Sunday, June 10, 2018

Israel Demands a King

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1 and 1st Samuel 8: 4-18 Sermon Title: Israel Demands a King Preached on June 10, 2018 Last Sunday, right after church, we headed to the beach. It was a short trip, just for a few days, but it was great. We were in Florida, a very nice place to be this time of year, plus, while we were there we spent time with good friends, rode waves and ate fried shrimp, climbed to the top of a 125-year-old lighthouse, but the highlight for me happened when we walked out on this jetty. A jetty is sort of like a peer, in that it enables you to walk out into the ocean, but it’s lower to the water than a peer, and is mostly made up of great big rocks. On this jetty, on top of the rocks, there was a nice, flat sidewalk, but the rocks where on either side, and when we got to the end of the sidewalk we stopped, leaned against the railing, felt the ocean breeze, looked around, fishing boats were coming in to our right. Then we noticed to our left a small crowd of people, maybe a dozen, gathered around the railing there, looking at something in the water. Someone said: “There are three of them,” which got our attention, so we walked over to where everyone else was looking, and there they were – three manatees swimming in the water, eating seaweed or something off the rocks. It was one of those times where I felt like I was in a movie. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and our girls – they were struck as well. They didn’t say anything – they just watched. They were spellbound as these huge tails came out of the water like they belonged to mermaids. Their noses would come up to take a breath, and they have these kind faces that make you smile. A woman named Laura was so moved by their appearance that she climbed the railing, navigated the rocks, and eased into the water to touch one on the back in her bikini. You might wonder how I knew her name was Laura. That was because her boyfriend or husband shouted: “Laura, if they eat you, can I have your cigarettes?” But we could all understand why she went down there to get close to them. It was an unforgettable moment. A gift from God. And even though it only lasted for a few minutes it was enough to make an impact, so as the manatees swam away and the crowd kind of broke up, without thinking and to no one in particular I said, “that was amazing.” Laura overheard me, and she said, “Thank you.” “Uh, I wasn’t talking about you Laura.” That’s what I’m focused on this morning, because, I wasn’t talking about Laura being amazing. I was talking about God’s majestic creations. I was commenting on the beauty of the earth, the majesty of the sea, not the woman who patted the manatee on the back. But that’s humanity for you. God creates the world, invites Adam to name the animals, and next thing you know, Adam’s walking around like he owns the place. God sets the planets in motion. With a word there are tides and days, sunrise and sunset, but leave it to us to say, “Thanks God, but we’ll take it from here. You might have made the manatee, but I can touch them, so let’s hear it for me! Look how many likes my selfie with the manatee got on Facebook.” Even in the midst of a miracle, sometimes we humans find a way to be na├»vely arrogant about our place in the world. There used to be a framed sign on the wall of Bill and Louise’s, now Louise’s, that said: Teenagers! Tired of being hassled by your stupid parents? Act now. Move out, get a job, pay your own bills…while you still know everything. Now, teenagers pushing parents out of the way is nothing new, but ego can get the best of all of us. We all have thought that we knew better than someone who was above us, a boss or a supervisor, and some of us have even thought that they knew better than God. We read in our 2nd Scripture Lesson: When Samuel became old, all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel and said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” This displeased Samuel, and Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. This is a historic moment in the history of Israel. Up until this point, the nation had been governed by judges. Rather than a centralized government, they were a nation of tribes, but now the people demand a king because they have a better idea than the system God put in place, so they want to push God aside and put one of their own on the throne. Such a moment in history begs the question: Just who do they think they are? God brought them out of slavery in Egypt by a mighty hand. Sent down the commandments to order their life. Provided them a land flowing with milk and honey, but now it’s: “Thanks God, but we’ll take it from here.” And we know how this is going to turn out, because the tragic story of human power is still playing itself out. A family was on a long car ride to the beach, and to make conversation, a little girl asked her mother if she’d like to meet the president. Mom said that she’d be honored to meet the President someday; “but what if it were Richard Nixon”, her daughter asked. “Then forget it,” her mom responded. This response seems normal enough. We can see their feet of clay, but the problem isn’t just the flaws in a person. The greater problem is our bad habit of expecting humans to do things that only God can do. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. And that was one of humanity’s worst ideas, because LeBron James can’t win the NBA finals on his own. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Kennedy, a Bush, a Kardashian, or even King David, we cannot fill God’s shoes. This morning he is painted on the cover of your bulletin. While robed in grandeur, a prophet points the skull of Uriah the Hittite who David had murdered, illustrating in plain terms the reality that human power is just that - human. Not one of us is immune to corruption. