Trust Jesus and Elvis | Second Sunday in Easter (Year C)

The following sermon is by Susan Sparks via Day1.org Recently, I returned from a trip to the holy land ... Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Memphis is holy land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their BBQ. Now, for those of you who are not Southerners, please understand BBQ is a holy thing. In fact, it is part of what we call the southern trinity: BBQ, Basketball and the Bible. Memphis is known for their BBQ, especially their ribs. As my neighbor used to say, "Good ribs would make an angel weep."

Now BBQ is not the only reason Memphis is considered holy land. The primary reason, of course, is because it is the home of Elvis.

While we were in Memphis, we visited Sun Records, where Elvis recorded his first song. In the studio, there was an "X" marked on the floor with duct tape indicating the exact spot where Elvis stood. The tour guide told us that just the week before, Bob Dylan had come into the studio, said not a word to anyone, walked over to the "X," got down on all fours, kissed it and walked out. For many, Elvis has reached an almost holy status.

In fact, there has been studies on the parallels between Jesus and Elvis, most notably by the renown scholar (and standup comedian) Adam Sandler. He explains:

Jesus said: "Love thy neighbor." (Matthew 22:39); Elvis said: "Don't be cruel." (RCA, 1956)

Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis' first band was a trio.

Jesus is the Lord's shepherd; Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.

Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans, have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith....

Like any good pilgrims, we took time on our Memphis trip to visit the shrine of Graceland. There was the great welcome sign--a twenty-five foot high Elvis saying "Welcome to the Blingdom!" And after the requisite photographs, we got in line for tickets. As we were waiting, I turned to one of the tour guides and asked, "So, how long did Elvis actually live here?" There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, "We don't use the past tense here." She then pointed at her t-shirt, which read: "Graceland, where Elvis LIVES."

It didn't matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-two years ago. It didn't matter. She didn't care. Elvis fans don't care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby. The King lives.

It's a shame we don't all live our lives with that kind of faith. I'm afraid that most of us tend more towards the disciple Thomas than the tour guide at Graceland.

Our scripture today is the familiar story of doubting Thomas. There we find the disciples locked up behind closed doors after Jesus' crucifixion. And Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw him, the disciples rejoiced. But Thomas was not there at the time. When the other disciples later told Thomas about it, he said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger ... in his side, I will not believe." A week later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. When he put his hand in Jesus' side--he knew.

"My Lord and my God," said Thomas.

Jesus then said to him, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

We've all heard this story before. More importantly, we've all lived it. We've all had times in our lives where we've doubted, where we have said to God, "Show me a sign! Give me some proof!" Maybe it was because we were in a place of unbearable pain, or a time we faced hardship with no answers, a time when God seemed silent. We have all been at that point where, like Thomas, we yearned for a sign from God.

And why not? We live in a world where "proof" trumps faith. We send robots with cameras to the farthest ends of the universe so we can know for sure what's out there. We won't believe an assertion until a complicated mathematical equation says it's true. And anytime--anytime--there is a wall bearing a sign "wet paint," we will touch it just to be sure.

If only we could have the faith of Elvis fans, a faith driven not by empirical proof, but by the voice in our hearts. Finding that kind of faith can change our lives. For when you believe something in your heart, you begin to act it in your life.

Look at Elvis fans. They not only believe he lives, they act like he lives. For example, they are constantly looking for Elvis. The Bible says seek and ye shall find. Well, Elvis fans follow that to a tee. They are constantly looking for the King. And, sometimes, they find him. There have been Elvis sightings all over the world--from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she found the image of Elvis in a taco shell.

If only we'd put even 1% of that kind of energy towards looking for Jesus, we might actually find him too. Maybe we'd find him in the eyes of a little child or the downcast gaze of a homeless stranger. Maybe we'd find him in the face of an enemy or the tears of a loved one with whom we are fighting. If you believe he lives, you'll act like he lives. You'll look for him and you'll find him.

Another thing--Elvis fans believe he lives, so they look for others who believe as well, like through Elvis fan clubs. I heard a story on the Graceland tour about a woman who was in a fan club called "Taking Care of Business." She had to have major surgery and afterwards received hundreds of cards and letters from "Elvis friends" all over the world. We Christians can learn something from this. Community is what gives us strength, support and focus in times we most need it. Finding families of faith is what helps us keep our faith. If you believe he lives, you'll look for others who believe as well.

Here's a third example, and probably the most important. Because they believe he lives, Elvis fans go out into in the world and share his message. They play Elvis' music; they dress up as Elvis impersonators; they decorate their homes with Elvis memorabilia. One of my favorite things at the Graceland gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler. It was a foot-high plastic Elvis in a sequin jumpsuit, and as he watered your yard, he would swivel his hips. Whether through word or music, impersonators or sprinklers, Elvis fans proudly proclaim the message of the King.

This provides an interesting contrast to the disciples. Before Jesus appeared in their midst, the book of John tells us that the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors. They weren't looking for Jesus. They weren't going around looking for other believers. They weren't out in the world preaching the word. They weren't proclaiming the message of the King. They were hidden in fear, locked away in shame because they didn't believe he lived.

I'm afraid that many of us live a similar existence; a life with little or no faith in the risen Christ, our hearts locked up and closed away.

A young woman on the tour told a story about how she grew up listening to Elvis. Sadly, she lived through an abusive childhood, but she talked about how she used daydreams of Elvis as an escape. "He was my safe space," she said, "my little corner of heaven." Because she believed he lived, she honored him in her heart and that enabled her to find peace in the hardest of places.

If only we would open our hearts to Jesus in the same way. When we honor the risen Christ in our hearts, we have our own safe space, our own little corner of heaven in which to rest and to heal.

If you believe he lives--you'll act like he lives. And Jesus' message is certainly a message of action. Elvis apparently felt the same way. For Elvis said early in his career, "Music and religion are similar--because both should make you wanna move."

The gospel is a living, vibrant force that should make us want to get out and move, move around in the world, move towards each other in love and compassion, move towards bringing in the kingdom--or the blingdom--or whatever.

I want a religion that makes me wanna move.

I want a savior that makes me wanna put on a sequin jump suit and sing.

I want to believe in a Jesus that lives.

Don't let the doubts and fears of life shake your belief. Don't let your faith be driven by anything but the voice of your heart. Remember: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." For if we believe he lives, our lives will change. We will search for and find him; we will proclaim his message; we will honor his spirit with ours.

Sometime this week, find a quiet moment, ask yourself, "Do you believe?" From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come: He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives.

Please join me in prayer.

God of all things good, barbequed ribs, basketball, Elvis and Jesus, ease our troubled hearts and calm our doubts and fears. Bring us faith so that we might act like a follower of your Son, and always, always, whisper daily the words we need to hear in our hearts, "He lives! The King lives." Amen.

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

The Prophet Mary | Sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor | Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C)

The following is one of my favorite sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is based off of the gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (John 12:1-8). Enjoy! Today we are headed to a home in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany, where Jesus stopped in to see his old friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus before he entered the city for the last time. He loved them, John tells us, although he does not tell us why. Maybe there is no "why" to love. They called him Lord, so they knew who he was, and yet they were not his disciples, at least not in any formal sense. They were his friends, the three people in whose presence he could be a man as well as a Messiah.

Just days before, Jesus had worked a miracle at their house. He had been across the river when the sisters' urgent message reached him. "Lord," it read, "he whom you love is ill." So he had come to them, knowing full well it was too late. Lazarus was so dead that he stank, so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept. Then he roared so loud at death that he scared death away. While the sisters tried to decide whether to run away too, their brother Lazarus came stumbling from his tomb, trailing his shroud behind him like a used cocoon.

Now Jesus has come back to Bethany with the temple posse hot on his trail. By raising Lazarus from the dead he has graduated from the category of "manageable nuisance" to "serious threat." News of the incident has sent his followers over the top. There is not a chance Pilate is going to ignore them during the Passover festival. It is time for Jesus to be disappeared before he leads hundreds to their deaths. So his days are numbered and he knows it. When he arrives at his friends' house in Bethany, they can see it on his face.

So they take him in and care for him, shutting the world out for this one night at least. Lazarus is still clumsy from his four days in the tomb. He sits and stares while Martha makes a stew. Mary, meanwhile, has slipped away, gone to find something in her room. Martha is used to this. Mary is always disappearing, even when she is sitting right there with everyone else. She gets this look on her face, like she's listening to music no one else can hear. Martha knows there is nothing to be done but to work around her, being careful to reel Mary in when she drifts too far.

Finally, supper is on the table and they all sit down to eat, saying what they hope and hiding what they fear. Lazarus sits near his friend Jesus, unaware of the trade that has occurred. Jesus was safe across the river, beyond the reach of his enemies. By returning to Bethany, he has traded his life for the life of his friend. Funny, huh? The recently deceased Lazarus of Bethany will outlive the savior Jesus of Nazareth.

No one notices that Mary has gone again until she comes back holding a clay jar in her hands. Wordless, she kneels at Jesus' feet and breaks the jar's neck. The smell of spikenard fills the room--sharp scent halfway between mint and ginseng. Then, as everyone in the room watches her, she does four remarkable things in a row.

First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus' feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe--people do that to kings--but not the feet. Then she touches him--a single woman rubbing a single man's feet--also not done, not even among friends. Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair--totally inexplicable--the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.

Most of us are so moved by the scene that we overlook its eccentricities, or else we don't care. The point is that she loved him, right? Right. But we also confuse this account with three others in the Bible--one each from Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the first two, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus' head at the house of Simon the Leper during the last week of his life. In the third story, the scene happens at Simon the Pharisee's house, much earlier in Jesus' ministry. There Jesus is eating supper when a notorious sinner slips into the room and stands weeping over his feet, then drops to the ground to cover them with kisses before rubbing them with oil of myrrh.

Only in John's version of the story does the woman have a name-Mary--and a relationship with Jesus--not a stranger, not a notorious sinner, but his long-time friend--which makes her act all the more peculiar. He knows she loves him. He loves her too. So why this public demonstration, this odd pantomime in front of all their friends? It's extravagant. It's excessive. She's gone overboard, as Judas is quick to note.

"Why wasn't this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?" That's what Judas wants to know, but Jesus brushes him aside.

"Leave her alone," he says. "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me"--which is

about as odd a thing for him to say as what Mary did. Here is the champion of the poor, always putting their needs ahead of his, suddenly reversing course. Leave her alone. Leave me alone. Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.

Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever anyone else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God--not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance--Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard--wasn't it left over from Lazarus' funeral?--and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt about whose death it was, Mary's prophetic act revealed the truth.

She was anointing Jesus for his burial, and while her behavior may have seemed strange to those standing around, it was no more strange than that of the prophets who went before her--Ezekiel eating the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him (Ezekiel 2), or Jeremiah smashing the clay jar to show God's judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19), or Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations (Isaiah 20). Prophets do things like that. They act out. They act out the truth that no one else can see, and those standing around either write them off as nuts or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.

When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way. She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king. But she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing. The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it. "Leave her alone," he said to those who would have prevented her. Let her finish delivering the message.

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy. There will be nothing economical about this man's death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God's love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God's mercy is made manifest.

This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, offered and used, at great price. It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop. Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time. At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will strip, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples' feet. Then he will give them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you.

At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind. But a few will watch him working on their feet and remember Mary bending over his feet like that--the prophet Mary--who knew how to respond to Jesus without being told, the one who acted out his last, new commandment before he ever said it. Remembering her may help them leave him alone while he finishes delivering his message.

At home in Bethany, the storm clouds are still piling up against the door when Mary gives the forecast: it will be bad, very bad, but that's no reason for Jesus' friends to lock their hearts and head to the cellar. Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around. Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over. There is no reason to fear running out--of nard or of life either one--for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine--gifts from our lavish, lavish Lord.

Amen.

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

A Beautiful Defiance | Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent (Year C)

The following sermon was preached Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Lent (Year C). At two points throughout the sermon, seven readers repeat the Psalm and stand up from the various positions in the congregation. Many thanks to the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia for inspiration for this sermon. It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a very long journey. And on top of that, they had no idea where it would end up. As a community, they had a vague understanding of what it would represent. But how it would be constructed and what it would look like was anybody's' guess.

One thing, however, was understood by everyone: this was not going to be the task of one person or even a few. No, this journey could only be traveled with the entire community. That was, simply, the only way that this would be brought to life and the journey completed.

