Worship » Sermons » Zooming Out

Zooming Out

with Rev. Rebekah Anderson

April 14, 2024

When we zoom out and see the bigger picture during difficult moments, often we find what’s most important to us at our core.

The Scripture

Matthew 5:14-16

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Romans 12:3-17

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.

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When I was fourteen years old, I had what I consider one of the most formative and life-changing experiences of my life. A group of high school students from my church went to rural West Virginia for a mission trip—something I’d never done or been a part up until that point—and despite the fears I had about whether or not I’d like it or if the older kids would like me, I had one of the most joyful, amazing weeks of my life up until that point. As a group we worked hard, we laughed together, we saw some eye-opening things, and had deep conversations, but to be honest, when I look back on that week, one of the most vivid memories I have is one that was very complicated for me.

We were about halfway through the week and I was laying in my bunk one night in a pretty standard mission trip type accommodation…a huge room with about twenty bunk beds, and as I lay in bed alone but surrounded by people, I can remember I started thinking about the days we’d spent working so far, and the discussions our group had had that meant so much to me and I was surprised when I started to cry. I didn’t want anyone to hear me or know, but what I feeling was very intense because I realized rather suddenly that I was going to need to let go of a dream I’d held onto for a very long time.

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You see, up until that point, I had spent basically every hour of my life that I wasn’t at school, church, or asleep, thinking about what I loved most in the world at that time: I loved to dance and I wanted desperately to be a ballet dancer for some kind of dance company as a career. This dream started when I was very young. Starting around age 7, I wrote about dance, I dreamt about it, I idolized the older girls I danced with…This was something I’d wanted for a really long time.

And so, the reason I was in tears that night was that a very challenging and amazing reality had washed over me. I realized that the dream I had clung to so closely since I was a child…The dream of making dance the focus of my life…no longer felt like the path I was meant to pursue or even wanted to. The mission trip opened my eyes to a very different way of life I’d not seen before and I knew my life was going to be very different going forward.

That week, we spent all day working together to serve a community and I saw the way meeting people and getting to know them deeply, changes a person. Doing this, I experienced God’s love in this way I hadn’t ever before when I saw that people who appeared very different from me on the outside were so much like me at their core and were deeply connected to me even if we lived far away from each other.

Experiencing all of that for the first time felt overwhelming, but in the best sense. It felt like I had been pulled out of my insular bubble to get this much more vibrant and beautiful view of the world around me and I knew that the focus of my life from that point forward had to change. I didn’t know how, but I knew I wanted to serve others in some way and to do that, I was going to have to let go of a future spent in rehearsals and intense physical training. So I kept dancing until I went off to college and in those years slowly put it together that I was meant to be a pastor.

I share that story with you, certainly because it tells you a bit about what led me to become a pastor in the first place, but more importantly because it was one of the most powerful experiences for me of realizing just how limited our perspective can be at times. I was only fourteen so nearly every experience I was having at that point was a new one, but I saw very clearly that my daily life did not even scratch the surface of showing me what life was like for people living just a few states away. I was just beginning to see how much bigger the world was than what I could see and it really changed my understanding of my purpose in the broader world.

How many of you have had an experience where you suddenly understood just how limited your perspective was in a situation? How many of you have had many experiences like this? I ask because that lesson I learned in West Virginia all those years ago is one I’ve had to learn and re-learn again and again.

Just when I think I finally have life figured out or I think I can see exactly what’s going to happen, I have an experience that forces me to zoom out and see that there’s a lot more to something than meets eye. And even though it’s often hard, what I’ve found is that there’s usually something really amazing to be learned in that process of seeing the bigger picture.

I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot lately because I came to this church about 8 months ago, and since then, we’ve gone through a lot of change. Even before I got here, there was a lot of change and the kind of uncertainty we experience as human beings when there’s change can feel like torture. When we don’t know what’s going to happen, when we’re desperate to grab onto something that will give us a bit of stability, it is really hard and often what we do to deal with that uncertainty whether we realize it or not, is zoom into the small details of whatever is most scary or new to us at that time. In other words, seeing the big picture becomes nearly impossible when things get tough.

This challenge isn’t new to the church at all. We can see a great example of this in our Scripture for this morning that comes from a letter Paul wrote to a group of Christians in Rome. Paul wrote lots of letters to Christians who were just trying to figure out how they were supposed to live as followers of Jesus. But the group Paul wrote to in Rome had an especially challenging task: Paul was never able to be with them in person. Their church was made up of people who were Jewish, people who weren’t, and so they were this big group of people with different ways of life who were all trying to figure out how they were supposed to live now that they were Christians. What customs should they keep? What should they leave behind? And who should they listen to?