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s the truth, but age after age we press on in foolishness, pushing God out of the way. So, God relents. Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; [God said to the prophet Samuel] for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. And every time we take the weight of the world and put it on our shoulders or trust the fate of our nation to some other frail human being, we follow in the footsteps of these Israelites who though freed from slavery in Egypt, willingly submit again to a yoke of slavery by calling for a new Pharaoh who goes by a different name. The Lord and the Prophet tried to warn us: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons... He will take your daughters... He will take the best of your fields.” He will take, he will take, he will take – six times the prophet describes what this king will take and not one mention of what this king will give. This speech is without qualification or exception. A king who takes is the only kind of king that there is, because if Laura of the manatees naturally assumes center stage, pushing God out of the way, what will these humans do with absolute power day in and day out? Like David, they will look out from the palace, and will see what they might take as their own. A group of Church leaders have recently authored a new confession of faith. It’s not too unlike the one that we’ll use this morning after the sermon for our affirmation of faith, as this new confession is but a reminder from 21st Century Christian leaders of the sovereignty of God over human power and authority. Article 2 of this new confession, called Reclaiming Jesus and inspired by, among other things, the #MeToo movement, rejects the violent abuse of women, and states: “We lament when such practices seem publically ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and in our churches.” And this kind of statement must be made again, in the 21st Century, because the powerful of every time and place are prone to take, and this taking begins with ego. So, we have to be careful. I have to be careful. You know, every once in a while, someone will walk in here for the first time and will say to me, “Pastor, this sure is a beautiful church you have here.” You know what I say? Call me Laura, because every time, “Thank you,” I say, as though I could take credit for this, but it’s hard to give credit to one we can’t see. Those disciples who brought the gospel to the church in Corinth, they were wise, and they gave credit to God anyway: “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” Now isn’t that a wonderful thought? In light of our world today, let us be bold to consider the house not made by human hands, for even now it is all around us. The day after we saw the manatees I could see it. I walked out on the jetty again, thinking that this time I would be like Laura and I would jump in the water too, but the manatees weren’t there. Instead I saw a group of kids on surf board learning how to ride the waves. Our power is limited. We are but blades of grass, but the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who causes the waves to rise and fall, invites us to ride the waves. To worship the Lord and enjoy him forever. To bow our heads before him, and to allow him to share our heavy burdens. What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning, not on my own power, relying, not on human power, but leaning on the everlasting arms. Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Treasure in Clay Jars

Scripture Lessons: 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 and 1 Samuel 3: 1-10 Sermon Title: This Treasure in Clay Jars Preached on June 3, 2018 This account I’ve just read, of the young prophet Samuel, is one of the most influential stories ever told. Even if this was the first time that you’ve heard 1st Samuel chapter 3 read, I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard this story. As is true in all its retellings, in 1st Samuel there’s a boy, a virtual orphan, who was left at the Temple by his mother who loved him but couldn’t keep him. So, she left him at the Temple and as she did she sang a song about the mighty hand of God who will bring justice. We suspect that he remembered the song, that he sang it to himself, because it lived on. Its themes are all over Mary’s Magnificat that she sang while she was pregnant with Jesus. But, the song Samuel’s mother sang that Samuel remembered, while powerful and memorable it couldn’t protect him from everything even if it warmed his heart on cold dark nights. The boy, Samuel, was raised by an old man named Eli who had two wicked sons. They took what they wanted, as though everything were theirs. You can imagine it. It was the definition of unfair. As Eli’s sons ate what they wanted, even eating the meat that was to be offered to God in sacrifice, you can picture young Samuel sweeping the floor and saving the crumbs. He wore only a linen tunic his mother made for him. He slept, not in a bedroom, but on the Temple’s cold floor. You know this story. You know it, because it’s not at all different from the story of another orphan, left on the doorstep of the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Dursley who lived on Privet Drive. They had a son, Dudley, who had more birthday presents than he could count on both hands, a second bedroom to store all that his parents gave him, but where did little Harry sleep? He slept cramped in the closet under the stairs just as Samuel slept on the bare Temple floor. You know this story. It’s like that of James, whose parents died in an automobile accident involving an escaped rhinoceros. He was sent to live with these two horrible aunts, and while he knew the sea was nearby, he was confined to his yard where an ancient peach tree eked out its meager