AUGUST 2, 2020
A Message for Today
Rev. Deanie Strength
Do you believe in miracles? I do! And I’ve got a miracle story for you today. Back in October, a couple weeks before her thirteenth birthday, our daughter Nell expressed her desire to adopt a dog, preferably a golden retriever puppy. At that time, we were away from home most of the day with school and work and rehearsals often went into the night. I couldn’t see how we could invite a puppy into the mix and tried stalling as best.
Then came COVID-19 and having a dog seemed like just what Nell – and the rest of us – could use for comfort and companionship and to get exercising again. So we stepped up our search. Online we followed local rescue groups and The Humane Society, Animal Control, and Facebook posts looking for just the perfect dog, preferably one with even just a little bit of golden retriever.
And last Saturday I spotted a dog named “Libby” on the local Humane Society site – she was a beautiful mid-sized 2-year old girl with some golden retriever and perhaps a little German shepherd in her, but then I read the fine print and shook my head “no.” There was a catch. “Libby” didn’t travel alone. She was part of a bonded pair. If you adopted Libby, you also had to take her buddy Bentley, a stocky fellow with the face of a bearded collie and the body of a basset hound. One dog sounded great but two? Did we have enough space? Enough energy? Enough time to take responsibility for two medium-sized dogs (to go with our four people and three cats?) My assessment ended with “no, we do not” so I decided not say anything to Nell about their availability.
But then this Monday, Nell discovered them on the website herself. And since I’d found it pretty unusual to see a listing for a dog like Libby, I decided we’d go take a look. And once we stood in the pen with them and got a sense of their nature, our minds opened a bit and we asked if we could have more time with them the next day. The shelter staff said, “yes,” so on Tuesday afternoon, we were able to take them off campus and run them through every test we could think of. The result? We wanted them both! Thinking back to October and my resistance to dog adoption, this truly was a miracle change of heart! And now, after five full days with us, it appears that the space in our little home has expanded and the love in our little hearts has multiplied. (Well, we still haven’t fully sold all the three cats so we continue to pray for another miracle – peace and harmony among the different species!)
The miracle in today’s passage also involves multiplication. A few items provided by a handful of people (who doubted their efficacy) were placed in Jesus’ hands, and he multiplied them to fill the hunger of a multitude. You see, in the economy of the Kingdom of God, compassion, kindness and sharing make miracles happen. When we offer something that we have – no matter how paltry or ordinary – and put it in Jesus’ hands, things happen for the good. People are provided food to eat…stray animals and stray people find safe places to lay their heads… scared people meet faithful people who show them compassion… wounded people get access to tools and technicians that can help them heal.
God works with people to make these kinds of miracles happen. The disciples put what food they have in Jesus’ hands and he multiplies it. Five loaves and two fish get the miracle process started. Once they open their minds to simply name what they DO have to share, Jesus gets to work solving a problem that seems overwhelmingly large – food for 5000 plus women and children.
I marvel at the spaciousness of Jesus who keeps his heart and his mind open with compassion to others no matter what THEY are going through – and no matter what HE is going through. His gracious insistence that the people’s hunger be met immediately is even more powerful when we realize the traumatic event he and his followers had experienced just before this crowd gathered around them. The reason Jesus was going off by himself in a boat was because of the “news” he had just gotten – his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded. Yes, the first 13 verses of this chapter in Matthew recount the murder of John by the son of King Herod known as Herod Antipas. John was the precursor to the Jesus movement. He had preached for people to prepare the way for Jesus and had baptized him and so many others at the River Jordan. This righteous man’s head had been served up on a platter at Herod’s birthday party as a gift to his step-daughter/niece who had done a dance for him that brought him a lot of pleasure. You see, John had been in prison for calling Herod and his wife Herodias out for adultery and when Herodias’ daughter got to request a party favor, she asked for this grotesque gift as a party favor. And because Herod cared more about how he looked before his dinner guests than anything else, he gave it to her.
