Posts Tagged ‘community’

Glory Days–Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Thanks be to God for these glorious days.  What follows is the sermon from the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Glory Days”

Haggai 1:15b – 2:9

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

November 7th, 2010

Bruce Springsteen, that All-American icon of rock music, tells a story in his hit song, “Glory Days.”  He tells a story of a friend of his who was a big baseball player back in high school.  His fastball was so fast the batter was bound to look like a fool.  He saw his old friend the other night at a roadside bar.  He was walking in while his friend was walking out.  They went back inside, sat down, and had a few drinks.  But all his friend kept talking about was, “Glory days.”

Then there’s this girl that lives just up the block.  Back in school she could turn all the boys’ heads.  Sometimes on Fridays he stops by to have a few drinks after she has put her kids to bed.  Two years have gone by now since she and her husband Bobby split up.  Now she just sits around talking about the old times.  She says when she feels like crying she just distracts herself thinking about those, “Glory Days.”

Then we get the chorus.

Glory Days / well they’ll pass you by

Glory Days / in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory Days / Glory Days

I’ve had that song in my head all week.  It’s a great song, but a really depressing message.  It’s depressing, because it’s about people who are so stuck in the “glory days” of the past that they can’t live in the present or look forward to the future.

This is the context for our scripture passage today.  The Israelites, who have been granted the right to return to their homes after being exiled for about 50 years, are depressed.  They are disappointed.  They thought that once they returned to Jerusalem that they could rebuild their Temple, rebuild their community, rebuild their way of life and make everything exactly as it was before.  They thought they could go back to those good ole glory days.  But reality has now sunk in and they realize that nothing will ever be exactly as it was and that they simply can’t go back in time.   The glory days are just a distant memory now…a memory they might recall or sing about over a few drinks…but far from the reality of life as it really is.

Gosh, don’t you feel for them?  I do.  I understand that desire to go back in time.  I understand wishing you could recreate a time in your life when things were really great.  I mean, don’t we all do this?  When the pressures and stresses of adult life weigh heavy, we might reminisce about our childhood days, longing to go back to a time in life when things were simpler, when our parents took care of everything, when growing up safe, and strong, and healthy was our only job.  Or maybe we reminisce about our high school or college days; fun times hanging out with friends, first boyfriends or girlfriends, being the hot shot on the basketball team.  Or maybe it’s that precious time when your kids were little to which you wish you could return; that amazing time when they were so cute and cuddly and you could still control what they ate and what they wore.  Or maybe you’d just like to go back to a time when all your loved ones were alive and well, a time of life when you weren’t reminded each and every day that you are getting older and that life is just too darn short.

We human beings have long memories, and it is only natural to reminisce and wish, at times, that we could go back, that we could go back to those good ole’ glory days.  But the people of Israel did more than simply wish they could go back.  They had gotten stuck.  They had become immobilized by the desire to have what they simply could not have.  They wanted to rebuild the Temple.  But they wanted to rebuild it in such a way that they could return it to its former glory.  And when they realized that they couldn’t recreate the past, they gave up, went home, and spent their days reminiscing rather than really living.

This is when the prophet Haggai comes on the scene.  Haggai’s got one job and one job only; to get the people unstuck.  God’s given him about three and a half months to get the people moving again and living again.  He’s like the interim pastor whose assignment it is to help the people let go of the past, get unstuck, and get moving again rebuilding the Temple and their future together.  It’s quite an assignment.  Let’s listen to how he tackles it.

Speaking to Zerubbabel, the governor, and to Joshua, the high priest, and to the remnant of people who have returned from their exile, Haggai begins his prophetic work by saying, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Referring to the Temple that the people had abandoned, referring to the Temple that still lay in ruins because the people realized they couldn’t restore it to its former glory, Haggai basically says, “So how does this look to you now?  What do you make of this pile of rubble that is supposed to be God’s Temple?”  Haggai makes them take a good hard look at the present situation.  He focuses them on what is rather than on what was.  He makes them acknowledge the fact that they are stuck, that they are in grief, and that they need to do something about it.