existence. But the tree, like James, it didn’t die or give up – no, but it struggled. However, despite the struggle, in time, that measly tree grew a peach so large that James crawled up into it and lived out as great an adventure as you can imagine. You see – you know this story. You love it, because it embodies hope, and so, you want it to be true, but if you know the story well then you know that the one who has the hardest time believing this story could ever be true is the little boy who finds himself right in the middle of it all. From 1st Samuel we read: At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” but ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But [Eli] said, “I did not call; lie down again.” Now why did the boy Samuel assume that this voice calling him was Eli, his old guardian, and not God? That’s like asking, why wasn’t Harry Potter patiently awaiting his acceptance letter to Hogwarts School or why wasn’t James checking the old tree daily, waiting for his escape peach to grow. Like both Harry and James, Samuel assumed that it was the old man who was calling him because he had long ago learned his place in this world – long ago he had learned that while some people are destined for greatness, others are destined to sweep the floors. While some people are born into privilege, it is the lot of others to accept the scraps. That while God calls some people, that while God has something to say to some people, that while God has important work for some people, young Samuel had been taught by the bullies of the world that scrawny boys like him are wise to accept their meager lot. It’s a shame, isn’t it? How many people, young and old, accept the lie the world tells as the truth, but some are blessed to be woken up. That’s what happened in the Sword and the Stone. That great Disney movie where a young boy named Arthur, he can’t fill up his hand-me-down robes, he can barely carry the sword of the knight he serves as page, so it’s no surprise that this young boy – you remember, they call him Wart, and Wart forgot the knight’s sword back at the inn. Only in desperation does he pull the sword from the stone, a legendary feat that only the chosen king was prophesied to be able to do. When Wart finds out what it means that he’s pulled the sword from the stone – that he’s the one destined to be king of England, he’s the most surprised of anybody. Why? Because the world has given him his name and his lot – he’s accepted both, because those who sleep under the stairs can’t help but assume they deserve it. On the one hand, there are some people who are born on third base and assume they’ve hit a triple, but others make their bed in the ash heap and assume they too should go out with the trash, because the way we are talked to, the way we are addressed, the way we are treated, it all informs who we believe we are. Did you know that they called her Cinderella because, without a proper blanket, she made her bed in the smoldering coals, and the cinders burnt holes in her dress? But there’s more to life than the house of an evil step sister and her spoiled daughters. There’s more to your identity than the hard words you’ve been told, for as hard as they may try, their words can’t define everything or everyone, and it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” So: The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if the Lord calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Can you imagine? Can you imagine what this scrawny, beaten down boy must have felt in that moment? Perhaps he felt like the little boy on your bulletin cover. Playing marbles in the dust, only to look up and see that he’s on the moon. It reminds me of Dr. Sam Matthews, who just retired from 1st Methodist Church. He was pastor there for the last 15 years, and despite all the conflict that marked the beginning of his ministry there, today 1st Methodist is the largest church in Marietta. He took me out to lunch once and he told me that sometimes people will ask him if he ever dreamed he’d be the pastor of such a large Marietta church, and he said, “When I was growing up I couldn’t imagine myself serving any church. Not one of the small country churches I grew up going to and certainly never would I have dared imagine serving this one.” You can’t help but imagine the same kind of thoughts were in the minds of those disciples who brought the message to the first Christians in Corinth, for there in 2nd Corinthians we read: We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. Now Samuel already knew that, because it is easy for the Samuel’s, the Harry Potter’s, the James’, and the Cinderella’s to remember that their treasure is a gift. But those evil step sisters – they speak from entitlement, greed, and envy and rather than fan the flame, they try to put it out. Like Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, in To Kill a Mockingbird. She was from Winston County in North Alabama and she looked down her nose at her pitiful 1st grade students, especially the one who had no need for her Winston County charity. Scout told it like this: As I read the alphabet a faint line appeared between her eyebrows, and after making me read most of My First Reader and the stock-market quotations from the Mobile Register aloud, she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. This teacher reminds me of the man who sat with his back towards the preacher at the royal wedding two weeks ago. Because the sermon didn’t come from him he couldn’t even turn his head, though those were mighty words proclaimed by Bishop Michael Curry. The opposite of that man’s demeanor was that of Andrew McIntosh last Sunday as Joe Brice preached at the 8:30 service. As Joe went on about the buzzard that hit his trailer, and the kindness of a mechanic, you should have seen Andrew listening. It was as though Andrew were thinking: “I know this guy lives in Paulding County, but he has something to say!” Now that that’s the truth. And we are all such clay jars. Inside our mortal flesh is treasure, and the reason we tell this story again and again – this story of Samuel, the boy prophet, called by God, is because it is our story too. Like him we have known those who see only the clay jar, overlooking the treasure, but not so with God. So while all the wicked step brothers and step sisters believe that the world is their oyster and they’re free to take whatever they want, remember that whether you believe you deserve nothing or everything you’re wrong – because we aren’t extraordinarily special or extraordinarily plain – we are clay jars containing a treasure. We are disciples entrusted with good news. We are slaves who serve the master. We are guests at the table of the king. We are mortal flesh, blades of grass, but within us burns a light, though it is not ours. Like Paul and the disciples in Corinth, regardless of what we have heard from those who have pushed us down, we must live knowing that within our clay jar, our feeble frame, is a treasure that can change lives and set the world on fire. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Prophesy to These Bones

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 and Acts 2: 1-21 Sermon title: Prophesy to These Bones Preached on May 20, 2018 On this Pentecost Sunday, I am reminded of my Aunt Beth’s fear of snakes. My Aunt Beth once told me that she’s deathly afraid of all kinds of snakes – live snakes, dead snakes, and sticks that sort of look like snakes. And you could try to tell her that a Rat Snake isn’t venomous, or you could hold up the black piece of hose to show her that it’s just a hose, but it doesn’t matter. That’s because we interpret reality based – not just on what’s actually there, but on what we think we see. Sometimes fear colors our vision, other times it’s anxiety, sometimes love that us from seeing clearly what’s actually there, and that’s why, on that Pentecost Day long ago, the Holy Spirit came to the Disciples, but not everyone saw, not everyone reacted to it the same way. We just read: Divided tongues as of fire appeared among [the Disciples]. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other language as the Spirit gave them ability. If ever there was an obvious miracle, an obvious encounter with the divine, this was it, but listen to how the people who saw it responded: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” You see, we are a people who mistake sticks for snakes and disciples for drunks. Sometimes its fear that colors our vision, other times anxiety blinds us to everything but our worries. Sometimes a kind of pessimism or heartbreak keeps us jaded and far from seeing a miracle that appears right before our eyes. That’s true today, and it’s always been true. Think back to Moses leading the people across the Sea on dry ground. Was there anyone among them who saw the waters part and said, “I’m not walking through there. Leave me with the Egyptians.” Did anyone who watched David defeat the giant Goliath sneer and say, “That’s the luckiest kid I ever saw.” The answer is – of course they did. Miracles happen every day, and people walk right past them. If my Aunt Beth can mistake a stick for a copperhead, then of course, we can mix-up a miracle and a coincidence, scoff at a movement of the Spirit. Miracles happen, but are our hearts attuned to see them? Not always. Back in Tennessee there is a homeless man named Melvin. Columbia, TN is a small town, and everyone there knows Melvin. He would sit out in front of the church, waving to cars that passed by. People would honk and wave. More folks than you’d imagine would stop and give him money or food, and all that was fine with the people of First Presbyterian Church because Melvin was outside. The problem came when Melvin started coming into the church. Now these are good Christian people, and they welcomed him with open arms, but you get too close to a homeless man who hasn’t had a bath in weeks or months and hospitality gets demanding. At some point in the summer, when sweat compounded body odor, someone said to me, “Joe, either he takes a bath, or I have to stop coming to church. I just can’t take it.” That sounds like a simple enough request – to ask a man to bathe before he enters the Lord’s House, but there were legends about Melvin. That he was scared of water because his parents drowned. That no one could get him to bathe because smelling bad protected him from thieves who would steal his money. There were all kinds of stories, so when I went over to ask him about taking a bath, I thought I knew already what he was going to say. Still, I said, “Melvin, you know I love you coming to our church, but I need you to do me one big favor. I need you to take a bath.” So sure was I that he would say no, that when he said “yes,” I didn’t know what to do. I had just spit the words out and expected that that would be that – my plan went no farther. When he said, “Sure Joe, I’ll take a bath,” came the problem of what next – and despite my surprise at his willingness, I was smart enough to want to strike while the iron was hot. I suddenly remembered that the Methodist Church across the street had a shower, so I ran over there, asked Valarie at the front desk for access to the shower, not knowing what she’d think, but fully expecting her to say no. Instead, she handed me a key to the church, and out from under her desk she just happened to have a bag with clothes, a bar of soap, and shampoo, as though she had been preparing for this exact moment. How do you explain that? Coincidence? Dumb luck? If among the crowd that Pentecost long ago were those who sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine,” then today we are wise to remember that our entire culture is poised to