Compare the selfish and brutish behavior of Herod Antipas to the sensitivity and consideration for human need practiced by Jesus. The crowds coming to Jesus were likely also affected by John’s death, many of them had probably even been baptized by John. Maybe they were coming heading towards Jesus hoping he would call out the injustice and senseless violence, or at the least, comfort them and heal them of their traumatized and wounded spirits. Though he himself might have wanted solitude to grieve and pray about what had happened, he was moved by their suffering to step out of his plan and go help them. And at the end of the day, he has satisfied their hungry hearts – and filled their hungry stomaches. This is what the people who sought him out that day needed from him – and this is why people are still following him today.
Perhaps you have tuned in to worship this morning to hear words and music about God that will heal your wounded heart and soul. All of us are carrying something heavy that we need to release to Jesus for healing and restoration. Take a deep breath now and know that Jesus is walking alongside you, ready for you to put that burden on him.
But I hope that you have also tuned in to worship because you are looking for inspiration and guidance from the Lord for how to provide for the needs of people around us who are either experiencing – or are on the verge of experiencing – a darkness falling on them like the night that is encroaching on the crowds in our passage. People are losing jobs, facing poverty, and looking for people to follow who can offer healing and hope. Listening to the stories of Jesus our Lord, and letting the Spirit move in our hearts and minds, builds courage within us to learn more about the suffering and trauma that people are carrying. From this passage we see that participating in another’s suffering opens the door to participation in God’s miracles of abundance. And like the disciples, we DO have things in hand that we can bring forth to meet people’s needs. Today, I am here to remind us that God has given us materials for miracles.
Like the disciples holding out their five loaves of bread and two fish when Jesus says, “You give them something to eat!”, we have resources to share. We have resources that can be used for education and to build community support. We have skills. We have curious and open minds. We have access to the Internet. We have a desire to be known as people who “reflect the face of Jesus to the world” – our church’s motto. I also have a dream of being a safe person – even an ally – for disenfranchised people, people of color, people who are weak and vulnerable. That dream keeps leading me deeper into examination of my participation in systems and structures that may be causing others to suffer. And so I continue to offer Jesus my time. I continue to listen to podcasts, read books, and participate in virtual group activities on topics that are challenging me to examine and engage my beliefs and behaviors about justice, racism and reconciliation, and respect for all people. I trust that if we each offer Jesus what little bits we have, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will make a feast where all can be seen and eat until they are satisfied.
As I did last month, I invite you to join me on this journey. On August 10, I am going to participate in a 4-week online course on Monday nights (7-9 PM) through the PCUSA on Matthew 25. This is a denominational initiative that congregations and mid-councils are adopting believing that the foundation of congregational vitality is living out Jesus’ statement to his disciples to help the hungry, oppressed, the imprisoned, and the poor. Remember that phrase, “Whenever you did it for the least of these, you did it to me”? It’s in Matthew 25. This study will compliment another Zoom study/action project I’m involved with through First Presbyterian Church in Statesboro (a “Matthew 25 Church”) which is leading participants to set goals about being conscious and hospitable in our settings in life and church. Our first meeting was based on a book by Jennifer Harvey called Raising White Kids to help families equip children to be active and able participants in our racially diverse yet tension-filled society. A second session will be in August on Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made for Whiteness. And the third session in September will be on Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be An Antiracist.
Working as I am with the churches of Savannah Presbytery, I am inspired to keep advocating for giving to the SIPC COVID relief fund and working with our Mission Committee to find other ways to be involved in the suffering of the vulnerable in our community. St. Simons Presbyterian Church has raised enough money to give over 500 $250 grants to Glynn County residents directly impacted by the pandemic. Wilmington Island Presbyterian Church, just down the road, recognized the challenges the pandemic has presented to members of the Hispanic Fellowship at Swainsboro Presbyterian Church and has donated a van to the church to help transport people in the surrounding Latino Community. Metter Presbyterian Church added to that fryer chickens from their local chicken plant. I also know of church members throughout the presbytery who are sewing masks and quilting lap quilts and knitting prayer shawls to meet people’s needs for contact and comfort.
