‘We are free’

Conference preacher: Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was meant to help us ‘to take our grave clothes off’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Conference preacher the Rev. CeCe Armstrong says that Jesus’s friend Lazarus had to die so that we might know we are free. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — During Thursday morning’s worship service at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference, the Rev. Cecilia (Ce Ce) Armstrong told those gathered in person and online that she was not going to preach a devotional sermon.

“It’s not only to warm the heart,” she said, “but to promote devotion to God.”

Preaching from John 11:32-44, Armstrong, of St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said she wanted to see something different in this familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead — even as Mary rushes to Jesus saying, “Lord if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

“We say that under our breath sometimes, don’t we,” Armstrong said. “But sometimes God makes stuff die, so that we can be free.”

 Armstrong pointed out that in this biblical account, freedom can be obtained only after the stone to Lazarus’s tomb is removed.

“Sometimes life is a stinking mess,” she said, “where you have to uncover hard truths about yourself or others.”

For Armstrong, the real power in this story is when Jesus speaks to those around the one who was dead, saying, “Come and take his grave clothes off.”

“Notice that his hands and feet are bound,” she said.

Armstrong believes that because we get so caught up — and shocked — about a dead man coming to life, we sometimes forget this command that Jesus has for us.  As a result, she said many people get turned away from Jesus because we don’t help those who don’t “look, walk, talk or smell like us.”

“But could it be they’re so bound by what they’re wrecked in? It is the church’s responsibility take their grave clothes off,” she said as applause rippled throughout Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center.

“Beloved child of God, what in your life has to die?” she asked. “What has to die when you go to church?  What permission do you need? What is the prayer you are you praying that grants assurance?  How are you helping others take the grave clothes off that bind us all?”

After each question, Anderson repeated the phrase, “You are free.”  And then, as Phillip Morgan played, conference adult choir director Phillip Shoultz and Armstrong sang these words from “I’m Free” by the Rev. Milton Brunson:

“I am free
Praise the Lord, I’m free
No longer bound
No more chains holding me
Soul is resting
And it’s just another blessing
Praise the Lord
Hallelujah, I’m free”

‘It’s not a call to make nice — it’s a call to not slander, to not bear a grudge’

 The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary continued her week-long study of Matthew 18, looking Thursday at verses 15-22, where Jesus gives guidelines on what to do if a member of the church sins against you.

“This text is about the church itself,” she said. “It’s how to deal with people in your group to determine if you can do ministry together.”

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer has led a study during the week on Matthew 18. (Screenshot)

By giving guidelines that include going to the one who offends you first; then, if they won’t listen, to go again with two or three witnesses; and then to the whole church if necessary, Aymer said that Jesus is after restoration instead of resentment.

“The call to reconciliation isn’t to make nice,” she said. “It’s a call to not slander, to not bear a grudge.”

A woman in the room talked about how hard it is to go to a person who hurt you.

“I mean, people talk in the parking lot,” she said. “What if you go that person to pray and find they don’t like you anymore. What if the person has power, and I lose power?”

Aymer said it’s really about trusting one’s community.

“That’s the hard part,” she said. “It goes back to the call [in Matthew 18:1-5] to become like vulnerable children.”

Montreat is where ‘the familiar and creative meet’

Karrie Rushing

Planning is already under way for the next Worship and Music Conference. Directors Phillip Morgan and Karrie Rushing have been planning the event for several months now.

Rushing, director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, North Carolina, says her senses “have been tingling” this week as she looks at everything going on at the hybrid conference from a detail perspective.

Phillip Morgan (Photo courtesy of Central Presbyterian Church)

Both Rushing and Morgan are excited about planning the 2023 conference, which will be PAM’s 53rd at Montreat.  Having been on three planning teams, Morgan, the director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, has seen “how the sausage is made.”

“But the space here [Montreat Conference Center] means a lot to us,” he said.

For Rushing, Montreat is part of everything PAM has been.

“It’s where the familiar and creative meet,” she said. “We’re working to keep it fresh so that people [whether in person or online] take away something they haven’t heard, in both a spiritual and practical way.”

Morgan and Rushing were interviewed in the conference newsroom by Kaitlyn Davros and Will Breytspraak. The Worship and Music Conference concludes Friday.


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