reinforce the cynical assumption that nothing is getting any better in this world and that to believe differently is foolish superstition, but listen to this. There’s a little girl in Club 3:30. Club 3:30 is the after-school program that meets here at the church, and this little kindergartner came to our afterschool program from a region in Central America so remote that she had never before sat in a chair. Not only that, this region she was from was so remote that she didn’t speak English nor Spanish, but an indigenous dialect. That was the beginning of the year. Last month the Kiwanis Club of Marietta gave medals to the teachers of our city schools, charging them to recognize students for whatever accomplishment might not typically be recognized, so this little kindergartner came to Wednesday Night Supper wearing a medal that she told me was for “most improved English speaker” in her kindergarten class. Now there’s a miracle. One that happened right here, in this room, but it won’t tell itself. In our world today – this fear filled, prejudice prone, fake-new kind of world – where everyone, it seems, is tailoring facts to protect their agenda – we Christians must be prepared to stand and speak with feet planted firmly in the truth. On that Pentecost long ago it was Peter, standing with the eleven. [He] raised his voice and addressed [the crowd], “these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” That’s what Peter did, and if we don’t get in the habit of doing the same, so many will just walk right by, focused on the next worry that comes along. For everywhere there are people looking out on the world, taking in what they see through a lens of fear. People who hide from the world, drowning under the weight of headlines. The defeated who allow death to have the final world; treating hope like a fairy tale. Then, in desperation so many put faith in the makers of empty promises, forgetting the power of God who breathes life, into to dry bones. In our 1st Scripture Lesson we read: The Lord said to the Prophet [Ezekiel], “Mortal, can these bones live?” He answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then the Lord said to the Prophet, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Christians – we are called to see the world through the lens of faith – remembering the power of God that gave dry bones new life. The power of God that turned Moses’ staff into a snake, divided the waters, and who still sets slaves free. The power of God that gave the boy David a strength greater than the giant, who granted the king victory, and gave his son wisdom. The power incarnate in Christ who walked out of the grave conquering sin and death, defying the authority of empire, entrusting fishermen with the most important news ever heard. Whenever we read the paper or watch the news, too often it is a different message, an empty message, that causes us to retreat in fear and react in apathy, but God is still at work in our world, and Satan, that liar, cannot change this reality. He can only shape our perception of it, causing us to see drunks rather than the mighty prophets of God, coincidence rather than his mighty hand, decline and defeat rather than triumph and victory. Prophesy to the bones then. In a world in conflict over issues of race – point to the gospel choir who sang for a prince’s wedding and remember that regardless of those who fight it, change still comes. In our world of violence, prophesy words of hope, reminding teachers and students, parents and grandparents, that no matter how many shootings there are, death will not have the final word, for born within each graduating class is hope for a better future – and those who stand against it might as well get out of the way. We, the church, we must prophesy to the world – for our world is quick to forget that the Holy Spirit who was alive on Pentecost so long ago is at work still, is alive and awake still. So as we go out into the world, armed with pizza boxes, let us be bold to see it and celebrate it. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Lifting Up His Hands, He Blessed Them

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 93 and Luke 24: 44-53 Sermon Title: Lifting Up His Hands, He Blessed Them Preached on May 13, 2018 Today is a significant day on the Church Calendar as well as the family calendar. I hope you remembered that today is Mother’s Day, but in addition to today being Mother’s Day, today is also Ascension Sunday, and what we just read from the New Testament book of Luke, is how Jesus said “goodbye” to his disciples as he ascended into heaven. We read: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” It sounds as though no one remembered exactly how he blessed them – what kind of blessing it was – just that as he said goodbye, as he was carried up into heaven, he wasn’t leaving them with one last instruction, one last piece of advice, but with one last blessing. I’ve known people who left me with a blessing. One is a man named Jim Hodges. He was the chair of the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee who interviewed me for my first position as a pastor. It was Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church out in Lilburn, and after the committee that Jim chaired interviewed me and picked me out of the bunch, I was honored to serve that church by preaching about once a month and trying my best to be a pastor while making a whole lot of mistakes. And there were plenty of mistakes. One Sunday, moving through the liturgy, I skipped right over the children’s sermon. On occasion I’d ask everyone to stand when they were supposed to sit down. Regardless, every Sunday I preached I’d give the benediction, would walk out of the sanctuary by the center aisle, and as I walked, to my left there was Jim Hodges giving me a “thumbs up” as though I had done a great job. I had served