These days of the pandemic have been like the old tale Stone Soup. In the version written by Jon Muth in 2003, the year our son James was born, three strangers, hungry and tired, pass through a war-torn village. Embittered and suspicious, the people hide their food and close their windows tight. That is, until the clever strangers suggest making a soup from stones. Intrigued by the idea, people start offering what little bits they have – one brings salt, pepper, and spices, another a bowl of carrots, someone offers five big onions, after awhile come the fresh noodles, pea pods, and cabbages. Before they know it, they have made a feast fit for a king. But the real miracle occurs when the soup is prepared and all of the villagers come out of their seclusion to sit at the table together and enjoy the meal.
This kind of miracle meal is still happening in the real world! Better than any sermon illustration I could tell you about is an actual video introducing you to a group of Presbyterian women who are members of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Lolita, California who have been offering what they have to residents of a homeless camp in the Los Angelos area. Inspired by Matthew 25, they really bring today’s scripture to life. Let’s watch… VIDEO
Sharing with one another can heal hearts and save lives. Friends, let us be moved by our relationship with Jesus Christ to open our hands and give what we have to meet the needs around us. In God’s hands, our humble offerings can be multiplied. We can work with God to light the darkness which leads so many to despair and hopelessness. When there is an opportunity to do something, let it begin with us. To God be the glory. Amen.
A Year with Matthew for a Matthew 25 Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship, 2020.
Muth, John. Stone Soup, Scholastic Press, 2003.
JUNE 28, 2020
A Message for Today
Rev. Deanie Strength
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Dear friends in Christ, it seems like a lifetime ago now, but do you remember the prayers we placed in our weekly bulletins and newsletters last year as part of our strategic planning process? Over a period of months until the end of 2019, we prayed short 2-3 sentence prayers that God would open opportunities for ministry for us and that our church leaders and families would reach our potential in the Lord. We prayed for God’s will, not our own, as we explored new initiatives and pathways. And we prayed that we would trust God as we committed to the next missionary journey for Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.
I am glad we included prayer in our efforts because we are seeing now, more than ever, that no thought of our own could have been adequate to prepare us for the context of ministry and life we now find ourselves in. Only the power of God – working through us, speaking through us, enlivening us, and guiding us – can help us meet this moment of pandemic and related upheaval with hope and courage.
This is not the 2020 we were expecting! When we started paying attention to the approach of “2020”, it was quite natural to associate the year with the idea of “20/20 Vision” and the concept of perfect eye-sight and clarity. Like Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church engaging in a Strategic Planning process, many other businesses and schools used 2019 to re-assess and re-tool our systems and values so that when 2020 started, we’d be able to see the times clearly and launch into a new decade working for the glory of God.
But now that we are smack dab in the middle of 2020, we realize that our prayers must continue and our reliance on the Holy Scripture is even more critical because what we are seeing around us is certainly disorienting and concerning. We can thank God for our scripture guidebook giving us lenses to see how we should maneuver and keep our focus on the mission we’ve been given. With God’s help, we can not only “see” what’s in front of us better, we can discern what to do about what we’re seeing.
Today’s passage is the conclusion of Jesus’ instructions to the 12 apostles who he was preparing to send out into Galilee with the authority to cast out evil spirits and heal every kind of disease and illness. He elaborates that this means preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, healing the sick, raising the dead, curing those with leprosy, and casting out demons. And he needs them to do all this without any money or change of clothes and sandals – not even a walking stick. (Going without any extras was a way to expose false prophets and mercenaries who would object to such self-sacrifice.)
It’s interesting to note that this particular mission was limited to the region of Galilee and was intended for the people of Israel since it was not until Jesus’ resurrection that the apostles were charged to go to the Gentiles and Samaritans and even the ends of the earth. When the apostle’s set out for this mission, they were to find a “worthy” follower of Jesus who had already embraced the proclamation of the Gospel – not just someone who would offer them free room and board. To be worthy was to be willing to follow Jesus in costly discipleship even if this meant crossing the authorities or even their own family members.