And so it began. At a church-wide retreat in autumn of 2006, each person of the community - male, female, young and old, alike - was taught how to fold a small paper crane. But this was not to be only an exercise in mere physical dexterity or artistic expression; rather, it was above all to be a spiritual practice in the power of prayer. Each small paper crane was created with a prayer upon the lips of its creator. Each paper had on it a prayer for a specific member of the community. Others still had general prayers for peace and wholeness for a world in need of God's goodness.

But one weekend retreat was simply not going to be enough. Therefore, a small group of congregants began to assemble bags to be distributed to everyone in the community. Each bag contained several sheets of paper of various vibrant colors, a list of names and prayer concerns, and instructions for how to fold.

And so it continued, for months the congregation folded and prayed, prayed and folded. After well over a year, throughout the cramps and the paper cuts, the congregation had almost completed this incredible, multi-colored, flying prayers of the people.

In what must have been a laborious and painstaking process, the cranes were strung up on fishing wire. Each strand of cranes was then fixed to a trefoil shaped trinitarian symbol made by a congregant and hung from the ceiling of the historic, wooden sanctuary.

If you look at the end of your pew, you will find a couple of pictures of the end result.

What you are looking at is a piece of liturgical art made by the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. This also so happens to be the congregation that our guest today, Michael Morgan, has served for the past forty years as organist.

Like you all here at Silver Creek, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have become a second family to me. As such, Central has become my "default" church when I don't have Sunday responsibilities elsewhere. Now I haven't been there in some time because I been blessed to be with you all for the past five months.

And while they might look very different from this community, y'all are very similar because like you all, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have been and are indeed at this very moment going through some difficult transitions. And like you all have been inspiring me for the past five months, they too have inspired me with their courage and faithful expression of the gospel.

From the first moment I laid eyes upon their flying, color-filled prayers of the people, I was hooked. Each Sunday, it seemed, I was captivated by the soaring cranes in different ways; each Sunday it struck me differently.

One Sunday, I would look upon the explosion of color and be fascinated by the fact that this "Wing and a Prayer" (as they took to calling it) was both incredibly communal while at the same time being intensely individual; the sea of color represented the collective prayer of the community by each individual contributing one or several particular prayers.

Another Sunday, I would marvel at the sheer amount of time and effort that it took, as an entire community, to pray this prayer. One Sunday, I decided to crunch some numbers and learned that there is an estimated 2,500 cranes which hover above the congregation. Assuming that each crane took five minutes to fold, that means that the congregation spent well over 208 hours folding these cranes. And that's not even to mention the time that was spent planning it and putting it together. So many Sundays I simply would gaze in the air, getting a crick in my neck, marveling at the commitment that this community had to create this prayer.

However, one Sunday (in fact, I believe it was the Sunday immediately before I began my time with you all in October), I was sitting directly beneath this holy, hovering work of art. It had been a rough week for me. I don't remember exactly why but I was, that morning, feeling discouraged, dismayed, and...dislocated. The wilderness of the world was taking its toll on me and the color of the cranes contrasted to the dreary grey of my heart.

I looked up, straining my neck to fit all of the thousands of cranes into my gaze. And that morning, I saw something new. I saw a beautiful defiance. I thought to myself, how dare we hoist such a beautiful prayer in the midst of such a wilderness? What right do we have to pray in beautiful color when the world at times seems to throw nothing but darkness and grey our way? Who are we that we sing such a gorgeous song to God when we see another school shooting, another church split, another worker laid off, another person executed, another person sleeping on the streets?

But for some reason, in that moment, I did not attempt to answer that question (to be rather blunt, I don't know if I could if I tried). I did not attempt to understand why we have such confidence, such beautiful defiance, in the face of such a wilderness; I simply gazed at the thousands of colors dancing above me... and marveled at the fact that we do.

Stephen: The Lord is my light and my salvation! Reader 1: whom shall I fear? Reader 2: The Lord is the stronghold of my life; Reader 1: of whom shall I be afraid? Reader 3: When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh - Reader 2: my adversaries and foes - they shall stumble and fall. Reader 4: Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; Reader 1: though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident! Reader 5: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: Reader 3: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, Reader 2: to behold the beauty of the Lord, Reader 4: and to inquire in his temple. Reader 6: For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; Reader 1: he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; Reader 5: he will set me high on a rock. Reader 7: Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me. Reader 3: and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy! All: I will sing and make melody to the Lord!

I will sing and make melody to the Lord. It's beautiful. And what I think makes this statement even more beautiful is the fact that the verses before it do not attempt to gloss over the difficulties of the wilderness. In fact, the Psalmist is quite specific. Evildoers assail him. They are devouring his flesh. An army is encamping against her and she is a victim of war. The Psalmist gives voice to the wilderness in which you and I find ourselves and does not beat around the bush.

But as I was talking with Michael Morgan this week, he pointed out to me that each statement of woe, each cry of distress, is coupled by an even stronger statement of courage and defiance. The grey of the wilderness is matched by the colorful hope of the him who has steadfast trust in the goodness of the Lord. The one who is traversing the land of the wilderness is singing her praise to the God who she knows will join her in the land in the living.

And because of this they sing. And we sing. For the Lord is our light and our salvation, our stronghold of our very lives; of whom shall we be afraid?

And because of this steadfast confidence, this beautiful defiance, we dare to hoist our prayers to the God who hears our every cry.

Stephen: Hear, O Lord, why I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! Reader 7: "Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Reader 6: Your face, Lord, do I seek. Reader 5: Do not hide your face from me. Reader 4: Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Reader 3: Do not cast me off, Reader 2: Do not forsake me, Reader 1: O God of my salvation! Reader 7: Teach me your way, O Lord Reader 6: and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. Reader 5: Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, Reader 4: for false witnesses have risen against me, Reader 3: and they are breathing out violence. Reader 2: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Readers 1,3: Wait for the Lord! Readers 4,5: be strong! Readers 6,7: and let your heart take courage; All: wait for the Lord!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Friends, this passage is a beautiful testament to the defiance of proclaiming the beauty of God despite the wilderness in which we know find ourselves. In fact, perhaps the Psalmist is telling us that it is not in despite of the wilderness, but rather precisely because of it that we are called to show defiant confidence in God, our help in ages past. The colors of this psalm shatter into the monotony of the wilderness, into the grey of our struggles, our splits, our sins. Even in the wilderness, the beauty of God, the goodness of God, is to be proclaimed.

Now here I must admit that I would be neglecting my responsibilities as a preacher if I didn't acknowledge that perhaps there are some of you who have not always seen the goodness of God. I can think of times in my life (fairly recently actually) when the goodness of God has failed to be seen by my eyes, felt by my hands, and received in my heart.

In fact, perhaps some of you, even this day, are not in a place where you can see the goodness of God in the land of the living. Perhaps some of you are praying that faithful and honest prayer to God: "I believe, help my unbelief!"

I'm here to tell you this day that that's ok. It's alright if you cannot, at this very moment, believe the goodness of God. It's alright if these words of confident trust stick in your throat.

This Psalm tells us that the goodness of God does not depend on our belief in it. God's goodness is present in the land of the wilderness no less that it is in the land of the living.

In fact, if you this day cannot believe in the beautiful goodness of God, if you one day find yourself lacking the energy to hoist up one prayer to God, be strong, and let your heart take courage for you are in a community that will do that for you.

And so, together, we are strengthened by the Spirit to continue our journey as a community. Holding up one another as God has called us to do, we will continue this long and winding road to the cross where we trust that we will see the goodness of the Lord...in the land of the living. And on this road, there is one thing that we ask: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of our life and to behold the beauty of the Lord.

Friends, I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!

I believe that you and I will soon gaze upon the sight of that empty tomb.

But for now...in this wilderness...let us defiantly proclaim the goodness of God for we have never needed it more.

And until then...while you wait for the Lord...be strong...and let your heart take courage for I believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Amen.

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

Holy Ground | A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

This sermon was first preached at First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia on August 28th, 2011. Exodus 3:1-15 also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary in the Season after Pentecost (Proper 17). “Holy Ground”

Exodus 3:1-15 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ God said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

…He just didn’t see it coming. And let’s be realistic with each other - would you? Would I? In just the previous chapter Moses had committed an act of the utmost evil: he killed a person. That’s right, this young Hebrew man, who would go on to serve as the vehicle for God’s earth-shattering, reality-altering emancipation of the Israelites, was a murderer. A fugitive from both God and Pharaoh, Moses flees to the land of Midian where he finds a lovely wife and has resigned himself to the simple life of a shepherd. Those days by the Nile are sufficiently behind him. He has escaped that messy situation in Egypt and has found his niche in life. This morning begins like any other, as he gathers his staff and takes his sheep into the wilderness. The simplicity of the moment is a pleasant reminder of his “comfortable” life, a life in which he is quite content to exist the rest of his days.

But how foolish these hopes turn out to be! The author of this text reminds us of this by inserting what I find to be a rather cleverly-placed verse immediately before today’s lectionary passage. You see, right before today’s passage and right after the mention of Moses’ new wife and son, the author of the text slips these verses in the midst of this seemingly “happy” ending: in verse 23 of the second chapter, we read that “after a long time…the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out…God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Just when Moses was getting comfortable, just when he had resigned himself to a life of simplicity and normalcy, God takes notice. God takes notice of a dysfunctional social reality that is in need of being changed. And if there is one thing we, as a worshiping community can say for sure, it is that we have never worshiped a God who has ever been satisfied with the status quo. And so it is at this point that we find ourselves standing in the sand next to our friend Moses who has perfected the art of the status quo. But this sand, this earthen floor, is no generic foundation. No, it is something entirely different. So different, in fact, that God reminds Moses (and ourselves!) to remove the sandals from our feet, because the place on which we are standing is holy ground! …Holy ground.

So what is this text saying to us here and now? What is it, exactly, that makes this ground, right here beneath our feet at this very moment, so holy? Is it the fact that we come together as a community to worship God in this beautiful sanctuary? No, for Moses is standing in no structure built by human hands. Is it the fact that we have come here today to follow God’s commission? No, that can’t be it either because we can be fairly sure that Moses awoke that morning with no intention other than to watch a flock of sheep. So what is it that makes this ground holy?

I have found that the revised common lectionary is a helpful tool when pondering the mysteries of these fruitful (if sometimes elusive!) passages. Often the different lectionary readings for each Sunday will speak to and with each other and it is often helpful for ourselves, as readers and engagers of these texts, to join in the conversation. Today’s gospel passage comes from the book of Matthew and we find ourselves standing next to Peter, a character with whom I have always shared a fond connection. However, this passage is not exactly the shining moment of his career as a disciple. After months of being on the road, healing the broken and feeding the hungry, everything is going great! But Jesus decides to throw the disciples a curveball and state that it will be necessary for him to suffer and die. Peter, however noble his intentions might have been, strongly disagrees and receives a harsh rebuke by his friend and savior, Jesus.

Peter tends to get a bad reputation for many such stories in the gospel narrative- whether here where he is compared to Satan himself, or when he cuts off the ear of the soldier dragging away Jesus, or when he sits by that charcoal fire warming his hands in the moments after he betrays Jesus. But the fact remains that perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter because you and I, if in that same situation, would probably have reacted similarly. Jesus, things are going so well! After all, we have brought sight to the blind, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless, and faith to the faithless. God forbid you suffer and die! You are supposed to be our savior, our victor! Who else is going to save us from the Romans? How dare you take us away from our routine, our vibe, what we are comfortable with!?

…But our God is not a “comfortable” God. We know this because the same God who became manifest in the flesh, who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and freed those who were enslaved by the chains of that society, did a most curious thing. Jesus shatters into our existence not by amassing an army and overthrowing the Romans (as you, Peter, and I might have preferred), but by dying on a cross next to common criminals and overcoming death, an enemy even the Romans could never defeat. And though we never could have predicted it at the time, Jesus reformed and recreated any expectations that you, I, or Peter could have ever had.

This story, I think, is an “echo” of our journey today with Moses. God re-created Peter and Moses into something which they could have never predicted through means that they would have never employed. And furthermore, God shatters into our status quo (making no small commotion along the way) and invites us into the work of God’s re-creation using people who we would never expect.