that church for about two years when Jim was diagnosed with lung cancer. I went to visit him – and those visits were like many where I was the one being comforted rather than providing the comfort. For a long time, I watched him fight, but finally, the doctor told him he was near the end. He called and told me. The next day I walked into his hospital room. His wife Carol left to give us privacy, and I asked Jim if he was scared. His answer: “I’m not sure Carol has a good understanding of the heating and air maintenance contract. Other than that, I just don’t quite know what I’ll do when I see him.” “See who Jim?” I asked. He kind of stared off and said, “Will I laugh? Will I cry? When I see Jesus, I don’t know quite what I’ll do.” In the next day or two, stuck in his hospital bed, he took a picture of his thumb, had Carol get it developed, and gave it to me. It’s framed and on my desk. Jim telling me that, regardless of how I’m actually doing, he thinks I’m doing just fine. Now, that’s a blessing, isn’t it? But not everyone says goodbye with a blessing. Today is Mother’s Day, and ideally, what we celebrate today are our mothers who loved us and blessed us, but not everybody’s mother was like that. Some mothers are abusive. Others neglectful. At the very least, I think most of us have felt at one time or another as though our mother’s love language were “criticism” rather than praise. Do you know what I mean? Maybe it was your wedding day. You were about to walk down the aisle, and your mama came to see you. “You look beautiful honey, but I can’t help thinking, if you just would have lost 5 more pounds.” On the day of graduation, maybe you remember, that there were plenty of mothers who just cried. Out of joy or pride, they couldn’t even speak, but maybe yours could: “Congratulations,” she said, “But I can’t help but wish you had graduated with honors like your friend Peter. Isn’t he a smart one.” Last week I heard from a little league baseball coach. A good friend of mine named Davis. And Davis told me that at the coach’s training they were presented with an interesting finding. That when polled a majority of major league baseball players, when asked the question, “What is your worst memory of sports from your childhood,” a majority of players say, “The ride home from the game.” Most parents want their children to succeed. Most mothers want their children to be successful, but too many of us believe that for our children, the road to success and independence is paved by criticism and advice rather than blessing. As a preacher I’ve received my fair share of critique. It hasn’t all been thumbs ups, that’s for sure. In my third year of seminary, the development office sent a group of us to Jacksonville, Florida to promote the school. I was proud to have been asked to go and rode down with the group. Stayed with my mother’s cousin who lives down there. I preached at this Presbyterian Church and as the congregation left I received many handshakes and encouraging words, but the last man in the line. I remember he was wearing a three-piece suit. “What year are you in the seminary?” he asked. “I’m in my third-year sir.” I answered. “Nearly three years?” he said, “Well, they should have taught you something better than that by now.” And he was on to something. But men in three piece suits, mothers and all the rest of us; we need to remember, that as Jesus ascended into heaven he didn’t say to his disciples: You’ve been a Christian for how long now? You sure ought to be doing it better by now. That’s not how it ends. Those aren’t the last words – the last words are a blessing. A blessing from God to you, because regardless of what your mother said or failed to say – the words you heard in your baptism are trustworthy and true: “You are mine,” says the Lord, “My beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” Too often we Christians walk around like we’ve just been to the dentist: I should be better, I should do better. I should floss more, but today we remember the truth – that as the Lord ascended into heaven, he left giving an imperfect group of disciples his blessing – and today it’s no different for me or you. Consider how the service ends. This service today and every service here ends with a reminder of the main thing: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you. We leave this place as those disciples left Bethany – knowing that the Lord Ascended into heaven giving us his blessing and that matter because you can’t change until you know you’re worth it. You can’t be redeemed until you believe that you’re worthy of redemption. You can’t be saved until you know it in your heart – that you are worth saving. No mother is perfect. None of us had the mother that said everything we need to hear. And those of us who are mothers today will take comfort in this truth as well: we all have to allow Christ to fill in what others left empty, to heal what others broke or left broken. So, these are good words to end on and these are good words to remember: May the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace, and give you peace. Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

His Commandments Are Not Burdensome