One thing I have learned over the course of my years in ministry is that grief really needs to be honored.  We need to give our grief its due time and space and attention in order to work through it and move forward in spite of it.  If we don’t give our grief the time and attention it warrants, then it will arise later in a variety of complications such as physical stress or illness, emotional outbursts or depression, or in a Temple that lays in ruins because its people can’t let go of the past.

I remember discussing transitions a lot while in seminary.  I remember one time in particular, as I was concluding a year-long full-time internship, when my seminary had me meet with a special counselor to discuss how I was going to say goodbye to the people whom I had grown to love, to the space in which I worked and lived, to the whole experience in general.  This counselor advised me to be very intentional in my goodbyes.  To spend time recognizing who and what I was going to miss and to let myself feel the pain that inevitably comes when you have to leave someone or something behind.  It was great advice, because when we allow ourselves to feel the pain that accompanies grief, when we acknowledge it, and honor it, giving it the space and the attention it deserves, then (and only then) can we begin to heal and move on.

I have applied this advice a number of times in my ministry.  Ministry often leads you to some very painful goodbyes.  I will certainly be intentional in honoring my grief as I prepare to say my goodbyes to you.

So Haggai makes the people acknowledge their pain and their grief, he leads them to intentionally give their grief the time and attention it deserves.  But he doesn’t just leave them there.  He doesn’t just leave them in that place of intentional grieving.  No, like all great prophets, he then proceeds to move the people forward with inspiration and with an imaginative vision.

I have been preparing to teach the women’s circles a lesson on the book of Revelation tomorrow.  Their study is excellent this year as it teaches that the symbolic images and the extravagant visions recorded in our scriptures, the visions of the prophets and the visions of John in Revelation, are not to be understood literally.  Instead they are to engage our imaginations, to shake us out of all our stuck / closed places, to open us up, and to inspire us with courage and hope.  By tapping into our imaginations, then, these visions take us places we can’t go in a black and white world.  They take us and connect us to that which is deep, to that which is all-mysterious, to that which can only be creatively imagined.  These visions take us to God and they remind us that God is creatively and imaginatively at work on our behalf.

At the conclusion of our scripture today the prophet Haggai offers us one such vision.  Haggai paints a picture of God shaking the heavens and the earth… of God shaking all the nations, all the lands, all the seas…of God shaking all of creation and all of us creatures… of God shaking us out of our grief, and our despair, and our immobilized places….of God shaking the treasures loose… silver and gold, glory and splendor, love, and grace, beauty and hope.  God shakes and shakes and shakes until the treasures are unleashed, until the people are set free, until the glory of the Lord fills his holy Temple and his holy people.  And the prophet Haggai says, “Take courage!  Take courage!  Take courage!  And get to work rebuilding God’s Temple.  For the Lord of hosts is with you.  God’s Spirit abides among you.  Do not fear!  Treasures still abound.  Honor your grief, but move forward in faith, in the faith that shakes you loose and sets you free to embrace the glory days that lie ahead and to embrace the treasures of life that are yours today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.

Thanks be to God for prophets such as Haggai.  Thanks be to God for visions of hope that shake us loose, unleash God’s treasures, and set us free to move forward in faith.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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All Saints Sunday

Thanks be to God for all those who inspire us and encourage us in the faith. What follows is the sermon from All Saints’ Sunday.

“Hearing Voices”

Ephesians 3: 14 -18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 31st, 2010 – All Saints’ Sunday

Do you hear voices?  Sometimes I hear voices.

I hear the voice of BK giving me advice on how to raise multiple babies while insisting I take a jar of her strawberry jelly home to share.

I hear the voice of MV laughing and telling me ‘I told you so’ after her puppy, that I had insisted on holding, piddled on my lap.

I hear the voice of FM as she, in great detail, tells me how I might go about de-hairing a hog.

I hear the voice of DW as she tells me about the square dancing class where she and Mack first met.

