Psalm 51:1-2, 6-12
John 12: 20-33
Katie Billings – Jeremiah 31:31-34
It was January 28th, a Friday afternoon, and I anxiously sat in AP Biology, my last class of the week. With each passing minute, I could feel my heart rate accelerate, then finally, the bell rang. I rushed out to my 97 honda accord, Wanda the Honda, sat through the painfully long line of high school student drivers, and then began to race home. This was the day I had been looking forward to for a long time, and I could barely contain my nerves and excitement. I got home in record time, ran into my room and opened up my laptop. A few clicks later, and my heart dropped. I had been deferred from UNC.
I have been wearing Carolina Blue my entire life, and can even remember welcoming home the returning Carolina Basketball champions in 2005, decked out in my UNC cheerleading costume. My formative years have been shaped by walking around campus before choir on Sundays, taking instagram photos at the Old Well, and storming Franklin Street after a big win. So as I began my college application process, all signs pointed to UNC. Chapel Hill is home to me, and I have always assumed it to be the place I would attend college. I did what all high school students are supposed to do, and took countless college tours around the country, and each time, I subconsciously shrugged them off, thinking “I like it a lot, but it’s not UNC”. So, when I clicked on my status update that Friday afternoon, it felt like a rug had been pulled out from underneath me.
I gave myself that weekend to throw a pity party. Many tears were shed, and I was angry. Angry at myself, angry at the college application process, and angry at God. I felt as though all of my hard work had been for nothing, and that even my best was not enough. I hate to admit it, but during that weekend, each time someone told me “keep your head up, there’s still a chance! Deferred doesn’t mean denied!” It made me even angrier. I didn’t receive the outcome I had worked so hard to achieve and I wasn’t in the mood to be a glass half full kind of person. Most of all, I was stuck an awkward state of unknown.
The truth is, all of those people were right, deferred DOESN’T mean denied, and there IS still hope, but it put me in a place of waiting, and if there is one thing I know about people in this day in age, it is that we do not like to wait. We are uncomfortable when we don’t have our future perfectly planned out, and we hate not knowing what comes next. Believe me, I am no exception to this. All my other friends started searching for their roomates, buying their college gear and dorm room decorations, and I am stuck here, waiting. Even when the bible tells us to have faith in the unknown, and trust that God has a plan, we fight it and start to make plans of our own. Like me, you might get angry at God, and wonder why God hasn’t given you the one thing you’ve hoped for on the timeline you’ve requested. We don’t like the waiting that comes with trusting in God. We prefer the seemingly solid plans that come when we put our trust in ourselves. But trusting so surely in ourselves, means pulling away from God and turning away from the One who offers us an unbreakable covenant.
This story of us pulling away from God even when God has told us time and time again that he has a plan, isn’t new. When the Lord led the people by hand out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them, and yet, the people broke it, not trusting in God’s ultimate plan to lead them to freedom. We learn from scripture that, as frustrating as it may be, God’s plan rarely aligns with our human timeline. But no matter how close we hold these stories, or how seriously we take the words from Jeremiah today, we still are faced with those human emotions that come when our plans and God’s plans are not aligned.
So, I allowed myself that fateful admissions weekend to be angry and upset, but while I was curled up, crying with my mom, she told me “These are the cards you have been dealt, it’s up to you to make the most of them”. I began to wipe away the initial shock and disappointment, and pick my head up. When you’re a senior in high school, everything revolves around college, and every encounter starts with “What are your plans for next year?”. But turns out, getting deferred from my top choice was not the end of the world. If anything, I have grown from this experience and learned to rely on God. Times of uncertainty are the times when we must work our hardest to strengthen our faith. This process has allowed me to take a step back and remember that God made a promise to the people, to give deep, everlasting love. Through this promise, I am reminded to have faith in him, and to know that God has a plan, and will continue to guide me, even when I lose my way.