In Paul’s eyes, those details were all consuming for the church in Rome so while he helps them navigate some of those questions, this Scripture that comes toward the end of his letter serves an important purpose. Paul is helping the church in Rome zoom out to see the big picture. He doesn’t end with tricky theological ideas or specific customs Christians need to take on. He says that what sets Christians apart most of all is the way they treat one another. He sees the differences among the people in Rome as their greatest asset, which is something they would not have been able to see on their own. Paul basically tells the church in Rome to re-think their entire purpose as a church and to focus on community.

I must confess that when I was in Seminary, I took my big New Testament exegesis class on Romans not because I wanted to but because it was my final year and there were no options left. Presbyterian students who are hoping to become ordained pastors are highly encouraged to take one class on a book from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament that dive into the original language of the book and it’s theology. Romans is notably very hard, so when it was the only Greek exegesis class available, I went into the class pretty scared.

But I’m so glad I ended up in it, because going through the intricate details of Romans helped me to see something that is so important for all of us to remember: It’s not our easiest experiences that help us to figure out our purpose in faith. It’s the hardest ones that make us find who we are at our core. For the church in Rome, finding common ground and embracing difference became their path to following Jesus even though it was at one point the source of a lot pain.

So amid the challenges we’re facing, I see a real opportunity for us to find who we are at our core as well. But I think it will also require us to zoom out and see the bigger picture, which is hardest to do when things are uncertain. I was fortunate that when I took my exegesis class on Romans, the circumstances of my life and the content of the book came together in a remarkable way so I got to see this reality unfold before my eyes. And I want to tell you a little bit about that experience, because I think it will shed light on something important for the life of our church and my role here moving forward if you choose to accept me as you associate pastor.

The story began years before I took that exegesis class in Seminary. I was a college student and rather than spending all my hours dancing like I had in high school, I decided to devote as much time as I could to helping lead a youth group at my church: First Presbyterian Church of DeLand in Central Florida. I had just finished my first year at Stetson University and I was really thrilled to be working with middle and high school students.

One day during our middle school youth group, one of my students brought a friend of hers to join us as a guest. She fit right in, but what I remember most of all was that during our small group time, this girl shared something that touched my heart. She mentioned that at her school there was a pretty clear divide among the popular kids and the kids who were considered “uncool.” She told the group that despite the pressure she felt to try to be like the popular kids, she decided one day to sit down and talk with a group of kids that were firmly in the “uncool” camp at school and she ended up finding that they were some of the most interesting and cool people she’d ever met.

This student, had just finished 5th grade so I was struck by the maturity of what she shared. I knew I wanted to get to know her and she started to come to every youth event we had. As she got more involved though, some things about her life caught my attention. She often walked to church by herself which required her to cross some pretty dangerous roads. When I drove her home, which I tried to do anytime I could, I rarely saw a parent. Over time what I learned was that this student’s father had been incarcerated for most of her life and her mother was managing some serious issues with addiction. From time to time, she would share things with me that were very concerning and I started to work with our pastors and other people at church to think about getting authorities involved.

Things came to a head though about two years later when she had just finished 7th grade. Her mother was in a relationship with someone who lived a ways away and I was heartbroken when I heard that she was going to have to leave our town to live with her mom’s boyfriend. She didn’t want to go, she was going to have limited cell service, and I have to admit I was scared. After one of our youth events, someone came to pick her up and take her away and it’s hard to put into words what it was like to watch as that car pulled out of our church’s parking lot and took her into the unknown. Before she left, I made sure she had contact information to call for help if she needed and that was really all I could do at that point. I felt helpless.

For a while things were quiet, but one Sunday after church, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was my student calling me in hysterics. The night before, her mom’s boyfriend had threatened to set their house on fire while she was inside. She called the police and he was arrested but she wanted to get away in case he was released and came home. Her mom had given her permission to come back to DeLand and get away from there.

I called our pastors to make some arrangements and before I knew it, I was on my way to pick her up. A scary calm came over me. I did not feel afraid, I just felt I had to get her some place safe. When I arrived, her mother signed a paper giving me durable power of attorney over her daughter. I was 20 years old. I still don’t know how to feel about that but I will never forget the look of relief and melancholy I saw on the face of this 13 year old as we drove away from that house. She was going to be safe but she had seen some terrible things.