That, Sisters and Brothers, is what makes this holy ground. These texts force us to re-shape who we thought we were and redirect us to what we are created and called to be. Like Moses, we are witnesses to that which forces us to “turn aside” and behold that which rips us from our comfortable reality and sets us upon ground that is holy. “Holy” – the very word comes from the Hebrew concept of being separate, of something different, something set apart.

This holy text which we engage on this holy ground before our holy God, sets us apart from our preconceived notions of what is right and just. And, friends, this is something we need desperately. Because if left to our own devices, if left to our own conventional thinking, the Israelites would still be in Egypt and Moses would still be in Midian shepherding Jethro’s flock to this day.

But that’s not the end of that story…and it’s not the end of our own…for if there is another thing that we, as a worshipping community, can say for sure it is that we have never worshiped a God who is happy with leaving us alone! For the job is not over! This text reminds us that there are still oppressed peoples in the world and we, as we stand next to Moses barefoot in the burning sand before that blazing bush, are challenged to respond to this call by opening ourselves to the this counter-cultural text that shatters any societal norms that ensure the enslavement of any people, whether that slavery be physical, political, or theological.

Friends we are standing next to Moses, you and I, at this very moment! This text calls us, the people who are First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia, to do something. For we, you and I, are members of a society that continues to oppress our sisters and brothers, whether for their political beliefs, their skin color, their economic placement, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Like Moses, we are forced by this text out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, and into those places where oppressed people cry out to God, for God takes notice. We cannot ignore this holy ground, we must respond. Oh, I suppose you and I could continue on our merry way here in Dalton, in our comfort and in our status quo. But you and I would do well to remember this fact: that the inaction of Moses would have been just as detrimental to the oppressed people of Israel as any action Pharaoh could have done.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stand upon holy ground. We have been called, we have been invited to bring freedom to those who have been robbed of their voice, whose backs are burdened by the oppressive weight of intolerance and ignorance. And if we take the time to remove the sandals from our feet, we will find ourselves that much closer to our foundation, to that through which we have been created and are being created anew each and every day. If only we “turn aside” and gaze upon this great sight will we find ourselves carried into places that force us out of ourselves, and into each other, and into the community which God has created us to be.

Friends, people are oppressed. They are crying out to God. God has taken notice. And you and I must turn aside.

Amen…so be it…amen!

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

I, Paul

The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on January 20th, 2013.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I, Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to you, the people who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It warms my heart to be with you today for I have traveled far and wide on a very unpredictable road to be with you this day. In my journeys I have heard of your story and I know that you have had a painful history these past months and years. But I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you and because of the grace that I hear is reflected in both your words and deeds. And it is for that reason that I have so anticipated this moment when I could stand before you and proclaim that God is faithful! By the Spirit of God you are being called, this very moment, into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!

But before I share with you my love and support and encouragement for the long road that is still ahead, I must testify to the grace that has brought me, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, to you this day.

Friends, I stand before you today as one who has sinned boldly before the face of God. If I boast, I do not boast in my strength but in my weakness for it was in no short supply! For I was not living the life that the Lord had assigned to me. I was not seeking the advantage of others but rather only to myself. I was oppressing the people of God while at the same time existing as a child of God oppressed by the relentless weight of my own sin. I was on a long and lonely road.

And then it happened. On that long and lonely road I was struck blind and was led by God’s grace in a way I had long been too stubborn to allow. How foolish I must have looked, stumbling and wandering around in the dessert of God’s grace. And after what seemed like forever, my eyes were opened and it hurt! The light was blinding for my eyes had long slept in the darkness of my sin. Friends, it took some time before my eyes could adjust to the brilliant light but the sight that I saw when they did…it’s why I’m here before you this day. For I am with you today not through any merit of my own but only by the relentless grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who met me on that road and led me home. The same Spirit that holds us together as the Body of Christ opened my eyes to the grace which would not let me go!

And it is because of this grace-filled moment, this fount of every blessing, that I haven’t been able to shut up about it since! For God’s grace has led me home and I must respond in the only way I know how. I have been called by God and sent forth in the Spirit to proclaim the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so…I began to walk. I began to walk on a different road, not an easy road, mind you, but a different and a better road. Empowered by the Spirit of God’s grace, I knew that I was prone to wander and prone to leave the God I love. On this better road I could not help but sing “O to grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee!” It was a better road indeed.

And so here I am, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, before you this day proclaiming the grace and peace of our Lord to you, my brothers and my sisters of the Church of God in Silver Creek! I have heard many things about you in my travels and I feel that you, too, know what it is like to be on a long and lonely road. It might not be the same road that I traveled but long and lonely nonetheless.

But I have come to you today because I know that you have heard many things on this road and I do not want you to be uninformed! You see, others may have told you that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too small – as if the Gospel wasn’t first preached by a small group of men and women.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because of your interpretation of the Gospel – as if the Gospel were a convenient black and white instruction manual.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too old – as if the Gospel could only be preached by the latest trends.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too young – as if the Gospel wasn’t first held by a young girl named Mary.

Friends, I do not want you to be uninformed for those voices which tell you that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord are wrong. For that is exactly what I have heard you are doing! Perhaps not in the same way as everyone around you but in a way that the Spirit is calling you! Every day you are proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and I announce to you that no one, not one person, can say or do that except by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, the Holy Spirit is in this place! Not a different Spirit but the same Spirit that opened my eyes and my lips to stand before you this day and to proclaim God’s grace!

This same Spirit is calling you to proclaim that Jesus is Lord in a new way. Now I don’t pretend to know what exactly that is going to look like for you; after my journey with the Holy Spirit on that unpredictable road I learned to expect the unexpected from the Spirit. But I do know what I have heard and I do know what I have seen among you and I have come before you today to encourage you all to embrace the gifts that this same Spirit has allotted to you.

For I am convinced that there are a variety of gifts here given to you by the same Spirit that has sent me!

I have heard that many of you are educators, those who have dedicated their lives to the instruction of our young. It is through the Spirit’s gift of your ministry that an utterance of knowledge is bestowed upon those who are sent to make this a world which reflects God’s grace. This community depends on you to use your Spirit-given gift of knowledge.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of healing. The Spirit has empowered you, either by your medical knowledge, or by your gift of listening, cooking, walking, holding, and singing, to heal the wounds of a broken world. This community depends on you to use your Spirit-given gift of healing.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of youth. The Spirit has given you an open mind and fresh eyes to look upon the world and teach those of us who have forgotten what it means to be a child of God. This community depends on your Spirit-given gift of faith.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of old age. The Spirit has given you a lifetime of joy and sorrow, love and loss, questions and answers to teach us what it means to fight the good fight. This community depends on your Spirit-given wisdom.

I have heard that some of you might even be considering a call to ordained ministry. This Spirit has given you a discerning heart and a faith that seeks to be challenged. This community depends on your Spirit-given gift of leadership.

Friends, the gifts abound! I look among you and I see young and old, male and female, student and teacher, liberal and conservative and everywhere in between and that gives me hope!

It gives me hope to stand here before you and proclaim with you that Jesus is Lord!

It gives me hope to come to you this day and give witness to the variety of gifts that the Spirit has bestowed upon this community.

It gives me hope that you are embodying these Spirit-given gifts amidst the turmoil of the long road you have traveled.

And make no mistake of it, the road ahead is long but it need not be lonesome!

For the same Spirit that brought this sinner of God’s own redeeming to you today is the same Spirit that has activated in each one of you a gift to be shared. The same Spirit allows us to call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and to be a part of his Church.

And though I do not know exactly how you will proclaim that Jesus is Lord, I will listen with eager ears for news of your journey along that long and unpredictable road. And as you journey, giving the gifts that the Spirit has bestowed upon you, know that the same Spirits binds you and me together as we are called forward to serve just as the Spirit chooses!

I, Paul, a sinner of God’s redeeming and glad recipient of God’s un-ending grace, urge you to respond, to keep the faith, to give what the Spirit has allotted to you, until I am again blessed to be among you. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.

2 Comments

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

New Year, Old Promise

This following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 13th, 2013.

Luke 3:21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Or ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness” (CEB).

Recently I have been organizing documents such as sermons, sermon illustrations, bulletins, liturgy, prayers and such in a digital filing program. As I “file away” documents for future use I have been “tagging” them with labels to reflect the various themes of each. Therefore, in years to come, I can search a word such as “prophetic” and the program will present me with previous documents that I have labeled with that word or phrase. If I were to “tag” today’s lectionary readings from Isaiah and Luke, I might add the following labels to describe these scriptures for future reference: Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13th 2013, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, baptized, Isaiah, Luke, God’s Son, beloved, redeemed, held, adored, precious, my sons, my daughters, intimate, warm, comforting, claimed, belong, intimate, embraced, the list could go on and on.

All of these words, descriptive and diverse though they are, inevitably fall short of describing the outpouring of affection that, quite literally, explodes from the heavens in this moment. Perhaps, this is why I have long been frustrated with the translation of “with you I am well pleased.” It just doesn’t seem to cut it. Being “well pleased” with something, at least in my ear, does not inspire such as list as those words we might use to “tag” the intimacy of this moment. I was “well pleased” with the cup of coffee on the rainy day that I was working on this sermon. I was “well pleased” that the Kansas Jayhawks won last week. I am “well pleased” with the fact that my seven year old laptop is still running with God’s grace. But God being “well pleased” with Jesus just doesn’t reflect, at least in our vernacular, the beauty of this moment.

Thankfully, you and I live in an age where we have access to multiple translations, each with their own biases, nuances, and voices. A few years ago, I happened upon a fairly new translation, the Common English Bible, whose language, I am convinced, better embodies the intimacy of this baptismal moment. Listen again to the Word of the Lord: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

Ah, now that’s better! Baptism, when viewed through the lens of this translation, is the moment when God looks upon Jesus, and says: “Yes! You are the one I have created! I claim you as my own! You are the one that brings me joy and warmth and hope and laughter! Yes, you are my beloved and I couldn’t be happier!”

When I hear those words, when the skies are broken apart and the Spirit comes to seal Jesus’ baptism, I am reminded that those words, that love, that unconditional claim is directed at you and me. For as we are baptized with Christ, we are affirming the perhaps unexpected news that God finds happiness in you and me, sinners though we are. For if such were not the case, God incarnate would not have descended upon us and waded in the river, waiting in line to be baptized in solidarity with us. It is an intimate grace, isn’t it?

A congregation that I have visited recently embodies this intimate grace in a unique way. Having recently renovated their sanctuary, they made the decision to place the baptismal font not up front or off to the side but literally within the congregation. About 6 or 7 pews back, right dab smack in the middle of the people, their font is placed in a clear glass bowl, where all can see the clean water from every angle. As I left the pew to move forward to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, I exited the pew and had no choice but to pass by the font. I followed the lead of many of the members of the church and placed my right hand deep within its basin and felt the refreshing coolness of the water on my palm, I could hear the dripping of the water as I brought my hand out of the font and made the imprint of a cross on my forehead with my thumb. Because of the water now on my forehead, I could feel the breeze on my wet forehead as I approached the Table to taste the most delicious bread dipped in sweet grape juice. As I returned to my pew, I sat in that holy space, a space that was enlivened, in part, because I was reminded of how intimate our baptisms are; they are intimate because God baptizes us, claims us publicly as the ones in whom he finds happiness.

But if I am to truly receive this good news, to embody the happiness that, for some reason, God finds in me, then I have rejoice at the baptismal promises that I see fulfilled all around me.

Whether you have realized it or not, you, the people who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, have claimed me, a young seminary student, as one of your own. You have accepted me, nurtured me, challenged me, and loved me in a ministry that is nothing short of reciprocating the happiness of which God finds in you! Because of your ministry to me, I have witnessed this community’s celebration of Lara Grace and Olivia Kate’s baptism. I saw the warm smiles on your faces as you shared with them and their families the love that God has first shown to you. Even amidst the chaos of the past year, you have remained firm in your commitment to proclaim the love that God gives us, the very love that stood in line and was baptized with us. I cannot tell you how much strength it gives me to be among you, to witness the faithfulness with which you are fulfilling your baptismal covenants! Such a blessing it is to be among you as you reciprocate the happiness that God finds in you and in me.

It is quite remarkable when you think about it: that a sovereign God whose majesty and magnificence is limited by neither time or space would find happiness in us! In you and me who are such broken people, who stray and wander and stumble and grumble. It should, then, be a relief that you and I are not called to explain why or how this could be (for that would be a most impossible task!). You and I are called not to explain but to proclaim!