Jesus was very honest with his apostles about the consequences they would face in taking the necessary risks. Claiming authority to free people from sick thoughts and every strain of disease would likely cause them legal problems or get a rise out of someone in authority who prioritized “law and order” over the healing and freedom that God wants for all. Loving Jesus more than they loved their own family members could cause those family members to betray them for their disloyalty to their clan and ancestors. They could be disregarded, attacked, even hated, but they were not to worry or be afraid. God would give them the right words at the right time and they could trust that God’s love was strong enough to protect their soul which no human could touch or violate.
If apostles could be threatened by the authorities – or their own families – the importance of finding fellow disciples who had embraced the Gospel and could receive them and offer hospitality was vital. In fact, Jesus said earlier in this passage that if the apostles found one of their hosts “unworthy”, they were to leave and find another host to receive them. So committed disciples at home who could offer refuge and shelter to disciples out on the way (disciples who might have a mob after them!) were critical for Jesus’ mission to succeed).
And that is still true today. As righteous people of faith take risks “out there” in God’s name to speak out against the evil spirits of racism, violence, poverty, lawlessness, and murder and as they seek to heal people of diseases by naming unforgiveness, disrespect, and generational trauma and abuse as causes of pain to bodies and spirits, they need their own people, other people of faith, to “receive” and give them respect and kindness as they respond to God’s call on their lives. Being an apostle or a prophet or a righteous teacher is serious business, particularly when a health pandemic like this one exposes the many ways that the most vulnerable of God’s people are hurting. Deep wounds are being exposed in our world and I believe that Jesus is hoping all of his disciples will find their place as healers and way makers in this time.
Last weekend, the commissioners to the Presbyterian Church General Assembly convened and indicated their willingness to receive a healing message when they elected co-moderators Reverend Gregory Bentley, an African-American man from North Alabama Presbytery, and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, a Native-American who is the executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies which includes the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. I appreciated hearing from one of our presbytery’s commissioners who voted for them saying they had a “sense of direction with a missional approach.” Yesterday, when the business of the meeting began in earnest, the new moderators released an image they will use for their tenure to describe their slogan, “Learning from the past, living in the present.” The image is called a “Sankofa” and is of a bird standing in the Mississippi River with its feet pointing forward and its head looking backward to the wisdom learned from the past, embodied in the egg it is placing on its back. I am encouraged by what they are saying and hope to learn from them as they bring the wisdom of their faith and real experience to our denomination at this time.
One of the most important tasks I feel I have as moderator of Savannah Presbytery is encouraging our churches and its members to be willing to make space to hear the prophets and the apostles and the most vulnerable “little ones” among us who are saying the Kingdom of God is near and we can participate by opening our hearts. We may not be the ones called to stand out in front of everybody, but we can be faithful by
providing a safe, welcoming reception to those who have heard God whispering to them to speak out against that which threatens another person’s life or spirit. Both speaking out and being willing to listen are acts that require courage because, as Jesus says, following him can divide even the closest of families. But our passage today reminds us that there is a reward for taking either risk. If we treat a prophet with respect as though they speak for God (even if the world isn’t ready to hear their words), we will get the same reward as the prophet. And if we receive righteous people because their actions are right and just, then we will be given a reward like theirs. And if we extend our hand to the most vulnerable of Jesus’ followers – those he loves especially – even if it is just to give them a cup of cold water, there will be a reward.
And so I am trying to make space in my life to let the Spirit help me know when I’m one to be speak up – or one to be supporting those who are by listening more and better to “voices of people long-silenced.” I invite you to join me. Since pastors and lay people are sending good resources my way as the presbytery moderator, I can share a growing list of books that have been recommended to me as well as an invitation to join a virtual presbytery book club on Matthew 25 starting in July. I have also learned of several online courses, daily email programs, even a daily walking program with a soundtrack designed to help participants come alongside people who have suffered prejudice and offer instead respect and gratitude for their perspective, strength, and perseverance.
