesus, in our scripture passage today, speaks about giving Nicodemus and us another chance; he speaks about starting over.  But this chance offered by Jesus is more than just another shot at a bad, cranky morning.  Jesus offers another chance at life.  Jesus offers a whole new life, a whole new beginning, a whole new birth, a birth from above.

You must be born from above, Jesus says.  You must be born of water and the Spirit.  Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

I find it really interesting that Jesus chooses birth as a metaphor for salvation here.  Because birth is far from any easy understanding of salvation, it’s far from any easy prayer formula where all you have to do is say, “yes,” on bended knee.  Birth isn’t easy.  Birth requires extraordinary effort, it’s painful, it’s full of potential complications, and it’s dangerous for both mother and baby.

When both of our children were being born complications arose that made Dan and I very afraid…that made our hearts stop with fear.  But we were fortunate to have a whole team of skilled nurses and doctors to help us and our babies.  Everything turned out fine in the end, but the whole experience reminded us of how dangerous and chancy the birthing process can be.

So again, isn’t it interesting that Jesus has chosen giving birth as an image for salvation?  The image suggests that God, as our Divine Mother, labors over us, takes great pain for us, sacrifices for us, endures dangerous complications for us, and takes a chance on us.

The image also suggests that the baby being born, the one being birthed, takes a chance as well as that baby is pushed, pulled, hurled even, out of the comfort and closeness of the mother’s womb, out of a place of security and softness, out of the darkness and into the light…into the bright light of brand new world and a brand new life.

Giving birth is dangerous, it’s complicated, it’s chancy….but God takes that chance in order to give us another chance.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance…to leave the darkness behind and embrace the marvelous light.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance…to leave our old life behind and embrace a new life in Christ.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance…to love others as we have been loved, to love our enemies, to love even when it hurts.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance…to do what is right, to do what is righteous, even when that righteousness costs us something.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance… to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

God takes that chance in order to give us another chance… to take the chance ourselves, to take the chance on God, and to live in gratitude for it.

God takes the chance of birth.  God takes the chance in order to give us another chance.

This is our first chapel service in the season of Lent.  The season of Lent was created by the church as a season of repentance, and of reflection and of remembrance of all that God has given us in Jesus Christ. The season of Lent, then, is a chance for us to remember the chance God took on us, the second chances God so generously offers us, and the chance we have every day to be born from above…to be born into a new life…to be born out of our places of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

For this chance may we all be so grateful.  May we all be so grateful for the chance to be born from above.

Now to our God who offers us this chance, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Come Up To Me

What follows is my meditation from this morning’s Monmouth College Chapel Service.

“Come Up To Me”

Exodus 24:12-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2011

Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?

In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.

Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.[1]

Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”[2]

According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions.  It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.)  It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today.  And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place.[3] So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.

After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there.  I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain.  The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence.  But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit.  We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain.  I still treasure the pictures I took from there.  But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.

Climbing mountains is hard work!  And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.

I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen.  It takes some work on our part.  Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God.  Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God.  Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.

When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship.  I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work.  It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity.  It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance.  Worship is hard work.  And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship.  For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater.  With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience.  So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship.  But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong.  Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God.  As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God.  We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God.  And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.

I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois.  It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place.  And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come!  Come up to me!”

Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19: 11-12

[2] Matthew 17: 1-9

[3] Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.

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