Scripture Lessons: Deuteronomy 5: 1-21 and 1st John 5: 1-6 Sermon Title: His Commandments Are Not Burdensome Preached on May 6, 2018 There are some places in this world where I don’t feel 100% comfortable. Where I feel out of place; like I don’t belong. One of those places is Michael’s. I used the restroom in Michael’s and I’ll be it is among the least used men’s rooms in Cobb County. But that wasn’t the first place where I ever felt like I didn’t belong. Right outside Montreat, North Carolina is a place called The Town Pump. Right away you can tell it’s not for everybody. Sit at the bar, and it takes a while before someone takes your order. I was in The Town Pump with a pastor friend from Columbia, South Carolina. Amos Disasa is his name, and he was born in Ethiopia. I said to him, “Amos, I feel like I don’t belong in this place.” He looked around, “Joe, do you see anybody else from Ethiopia in here?” This place, on the other hand. I’ve always felt at home in this place. And that’s the idea. This church isn’t for some and not others. It’s not for some genders and not others. This church isn’t just for locals; it’s a place for everybody because that’s how the grace of God that this place stands on works. No one can earn welcome into God’s house. None of us deserve it, therefore all are welcome. That’s how it’s supposed to be, and that’s how I know so many in the Confirmation Class feel. Many of you were raised here. Maybe you never felt new here because your parents have been bringing you here since before you can remember. And here, you were taught as I was, that God welcomes us with open arms and you don’t have to do anything to earn it. You just have to accept it. But then one day, at the beginning of this school year, you showed up for Confirmation Class and we told you that in order to be a member of this church you had to do a whole bunch of stuff. Bates Clarke asked his Mom about that. “Why is it that you’ve all been telling me that God accepts me as I am, and then all of a sudden, I have to memorize the books of the Bible, write a statement of faith, and go to all these Confirmation classes?” That’s a good question. And I’m glad Bates asked it months ago, so I’d have time to come up with a decent answer by today. He’s right, when you look at it that way I can see how Confirmation would seem like a sudden change. An abrupt shift from free welcome to fine print. It's like when new members join the church and first thing we do is hand them a pledge card. That can feel like an abrupt change of pace – like we’ve invited you for dinner, then handed you the bill. That’s not the intent of course, but it can feel that way. In my mind this shift from “free welcome” to “now come pitch in” is something like the difference between celebrating the 4th of July and Cinco de Mayo. You might not know much about Cinco de Mayo. In this country it is a holiday celebrated mostly by margarita enthusiasts, a majority of whom I have a feeling have no idea what Cinco de Mayo even means. Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that celebrates not Mexican independence from Spain - that’s celebrated on September 16th. What Cinco de Mayo celebrates is what happened after Spain was kicked out and Mexico gained independence. Mexican Independence was defended on May 5th, 1862, when the French who sent a massive army attempting to take over and the fledging nation of Mexico were defeated. I looked all that up on the internet. Now most people aren’t real big on Cinco de Mayo - the 5th of May, but there is beauty, not just in celebrating the gift of independence given by our forbearers. What also matters is celebrating our role in defending it. The Apostle Paul says it well in his letter to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” but we do. Sometimes we take for granted our freedom and forget that even today we have to fight to defend it. We are called – not just to accept this Presbyterian Faith, but to become a part of it. Our scripture lessons makes such a concept plain. From 1st John: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” That might sound strange, because so often we think of being able to do whatever you want as freedom, but that’s not really freedom, for those who lie are strangers even unto themselves. There’s a Mark Twain quote on the wall of Mary-Mac’s on Ponce de Leon, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Telling the truth – it’s no burden when compared to the alternative. And in the same way, what could be so heavy a burden as hate? You want to see misery – think of the grimaced faces of the cold hearted. Think of the way withholding forgiveness destroys families. What is required of all of us who follow the Savior who called us to love even our enemies could hardly be called a requirement, for our path is the road to joy. Therefore, while on the one hand, we Presbyterians preach a message of grace. A salvation that comes free, and the love of God that you can’t earn, it is hard to understand a pledge card or the requirements of a Confirmation Class, but like the 10 Commandments, the commandments written down by Moses are intended for us – not as a means to earn anything but as guidance for how to live a joy filled life. “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” and here is a commandment that is more defiled than any other. We defile it because we don’t believe that our salvation is contingent on our obedience to it, and indeed it is not – instead what is at stake is the condition of our hearts - literally. Think about it - No – God will not strike us down for going into the office on a Sunday; God will not need to, for the 80-hour work week brings with it its own punishment. “His commandments are not burdensome,” especially compared to the weight of sin. And as God did our ancestors, so the Lord calls us now, to live the Christian life and to participate in the work God is doing. In Deuteronomy we read: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors. But with us who are all of us alive today.” God gives the gift to us, it’s ours, but we can’t just accept the gift – we have to defend what we’ve been given and make it our own. We, who feel at home here, are invited to make others feel welcome so that this church never feels like Michael’s nor the Town Pump, but like the Master’s Table where all are treated like honored guests. For while we all are honored guests at the Master’s Table, too often we are only mindful of our own comfort or discomfort, forgetting what it’s like for the friend sitting next to us. He invites us, but remember, we are also disciples, called to serve, making this faith our own. The knitting you saw out in the Gathering Area – it will go out into the world, because we don’t just receive God’s warmth and welcome, we can give it. Called, equipped, as friends, as Stephen's Ministers - is to be the listening ear after we, ourselves, have been heard. Think of that and know that on the one hand is free grace, on the other is joyful obedience. Neither are burdens. Both are gifts. So, Bates Clarke, Confirmation Class, congregation, Joe Evans, remember that we are not only defined by the gifts we received freely. We are defined also by our response – how we live – what we fight for. And this faith, this church, this is worth fighting for. Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