I hear the voice of AS as she calls to me from across the sanctuary so she can get a chance to see and hold little baby Isaac.

I hear the voice of my childhood pastor advising me to stay real, to not get overly pious, and to not let the pulpit go to my head.

I hear the voices of authors and musicians whose words and whose music have inspired me over the years and made my heart sing.

I hear your voices as you have shared words of pain and heartache, words of challenge, words of love, and words of joy with me over these past five years together.

I hear the voices of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, of Paul, of Mary, and of Jesus when I read and contemplate our story and our covenant with God.

I hear voices.  I hear voices whenever I stop to remember and reflect on the fact that I am not alone, that I am a part of something much bigger than myself, that I have a community of faith.  The voices I hear are the voices of my saints; my community of past, present, and future; people in my life who have guided me, and shaped me, and made me who I am today.  These are my great cloud of witnesses who cheer me on as I persevere in this race of faith.

In the New Testament, the word “saints” is used as a title for all Christians. Saints are not just those revered few who have achieved uncommonly holy feats, but Christians young and old, living and departed, and even those who are still yet to be born.  Some churches make this saintly distinction clear in their opening call and response.  The preacher begins worship by saying, “Praise the Lord, saints!”  And you all would respond, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord!”  So we are all saints.  We are all followers of Christ and in this place we are reminded of our communion with each other.

In many churches, on either November 1st or the Sunday closest to November 1st, All Saints Day is celebrated.  Some churches celebrate by naming the members of the congregation who have died in the previous year.  Other churches, like ours, will light candles in honor or in memory of those who have inspired us and encouraged us in the faith.  To be clear, we are not worshipping our ancestors today, but instead we are proclaiming the good news that we are a part of a people, that we are a part of a community, and not individuals unto ourselves.  Our liturgical act of remembering a saint by lighting a candle helps us remember that the Christian life is not a solo endeavor, but one lived out in community—in a community that extends and exists even beyond our earthly realm.  We are a part of the people of God in life and in death.[1]

This past Wednesday I attended a memorial service for MWP at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church.  MW was the wife of GP, the pastor of Brownson Memorial.  She died at age 58 after a 10 year battle with ovarian cancer.  So, needless to say, the sanctuary was packed.  I arrived for the service 45 minutes early and had to take a seat in the back row of the balcony.  And while I was sitting, before the service even began (which was a beautiful service, by the way), I found myself feeling moved…I was moved by all the people gathered together in that space.  This is not a unique feeling for me.  I am always moved whenever a sanctuary is packed full.  I am always moved whenever I experience so many saints gathered together to remember, to worship, to celebrate, to commune.  It reminds me how expansive the community of faith, the communion of saints, really is.  And it helps me comprehend, as our passage from Ephesians says, the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  This is our inheritance, according to Ephesians.  The fullness of God and God’s love for us is represented well by a sanctuary full of people, and by the communion of saints past, present, and future.

The movie Dead Poet’s Society, starring Robin Williams, is one of my favorite movies because it is chock full of sermon illustrations.  I thought of one scene in particular this week that I wanted to share with you.  The story of this movie is set in New England at an elite, private high school for boys called Welton Academy.  Robin Williams plays a new and creative English teacher at the school named Mr. Keating.

On Mr. Keating’s first day of class he asks all of the boys to get up and follow him outside into the hall.  There they gather around a couple of glass cases full of tarnished trophies, school antiques, and yellowing old photographs of boys who years ago roamed the halls of Welton.

After he had gathered his class in front of these cases, Mr. Keating asked them to open their textbooks to a poem by 16th century poet Robert Herrick.  One of the boys read the poem out loud, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  “Carpe Diem,” Mr. Keating explained, it’s the Latin equivalent of, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  “Carpe Diem” Mr. Keating continued, or “Sieze the Day!” in English.

