I was honored to preach my husband’s installation service at Eastridge Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 8, 2015. Below is the text for the sermon, and the link to the church’s video recording is here.
The scriptural reference for the sermon is:
Psalm 19, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8.
I’m not usually one to watch the Oscars, but for some reason I did. Maybe it was the fact that I’m a part of a Facebook group that deiced to “live tweet” or “live chat” the event, or maybe it was the fact that I was home alone with kids in bed while Mason was at youth group. I don’t know why, but this year I actually watched the Oscars. In watching the Oscars I learned about a number of movies that aren’t exactly on the “toddler parent” to watch list. I mean, I’m still scratching my head over how Birdman was considered more award winning than Tinkerbell: The Secret of the Wings – which is some cinematic genius…Tinkerbell finds out she’s got a long lost twin sister who happens to be a winter fairy and Tinkerbell discovers a way for them to spend time together in each other’s seasonal homes… I digress. For whatever the reason, I watched the Oscars this year and while most people loved Lady Gaga’s rendition of songs from the Sound of Music – it was incredible, don’t get me wrong – the moment of the show that captured my attention was actually a musical performance by a musician I’ve never heard of (again, not on Disney) singing a piece from a movie that is also not on my toddler parent movie list.
Rita Ora’s performance of her song, “Grateful,” was moving. I don’t know the gist of the movie “Beyond the Lights,” but when I heard these words I paid attention. The words are about overcoming hurts but being thankful for the journey that included the items to overcome. You see, every preacher has a story, some two, of serving a congregation that is disheartening to hear. Some suffer, some are shamed, some are badly hurt, some are threatened, some have their families mistreated, and even some have a combination of all of the above. Sadly, the church isn’t always a place of love and warmth and welcome, particularly when a pastor might be seen as just passing through, or an outsider, or someone bringing too much change and too quickly. Unfortunately, every pastor has a story he or she can tell; some have even left service to the church over their stories.
Paul is no different in his ministry in Thessolonica as we see in this portion of his first epistle. Paul loved the Thessalonian believers and they grew together – these believers were essentially his children in the faith. He had been persecuted and mistreated for his ministry in Philippi, so not long after his departure from there did he form this new church and write to them. As dearly has he loved them, Paul’s ministry in Thessolonica was also met with difficulty and strife, eventually ending in a painful separation. Paul had to dispatch other ministers to help strengthen the congregation and he sent more ministry instructions along with noting a desire to form and nurture communities in his beloved Thessolonica. Despite his ministry troubles there.
When God calls us to ministry, we are not promised an easy road – just look at God’s own son’s ministry – but we are guaranteed that God’s called us to the ministry and our faithfulness is recognized. A call to ministry is a call to courage. It’s a stepping out in faith, a movement into the unknown with a blind trust of the one who has extended the call. Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians is considered eschatological because it’s primary focus is on the return of Christ and how our lives are to be shaped living in the expectation of an imminent return. Eschatalogical thinking has more than just future implications. This thinking orders our daily lives now. And I see such thinking and being present in this very congregation. Right here.
You have heard your Head of Staff say it many times in worship, “Can you feel it?” I ask you the same question: “Can you feel it?” Can you feel the presence of the kingdom right here in your midst? I ask you this question, because I want to point out to you that it exists. I feel it. I live it through you. And it’s powerful. But this powerful kingdom living brings with it obligations for the daily workings of Eastridge Presbyterian Church. This congregation must take to heart the encouragements in Paul’s message, remembering that every pastor in this church – and I’m not just talking about the ones with the letters R-E-V in front of their names – carries a story, some sort of baggage. And while there has been suffering and mistreatment and baggage before, every pastor in this church is “approved by God…entrusted with the message of the gospel.” Every pastor in this church serves “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” Kingdom living means that God has entrusted us with great responsibility and we are expected to please God in the ordering of our lives and ministry here and now. Can you feel it? Can you feel the ministry that God has called this church to do and be? Can you feel the excitement?