Friends, I announce to you that you are claimed by God. You are claimed by a God who finds happiness in you. As we move forward into a new year with new challenges and new possibilities, we will go forth strengthened by a very old promise: a promise which must not stay in this place. How will you respond to this old promise in this new year? And as you ponder the ways that God is calling you to respond to this old promise, remember that Christ responded to this old promise in some very new and improvisational ways. Strengthened through his baptism, going forth with the assurance that God found happiness in him, Christ went into the wilderness and ministered to and with the most unlikely of characters, those people in whom God finds perhaps the most happiness!

So as we journey into a new year, into unchartered territory, take heart! For Christ too goes with us into the wilderness, accompanying and leading us on the road traveled by the ones in whom God finds happiness! Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

A Healthy Tension

The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on Sunday, December 23rd. The service as a whole was a journey through our tension between lament and praise. I was inspired to craft the service in this manner because of the (healthy) tension which exists between two of the lectionary passages for that day: the lament of Psalm 80 and the praise of Mary's Magnificat. It should be noted that a common misconception of lament and joy is that they are two separate and "neat" stages (i.e. to move from lament to joy to never return or vice versa). However, it is healthy, both as an individual and as a community, to have fluidity between the two. I like to think of lament and praise as a conversation, with each expanding our vocabulary of the other. This sermon is the first step in a journey I am embarking upon to further explore this healthy tension which finds its roots throughout the entire biblical narrative.

"The Visitation" by Qi He.
Read Psalm 80 here.
I highly recommend the responsorial setting of this psalm as found in Psalms for All Seasons.
Psalm 80 is perhaps best described as a communal lament. And although it shows up every year in the list of Advent readings, nothing in it, at least at first glance, screams “Advent!” Not surprisingly (as I am no expert of the Psalms), I did not know that this text showed up in the lectionary for Advent until I sat down with a colleague of mine a few months ago to organize the service of lessons and carols at Columbia Theological Seminary. Since our vocations prevent us from having services on campus for the days of Christmas and Easter, this is one of the most well-attended services of the year. The better part of 150 members of the community gathered a few weeks ago on the last week of classes to celebrate the coming of our Lord and Savior.
We decided to do this setting of Psalm 80 as a confession of sorts and used the Zephaniah text that you and I read a few weeks ago as the Assurance of Pardon. For me, however, (and I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way) this musical setting of Psalm 80 was the most powerful part of the entire service. Perhaps it was the fact that it was not sung by me but in fact sung by two vocalists of much more talent! One female and one male traded off the verses that I just chanted and the entire congregation sang that intimate and heartfelt refrain that we just sang together. It was a powerful moment indeed.
I believe what makes Psalm 80 such a powerful cry is that it is so very raw. It does not beat around the bush. It does not gloss over the sharp edges. It does not whistle “always look on the bright side of life.” No, it is a very blunt prayer indeed and, perhaps, those are the most faithful if not always easiest. In fact, many of us don’t do so well with such blunt prayers. As I was doing research for this sermon I stumbled across a story by Shawnthea Monroe. The Ohio pastor tells a story of how during a clinical chaplaincy internship she spent time with a woman who had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She writes, “as we held hands, I cautiously picked my way through a prayer, asking for peace, for strength, for healing of body and soul – nothing controversial or unattainable. When I had safely concluded my prayer, the woman squeezed my hands and added, ‘Almighty God, I want you to take this cancer away from me. I know you have the power, and I want you to do it. I want to be healed and I want to go home. Amen.’ When she finished, she looked into my worried face and said, ‘Don’t be shy with God. If I don’t ask for what I want, how can I hope to get it?’” Don’t be shy with God…the wisdom of that woman is the wisdom of Psalm 80 who cries out to God. It is the wisdom of the staggerers, wanderers, sitters, and loathers of Psalm 107. It is the wisdom of Hannah who cries out to God for her womb to be restored. These prayers of lament and petition are perhaps difficult to read but in them is a liberating word that gives us the vocabulary to speak of our communal and individual faith journey.
Another favorite story of mine is from one of my professors at Columbia, Christine Yoder. She told us of a time when she read a difficult passage in worship; you know, one of those passages that the preacher reads as quickly as possible in hopes that the congregation will miss it? Christine read the following passage from Isaiah 54 in which God is speaking to the Israelites after the exile: “For a brief moment, I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you…” As she spoke these words, a woman in the congregation became visibly upset and left the sanctuary. After the service, Christine found the woman and said, “I saw that you were upset when we read that passage, would you like to talk about it?” “Oh, those weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of relief,” the woman said. Christine was certainly taken aback for the words from the text very clearly state that God had abandoned (which is not a verb that we usually like to attribute to God). The woman continued to tell Christine of the incredible hardship that had been in her life in the past year. She described how the most painful part of the whole experience was hearing her friends saying “there, there, it’s not really so bad…God hasn’t abandoned you…when there was only one set of footprints it was when God was carrying you…” and so on and so forth. The woman explained how her friends, though kind and speaking with the best of intentions, unknowingly denied her the lament she was experiencing. The woman explained to Christine how the text from Isaiah, in its speech of God abandoning and hiding his face, gave her the vocabulary to speak of her grief. And that, ironically, was not traumatic but therapeutic.
Friends, the language of Psalm 80, blunt and raw though it is, is healing language. It is healing language for it gives us the vocabulary to speak of our pain. It is healing language for, whether we know it or not, a powerful trust is needed even to utter its words. For within the difficult language is found a steadfast trust that the God to whom we cry for justice where there is none is none other than the very God who alone is our only hope of salvation. Yes, Psalm 80 is a communal lament. But even more so is it a cry for God to act! It is a cry for God to break down the fourth wall and to come and do something about it. Restore us, O God, let your face shine upon us that we may be saved! God, your move!
Read Luke 1:39-55 here. It is my opinion that this passage is best read by a female liturgist.
So there we have it! God has heard our cry for restoration and responds, curiously enough, with childbirth. And the emotional depth of this passage echoes the wonder of this perhaps unconventional divine response. Now, as a male preacher, for me to go on about the feelings associated with pregnancy is awkward at best and perhaps even arrogant at worst. Therefore, last week I asked several of the female members of the Sunday school class to describe the feeling of having a child kick for the first time within the womb. Many described the first kick as a moment of sheer elation, of indescribable joy and wonder. It is a moment of happiness and excitement even when you are not carrying the son of God within your womb! Others described the kicking (or leaping as today’s passage would describe it) as being wonderful at first but uncomfortable at times, especially when sleep is the desired goal! Either way, the recognition of life brings forth wonder and praise.
As such, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps within her at the sound of Mary’s voice. You and I know this child to be John the Baptist, who though still growing in Elizabeth’s womb was somehow able to call us to repentance last week (still not quite sure how that works!).
At any rate, both John the Baptist and Mary move in this passage from recognition to response. John the Baptist hears of Jesus’ coming and, quite literally, cannot wait be born so that he might respond to it. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Mary responds with a voice that John the Baptist does not yet have. She sings what is now known as the Magnificat (the Latin phrase for its opening words “my soul magnifies the Lord”). She sings this glorious alleluia because the Lord has looked down on the lowlinessof his servant. As a scared, pregnant, teenage girl on the margins of society, perhaps the cry for help of Psalm 80 was not foreign to Mary’s lips. For she knew in that moment, that something miraculous was about to happen. A new (and unpredictable) thing will happen when one cries out to God for help. Indeed something so new and so unpredictable that the life given to Mary in her womb is not simply her own but rather a gift of life for the entire world! And as such, a song is in her heart and perhaps it is not a song too foreign to our own heart.
For this congregation has had its “Psalm 80 moments.” You and I have had our home congregations split in two: restore us, O God! Far too many of God’s children sleep on the streets and have no food to eat: restore us, O God! You and I have seen the darkness of human tragedy in recent weeks: let your face shine upon us, Lord! You who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church are being reoriented towards a new and unpredictable day: restore us, O God, that we might be saved!
But today we are reminded that, like Mary, we have had our “Magnificat moments” as well! You have seen the Presbytery join you in your hour of need to grieve and praise with you: your soul magnifies the Lord! You have provided a very grateful young seminary student a loving community to continue his growth as a pastor: my spirit rejoices in God my savior! You have seen new life breathed into a congregation that has endured so much: for God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant! You have gathered together as the Body of Christ to provide meals for local families in need: for God has filled the hungry with good things!
So Sisters and Brothers in Christ, you and I are caught in a healthy tension between lament and praise. And as we journey together in these final days of Advent, we will be propelled towards a new day where God is doing a new thing, a new thing that causes us to sing for God is about to stir things up and we will never be the same!

We join with Mary and make her song our own because we have journeyed through Psalm 80, we have cried out to a God who hears our every cry. And although it might not be done in a way that we might have wanted or predicted, God has responded and is responding and will continue to respond forever more. God will send to us Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus our Savior and friend who will journey with us through our every joy and our every sorrow. And, friends, I announce to you this day that this Christ-child will be no less that our God who is with us all, amongst us all, and, most importantly, for us all! Restore us, O God! Amen!

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

The Baptist's Cry - Luke 3:7-18

The revised common lectionary is a wonderful tool.  Its three year rotation provides weekly biblical texts to guide you and me through the rhythm of the church year.  In addition to serving as our roadmap on our faith journey, it connects the various Christian communities and denominations by creating a space for collective, simultaneous dialogue.  More practically (and perhaps more selfishly!), I tend to preach the lectionary texts because there is a plethora of liturgical resources based off of the lectionary readings that help me organize weekly worship services.  But perhaps what makes the lectionary most helpful is precisely the reason that, this week at least, I really didn’t care for it too much:  it forces me, and other preachers, to preach on a passage like this
This Sunday, like every Sunday in the lectionary, there are four passages.  To give us a feel for the tone of today’s passages, let us look at the first verse of each of the four.
Zephaniah – “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”  Isaiah – “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Philippians – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”  And then, in Luke’s gospel, our wild and untamed friend John the Baptist says, “you brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Well…this is awkward. 
Kathy Beach-Verhey, put it well as she said these words about this passage:  “No one wants to be chastised by John the Baptist this close to Christmas.  No preacher wants to read this text when preparing for his third Advent sermon.  No parishioner wants to be challenged by John’s words as she sits in the pew enveloped in thoughts of final Christmas preparations and purchases.”  However, she goes on to say that, because of the lectionary, “there is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby in the manger without first hearing the rough prophet in the wilderness call us to repentance.” 
            Alright, lectionary, have it your way.  Here we go!

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Good News of John the Baptist in this passage begins with the words “You brood of vipers” and ends with the words “unquenchable fire.”  It is clear that there is something that John the Baptist is taking very seriously indeed.  You see, standing in the wilderness by the chaotic rivers, John the Baptist is preparing us for something, something that calls for change.  Apparently, the folks present at that moment did not think that they needed to respond to this up-and-coming new thing!  They, after all, had Abraham, that great father of the faith, as their ancestor.  They had nothing to fear for they thought that they could rely solely upon the good name of their great-great-great-great grandfather Abraham. 
            But not so! says John the Baptist.  No one can hide under the good graces of their predecessors!  No, we are all in this together for what is to come is to turn the world upside down.  The first will be last and the last first.  We must prepare for this is not what we have been used to.  Those who choose to ignore this good news are nothing less than brood of vipers who do not heed this world-shattering news!
            John the Baptist’s tone would be abrasive enough if received by itself.  However, the severity of his rhetoric stands in particular contrast to the voices of this season singing “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”  How dare he ruin the merriment of this season?  How dare he interrupt our caroling and our shopping and our decorating?  His severe tone grates upon our ears as fingernails on a chalkboard.
            But as I was watching the President address a nation mourning the senseless and violent deaths of six adults, twenty innocent children, and one very broken child of God in a Connecticut elementary school, the severity of John the Baptist’s tone seemed more and more appropriate.  For John reminds us that there is something wrong, very wrong indeed. 
            Something is very wrong when one of God’s children has two coats and another has none.  Something is very wrong when one of God’s children has to fight for a morsel of food when another simply has to drive up to a McDonalds drive-thru.  Something is very wrong when one of God’s children is impoverished at the hands of an unjust economic system.  Something is very wrong when one of God’s children is threatened by another.  Something is very wrong when twenty-seven of God’s children are killed by what can only be described as evil of the worst kind.
As the crowds in today’s passage, we are a people filled with expectation and with questions in our hearts.  In the midst of preparation, in the midst of waiting for this long-expected Jesus, we join with John the Baptist by crying out in the wilderness.  For in this wilderness, we are witnesses to the unspeakable but we are also witnesses to the spoken Word of God.  The Word of God to which John the Baptist preached and the Word of God which is spoken by the prophet Zephaniah.
In our text today from this prophet, Zephaniah gives voice to the harsh realities of the people.  This song speaks of enemies, disaster, and fear and, perhaps most curiously, God being in the midst of all of it.  Let us listen again to Zephaniah, this prophetic predecessor of John the Baptist. 
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

     Twice Zephaniah exclaims “God is in your midst.” How can he proclaim those words after Friday’s massacre? How can we stand in this very room and proclaim God’s presence amidst the disasters and horrors of this world? Why would we ever listen to this John the Baptist fellow who is telling us that God is about to do a “new thing?” 