Then he asked all of the boys to gather up close to the glass so they could get a good look at the old photographs in the cases.  “Take a good look,” Mr. Keating said.  “Look at their faces.  You’ve walked by them many times, but you’ve probably never really looked at them.”  As the boys leaned in to look, Mr. Keating added, “They’re not that different from you are they?  And if you listen….if you listen real close…you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.  Go on, lean in,” Mr. Keating encouraged.  “Listen….do you hear it?”

Then from behind them he began to whisper…. “Carpe”…. “Carpe Diem”…. “Sieze the day boys.  Make your lives extraordinary!”

Today we gather around our communion table with saints of our past, present, and future.  We gather today to lean in and listen to those who have gone before us.  They have a message for us.  They are here to remind us of our inheritance, to call our attention to the treasures of life, and to represent the fullness of God and God’s love for us. Do you hear voices?  Sometimes I hear voices.  Thanks be to God for the communion of saints, for our great cloud of witnesses, gathered here among us today.

Now to the God who has led us all to this place, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Jenny Williams, “A Christian Memorial Day”, The Ekklesia Project, found on http://www.textweek.com

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World Communion Sunday

My congregation went high-tech yesterday for World Communion Sunday as we viewed a video of street musicians from all over the world performing the song “Stand By Me.”  Visit www.playingforchange.com to learn more about the folks who produced this video and watch it again here. .

Special thanks to my friend Elizabeth Michael for writing me a beautiful email from South Africa this week that became a major illustration in my sermon. It’s good to have preacher friends from whom you can “borrow.”  What follows is the sermon from World Communion Sunday.

“Serving and Being Served”

Acts 2: 43-47

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 3rd, 2010 – World Communion Sunday

You have always been so kind to oblige my creative and sometimes crazy ideas here in worship.  A few World Communion Sundays ago, I decided to change things up a bit and have you serve each other in the pews by passing baskets full of broken bread and little pottery cups of juice in which you would dip your bread.  I thought the idea was a liturgical masterpiece.  One of you described it as a disaster waiting to happen.  Which, I will admit, it was.  When I first thought of the idea, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to hold, and pass, and dip and serve, without spilling bread and juice all over the sanctuary carpet.  But you were patient and willing and careful and so it worked.  It remains my most favorite World Communion Sunday memory because it beautifully symbolized what Holy Communion and community are all about….serving and being served.

In our scripture passage for today we are reminded of the ideal to which all Christian communities strive.  Acts 2 describes a community of faith in which all things were held in common.  They shared everything.  No one would go without because whenever someone was in need someone was quickly there with a loaf of bread, or a cup of juice, or a little extra cash, or an offer to care for the children so some much-needed work could get done.  It was a community that sought the goodwill of all people by serving and being served.  It was Holy Communion that saved people each and every day.

Today, our understanding of Christian community has grown.  No longer are we a small group of apostles with a handful of followers gathering in a single home.  Now we are a global community that stretches from one end of the earth to the other.  In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  In today’s global community, these words ring true and remind us of the power of God’s love to find us and know us no matter where in the world we might go.

Many of you know and remember my pastor friend, Elizabeth Michael, who has been here a couple of times to preach.  Recently Elizabeth was offered a wonderful honor to be the guest preacher for the General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.  A few years ago, before Elizabeth graduated from seminary, she spent a summer internship serving a Presbyterian Church in Johannesburg, South Africa and apparently Elizabeth made a good impression, because when the pastor of that church was elected the new moderator of their South African denomination, he invited Elizabeth to be their preacher for their week-long assembly.

Over the past year or so Elizabeth and I have been talking about this series of sermons she would preach.  As you might imagine, the whole thing made her incredibly anxious as she struggled to discern what to preach, how to preach, and how she might speak a relevant and inspiring word to brothers and sisters in the faith, yes, but brothers and sisters who live in a completely different culture, with different issues and different desires.