In the midst of the excitement, however, we have warnings. Eugene Peterson paraphrases parts of Psalm 19 accordingly: “There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger and directs us to hidden treasure. Otherwise, how will we find our way? Or know when we play the fool?” God’s word warns us of danger…we are always our own worst enemies. We are the ones who cause ministry to halt and fellow pastors to stumble. We are the ones who forget that we are to share life together, which means caring deeply. Peterson continues: “Keep me from my stupid sins, from thinking I can take over your work’ then I can start this day sun-washed, scrubbed clean of the grime of sin.” If we are to be in ministry and life with one another right in this very place, HERE, we must ask God to clean the slate. Remembering who called us to the work and for what purpose, we are obligated to pay attention to those things that might hinder the Spirit’s work in and through us.
I’m constantly amazed at the “stuff” going on in this place. This very building, this congregation, these very people. This place is abuzz. You’re mission-minded, scripturally and study focused, and fellowship-oriented. This church loves to worship – in music and song, in words and prayer, in stations and at the table, in silence and louder praise. You have three pastors, all young and energetic, and all from different places around the country and the world. You have children all over the place and welcome them as Christ welcomes all of God’s children. There is courage to do new ministry and make changes. There is no fear of worshipping in unique ways, even in blizzard (or what I consider to be blizzard) conditions. In short, this congregation pays attention to the eschatology and lives abundantly now. You truly do dream loudly! You see the call of God and trust in this call and the caller enough to do what needs to be done – even if it means hiring a third pastor.
You’ve heard Mason share with you before that his basis for youth ministry is 1 Thessalonians 2:8, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” This is a beautiful ideal for ministry as it says that love – the message of the gospel – is personal and dear and each and every person is deserving of this message. Paul uses the imagery of a nurse caring for her children when referencing the ministry in Thessalonica because it’s an image of dedication. Paul didn’t stop just at the message of the gospel when sharing – he shared the substance of the gospel, just as a nursing mother shares substance with her child. Paul is careful to note that as apostles of Christ, they may have made some mistakes in their ministry to the Thessalonians, but in spite of that they worked diligently to give of themselves fully because they were worth it. Paul was self-giving.
We are in the middle of Lent right now and as a congregation we are studying the Lord’s Prayer as a way of life. This past week we focused on “thy will be done.” If we are to be a place where the kingdom is alive and active and visible through Eastridge, we need to be a people who take time to inwardly reflect on how we are asking God to direct our ways. We need to be regularly saying “thy will be done” or “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord.” Life together is beautiful but it’s difficult. Sharing and caring deeply for another is draining, but more precious than there are word to describe. Ministry together is not in vain, but it’s also not going to be without blemish. Lent is a time for us to step back, re-assess, become aware of ourselves, focus on the future glory, and ask for God. Prayer and fasting and sacrifice are the traditional ways we view this season, and they should become second nature to our individual and corporate lives if we are to see the other as so dear, so deserving of not just the gospel but also the substance.
The revised common lectionary Old Testament text for this week is Exodus 20:1-7, better known as the Ten Commandments. These are words from God about relationship – the first five are about relationship with God and the second five are about being in right relationship with one another. Rev. Cliff Haddox of Central Presbyterian in Ohio says this: “The 10 commandments were given that we might be in better relationship with God and each other. Instead we look for ways to gain position through them. We point out the ones that we see people breaking while ignoring our shortfalls.” God gave us these commandments for the purpose of building life together and not for tearing one another down or gaining power over another. Sharing life, creating community, living the kingdom here and now requires us to care deeply enough to reject any thought that does not give life to another, for all are deserving of the substance of God in Jesus Christ.
