Today was my first sermon as an ordained minister! Yay me! This Sunday I was at First Presbyterian in Cooperstown. They were a gracious group and extremely welcoming. I think the attendance was somewhere around 30 total, which means I was able to actually meet most of them, especially since there was a coffee hour beforehand and eating out afterwards..
Here is my sermon for today (if you want the texts, the week is Ordinary 14 – selected verses from Gen 24, Ps 45, Rom 7, Matt 11). I will openly admit that this is the text I had in front of me, but I’m notorious for ad libbing, so no guarantees as to what I actually said in the pulpit.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen
Let me start by saying “Wow.”
I have more than one reason to say wow.
First, Wow because I’m here. God brought me to a place I’d never expect but it turns out that North Dakota and the seven congregations of Tri-County are the right place for me to be. As a little joke, I always say that I just keep moving farther north with every move I make. I started in South Dakota not too far from the Nebraska border and have moved about 350 miles straight north from where I grew up. The other surprise to me being here was the fact that growing up I always expected to be a teacher and would have never chosen pastor as a vocation. But God knows better than I what I was supposed to do. I’m excited to be starting my ministry and hope to get to know you better.
Second, Wow because it’s been a time of change and transition for so many of us. And of course, all this reminds me that I am most definitely not in control, as much as I’d like to be. I don’t know about you, but I would like to have a neat and orderly existence, but I am also well aware that life is a better adventure when God keeps tossing wrenches in to keep us on our toes. I’ve spent the last few months and years watching the world change and seeing how much people are able to adapt and grow in the face of challenge. I have learned to appreciate the saying, “If God brought you to it, God will see you through it.” Life is seldom easy but always worthwhile. So much happens to help us find that our strength is in God, and we are most aware of this gift of God’s strength in our weakest moments.
Third, Wow because I love the readings for today. We have everything from the story of how Rebecca came to marry Isaac to a psalm about a princess, from Paul’s deep philosophy to Jesus’ words of comfort.
I love how our Genesis reading shows us how God is directly involved with selecting Isaac’s bride as the servant is able to ask for and receives a sign, and then we get to see the faith that Rebecca has as she agrees to leave her father’s house and marry a complete stranger.
I enjoy the Psalm because it is one I’ve never taken much time to read. As I was looking in my bible, I accidentally kept reading and noticed that we follow the Princess leaving her father’s house to join her husband’s with the psalm that showcases God as our fortress, which is much more familiar to me.
And then there’s Paul. I have a love/hate relationship with Paul. Today I love his message but hate how many times I had to read the sentences over and over in order to be able to understand them. I am truly grateful for those philosophy classes I had in college when it came to reading this passage from Romans. But when I slowed down, I really appreciated the wisdom he shared as he talked about how opposite our actions and intentions often are. What we do and what we ought to do are held in tension.
I think we can all understand this tension. There are times when we seek to be good, when we try to be perfect in our words and actions, but we ultimately fail. We may fall on our faces, the attempt backfires, or we end up sticking our foot in our mouth.
I can think of many times when words were misunderstood and lead to discord, or when intentions were honorable but effects caused more harm than good. What was sought was not what happened. We don’t always succeed.
And I have found that there are many times that I’ve had to stop when I’m already behind and have dug myself into a hole.
On the other hand, there are times when God uses us to do good for others when we least expect it.
I have had conversations with people who remember me for smiling and greeting them, for making them feel welcome, but I don’t remember the initial meeting that made such an impact in their lives.
I have heard stories about times when people marvel at how faithful people are able to handle so much pressure and can overcome adversity with grace, making it look easy. They make great witnesses to the strength and peace that God alone provides to those who follow God’s will.
Of course, the more I think about this, the more it makes sense that we seldom know we are doing good because we might become less humble and more prideful, which in turn could easily corrupt us and our intentions. We have potential in us to be great, but only when we are able to let go of our human desires and attempts to be perfect.
Today I want to think about how there is a tension between our attempts at being good and God’s ability to transform our weakness, our brokenness, our sin into something amazing.
I’m sure we can all think of times when we have blundered through life and made mistakes only to find that God was able to transform those moments with grace and unexpected joy.
God strengthens us when we are weak and vulnerable. Think of that footprints poem. God carries us when we cannot continue on without help.
And that is the message I hear coming through the gospel lesson for today: Jesus speaks words of grace to us in the midst of our weakness, our darkest moments, our fears, our limits, our inability to do good as we ought to, our pride, our pain, our burdens. Jesus speaks words of promise to us when we are broken and burdened and in need of help.
When our lives are most out of control – whether due to floods, fires, death, war, addiction, sorrow, grief, illness – when we seem to have nothing but the heavy burdens that weigh us down, that is when Jesus invites us to give up our burdens and give in to take his yoke that is much lighter than our burden.
As we celebrate our independence day, I cannot help but think of soldiers deployed to various parts of our country and world to help battle floods, fires and for freedom. And whenever I think of the soldiers, I cannot help but think of the families and communities who sit at home and worry.
And we also take time to remember those who have lost. Those who have lost homes to rising waters or raging fire. Those who have lost loved ones to tornadoes or illness. I remember those who grieve and mourn what and who they have lost.
The message is for them just as it is for all of us each and every day of our lives as we encounter various situations when we are challenged and fall short.
But maybe this message is more than an invitation. Unless I am much mistaken, these verses are in the imperative, which is also known as a command. Perhaps Jesus is not just inviting, but is gently commanding us.
I may not know the exact details of your life, but I’m positive that this message is for you and me and everyone else in the world.
Jesus graciously orders those of us who are tired and weary, those of us who have struggled and are still fighting, those of us who are the end of our ropes to come and follow.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.