Well, Elizabeth just returned from this fantastic trip and while she was there she managed to send me an email describing her experience.  I want to share with you a little of what she wrote.  Elizabeth writes, “I am here as a guest of my friend George Marchinkowski, who on Saturday was installed as the moderator of the General Assembly.  I feel like a White House intern who has stumbled into the Oval Office and been invited to stay for a week!  The moderator is a highly esteemed position here, complete with fancy robes, a huge ring, and plenty of pomp and circumstance—there are actually a few people who bow or curtsy each time he enters the assembly hall!  Like the president at the State of the Union, the moderator is announced before entering the hall for each session, and people stand and wait for him and his party to process in.  You would all laugh (I laugh myself!) to see me processing in with the five most prestigious people of this denomination.  (Don’t worry…so far no one is bowing or curtsying when I enter a room!)

“Today was the third day of the assembly,” Elizabeth continues, “but only the first of the five mornings that I will preach.  I think the sermon went ok today…but I still have great anxiety about the task.  One of the greatest gifts of my time here [though] has been getting to know one particular minister and former moderator of the assembly.  His name is Rod Botsis, and he is a wise and kind pastor from Cape Town.  He is serving as the moderator’s chaplain for the next two years, which means he is there to assist George in whatever he needs.  Thankfully, one of his responsibilities is also to care for me!  He has assisted me in planning the worship services (prays the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard) and has waited on me hand and foot, bringing me tea in the mornings and leaving small presents at my dinner place along with notes of great encouragement.  I am so humbled to watch a person of such power and influence [in this country] behave as such a humble servant.  Rod is just one of many examples of the way I have been met with overwhelming hospitality and graciousness.  This whole experience has reminded me of the verse from Ephesians, where the author prays that the recipients might ‘have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, just how high and wide and deep and long’ the love of God is.”

In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  Our understanding of Christian community has grown.  We are a global community, extending God’s love from one end of the earth to the other.  We are a global community that gathers Sunday in and Sunday out in order to serve and be served.

I mentioned earlier that the World Communion Sunday when I asked you to pass and hold and dip in such treacherous fashion was one of my most favorite communion memories.  I won’t do it to you again, I promise, but it did work because it forced all of us to slow down, to take care in passing the elements, and to help each other out.  We lived out our calling to serve and be served in that one single meal together.

I distinctly remember sitting and watching you all passing the bread and the little, slippery cups of juice, and (I’m going to pick on BP here) for some reason poor Brandon got both the basket of bread and the cup of juice at the same time.  With both hands full it wasn’t possible for Brandon to dip and eat.  So what does Brandon do?  He looks up, and just loud enough for the people around him to hear, he says, “Help!”

And within an instant helping hands arrived, hands of grace, hands of love, hands of humble servants ready to help Brandon eat and drink.  The communion service continued (without a hitch) and we were all reminded of our Christian calling to serve and be served in a place and a community where the risen Christ is close enough to taste.

World Communion Sunday is a wonderful occasion reminding all of us how far God’s love stretches.  World Communion Sunday is also a wonderful reminder of our Christian call to service and our Christian call to community where we will be served by a living Christ embodied in hands that offer us love and hope in the form of bread and juice.

Now to the God who unites all of us in this fellowship of love, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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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

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Third Sunday of Easter

I ought to know better.  I ought to know and trust that God is going to show up whether I have a sermon I feel good about or not.

Both of my children had surgery this week to put tubes in their ears.  This family event, along with an unexpected funeral, threw my sermon writing off-kilter this week.  Pastors often have weeks like this, weeks that lead you to climb into the pulpit praying a little harder than usual that God will speak through you in spite of the mess that is your sermon manuscript.  This week I was praying that the congregation would forgive my terribly written transitions and my boring illustrations and just listen for God’s Word in spite of it all, in spite of me.  And they did.  A number of people in my gracious congregation even told me afterwards what a good sermon it was.  Which kind of fits my concluding point to this Sunday’s sermon.  That it is the community of faith that nurtures us and encourages us while we pursue our call.  Thanks, church, for being such a good church!  And thank you, God, for showing up in spite of me and in spite of the week I had.

What follows is the sermon from the third Sunday of Easter.