Rita Ora’s words are this:
There were a lot of tears I had to cry through
A lot of battles left me battered and bruised
Now I was shattered to have my heart ripped in two
I was broken, I was broken,
There were a lot of times I stumbled and crushed
When I was only years down to my last chance
So many times when I was so convinced that
I was over, I was over
But I had to fall, To rise above it all
I’m grateful for the storm, Made me appreciate the sun
I’m grateful for the wrong ones, Made me appreciate the right ones
I’m grateful for the pain, For everything that made me break
I’m thankful for all my scars, ‘Cause they only made my heart
There are so many things to celebrate and be grateful for here at Eastridge. Today you are installing a new Associate Pastor for Youth and Families. You have three dynamite pastoral staff and amazing programming staff, too. The youth and children are vibrant, active and growing. The congregation is engaging one another in life through a strong Deacon ministry, and groups are gathering weekly to study God’s word and seek the Spirit’s guidance during this Lenten season. You worship together on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, where the word is proclaimed in dynamic and challenging ways and you are fed spiritually through beautiful musical gifts, as well. God is doing amazing things here, but it’s only because you’ve been courageous enough thus far to trust and see. And it’s only just beginning. My brother, ever the fount of profundity, shared with me yesterday this at my ordination: “as they say in the rap world…it’s Day One.” Well, Eastridge, I share with you that today, Rev. Mason Todd is being installed and “it’s Day One.” The courage that carried you thus far will need to be fortified and deepened. The slate is clean and God’s writing a new kingdom story here and now, starting today. There may have been suffering in the past – individually or corporately – but God’s doing a new thing, and none of the suffering or maltreatment is in vain. And you know why? Because God has deemed you worthy of receiving and living the substance of the Gospel. And in doing that, God has deemed you responsible for tenderly caring for everyone in your midst and everyone whom you meet.
I’ve not been here very long, but I can tell you with great certainty that you’ve become very dear to my family. “Hey Y’all!” were the first words you heard from Rev. Mason Todd as he candidate to become the Associate Pastor for Youth and Families. I’m pretty sure you were wondering what the APNC was thinking with an introduction like this in his brochure, but you accepted him, southernalities and all. You’ve shown us the substance of the gospel that tells us we are just as dear to you as you are to us. You see, we southerners are a different, rare breed, so accepting us and loving us as we are when you’re not one of us is quite impressive – and very much Holy.
For those who haven’t had the blissful pleasure of experiencing the southlands in person, allow me to enlighten you just a bit. Indulge me for a minute – I might get a little nostalgic… We give hugs when we first meet you. We say odd things like “well butter my buns and call me a biscuit” instead of “wow, that surprised me!” We eat strange foods – like peanuts that are boiled or corn ground finely into a grit. We love our tea sweet, like diabetic coma kind of sweet, and don’t even ask us to put a sugar packet in a glass of cold iced tea and call it “sweet.” We drink Cokes, not sodas or pop; Coke. Much like y’all, college sports are nearly a religion and often our local pastors are saying the prayers at the game over the PA systems. In the south, snow is nice, just as long as we don’t have to go anywhere but to our windows in our pajamas with our mug of cocoa, and it must melt by the next morning. Cold means anything below 50 degrees, and sometimes 60 degrees. Macaroni and cheese is a vegetable, banana pudding is a fruit and pies are made of peee-cans. And to us, you are either: you, y’all or all y’all, depending on how many of y’all there are at the given moment. We southerners are a breed all our own, and in spite of that, you’ve embraced one and his family – all 14 of them, today.
Eastridge, stuff is going on here. Right here. God is present. Your leaders are faithful and very courageous. Your deacons exhibit what it means to give of self. Stuff is happening here. Can you feel it? Can you feel the presence of the kingdom right here in your midst? It’s here and that’s really exciting stuff. But it’s really scary stuff, too, because it means responsibilities are increased. It’s time to remember that we are “approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel.” As pastors, I challenge each and every one of us to make Psalm 19:14 our prayer this week: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
So, I’ll end with saying this to you: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you no only the gospel of God but also our very own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
Will you share your selves with us?
And with everyone here?
And with everyone OUT THERE?
To God be the glory.