     I will tell you why we proclaim that God is in our midst even in this hour. We proclaim that God is in our midst because we worship a God who is no stranger to suffering. We worship a crucified God who was punished without reason. We worship a God who knows what it is like to bury a child. We worship a God whose own son was crucified, dead, and was buried in a cold, lonely tomb.
     But friends, if you hear nothing else in this sermon, hear and believe this: We worship a resurrected God. We worship a God who, though crucified, dead, and was buried, is risen forevermore! We worship a God who Zephaniah proclaims will remove disaster from us, who will deal with all our oppressors, who will save the lame and gather the outcast, who will change our shame into praise, who will bring us home and gather us, and who will restore us.
     That is why you and I should listen to the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. Because you and I are waiting for the God who will give and renew, save and gather, change and restore.
     Having faith that this truth will be done, perhaps then we can receive the prophetic cry of John the Baptist not as a threat to be avoided but rather as a promise to be welcomed.
     For if we did not have the hope of the resurrection, then we would have reason to fear the unquenchable fire of which John speaks. If we did not have the hope of the resurrection, then we should flee in terror as John describes God’s separating the wheat from the chaff and throwing the chaff into the flame.
     But since you and I live as children of the resurrected God, we receive this promise with the singing, exultation, and praise that Zephaniah offers. We welcome the coming of the Christ-child for his birth represents nothing less than the salvation that we have been waiting for. For as he will burn the chaff with the unquenchable fire so too will he defeat death with unstoppable life.
     Friends, one who is more powerful than us is coming, one from whom all life comes and to whom all life returns. At this time, as we look for answers in this season of Advent, we must not point to ourselves for then we would only sink further into despair and sorrow. Rather, like John the Baptist, you and I must point to Christ, who has broken and is breaking and shall forever break the fourth wall to be in his children’s presence if all of their joy and all of their sorrow. As we continue to light the Advent candles, we will renew our commitment to cherish the light while maintaining our trust in Christ, who alone will perish the darkness.
     Come, Lord Jesus!
     In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

The First Sermon I Ever Preached

     This is a copy of the first sermon that I ever preached.  The occasion for this sermon was my preaching class in March of 2011.  It is interesting to look back and see how I've changed...and how I haven't.

Mark 9:14-29
When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ 
The crowds are gathering.  People are arguing.  Voices are being raised.  Disciples have failed.  Scribes are criticizing.  Jesus is frustrated.  A demon is seizing a helpless child.  A father is begging for his boy.  There is convulsing, throwing to the ground, dashing to the ground, rolling about, foaming at the mouth, grinding of teeth.  We are all watching.   We are all witnesses to things that are falling apart.  And amidst the chaos comes a desperate and raw confession.  I believe, help my unbelief!
            We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  We say it in church many a Sunday as a community.  We say it to ourselves as we struggle with texts in class.  We state it in our creeds, our thoughts, our very prayers.  However, it is hard to believe whatever it is that we believe in when the waves come upon our shores, when we are cast into the water and into the fire, when earthquakes shatter our way of existence, when those we love, or perhaps even ourselves, are seized by the grip of forces we do not understand.  We cannot believe that a God who created us from nothing but a desire to be in fellowship with us and love us is present in the midst of unforgiving chaos.  Oh, we believe, alright.  But then again….
            Belief or unbelief.  Which are we?
            Perhaps we are in the crowd that is watching this situation, arguing with each other over the shortcomings of the disciples.  Haven’t we been led to believe, after all, that they have the authority to cast out demons?  They have been following this Jesus fellow around, haven’t they?  Have they learned nothing?  How can we be asked to believe in what we have not seen?  Belief or unbelief.
            Perhaps we are amongst the disciples.  We believe in Jesus!  Wehave committed ourselves to his teachings.  After all, it was us who dropped our nets and followed him at his command.  It was us that left our former ways of life to begin something new and exciting.  We believe ourselves to be charged with a mission.  Why then, could we not do what he has taught us?  We can’t believe our failures.  Belief or unbelief.
            Perhaps we are the parent of the child, who has heard this talk about a healer and his disciples who can fix the brokenness that has been the reality of their parenthood for years and years.  After all the loving care, after all the nights laying awake by a loved one’s side, after hearing, seeing, feeling the pain that has gripped them, we cannot believe that there is redemption, healing, salvation.  We believe this at this time and don’t believe this at that time.  Belief is a finicky friend, is it not?
            Or perhaps we are the child, robbed of our voices, robbed of our right mind, robbed of any and all control over our situations, rigid with the futility of forces that dash us down to the ground.
            The crowd can’t believe the disciples failed.  The disciples themselves can’t believe they failed.  Jesus can’t believe the unbelief.  The father believes and, yet, his unbelief seizes him almost simultaneously.  Belief or unbelief.  Which are you?  Which am I?  It’s frustrating isn’t it?
            As I’m sure all of us have felt at one point or another when encountering such a rich and meaty text, I had to step back.  I was so hung up on the father’s seemingly paradoxical statement:  “I believe; help my unbelief!”  Well, make up your mind!  Which is it?  It must be one or the other!  One of my favorite musical groups is the band Nickel Creek.  In their song, “Doubting Thomas” is a lyric that has always struck me.  “Can I be used to help others find truth, when I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?”  I see both belief and unbelief in those words.  I think we see belief and unbelief in ourselves and, what’s more, the line between the two is seldom clear. 
            Now we don’t know exactly why the disciples failed.  Perhaps they had just finished a rough CPM meeting.  Perhaps they were frazzled from writing a sermon.  Perhaps they thought they were the ones casting out demons.  Perhaps they just weren’t feeling it!  We don’t know.  What we do know is that Jesus emphasizes prayer as the vehicle through which this demon was cast out.  But where exactly is that prayer?  It certainly does not look as though Jesus prayed in this specific passage.  We also have no record of the disciples praying.  So what’s going on?
             Henri Nouwen writes in his book “With Open Hands” his thoughts on prayer.  He says, “To pray means to stop expecting from God the same small-mindedness which you discover in yourself. To pray is to walk in the full light of God and to say simply, without holding back, "I am human and you are God."   I am human, and you are God!  It is a simple little phrase but the reality is that simplicity is rarely simplistic.  As I was working on this sermon, I found myself saying this prayer out loud everywhere.  The parking lot, the car, the mailroom, the refectory, everywhere!  I am human, and you are God.  Over and over again.  That simple little prayer brought forth more questions than it did answers.  To me, it embodied the desperate cry of myself before God.  It proclaimed my reality in the here and now.  Naked before God, I cried out, I am human, and you are God.  I am human, and you are God.  Through this earthy and intimate mantra I found myself standing next to the father, crying out “I believe, help my unbelief.”
            I found myself next to the father saying to Jesus, “How much longer must you be among us?  How much longer must you put up with us?  Jesus, how much longer must my son be among this?  How much longer, Jesus, must he put up with this.  Now is not the time for you to be frustrated.  Now is not the time for you to be human.  Now is the time for you to be God.”  Now I don’t know why the disciples failed to cast out the demon.  I don’t know why Jesus asked the father all the questions.  I don’t know what was going through the boy’s head.  I just don’t know.  But what I do know and what I do is this…
            The crowds are gathering.  People are arguing.  Voices are being raised.  Disciples have failed.  Scribes are criticizing.  Jesus is frustrated.  A demon is seizing a helpless child.  A father is begging for his boy.  There is convulsing, throwing to the ground, dashing to the ground, rolling about, foaming at the mouth, grinding of teeth.  We are all watching.  Amidst the chaos comes a cry.  I believe; help my unbelief!  Belief and unbelief; which aren’t you?
  And then a hand.  
           A hand that lifts.  
           A hand that lifts a helpless boy to his feet; a boy who is able to stand.  

           A hand that takes from us the single-mindedness 

                        that we have placed on ourselves and
                        hands to us possibilities and a mission.
           A hand that lifts us and those we love not in the moment when we believe or not believe 
                        but rather when we are most torn between the two.  
                                       When we are caught between hope and fear, 
                                                                  between our humanness and God’s “godness,”
                                                                  between belief and unbelief.  
          A hand that lifts us as it says, “I am God, and you are human.”  
          That hand is not our own.  But that hand allows our own hands to no longer be rigid.  
          Hands that are now free to love, to serve, to hold, to pray, 
                                               to testify to what it is that lifts us from the ground.
Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Many thanks to Ferris Bueller for breaking the fourth wall!
John 18:33-38
            Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

     There is a term in the world of theatre known as the “fourth wall.”  Perhaps the best way for me to describe it to you is for you to imagine that this space is a stage.  From where you are, you see three walls; one on either side of me and one behind.  Whether you know it or not, there is an invisible “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the stage and, therefore, from the actors and the action.  This fourth wall allows the audience to passively observe the narrative of the play while the actors proceed to live in their fictional world.  However, in the 19th century there was a movement called theatrical realism.  In this time, a technique known as “breaking the fourth wall” was popularized.  During a particularly dramatic moment, the play would “freeze” and an actor would approach the audience and address them directly, thus, breaking the “fourth wall.”
     Perhaps a more contemporary example of breaking the fourth wall might be in the classic comedy film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  As the movie opens, Ferris Bueller goes about his business getting ready to spend a glorious day skipping school.  After perfectly delivering his well-practiced routine of convincing his parents he is sick, they leave the room and Ferris Bueller directly looks into the camera and tells us, “they bought it!”  Throughout the entire opening scene, we watch him get ready for his grand day out and he shares with us his methods for feigning sickness in his pursuit of playing hookey.  From the very get go, this breaking of the fourth wall connects us rather intimately with this much-loved character of Hollywood.  As we continue the movie, we feel as though we are truly the ones accompanying him on his adventure.
     Although I’m not sure that Ferris Bueller was fully versed in the dramatic techniques of 19th century theatre, his actions cause the fourth wall to be broken as the barrier separating stage and audience is torn down and the audience is thrust into the action of the story.
     The writer of today’s text from John’s gospel was, I think, well ahead of his time for he breaks the fourth wall as well.  Only, instead of doing so in a 19th century theatre or in the bedroom of Ferris Bueller, the writer of today’s text does so in the headquarters of Pontius Pilate as he is interrogating Jesus prior to his crucifixion.  From behind the fourth wall, we are witnesses to a frustrating exchange where both characters attempt to dodge each others’ questions. 
     “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Pilate ask.
     “Do you ask this, or someone else?” Jesus asks in return.
     “I am not a Jew, am I? What have you done?  So you are a king?” Pilate asks. 
Through all of this back and forth, Jesus maintains his cool while Pilate (and perhaps you and I, as well) get thoroughly confused, perhaps even to his (and our) wits’ end.  Suddenly, we watch Jesus take control of both the tempo and the texture of the conversation as he changes the subject to truth.  Apparently, as we listen from behind the fourth wall, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to testify to the truth and that all who belong to the truth listen to his voice.  It is at this crucial moment, that Jesus freezes, the lights dim, and Pilate turns to us, you and me, and asks us directly, “What is truth?”  The writer of today’s text cleverly breaks the fourth wall as suddenly you and I are now responsible for answering Pilate’s “simple” little question!  What is truth?  Three little words that open up quite the can of worms! Well if you and I are to answer this question then we certainly have our work cut out for us, don’t we?  We live in a world that screams “truth” at us every day.
  • This is truth! screams the magazine on the gas station shelf that tells young women and men that they must be skinny and sexy to be loved.  
  • This is truth! screams the Klansman protesting against immigration in Charlotte, North Carolina. 
  • This is truth! scream the Israelis and the Palestinians who shoot missiles at each other. 
  • This is truth! scream the Presbyterians as we argue over ordination standards. 
  • This is truth! scream the lies of this world.