“Our Call”

Acts 9:1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

April 18th, 2010 – Third Sunday of Easter

One of the greatest joys of being a minister is listening to people share the stories of their faith.  I love to hear how God is at work in your lives.  I love to hear where you are in your faith journey.  I love to hear how and where and to what God is calling you.  In fact, many of the faith stories I hear are stories of call, stories about how God is calling you or beckoning you down a certain path or in a new direction and how you respond to that call.

Some of these stories of call that I have heard are very dramatic.  I remember one woman telling me about a vision she had while casually observing a tree outside her window.  The tree abnormally grew very dark and black before her eyes and then suddenly burst into a great shining light.  After reflecting on this vision, the woman decided it was God’s way of telling her she needed to make some big changes in her life.  So she gave up everything and entered seminary in order to pursue a life as a minister. Another woman I met told me a story about how during a group meditation I was leading the risen Christ came to sit next to her, gently held her hand, and spoke to her about the peace he desired for her and for her life.

Other stories of call that I have heard are less dramatic, but still equally valid.  I’ve often heard people tell me that they simply had a feeling that they were supposed to call and check on an old friend.  And when they did, they discovered that that old friend really needed an encouraging word that day.  I’ve also heard a busy father tell me that God had been working in his life and calling upon him to spend more time with his children.  So he ended up cutting down on his hours at work and dedicating more time to his family.

I love hearing such stories of call because they reveal that Christ is alive and working in our lives and in our hearts.  I also love hearing these stories because it is a wonderful part of our faith tradition to share them.  Our faith stories bear witness to the living God among us.  Our faith stories also connect us to our brothers and sisters of the Old and New Testaments who shared their stories to bear witness to the living God who was at work in their lives as well.

Paul’s familiar story of his experience on the road to Damascus is just one of these many wonderful stories from our tradition.  This story of Paul’s is often called his “conversion story,” but Paul himself would probably refer to it as the story of his call.  As a faithful Jew, Paul was very familiar with the stories of God’s call to Abraham and Moses, and to the prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos.  Paul considered himself to be called by God just like these prophets.  In his letter to the Galatians Paul describes his Damascus road experience as a moment when “God who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”[1]

Paul’s story of call certainly could be classified as one of the more dramatic. God hit Paul hard and fast.  He got the bright light, the vision, and the voice that called him by his Hebrew name, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”   To which Paul responds, “Who are you, Lord?”  And the answer shocks him.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul thought he had been doing everything right.  Paul thought that his persecution of the Christians was what God had called him to do in order to preserve the Jewish Law.  But, as it turned out, God was calling him to a different role.  God was calling him to be a prophet for Christ.

We have to give Paul credit, I believe, for the way he embraced this radical change and this radical new call.  Luke portrays him here as immediately submissive.  He is struck blind, but he doesn’t protest.  He doesn’t cry out.  He doesn’t complain about what is happening to him or ask God to find someone else.  Instead, he allows himself to be led by the hand, blind and vulnerable, into Damascus.  Boy, if only I could follow so obediently.  If only I could handle change like that.

One of the common threads of all the stories of call that I have heard is the thread of change.  Every call from God seems to lead us to some sort of change.  God calls us to leave the old behind and embrace the new.  God calls us to take on a new role or a new task.  God calls us to change something about our attitude.  God calls us to change something about the way we are currently living our lives.  Every call seems to lead to change.  And once again, sometimes these changes are dramatic and sometimes not so dramatic.

You’ve already heard the changes to which God’s call led the people in my earlier illustrations.  The woman who had the vision of the tree decided it was time to change the direction of her life and career by entering seminary.  The father who had felt God calling him to spend more time with his family changed his schedule, cut back on a few things, and began to spend more time with his children.  And Paul, well Paul changed his whole perspective of faith, which led to him changing his whole life.