As I stand up here today, I still have no idea where I will be spending the next four years of my life, and I will be waiting to figure that out for about another month, but that’s ok. Learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and accepting God’s abiding love and forgiveness has allowed me to take a deep breath and enjoy the remainder of my senior year. I might be wearing carolina blue, screaming at the top of my lungs in the dean dome next year, or I might not, and I couldn’t feel more excited for whichever path I end up taking, because I know that God is always there, loving us and pulling us closer, no matter how hard we try to pull away.
Chad Osborne – Jeremiah 31: 31-34
I’ve grown up in this church: I went to Sunday school each week dressed in my nicest shirt, attended Vacation Bible School which seems so long ago, spent weeks at Montreat, helped with the Appalachia Service Project, and countless other activities. And, there is one thing that I’ve been a part of for as long as I can remember: choir.
Truthfully, although I’ve been in choir for a long time, I haven’t always loved it. I’m not not quite as good at singing as Emma and don’t love acting as much as CC, Katie, and Catherine do. My attendance for most of my years in choir was spotty, at best. Most of the time, the main factor in me showing up was my parents. They would force me to go, being the great parents that they are, and I would unhappily oblige. Being told to go to choir practice each week was my parents’ way of telling me to “know the Lord”, much like the way Jeremiah talks about God’s people telling one another to know the Lord in today’s Old Testament reading. My Parents wanted me to have the faith experience that they both valued so much in their lives. But at the time, all that went through my mind was having to sing for yet another hour.
Making it even less of a motivation for me to attend was the lack of boys my age in the choir. As you can clearly see, I am the only senior boy up her giving a sermon. I had a couple of older boys who I knew and liked to talk to, but besides that, I really didn’t have anyone that was extremely close to my age. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these other seniors up here with me, but they don’t really love talking about Fantasy Football as much as I do.
However, no matter how many practices I missed, sometimes going a couple of months straight, Mrs. Visser would always express how happy she was to see me there, expressing God’s love not only in music but also through her kind actions. Instead of scolding me and telling me I needed to show up more, she was happy to see me even if it was just every once in a while. While requesting that I show up more often may have gotten me to more of the practices, I would not have appreciated the time I was able to spend around such caring people like Beth nearly as much.
Unlike choir, the church musicals have always been fun for me, however, I would always make sure to get the least prominent role possible, quickly memorize the chorus songs (or just let the leads memorize it for me), and go hang out in the parlor. The play itself has been fun, but I never quite connected with it the way I would have liked to. This is most likely because of my lack of a role in it, but whatever it was, I didn’t obtain the special experience of learning about God in a way that connected everyone with a sense of family for the longest time. The messages in the play would be clear to me in Godspell, Children of Eden, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But, I never felt these messages in a personal way. These messages of God’s love for us may have been in my head, but they weren’t written on my heart in the beautiful way Jeremiah describes.
They were messages just being thrown at me, similar to how we sometimes tell people to love the Lord instead of helping them realize that His covenant is already embedded within us. In today’s scripture reading, Jeremiah writes about the relationship between God and his people that exists in the covenant he makes with them. Although the people of Israel and Judah break the old covenant, God decides to make a new covenant, one that will be “written on their hearts” so that everyone will know God. The new covenant means that God will constantly offer forgiveness to those who stray away from their faith.
On the week of the play my junior year, Taylor, who played one of the main roles got sick. Because I was a junior and didn’t have a large role already, I was asked by Beth to take his spot. Luckily, I managed to hand off his singing parts to someone else, but I crammed to memorize all his speaking lines. By the time the play was over, I was mentally exhausted, but I never felt more connected to God than at that moment. Being able to step up and engage in the play was so rewarding. It truly felt that God had kept his covenant and wrote it in my heart where I would remember it forever instead of being told of it countless times.
For me, this was a reminder that no matter what happens, the covenant between us and God will never be broken. When we fail Him, He shows us love so that we may continue to know who He is. Now, I don’t just see God in my church choir. I also see him in my day to day life at school, in interactions with friends and family, and even in times when I’m alone with my thoughts. I can always sense his everlasting love, even in moments where I would least expect to. As we go out into the world today, we can be reassured that God will always be with us and that God’s covenant is written on our hearts forevermore.