The weeks that followed were a blur. For a while this student lived with our pastor until a family from our church took her in for a year. As a youth leader, I did everything in my power to encourage her and offer support. I wanted her to know how strong she was. I wanted her to feel whole. Even so, I had this thought that echoed through my mind every so often: How could I expect her to be strong and resilient given these experiences she’d had? In middle school, she saw and endured things that were harder than anything I had ever gone through as an adult…So how could I expect her to rise above those circumstances? It felt like a lot to ask a 13 year old.

In the end, my student was adopted by a fantastic family in our area. It was amazing because she was able to keep going to her school, her family was willing to bring her to our church even though they were part of a different congregation, and it really was a beautiful thing to see how people worked together to help. But still I knew the challenges my student could face. We’d gotten through the initial really hard parts, but I wondered what the future would hold for her.

Eventually the time came for me to go to Seminary, which meant I would have to leave Florida and my student. I left just as she was going to high school, embarking on her own new adventure. We both were going into unknowns but I knew what we’d gone through would leave a mark on my heart forever.

We didn’t have a ton of contact, but during that last year when I was taking my class on Romans, I got a message with photos of my student in her cap and gown. She was graduating high school and shared with me that she’d been accepted to the following colleges: Cornell, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Florida State, UCLA, NYU, and Tulane. Not too shabby. I’m happy to share that Delaney is now the same age I was when I met her and she’s on a full ride scholarship studying at the University of Florida. I’m really proud of her.

The fact that she got into such amazing schools is obviously a reflection that she’s doing really well, but there was something else she shared around the same time that was even more significant to me. She shared a picture around Mother’s day of the many people who’d come into her life over the years to help raise her and she thanked them. The photo included her adopted parents, the family from my church that took her in, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, and school principals. In that moment it dawned on me that what allowed this student to rise above the challenges she was in—To zoom out and see life as more than the neglect and pain she’d endured—was the people who’d invested in her. That’s what made the difference.

That student helped me see the reality of what I was learning through the book of Romans in my exegesis class: That it’s not our easiest experiences that help us to figure out our purpose in faith. It’s the hardest ones that make us find who we are at our core. For the church in Rome, embracing difference became their path to following Jesus even though it was once a source of pain. For my student, the struggles she went through forced her to rely on supportive people that invested in her. With that support, she was able to create an amazing life different from the one that had been made for her by her family.

In this story, I see something that’s true for our church too. We’re in the midst of one of those hard seasons where it’s most difficult for us to zoom out and see the bigger picture. It’s far easier for us to fixate on some of our challenges…our budget, the uncertainty and stress of forming a PNC in the next year, the question of how to make sense of who we are as a church in a changing world…Those are all very important things for us to focus on. But I think what can get lost in those questions is the core purpose and identity of who we are as a church.

I have not been here for very long, but what I can tell you is that in the time I’ve been here, something that’s been deeply apparent to me is this: Investment in relationships is at the core of who we are as a church. You’ve invested in me, in the lives of our children and youth, in creating music and mission programs that give meaning and purpose to people in this church and beyond. That is a beautiful thing. And I truly believe that even though this is a hard time, it is also a great time.

As we confront a lot of change, we’ve been given the opportunity to really consider our purpose here and who our faith calls us to be. We’ve been given the chance to take a look at the unique gifts and abilities each of us brings to the table and ask: How do we want to use our challenges and our gifts to move forward? Sometimes this process means there’s loss as we let go of things that were important to us in the past to embrace a new way moving forward. I had to that when I chose to leave my dreams of being a dancer behind. It was hard—But it was also beautiful. And I think we as a church have a similar opportunity.

And so I want to close by saying this: I know that we as a church have a lot of challenges before us. But I truly believe those challenges can be a gift that allows us to discover a deeper purpose at the core of our faith. And I believe that we can especially discover that by investing deeply in one another and the many gifts we each bring to this congregation.

As your pastor, I want you to know that through this experience, it would my job and honor to see each of you as having something important and beautiful to bring to the table. And from my time here so far, I can tell you that I am astounded every day by the people of this church. So may we rejoice through the joys we share, weep together through the pain that can feel daunting in this shared life together, and work together to zoom out so that we can see the big picture: That our time of challenges will not be wasted but will be a source of hope and strength for all of us. Amen.