These changes were pretty dramatic.  But God does not always call us to such dramatic change.  Sometimes the change to which God calls us is simply a change in our attitude. In her prayer entitled, “A Disciple’s Prayer,” Joyce Rupp writes about our common calling of being an instrument of God’s love no matter whether love is what we are feeling at the moment or not.  She writes, “How easy to believe that I am an instrument of your love when my life is going well, O God.  How difficult to believe this when my life seems to be going nowhere, or is filled with many concerns and activities that wear me out.  Yet, you greatly desire to proclaim your goodness through every part of my life, no matter what the situation is.”

Ms. Rupp prays to be faithful to God’s call to be an instrument of love in spite of the fact that her life is not going well.  “I do not need to have good feelings in order to be an instrument of your love” she prays.  “I do not need to always feel satisfied with what I am attempting to be and to do in order to be a disciple of yours.  It is the intention of my heart that makes the difference.”  She concludes her prayer by embracing the simple attitude change to which God is calling her by saying, “I give myself to your cause.  I place my heart in yours and enter as fully as I can into your loving embrace.”[2]

God’s call always seems to lead us to change, even small changes such as a change in our attitude.  But no matter whether God calls us to a big, life-altering change or a little attitude change, change is scary, unwanted, and uncomfortable.  So instead of embracing God’s call and following it, oftentimes we will avoid it, or run away from it.

I remember the woman who experienced the risen Christ sitting next to her during the guided meditation I was leading.  This woman’s life had been pulling her in so many different directions that to simply sit still for a short meditation and a time of quiet was a rare gift.  In her vision Christ seemed to be telling her that he desired more peace in her life.  I desired this for her too because I knew how many committees she was serving on, how many extracurricular activities in which she was involved, and how frazzled and worn down she was by her busy life.  I had hoped that Christ calling her to find more peace in her life would have encouraged her to make some changes, just some small changes, or different choices, so she could spend more time in quiet meditation, so she could spend more time with Christ and find some peace.  But I guess change didn’t really seem possible to her, or comfortable.  As far as I know she continues to lead a busy, frazzled life.  As far as I know, she continues to run from her calling.

I think my favorite part of the story of Paul’s call on the road to Damascus is the way it concludes.  Being struck blind by his vision, Paul’s companions need to lead him by the hand the rest of the way into Damascus.  Then God sends him a disciple, Ananias, to bless him, to bless his new calling, and to welcome him to the Christian community of faith.  I like this ending because it reveals how it is the community of faith, or the church, that guides us and nurtures us in our call.  It is the community of faith that calls upon us to pay attention to the ways in which God is leading us.  And it is the community of faith that encourages us, sustains us, and guides us as we follow God’s call and face the changes that come with it.

I believe we American Christians, with all our emphasis on individualism and individual freedom, can learn a lot from societies, both contemporary and ancient, that place a strong emphasis on community.  In monastic communities, men and women who have felt called to leave the world behind and dedicate their lives to prayer and study, worship and service live together in community.  The life of a monk or a nun is a quiet one, with lots of time alone with God, lots of time for prayer and reflection.  But, these monastics always make a point of gathering with the community at various points during the day.  Even the most disciplined monks and nuns, or those who have felt called to live alone as a hermit in some bleak and rugged cave in the middle of the desert or the middle of a forest somewhere, even these solitary souls regularly make their way back to the monastic community for worship and communion.  Why, we might ask?  Why this emphasis on community? Well, because they believe that faith can only be nurtured in community.  Living in isolation, living without the faith community, our faith becomes whatever we want it to become, not whatever God wants it to become.  Living in community, our faith and our sense of call are nurtured by a group of believers seeking the faithful path together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German pastor and theologian, wrote in his book entitled Life Together, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.  He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word.”

God knew Paul’s call needed to be nurtured and encouraged within the community.  So he was led, blind and vulnerable to Damascus and to Ananias.  Paul was led to the community to seek his faithful path.

So, as we gather today to seek our faithful path and to listen for God’s call in the midst of community, let me close with some questions for reflection.

To what is God calling you today?

To whom is God calling you today?

Where does God desire you to go?

What changes will you need to embrace to get you there?

And how can we help you follow this calling?

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Galatians 1: 15-16

[2] Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, (Ave Maria Press, 2000).

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