Catherine Bryan – Psalm 51: 1-12
I have seen God’s love throughout this church in so many ways over the course of my life. When I was baptized, I threw up on my father. Everyone may have laughed but didn’t judge. On a more serious note, when I broke my neck when I was 13, my church friends made get well soon posters for my room and I came home to at least two weeks worth of food made lovingly by many of you. Later in high school, when I talked about my experience with mental illness on a panel held here, all of you just listened to me and told me how grateful you were that I talked about something so personal to me. When I had my cochlear implants just recently, Margaret was there the entire time when I was in surgery.
I found constant love throughout this place and most importantly, through all of you. I felt loved during each year of my life as I grew and learned. The ways this church has kept their baptismal promises to me has shown me what God’s love looks like in real and tangible ways. I continue to feel that love as I leave this June and I know that I won’t actually be leaving because I know that I will carry love from this place for as long as I live. Because your love for me and one another comes from God, and God’s love is unconditional, I have known, from a young age, that God will always love and forgive me. I am sure God’s mercy is boundless because our love for one another is so broad.
But the psalm we read today is a bit more troubling than the loving feelings I’ve just told you about. In this psalm, the psalmist is clearly wrestling with the idea of forgiveness from God.
The Psalmist opens up to God and asks to be forgiven for all sins and transgressions. While most anyone who has spent even a little time with the New Testament knows of God’s abundant forgiveness, the Psalmist gives us a picture of gut wrenching uncertainty. WE know God will always forgive his children no matter what because God loves us all no matter what. But the Psalmist pleads that he not be taken from the Holy Spirit and to always feel God’s presence with him. Even when we are sure of God’s mercy on a logical level, perhaps the Psalmist isn’t too far off from how some of us have felt from time to time. Maybe there was a time when only God’s power could restore you? Only God’s grace was sufficient for the depths of your pain? Only God’s mercy could reach across the divide you created? There are times when, no matter how much love we feel from our church family, from the people that most look like God to us, that we still need the full presence of God to surround us and uphold us.
I think that I have felt that very presence in myself after surviving my neck accident and didn’t have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. The Psalmist pleads to God to “put a new and right spirit within me”. I think God led me to a new spirit and to find my joy in this church after the accidents that I have encountered I’m glad that he did. After my accident, I didn’t really think that I would want to continue choir or PYC ever again but God lead me to find so much more joy in those activities that I didn’t realize before. And God continued to show himself through the love of the church friends I had and new ones I made. I’m glad that he lead me to continue finding joy and happiness in this place again. And I’m glad that I can share this joy and happiness with you.
Emma Lanford – Psalm 51: 1-12
I met my first best friend in pre-school, on the playground at this church. We quickly connected over our mutual love of singing songs, unicorns, and American Girl dolls, as most preschoolers do. We were living our best lives, racing down the slides together, drawing with chalk, having play-dates, watching Disney movies, and building forts. After pre-school we parted ways for different elementary schools, but it was alright – we could see each other on the weekends to resume our usual friendship activities of fairy hunting and candy eating. The summer before third grade, we found out we’d be going to the same school now, together, and I was thrilled. It would be like pre-school but better. And it was…at first.
But not for long, because I, a highly self-conscious little girl, became hyper-aware of how judgmental everyone else was of her, a judgment that worsened when I reached middle school. It wasn’t like preschool or even kindergarten where everyone could be friends and everyone was a little weird and that was perfectly okay. People think that high school is where kids are mean and cruel and everyone’s cliquey. I beg to differ – for me, middle school was where this attitude ran rampant. The “popular” people weren’t calling her names or insulting her, at least not to her face. Instead they ignored her, made visibly uncomfortable faces when she spoke, and avoided her and walked away if she came by. They thought she was “weird” not in the good, “quirky” way, but in the way that they didn’t like the things she was interested in. What she liked, was no longer cool or acceptable.