     When you think about it all of these self-acclaimed truths (which you and I know to be lies!) are based off of static truth as belief.  For example… 

  • What the magazine with the pencil-thin model is claiming to be truth is based off of the belief that we must be thin, airbrushed, and fake in order to be accepted and loved.  
  • What the Klansman is claiming to be truth is based off of the belief that by being privileged, white, and male he is superior to anyone who is not also privileged, white, and male.  
  • What the Israelis and Palestinians are claiming to be truth is based off of the belief that each is entitled to certain things. 
  • What the liberal and conservative Presbyterians are claiming to be truth is based off of the belief that each knows what God has in store for the church of Christ.
I submit to you that each of these beliefs that we cling to in our human desire to have the answers leaves us frustrated, antagonized, militant, and, perhaps worst of all, exclusive.  I submit that when we enslave truth within the confines of mere belief, we make ourselves comfortable behind this “fourth wall.”  We observe truth, we theorize it, we speak of it from a safe distance without truly getting our hands dirty.
But when Pilate breaks the fourth wall in today’s passage and asks us “what is truth?” we are challenged to rethink truth, to step away from truth as mere belief and live into truth as action.  When we step back and look at John’s gospel as a whole, we see truth not as something that is believed.  Rather, John would have us experience truth as something that is done.  In the beautiful irony of this passage, Pilate speaks of this movement away from truth as belief towards truth as action with one of the questions that he asks Jesus.  If you look back at the passage, Pilate does not once ask Jesus what he believes, rather in seeking the “truth,” he asks Jesus what he has done. 
     You see, a curious and unpredictable thing happens when the fourth wall is broken:  you and I are no longer at home in the audience.  Rather, we are called by name to approach the stage and do something.  We are called to do truth and not fight over it.  We are called to do the truth that Jesus embodies in a very physical way. 
  • For the Truth that meets us in the passage did not spend his final hours with his disciples teaching them doctrine; he spent these last precious moments breaking bread and pouring wine. 
  •  The Truth that meets us in this passage is not preparing to state his beliefs; he is preparing to die. 
  •  The Truth that meets us in this passage will not give a grand treatise stating his beliefs; he will hang on a cross. 
  •  And the Truth that meets us in this passage will not send out a post-resurrection email stating what we are to “believe” at the sight of the empty tomb; he will rise from the grave and defeat death and save us and invite us to respond.

     We worship Jesus Christ, the Truth, the Alpha and the Omega, who alone is our King, whose only credentials are that he is the one who has always done truth, is always doing truth, and will always do truth forevermore.  It is for this reason that you and I are gathered in the presence of the Lord this day to praise the One who allows truth, true truth, to be done.  

  • For when at the Lord’s Table bread is broken and wine is poured, there truth is being done!  
  • When water is poured at the font that seals a child of God into family of God, there truth is being done!  
  • When a group of counter-protesters in Charlotte dress up as clowns to ridicule the hate-filled speech of the Ku Klux Klan, there is truth being done!  
  • When a gentlemen, who once slept in the homeless shelter in the basement of an Atlanta church, returns years later to volunteer at that same ministry, there is truth being done!  
  • When members from across this presbytery gathered to worship with you all back in May, there is truth being done!  
  • When the members of this community here at Silver Creek assembled fifteen baskets of food to be given to local families this Thanksgiving, there is truth being done!
Truth is being done because breaking the fourth wall creates motion…it creates a motion that is created by God, redeemed by God, and sustained by God.  But, friends, I announce to you that this motion, this creative and grace-filled truth of doing is only possible when we agree to leave the seats of the audience and approach the stage.  So I ask you, what are the fourth walls in our lives that still need to be broken down?  What are those barriers which need to be shattered that, once demolished, will allow us to do the truth that God calls us to do?  Friends, it is both my duty and privilege to announce to you that God’s truth is being done this day and you and I are invited to leave the audience, cross the fourth wall, and do truth!
Truth is being done not by our merit but by the saving grace of Christ our King who embodies truth, who lives it!  We will live into this truth yet again this year as we approach the season of Advent.  As we approach Christmas, Advent will prepare us for the breaking of an even larger fourth wall, a wall that could never be brought down by you, me, Pilate, or any of the Jews or Romans; Advent prepares us for the night when God erupts into the world, our world, in a very real way that breaks down the fourth wall between heaven and earth.  And as this fourth wall is broken, we will prepare to be taken out of the audience and into the story, a story where truth is being done, a truth that was and is and is to come.  To him, Christ our King, be all glory and dominion both now and forever.  Amen.  
Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

Pouring Out Our Soul - Sermon on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

     During our worship together last week, we were led by the “director,” so to speak, of Psalm 107 through several scenes.  These vignettes, through several broad, sweeping motions, invited us to ponder the ways that we, as God’s people, have cried out to the Lord who then showers us with steadfast love
     We wandered with the “wanderers” who found no way in the desert wastes
          until the Lord led us by a straight way to an inhabited town. 
     We sat with the “sitters” who sat in darkness and in gloom
          until the Lord brought us out and broke our bonds. 
     We loathed with the “loathers” who could not bring themselves
     to receive their God-given nourishment
          until the Lord sent out his word to heal us. 
     We staggered with the “staggerers” who were at their wits’ end
          until the Lord brought us out from our distress and gave us quiet.
     Today’s lectionary passage, however, gives us no generic participles to describe groups of people in common situations.  Rather, we have a name, a person, a beloved and specific child of God:  Hannah.  But this specific child of God has a very specific problem:  the Lord has closed her womb.  While the inability to have children is a certainly no less a source of grief today as it was in the days of Hannah, our modern culture does not view this condition with the same social stigma with which it was in her days.  Back then, a woman who could not conceive was considered worthless, a good-for-nothing waste whose physical barrenness mirrored the devastating public humiliation of a person without a purpose.
     A few weeks ago, we experienced the irony of the story of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, whose name meant “son of honor.”  Likewise, this passage is steeped in irony for this woman who is considered cursed and purposeless is called Hannah whose very name means “God favors me.”  Clearly not, it would seem, for not once but twice the author of today’s passage reminds us that the Lord had closedher womb.
     Peninnah, her rival as another wife to Elkanah, has no such problem.  She, the author of today’s text tells us, has many sons and daughters; fitting perhaps for a woman whose name means “pearl.”  The focus, however, is not on this “pearl’s” sons and daughters but rather upon her incessant taunts and snares directed straight at Hannah, as if she needed a reminder, had her womb closed by God.  It is just too much; she weeps and does not eat, and goes to the house of the Lord to pray year after year after year after year.  Like the folks we met in Psalm 107, she cries out to the Lord in her distress.
     This day must have felt like every other, crying out to God for the umpteenth time, returning exasperated and saddened from hearing nothing in reply only to return home to the cruel barrage of insults from that “pearl” of a woman, Peninnah.  This time, however, she prays at Shiloh.  The time period of today’s story takes place towards the end of the period of Israel’s judges and just before the period of her kings.  The judges, you might remember, were leaders of Israel whose stories are familiar to us; Gideon, Samson, Deborah and the like.  The kings of Israel to follow were Saul, David, Solomon and then a number of others after the nation split.  In the interim period, in which we find today’s story, Shiloh was the central place of worship for all of Israel.  This is where the entire nation gathered for feasts, celebrations, worship, sacrifices, and the like.  Therefore, this place in which we find Hannah pleading with God is no private worship space, no solitary meditation chapel or prayer room.  Rather, this is the place where the Israelites come to worship.  This cry was a public spectacle!
     Perhaps this is the reason that Eli is concerned with her behavior which does not come across as decently and in order.  As she prays silently, only her lips move.  Therefore, Eli accuses her of being drunk.  However, this assumption by Eli is quickly corrected when Hannah replies to her with a clever, evocative, and heartfelt pun that no drunkard could ever muster.  “No, my lord,” she answers, “I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”  Pouring out my soul.
     I began working on this sermon thinking that I would frame this story as nothing more than a concrete example of the generic stories that we journeyed through last week in Psalm 107.  A child of God is in distress, the person (whether a wanderer, a sitter, a loather, or a staggerer) cries out to the Turner, the God of abundance, and is delivered by the Lord from her distress.  Now, that being said, Hannah’s story does seem to fit rather seamlessly into this salvation narrative.  The Lord hears her cries, brings forth life to her barren womb, and makes Hannah to conceive and bear Samuel, a great leader in the future of Israel’s history.
     However, if we limit this story to this truth alone, important and vitalizing as it is, we lose the specificity of Hannah, the nuances of this story that challenge us to go deeper.  Hannah’s little phrase “I am not drunk, I am pouring out my soul before the Lord” does just that.
     As I was preparing for this sermon, I ran across an article by Marcia Mount Shoop, a pastor up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  She says that this passage has many layers of meanings but at the end of the day, it is really a story about being “spiritually awake.”  She continues to say that “her prayer of groaning makes her an icon not simply of the mother of a son who is prophetic and powerful, but of a human being who knows herself to be known and loved by God.”
     Perhaps, then, today’s passage is about worship for, after all, worship could be defined as that act when we “present” ourselves to the Lord, where we know we are known and loved by God.  Hannah, in her pain and in her suffering and in her lament, knew where she needed to go.  She needed to rise up and present herself in the presence of the Lord.  Hannah knew that she needed to present none other than her real self, not some prettied-up, tamed, restrained, moderate, meek, costumed, masked self.  But her real self in all of her humanness, in all of her beauty and all of her pain, in all of her strength and all of her weakness, in all honesty.  Hannah knew that worship was not a time for her to “sprinkle” out her soul to the Lord.  This was no time to “drip” out her soul to the Lord.  No, Hannah’s worship in this public place of Shiloh was where she knew she needed to pour out her soul to the Lord.  Hannah knew what it was like to be “spiritually awake.”
     We have a lot to learn from Hannah for we, you and I, are not always spiritually awake during the act of worship.  Hannah challenges us to be honest with ourselves as we move through the journey of worship with all of its mystery and grace, its questions and its answers, its bread and its wine, its praise and its lament.  Hannah’s honesty in her worship challenges us to rethink the way we worship and present ourselves before the Lord in our very own Shiloh here as this worshiping community.
  • Take the moment of the “Call to Worship” – during this moment we are gathered in the presence of the very God who created everything, who called Moses through a burning bush, who rained fire from heaven at Mount Carmel, who names us and loves us and knows every hair on our head, who alone possesses the power to both create this world and bring it to an end!  Does our embodiment of this moment reflect the “spiritual awareness” of Hannah?
  • Perhaps we need to rethink the way we confess our sins in light of Hannah’s wisdom.  After all, what is confession if it is not pouring our out souls to God and confessing that which we do and that which we are that prevent us from living as we should.  We confess to God, knowing that, if left to our own devices, we would forever be tormented in the hellish fires of our own depravity.  After that, we are assured that through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we have been no less than plucked out of the jaws of death to live as a redeemed people.  Does our embodiment of this part of worship reflect the honesty of Hannah?
  • Or perhaps look at the prayer for illumination.  A musical prayer for illumination from Nigeria has the congregation singing “wa, wa, wa, emimimo, wao, wao, wao,” which means “Come, come, come, Holy Spirit, come immediately, come right now, come this very minute!!”  Hannah asks us if our prayer for illumination reflects this desperate need of the Holy Spirit to make any sense out of this mysterious and salvific word of God.  
  • Finally, perhaps Hannah would challenge us to look at the mindset of our Affirmation of Faith.  When we stand to profess that in which we believe, we proclaim the truth.  We stand in defiance and proclaim the Way, and the Truth, and the Life in the midst of a world that screams lies in our faces veiled as truth.  It is no small thing that we stand together to proclaim our allegiance not to the lies of this world but of the truth of the world that was and is and is to come under Christ our King!  Does our embodiment of this defiant prayer reflect the defiance of Hannah as she defends her actions in the temple at Shiloh to an ignorant Eli.