Doing hard things for the love of Jesus requires the commitment of the individual and the support of the faith community – that’s why Jesus calls those twelve disciples by name but send them out in a group of 12. So while I know that my desire is to do something to venture into new territory of thought and action, I know that I am more likely to follow through and make a dent for the kingdom if others join me in this endeavor. If you have been hearing Jesus whisper in your ear to learn more and do more to also “hear the voices of the long silenced” and fight the evil of racism and hatred, please email me or call me. There is work we can do and we can do more for the kingdom of God if we do it together.
And as always, thank you for receiving me into the ministry of Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church and always lending your ear to my thoughts as I grow in discipleship and service. To God be the glory this day – and forevermore. Amen.
May 10, 2020
Rev. Deanie Strength
Opening Thoughts on Scripture
SLIDE (Bird with two babies under the wing)
By the grace of God, we have walked another week into new territory on our wilderness journey. There have been moments of refreshment for our congregation. On Monday, the Presbyterian Women Coordinating Council had its first Zoom meeting with 100% attendance. And on Thursday, we broadcast an inspiring and uplifting National Day of Prayer service for the Skidaway community. I want to thank Jeff who insisted the prayer service could be carried out safely and worked with our AV team to make it happen. When the stay-at-home order first went into place, there was talk about cancelling this service, but Jeff recognized that we needed prayer in times like this more than ever.
I also want to thank Eleanor Graham, PW Moderator and elder, who has taken the initiative to work with Jim Brown to strengthen our ability to enjoy virtual community. Jeff and elder Thom Greenlaw have been helping us gather by Zoom for a virtual coffee hour for several weeks and now you will notice that as you are watching our service today, you are able to join in a “chat room” to say hi and share some encouragement. This chat room will be open now 30 minutes prior to and following each service so jump in and say “hi” – send up some virtual hearts to say you like something you see or that you are thankful for some aspect of the service.
Staying in gratitude is such an important tool to help us keep our hearts light rather than weighed down with brooding and frustration. I had my first good cry on Friday about the many losses that are being experienced far and wide, but I found gratitude in preparing this message for all of you. I imagined you in your places in the pews, giving your smiles of encouragement. I am thankful for you and I am thankful for the good promises of God that I encountered as I went looking for words to bring you hope and comfort today.
Today’s passage helps us connect to the caring spirit of God as well as the caring spirit of our mothers (both the ones in whose wombs God knit us together – Psalm 139: 13-14 – and those who God may have given us through adoption or familial ties). The passage is drawn from the Gospel of John and recalls the moment when Jesus promises the disciples the peace of mind brought by the Holy Spirit who would come to them in his absence as the “paraclete” or the “nearby called one” who will provide comfort.
(Slide of mother with baby chicks) This slide is the vision that comes to my mind when I think of the comfort and care of the Holy Spirit and hear passages like Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” And this slide reminds me of the care and love my mother has given my sister and me for almost 50 years. She sent us this photo several years ago and, since the Holy Spirit makes appearances in the Bible like a dove, I have used this image to describe for our preschoolers the care that our parents and our God seek to provide for us. I invite you to hold this image and these thoughts in your mind as we listen to God’s word in the Gospel of John 14:15-27.
A Message for Today
I hope I am not alone in having a few “mom” stories I regret. One of mine is the day I was so overwhelmed with thoughts and responsibilities that I drove about 10 minutes away from a park where my children were playing thinking they were in the backseat of the car playing with their devices. By the time I got back to them, there was a little panic on their part and mine.