This confused me. She loved horses and all sorts of animals, running and dancing, and yeah she was a little crazy at times, but we were 10! Who wasn’t? (pause for laughter) The truth is, after watching the way that others treated her for so long, I began to adopt the same habits. At lunch as others abandoned her, I would also scoot away to a table too full. If she said something that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable by my peers, I’d give her an eye roll or sigh as if it was a warning sign. And slowly but surely, we’d hang out outside of school less and less. But here’s the thing, I didn’t hate her for being different or weird or loud or energetic or any of that. It was no excuse, but I was so unhappy with myself, with my interests, that I pushed away because they too weren’t cool. Out of spite and jealousy, I wanted her to be the same sad, self-hating, kid that I was.
Unfortunately there is no happy, perfect ending to this story where we became best friends again and suddenly I became a perfect best friend. It is though, a story of learning forgiveness. I got to high school, and soon found out she was going to move across the country, and that’s when I got my wake-up call. I felt awful for leaving this girl, who had been my best friend, in the dust, all for the sake of social leverage that honestly, didn’t even come to fruition. She left, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how poorly I had treated her. You aren’t required to be friends with everyone, but there’s no harm in being a nice person, ever, and yet I had completely ignored this. But, I also realized, that I wasn’t mean because I wanted to be mean, it was because I had been treating myself the same way for so many years.
Our wrongdoings, our sins, sometimes come because there is something deeper within ourselves that is hurting, struggling. Since we all have that something, we are all sinners. In that same vein, the desire for forgiveness must come from within us first. Even though we know that God’s forgiveness is constant and plentiful, it’s not there for us to just constantly make mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and then continue making mistakes. That’s the easy way. I could have said, you know what, she’s moving away, and I don’t have to have a reminder of what I did wrong, and God will forgive me anyway so I get off scot free. Instead, I had to be honest with myself, in order to open myself up to true forgiveness. I had to forgive myself first for the way I had always been so hyper-judgmental and critical of myself. In this way, I was recognizing the true problem and opening myself up to God’s true forgiveness for it.
With this constant forgiveness from God, I knew I needed to respond to God by continuing to work on myself. As Psalm 51 says, we know our transgressions, we can see our sins, right in front of us, no matter how we try to avoid them. Yet the psalmist also reminds us that we must take an active role in seeking forgiveness. We open ourselves up, asking God to purge us with the hyssop, telling Him that we are indeed ready to be cleansed. .
It was not, and is not, an easy process. For every genuine compliment I gave to my fellow insecure classmates, there was also a time I didn’t sit with a lonely classmate at lunch and felt guilty afterwards. Ultimately though, when we become conscious and aware of our sins, we become conscious and aware of how to seek true forgiveness. During this season of Lent, it is a time for us to take a deeper look inside our own hearts and ask God how we can open ourselves up to God’s forgiveness, for our sins that we all know are there. It’s about forgiveness: forgiving ourselves from within, forgiveness from God with repentance, and it’s a constant process, just as God’s own forgiveness is.
CC Owen John 12: 20-33
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” While first reading over this piece of scripture, I was taken by surprise by this line that laid in front of me. Throughout my life, I was taught to embrace the good in my life. We hear it from so many places. Any number of bumper stickers or posts on social media will tell you that loving life means you’re doing something right in this world. “Live the life you love.” “Choose Happy.” When reading that those who live a full life are the first to lose it left me confused. Don’t we want to experience a life full of love for as long as we can? What exactly was Jesus talking about here and what does it mean for us today?
Everyone has gone through changes and transformations of their own. Whether the scale is big or small, we are given situations in our life that make it unclear what our next step is and where God may be leaving us. When faced with uncertainty, we sometimes turn away from God. We are often too caught up in our own desire to love our life to realize that God is still with us. We hesitate to fully accept change, keeping us from taking advantage of our purpose in life and our full potential. Perhaps that was happening to the Greeks listening to Jesus that day. Jesus’ words are confusing, to say the least, as he tells those listening that those who love their life must lose it. This cryptic instruction leaves us, even today, scratching our heads and feeling a bit uncomfortable. Do we truly have to give up all that we love to follow and serve Jesus?