     Friends, in my time with you it has become clear that the family that is Silver Creek Presbyterian Church has had a long and rich history of meaningful worship.  There is certainly no lacking of faithful worship in your history!  But in the rough and exciting waters that we are navigating, how might we take courage from Hannah and come before the presence of the Lord in new and creative ways that awaken our “spiritual awareness?”  How might we more fully embody our entire selves into the worship we are called to do?  How might we pour our souls out to the same God who heard Hannah’s cries and restored life to her barren womb? 
     Perhaps Hannah’s faithful worship reminds us of the need to keep our eyes open.  And perhaps not only our eyes but our ears, mouths, hearts, minds, and arms as well!  Hannah will remind us to pay attention for she was not the only woman who carried a gift from God within her womb.  For as we approach the season of advent, we will be reminded of another woman who poured out her soul to God in order that she might bring into this world a savior who would pour out his soul for you and for me.  So in the weeks to come, as we prepare ourselves yet again to welcome into the world the savior who first welcomed us, remember Hannah’s courage and be not afraid to pour out your soul to God.  For I announce to you that the very God to whom you pour out your soul is the very God who will turn around and fill it with life!  Thanks be to God!

Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

The wanderers, the sitters, the loathers, the staggerers, and the Turner - a Sermon on Psalm 107

     The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on November 11, 2012.  The original title of the sermon was "Feasting on the Verbs" but I decided to rename it "The wanderers, the sitters, the loathers, the staggerers, and the Turner" after the characters that found me during the journey of this sermon.  As a side note, the opening rhetorical pattern ("this sermon is not for you if...") is borrowed from a sermon by Walter Brueggemann which can be found in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).  Finally, the pictures that are posted in between the sections of this sermon were taken by me on a wonderful walk around Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia on November 10th.  Enjoy!


            This sermon is not for you…if you have never wandered.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never sat in darkness or in gloom.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never loathed what actually heals you.
            This sermon is not for you…if you have never staggered along the journey of life.
            If none of these verbs sound familiar to you…then this sermon is notfor you.  However, if, like me, you have experienced or are living them at this very moment…then this sermon is especially for you.  This story is for you because the Psalms are our story.  So perhaps, if we listen closely enough, we will note that the voices of Psalm 107 might not be as far removed as previously thought.
I
            I like to think of the author of Psalm 107 as a stage director, who has crafted several “scenes” and invites us to journey from one to another to arrive at the end of the story changed.  Furthermore, the psalmist cleverly uses verbs to direct us in the movement of this passage.  The psalmist begins the narrative with a verb directed, rather bluntly, toward you and me.  “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.”  Give thanks.  There you have it:  our first verb.  The psalmist then directs our gaze from our verb and toward two verbs that belong solely to God:  gather and redeem.  Simply put, we give thanks because God gathers and redeems.  Now, thanks to the verbs of the Psalmist, you and I know exactly what to look for in the rest of the story.
II
Our first scene opens as the “Wanderers" take the stage.  They have two big verbs:  the find no way and then they faint.  We watch this scene with a great deal of empathy for we all, I suppose, at some time or another, search for that “inhabited town,” that place where we will have purpose instead of meaninglessness, that place where our hunger and thirst will be perished and wandering will give way to exploring and fear will give way to curiosity.  After finding no way and fainting, the Wanderers cry out to the Lord.  And then the One who has gathered and redeemed delivers and leads.  The Lord hears their cries and leads them by a straight way, a just and upright path, to an inhabited town where their stomachs are filled and their thirst satisfied.  As we begin our movement to the next scene, a musical interlude reaches our ears that we will hear again throughout this story:   
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind. 
For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things."

III
            The second scene begins as the moving Wanderers exit stage left and we turn stage right to see the “Sitters.”  They, it would seem, do not even possess the energy to wander.  Instead, they sit in their darkness and gloom, prisoners of misery and in irons.  However, this is no unjust circumstance, for they have rebelled and spurned.  They have fallen down under the weight of their own hard labor.  In their misery, darkness, and gloom, they repeat the refrain of the Wanderers and cry out to the Lord.  This time, the Psalmist gives God three new verbs in response to this gut-wrenching plea for salvation:  saved, brought, and broke.  God saves them from their distress, brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.  The movement to the next scene continues as the musical refrain begins again: 
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind,
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.”
IV
            The third scene opens with the “Loathers.”  They are called as such because, according to the Psalmist, they loath any kind of food.  In sharp contrast to the Wanderers who wander the desert in search of the smallest scrap of sustenance, the Loathers cannot bring themselves to be nourished by the smorgasbord sitting right in front of them.  Why, we might ask?  Because they are sick through their sinful ways and endure affliction by their own iniquities.  Their sickness is so prevalent that they draw near to the gates of death.  The Psalmist does not let them off the hook by giving them a passive verb such as “were drawn.”  No, the Loathers are active agents in their own distress and draw themselves near the gates of death.  Once again, the pattern continues, and the Loathers join the chorus of the Wanderers and the Sitters and cry out to the Lord.  The Lord, in response, saved, sent, healed, and delivered.  God saved them from their distress by sending out God’s word to heal them and deliver them from destruction.  And as the camera turns to the next scene, the refrain again continues:
            “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
                        for his wonderful works to humankind.
            And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
                        and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.”
V
            Our fourth scene introduces to us the “Staggerers.”  Perhaps worried that we might lose attention during this rather long narrative, the director throws us a curveball by introducing to us these characters.  Unlike the Wanderers, the Sitters, and the Loathers, the Staggerers are not victims of their own doing but instead find themselves amidst a storm of God’sown doing.  In the chaos of the stormy wind and the incessant barrage of waves, their courage melts and they reel and stagger like drunkards, so much so that they are at their wits’ end.  To no surprise, the Staggerers join their sisters and brothers the Wanderers, the Sitters, and the Loathers, and cry out to the Lord in their trouble.  The Lord responds and brings them out of their distress, makes the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.  And the Psalmist tells us that they were glad because they had quiet, because God brought them to their desired haven.  Together at last on the stage in front of us, the Wanderers, the Sitters, the Loathers, and the Staggerers sing the refrain that, by now, is familiar to our ears: 
            “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
                        for his wonderful works to humankind.
            Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
                        and praise him in the assembly of the elders.”
VI
            The fifth and final scene introduces the main character (who actually gave the script to the director in the first place).  This character goes by many names (“Lord” perhaps being chief among them) but in this scene is called “The Turner.”  He is called as such because the Turner turns the rivers into a desert and turns a desert into rivers.  The Turner is introduced as the one whom all along has possessed the ability to turn the Wanderers into sheltered ones, the Sitters into freed ones, the Loathers into healed ones, and the Staggerers into glad ones.  The Turner allows all of the characters we have met so far to sow and plant and receive a fruitful yield.  Through the blessing of the Turner, they do not decrease but multiply. 

VII
            As the curtain comes down on and we are left pondering the story of the Wanderers, the Sitters, the Loathers, the Staggerers, and the Turner, the director comes out front and addresses us directly, saying:
            “The upright see [these things] and are glad;
                        and all wickedness stops its mouth.
            Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
                        and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”
           
            This is much to consider, indeed!  There are many wanderers, sitters, loathers, and staggerers in this world, but there is only one Turner.  Only thischaracter can bring us from the depths of our despair and the prison of our misery.  Because of this good news, the Psalmist invites us to be wise and heed these things, to realize that this story both begins and ends with the Turner’s steadfast love.  The Psalmist also lets us in on a little secret:  the lowering of the curtain did not actually end this story, for it is only intermission.  Much to our surprise, you and I are no longer members of the audience but then again perhaps we never really were in the first place.  We are active participants in the story of God’s steadfast love and we will never be the same for God has gathered and redeemed and we must give thanks!
Comment

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

A Darkness Perished

Mark 10:46-52
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 
http://matthewpaulturner.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/light.jpg
            It had been years, years, since he had seen the light of day, sitting by the side of that dusty, unforgiving road.  Beauty, he had once seen.  Color, he had once tasted.  Sunsets, he had once embraced.  His legs, once strong and stable, now lay surrendered beneath his feeble frame, withered by the long march of time.  He used to cherish his long walks, especially this time of year.  His eyes would marvel at the beauty of the fall leaves beside the silver streams.  He would follow the path as his eyes guided his feet, which in turn guided his thoughts and his prayers.
            But then….darkness.  He didn’t know why.  Some told him it was because of some terrible transgression that he must have done and others thought it due to an even greater sin by his parents.  But whatever reason, to him it didn’t matter.  Gone was his sight, lost was his light, empty was his life. 
            It’s true, what they say, about the other senses sharpening when another dies.  His ears and nose began to shoulder the weight that his eyes had so long carried.  They taught him, after years and years, every note of the symphony that surrounded him as he sat by the roadside.  Each morning, as he shook off the chill of the night’s darkness, the song began with a solitary rooster, calling out of the emptiness, ushering the orchestra to life. 
            From a distance, off to his left, he could always make out the clanging of dishes as a mother prepared breakfast for her children.  Soon after, the smell of spices and incense crept up his nostrils as the street vendor next to him opened shop.  As the city awakened and the footsteps began to shuffle past him, the priests would walk by, muttering their prayers, heading off to the temple to be nearer to God.  He pulled his cloak tighter around him for the morning had yet to shed its chill.  He always eagerly awaited the splash of warmth that the sun brought as it emerged from its hiding.  He did not, however, greet the dust with the same gratitude for the symphony of feet always kicked dust in his face as the intruder caked his lungs and throat.  Coughing and sputtering, his wiry fingers embraced the cup that he extended daily in the hope of mercy.
            Bartimaeus was his name.  Bar-timaeus; literally, “son of honor.”  The title just rubbed salt in the wound.  He had once had honor, purpose, direction.  But no more.  Now the Son of Honor sat by the roadside and begged, his eyes glazed over.  What he wouldn’t give to see again, to walk again, to have purpose again!
            A sharp curse and a biting pain in his leg interrupted his thoughts.  A man (a priest, Bartimaeus presumed from the prayers that had preceded him) had tripped over his feeble legs.  No doubt having had his eyes gazing reverently upon the heavens, the priest recovered from his stumble and continued his walk and followed along his way.  As the curses disappeared in the distance, the blind beggar continued listening to the surrounding symphony.
            His ears had grown accustomed to the content of the conversations that journeyed past him day after day, month after month, year after year.  Another shooting had happened a few days ago.  Some more politicians are promising salvation.  High unemployment and low job growth.  It was all part of the same round sung in endless repetition.  Same today as it was yesterday and most likely the same as it will be tomorrow.
            But lately whispers have been creeping into the scripted symphony of his surroundings.  These new conversations, barely audible to all but the most trained ear, bring forth a note of improvisation and curiosity to his life.  Amidst the din of sound, he has heard whispers of a man who silences demons, who touches, actually touches, a leprous person and makes him whole.  Whispers of a man who heals withered hands, and lifts seizing children, and raises dying daughters, and feeds fields of people.  The other day, he even heard a whisper of this person who opened the ears of a deaf man and brought speech back to his tongue!  Why, just this morning, he had overheard a woman speaking of a man who spit in the dirt and made mud and rubbed it in the eyes of a blind man just like him, who was then able to see everything clearly!
            And then, it happens!  The symphony changes key, the tempo quickens as the feet of the crowd surrounding him scurry off in the distance.  Suddenly, he is left alone.  Quietness, at this time of day, was unheard of.  He straightens up as he sat on the road to better listen in the direction he had heard the people go.  Two whispered words he had manages to capture before the swarm of people excitedly ran off:  he saves
            In the silence, he wonders:  could it be?  Could he be? 
            Then his ears detect the silence being pushed away.  The echoes of the crowd bounce off the sides of the buildings and he hears excitement, shouting, curiosity, and wonder.  The tempo quickens again as the people approach his corner of the roadside.  As they round the bend and the chorus erupts he sees it, something he hasn’t seen in what seems like countless years:  light!  A light, however small and faint, explodes into the darkness that has so long covered his eyes. 
            As the crowd surrounding the glimmer of brightness comes ever closer, a primal cry erupts from his breast with a voice that he did not know that he possessed.  “Mercy!” he cries, “mercy on me!”  An uncomfortable hush silences the crowd that is immediately replaced with harsh voices of rebuke.  Hush!  Shut up!  Be quiet, for God’s sake! 
            Without hesitation he cries out with an even more passionate fervor:  “Mercy! Mercy on me!!!”  And before the crowd can begin its next wave of reproach the light freezes.  The next three words he hears come directly from the light, not words of rebuke or rejection, but three words of a curious grace: “call him here.”
            A power, not of his own, raises him from the dusty ground.  He has been called; no one has ever called him!  Others begin to cough and wheeze as his cloak is thrown from his body and flies into the wind, shedding its deep layers of dust.  The light suddenly becomes stronger as he hears the question he never could have imagined ever being asked:  “what do you want me to do for you?”
            He didn’t even have to think.  The reply arrives naturally and passionately from his lips:  “My Teacher, let me see again!”  He can’t even pay attention to the next words that come from his teacher’s mouth for his eyes are too caught up in the mystery.  The light that had exploded into his darkness begins to dance playfully around the darkness, perishing its captivity.  The sounds of the crowd disappear as he watches the light splash colors of deepest blue and brightest yellow and wondrous orange. 
            Blinking, he adjusts to the light, the warmth, and tears begin to wash the dust that has too long made its home in his eyes.  Standing before him, the light welcomes him. But this light is a light that he doesn’t remember ever witnessing even before the days of his blindness.  This light is not what it had been before.  This light brings forth more questions than it does answers.
            “Go!” the light tells him, “your faith has made you well!” 
“No!” he replies, “I will not go, I cannot go.”
The light again begins to move and the man who had been blind follows.  He follows with a strength and a courage that he did not know that he had. 
And as his eyes begin their abundant feast, he knows that he must follow this light. 
For it will take no less than his lifetime to proclaim the mystery of this sight. 
2 Comments

Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

Back to the Font: A Sermon on Mark 10:35-45

Fall leaves in Silver Creek, which weaves its way around the campus of Silver Creek Presbyterian Church in Northwest, Georgia.  Date:  October 21, 2012.
         It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel.  They just don’t get it.  Time and time again in Mark’s narrative, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and his teachings.  They just can’t seem to grasp who Jesus is or what he is doing or what he is telling him he is going to do.  It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel because it is not the disciples, but a demon who actually first sees who the Christ is. 
I like to think that each year, when the disciples from the various gospels gathered for their annual reunion, that the disciples from Mark’s gospel always looked across the tables with envy at Luke’s and Matthew’s disciples.  In Matthew was apparently just as alarmed as we are at the disciples’ request because he instead read Mark’s account and decided to give the request to the mother of James and John.  Luke was probably even more alarmed at the disciples’ opportunistic self-serving quest for advancement for he leaves out this exchange all together.
But not Mark.  Here the sons of Zebedee don’t get off the hook like Matthew and Luke so graciously do.  Mark has them up front with the spotlight on their misunderstanding.  But of course, we wouldn’t know what that’s like, would we?
In today’s lectionary passage, Mark gives us a somewhat comical image of the two disciples, James and John, approaching Jesus, each perhaps anxiously nudging the other to come out and say it.  Relunctantly, but obviously loudly enough for other ten disciples to hear it, they say “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 
Now the parents in the room today have probably heard this request from their children and know that one must proceed with caution when responding to this wide-open petition.  Accordingly, Jesus covers his bases and, rather than responding in the affirmative, tells the disciples to elaborate upon their request.  Perhaps gaining a little confidence at not being completely shut down by Jesus, the sons of Zebedee continue:  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
I wonder if the disciples were aware of their body position as they asked Jesus this ironic question with their arms outstretched.  It is ironic because today’s reading comes after not the first or even the second but the third time that Jesus predicts his death to his followers.  Consequently this is not the first or even the second but the third time that they fail to understand the specificity to which Jesus was speaking.
After the first prediction/misunderstanding, Jesus attempts to clarify by naming the very means by which he is to be executed: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”  But to no avail.  After the second prediction/misunderstanding, Jesus decides to employ an object lesson and, while embracing a child, say “whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.”  But it didn’t catch on; not with Mark’s disciples.
Clearly, though, neither of these attempts rid the disciples of their misunderstanding so after this request to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in his glory, Jesus decides to change his tactics and instead steers the disciples towards water. 
In the middle of this passage, within two verses, Jesus uses some variation of the word “baptism” six times!  In addition, in the same two verses, he uses some variation of the term cup/drink six times as well.  Listen again for the repetition in Jesus’ reply to the disciples:  “You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  They replied, “We are able.”  Then Jesus said to them, “the cup that I will drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…”
Baptism (and water for that matter) is a risky and unpredictable thing in Mark’s gospel.  Through Jesus’ repetition of this term, Mark directs us back to the first chapter of his narrative when Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan and the heavens open up and God declares, “this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness.”  Immediately afterwards, Jesus is driven from his baptismal waters into the dessert to be tempted by the devil. 
It is on water that the disciples are called to follow Jesus.  It is by the water that Jesus gets on a boat so that the crowds do not crush him and the unclean spirits challenge him.  It is on the water that the disciples fear for their lives on a tiny boat as the waves beat upon it.  It is by the water that Jesus drives the demon into the two thousand pigs who run deranged into the lake.
Clearly, Mark saw water as a place of drama, uncertainty, and improvisation.  Mark knew that baptismal waters sometimes force us to get more than a few drops of water upon our heads.  Mark’s disciples, I think, were scared of getting wet and perhaps we are too.
My preaching professor at Columbia Seminary tells a story of how at the first church in which she served as a solo pastor, she quickly got the reputation for being rather liberal with the amount of water she used during baptism.  In fact, as a gift, one of the congregants gave her a picture frame with three consecutive photographs of a baptism at which she presided.  The pictures show her holding the child, splashing the water from the font on the child (and the surrounding area!).  The progression of the three photographs shows the elder who presented the child for baptism moving consistently further and further away from the abundant torrent baptismal waters.
Baptism, or, more accurately, what it calls us to do, can be a scary, messy thing.  I think Mark knew that and I think Jesus knew it too because, if you listen closely enough, you can hear a hint of fear in Jesus’ remark when he says, “you don’t know what you are asking.”  Jesus was scared, make no mistake about it.  But rather than move away from the waters of his baptism he does quite the opposite and heads back to the font. 
            Jesus knew that he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He knew that the time would come when he would stretch out his arms and embrace all of humanity.  He knew tough times were ahead.  I think it is exactly because of that that Jesus brings himself back to the waters in that moment when God looked upon him and said this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness.  Jesus, in his uncertainty, and fear, and humanness, leans on that promise that was made to him in the waters of his baptism.
Silver Creek Presbyterian Church near Rome, Georgia.  The church was founded in 1875 and is a member of Cherokee Presbytery.  Silver Creek Presbyterian Church Website

            It’s tough being a disciple in Mark’s gospel.  It’s tough being a disciple, period.  We just don’t always get it.  So let us, you and I, lead by Christ’s example and head back to the font.  As we forge ahead into uncharted territory, we will head back to the font.  As we journey with Christ, we will head back to the font.  As we journey together surrounded by the waters of Silver Creek, we will head back to the font.  As you and I both move forward from our respective faith communities splitting apart, we will head back to the font.  We will head back to the font to remember the promise that God makes to each and every one of us to sustain us as we drink the cup that Christ drank and walk with him to wherever he is calling his church to go.  And wherever Christ is calling us to go, and however chaotic the waters may seem to be, we will come to the font to remember that when God looked down and said “this is my child, whom I love dearly, in you I find happiness,” he wasn’t just talking about Jesus.  
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Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.

"Taste and See What?" - a sermon on Luke 24:13-49

          “The rising of the sun had made everything look sodifferent-all colors and shadows were changed-that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing.  Then they did.  The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan. 
            “Oh, oh, oh!” cried the two girls, rushing back to the Table.
            “Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have left the body alone.”
            “Who’s done it?” cried Susan.  “What does it mean?  Is it more magic?”
           “Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs.  “It is more magic.”  They looked round.  There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
            Recognizing Christ is no simple task.  Perhaps C.S. Lewis knew this well for he spent a large part of his life an atheist.  Always the intellectual, Lewis used to describe this phase as a time when he was “very angry with God for not existing.”  I believe that he knew that recognizing the Risen Christ is tricky business even when you think you know what it is that you are looking for.
            In his beautiful allegory for Christ, the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis describes the death of Aslan the Lion, that great Messianic savior of his book.  The young Susan and Lucy, who have followed him until this point, watch in horror as Aslan willingly gives himself as a ransom for them and all who we have met so far in the story, Lucy and Susan’s brothers Edmund and Peter, the faun Mr. Tumnus, Mr. and Ms. Beaver, the Giant Rumblebuffin, and perhaps even those in the army of the White Witch herself.
            Susan and Lucy watch as Aslan is bound and dragged to the stone table that has been prepared for his gruesome death.  Aslan is humiliated as his grand and proud mane is cruelly shaved from his flesh as the White Witch and her ghouls laugh.  Watching from a hidden place, the youngest sibling, Lucy, looks to Aslan’s face in this moment and notices that “the shorn face of Aslan looked to her braver, and more beautiful, and more patient than ever.”
            And then, with her silhouette cast against the moonlight, the Witch raises her arms with the strange and evil knife and plunges it into Aslan’s flesh and Aslan dies.
            Lucy and Susan stay with the body after the White Witch and her army march off to war now that the great Aslan has been defeated.
            But then it happens.  The morning comes and Susan and Lucy notice that the “rising of the sun made everything look different – all the colors and shadows were changed…”  That sunrise of that Easter morning was so blinding that they don’t see what C.S. Lewis so eloquently calls “the important thing.”  Upon hearing his voice, they turn around and barely recognize Aslan for his mane has miraculously grown back but he seems different, larger than life, alive and yet mysteriously something that we hadn’t seen before.  After defeating the armies of the White Witch and crowning Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter as Queens and Kings of Narnia, he quietly slips away only to reappear throughout the Lewis’ larger Chronicles of Narnia.
            The Resurrection often leaves us with more questions than it does answers.  Perhaps like Susan and Lucy, we are left blinking on that Easter morn, our eyes adjusting to the brilliant light, asking “who’s done it….what does it mean?”  Clearly the eyes of the followers on the road to Emmaus were still adjusting to the light for they do not recognize the Risen Christ.  They, for a moment, do not see the important thing.  Jesus, though, apparently seizes the moment and decides to have a little fun.
            “No, I don’t know what has happened.  We have a long walk; why don’t you tell me all about it?” 
            After the long walk, they urge him saying “stay with us!”  Jesus obliges and then does a curious thing:
                                    He takes bread.
                                    He takes bread and breaks it.
                                    He takes bread and breaks it and blessesit.
                                    He takes bread and breaks it and blesses it and gives it          
            And then they see the important thing. 
            Their eyes were opened and they recognized him. 
And then he vanishes. 
The bread quite literally falls into our hands as the One whom we now recognize disappears.  Slips away.  Just when we think we have this resurrection thing down, just when our eyes adjust to the light, just when we see the important thing, that thing vanishes.  Why?  We know that we are to taste and see.  Taste and see what?
            I don’t know exactly what the Resurrected Christ looks like.  But I have seen him and I will see him because his vanishing only draws me in deeper.  Make no mistake, Christ is Risen, he is risen indeed.  But he is on the loose, no longer confined to a cold stone table or a lonely tomb.  No longer restrained to one image or one place, he is on the loose.  The Risen Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread not so much because we recognize him as we did before, but rather because we taste and see a glimpse of what Christ is now capable of.  Christ vanishes, slips away, to remind not that he has abandoned us (for that is certainly not the case!), but rather, quite the opposite.  He vanishes to show us that he is out and about.  Christ leaves us wanting more because the Resurrected Christ looks different.
            For C.S. Lewis, the Resurrected Christ looks like a lion who breathes humanity back into persons turned into cold, lifeless statues.
            For the followers of Jesus, the Resurrected Christ looks like one who takes, breaks, blesses, and gives.
For a local congregation, the Resurrected Christ looks like a thousand multicolored paper cranes floating amidst the people.
            For someone who has screwed up, the Resurrected Christ looks like a verse of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
            For a congregation emerging from a split, the Resurrected Christ looks like a deliciousloaf of broken bread on a broken plate.
For a little girl taking Communion, the Resurrected Christ looks like a morsel of bread that she just has to have.
            Friends, the brilliant light of this Risen Christ makes everything look so different!  As we taste and see, our hearts will burn within us as we look back on where the Risen Christ has taken us, perceive where it is that Risen Christ is with us now, and hope toward that final banquet when the Risen Christ will vanish no more.  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Amen.
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Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.