Thankfully, we were able to overcome that trauma, but it really does hurt to be left behind, especially by the one you look to for care and direction. Jesus knew his followers had leaned on him and would feel fear about his absence so here he tells them about the gifts coming their way:
1) The Holy Spirit who is going to come and stay with them throughout their life span, even throughout the vast span of history, to lead them to truth and wisdom
2) Peace of mind and heart which will come as they breathe in the Spirit – or “pneuma” in Greek – and are taught in all truth and wisdom
The Holy Spirit – or paraclete – will be their counselor, advocate, helper, and friend – aspects of God that sound very “motherly” to me.
(Slide of MOTHER OWL) For the last couple of weeks on the Isle of Hope where I live, my neighbors and I have been focused this bard owl as she displays some of these “motherly” characteristics. About a month ago, she and her two owlets (SLIDE of TWO BABY OWLS) were spotted in a hollow of a tree on the bluff which has been a nesting spot in recent years. Though we can easily see them with our own eyes, the wonderful photography of resident Bill Tongue posted on our Isle of Hope Facebook page, have enabled us to enjoy close-up shots of the maturing babies.
We’ve watched them grow brave enough to come to the edge of the hollow watching for their mother to return with food for them to eat. We’ve heard their call and her response from a tree on the other side of the street. Last week their wings had fledged enough that they were ready to start working those wings and try flying themselves. They went for it, making it far enough to land on a nearby branch of another live oak and hop around freely for a couple of days. But when one thought its perch was more secure than it was, it fell two stories to the ground and got all tangled up in some Spanish moss. There it lay at the base of the tree stunned and immobile for a few minutes. (Slide of owl with funny wing)
But the mother stayed close. She flew to a nearby branch and stood guard while Mr. Tongue disentangled the bird. And she stayed close by as the baby walked itself over to a nearby live oak tree covered with vines and began working its way back up to the tree canopy, one step at a time, to resume its flight education. (Slide of owl in brush).
We can recognize ourselves in that owlet – remember first wanting to learn to fly and take on responsibility like an adult? We started by doing the little things like making and keeping appointments and getting our car registered and then moved to doing big things like starting families, starting businesses, hiring people to help us with the business, and developing skills to help people with important things.
Our experience told us we were on solid footing but then circumstances changed and we had the breath knocked out. A war or a recession or the death of a wage earner or a divorce and we felt as vulnerable as kids again wanting our mommies and daddies to take care of
things – or something to restore our security and peace of mind. Going forward despite our fears is what made us grow up to be adults. Going forward with faith in the Holy Spirit standing by our side is what enabled us to become the to be adults others can turn to for encouragement and strength in their times of need.
When the circumstances are hard, people of faith don’t put on the T-shirts that have become quite popular in the last couple of years: (SLIDE – No Adulting Today) – “NO ADULTING TODAY!” Unlike children crying in distress!”(Slide of child crying for parent), people of faith are able to face the future knowing that God will keep in perfect peace, all who trust in Him, all whose thoughts are fixed on him. (Isaiah 26:3) Our God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – will not leave us as orphans. Whenever we feel alone, God is ready to come to us, and breathe into us a breath that is filled with spiritual health and strength. The Greek word for “Spirit” – “pneuma” does, in fact, mean breath but God isn’t asking us to take in a “spirit” or “breath” of fear or sickness that would contain germs like “pneumonia” or “COVID-19” but to breathe in his “ spirit of power, of love, and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7) Taking in a deep breath of Christ’s power will revive us. Letting the Spirit direct us to his teachings will comfort us and give us “peace of mind.”
This week, when the chaos of this crisis causes your fear to sky- rocket, try this… (Slide of child lying in the green grass) this is the image I would like you to picture. You as this little child, lying in green pastures by still waters – it’s the one I used this year with the preschoolers to explain Psalm 23. Take a deep breath and call on the Holy Spirit to comfort you with His promises and listen… “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) …. For the mountains may move and the hills disappear, but even then my faithful love for you will remain. (Isaiah 54:10) … Do not worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6)
I pray that you might know this peace this day – this week – and even forevermore. To God Be the Glory. Amen.