During this time of lent, we are called to let go of those things that stand between us and God and answer God’s call. In this scripture, maybe Jesus isn’t telling us to turn away from ALL good things in life, but to turn away from the things that we love MORE than God. We all have those things in life that we sometimes put ahead of God. Lent is a time to come face to face with those parts of our lives that we must lose in order to serve Jesus.
For me, I know that I LOVE certainty and sometimes find it hard to fully rely on God’s timing and God’s voice in my life. As a senior in high school, a chapter of my own life is coming to an end. By starting a new life away from home in the fall, am I losing the life of love I once knew? With the unknown ahead of me, I am left confused and worried about my future. How will I know that I will do the right thing? (pause) Did I choose the path that’s right for me? (pause) At times, I find myself doubting my abilities and my potential to survive this “real world”. I would rather know the answers to all of this than trust that God will take care of it.
That being said, we do know from today’s scripture readings that God is still speaking to us and will never stop loving us. He is there to guide us along the way, even when we are doubting our next steps. We may pull away from God when we are doubting our future and what lays before us. We may choose to cling to this earthly life and we forget that God is with us along the way. When we get caught up in the things holding us back from embracing our future, how are we supposed to live the full life Jesus is showing us? God is calling me to leave my planning that I love so much behind and trust that following God will lead to the life I’m called to live. But it’s easier said than done (pause) and thankfully, we have a community of faith surrounding us to help us work at following Jesus.
What is it for you? (pause) What part of your life do you love more than following God and putting your complete trust in him? (pause) What part of the life you love are you called to lose? (pause) This scripture makes us ask those hard questions of ourselves during this Lenten season. As we move toward the Cross, may we all have the courage to lose the life we love.
Haley Hiemstra – John 12: 20-33
Every day on the way to school, my mom used to look into the rearview mirror at my sister Zoe and I sitting in the back seat and say “Girls, what kind of attitudes do you want to have today?” It took us both about five minutes to come up with our answers. We would search our extensive elementary school vocabularies and end up with answers like “ happy” or “ good”. (pause for laughter) Just from this simple question, I was reminded each day that it was up to me to choose my attitude. No one can control change, but we can control how we react to it.
I was reminded of this lesson in John when Jesus says “Father, glorify your name”. Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again. The crowd standing there heard it and said it was thunder.” The crowd perceives God’s voice as thunder. In reading this story 2000 years later, we might wonder how they could get that so wrong. God just spoke to them loud and clear, and they just dismissed it as thunder. How could they miss something so monumental? How could they be so preoccupied with their own ideas and demands that they missed hearing God speak to them?
But, perhaps they aren’t so different from us at all? In life it is quite easy to get caught in our own “thunder” isn’t it? Predictably, for me it’s school, while I know that a quality public education is invaluable and hard to come by, school has always been a source of thunder for me. In past years I’ve been overwhelmed by stress, and more recently with my senior year it’s been an absolute lack of motivation. (pause for potential laughter) I’ve struggled to see how Hamlet or t star tests will help me be successful on my own in the world. Now, whenever I struggle with this thunder, instead of staying in that mindset, I get a big bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream and listen to some 80’s classic rock, just like my dad taught me, (laughter) and I pick myself back up and finish my work. I know that the stress of school can be all consuming. It gives me a one track mind and closes my ears and my heart to other voices, including God’s voice.
We all have thunder in our lives that keeps us from hearing the true voice of God. Whether it be school, money, relationships, family, or friends, there are many things that can get in the way of our connection to God. Sometimes these stressors seem to blot out all the good things going on in our lives, simply because we let them. Change is inevitable and all of us standing before you today have big changes in front of us. It is easy to let changes and setbacks become our thunder instead of allowing these changes and challenges to push us closer to God, helping us to open ourselves to what God is saying to us. When we hear “thunder” in place of God, we lose sight of our faith and with it, God’s word. Through God’s word, we are called to use the gifts God has given each of us. Thunder surrounds us, mistakes are made and changes happen. What really matters is how we grow from them and rely on God through all of the stress and change in our lives, trusting that God is still speaking to us if we can open ourselves to listening.
So I ask you, “what kind of attitude do you want to have today?”