As He is, so are We in this World

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 22: 25-31 and 1 John 4: 7-21 Sermon Title: As he is, so are we in the world Preached on April 29, 2018 I was invited by a neighbor to go to a Braves game last week. He’s a Met’s fan, but that was OK. I can’t say that I’m much of a Braves fan anymore any way. Dansby Swanson is the only player I can name. But there’s more to a baseball game than the game, anybody can tell you that. And now that the area around the new SunTrust Ballpark is so nice, there’s plenty to do and plenty to spend money on, even if you’re not a big baseball fan. So, we bought a drink and a $20.00 hamburger. Sat down in our seats, and even though I didn’t know the names of the players on the team, even though I’d never been in this nice new stadium before – I immediately felt comfortable, because the rhythm of the baseball game is still the same. Organ music plays before the game starts during batting practice, just like always. The first pitch was thrown. We stood for the National Anthem. And when I heard the drum beats – it took me a second, but I remembered how to tomahawk chop and felt instantly at home, even in a new place. In a church like ours, we call that kind of rhythm a liturgy. At certain times we stand up, sit down, bow our heads, give our offering. At no point do we do much of anything like the tomahawk chop, but my point here is that in this church, as it’s true of so many places, there is a certain order to things, and in this place, the order matters. However, I’ve heard it said more than once of our worship service, “I like the music and the sermon, but I don’t really get all the other stuff.” That’s important to say. It’s important to be honest, because walking into a Presbyterian Worship service can feel like walking into hockey game or something. You don’t want to ask someone what “icing” is, but when you do you find out that no one really knows, so let me tell you that the order we go by matters. Every Sunday, first we are called to worship God. We don’t gather here to be comforted or corrected, to learn or be entertained – while hopefully all those things happen, what is of foremost importance is gathering here to worship God – that God calls us to worship, so we emphasize that in the Call to Worship at the beginning. Right after that we sing, and then, we Confess our Sins, because coming into the presence of perfection, makes all mortals aware of their imperfection. It was that way with Moses, Jeremiah, all the others and so it’s true of us, but after we confess our sins we hear again God’s words of forgiveness. “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ – he was born for us, he lived for us, Christ died for us. He rose in power for us, Christ prays for us.” Consider all that and be reminded that God is much more interested in forgiving us than we ever could have imagined. Scripture makes it even more clear. We don’t read 1st John much, but it’s words are so beautiful and so clear: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way; God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Did you hear all that? Thinking of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Puritan Prayer Book say the same thing: I am always going into the far country, And always returning home as a prodigal, Always saying, Father, forgive me, And thou art always bringing forth the best robe. That’s some Good News, isn’t it? But let’s go back to our Sunday Worship Liturgy. You know what happens after we receive the forgiveness of God? We sing our thanks in the Gloria, and then we are invited to Pass the Peace of Christ. If ever there was a misunderstood bit of worship liturgy, this was it. Pastor invites the congregation to Pass the Peace of Christ and I run off to make sure the Beadle has his prayer ready. One of the Deacons makes sure there’s water in the Baptismal Font, and everyone else makes lunch plans for after the service. Those are all important things, but we’re missing the point. 1st John says it this way: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” We have a role to play; a role we are obligated to play. Now, as a rule, I don’t like it when someone tells me what I ought to do, but 1st John is right. If I’ve been loved and forgiven by God, how can I accept such grace without letting it flow right out of me and onto my neighbor? If I have such a keen grasp of just how imperfect I am, how can I reject another because of his imperfection? And if no one has seen God, how then can we Christians make God known? With our love. That’s the Passing of the Peace is about. The peace we receive – we pass it one. Mrs. Stephen’s taught us church kids to sing it in this church not so long ago and Anne Massen uses her song books still today. It’s song number 55 in those little books they use: We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand. And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land, And they’ll know we are Christians By our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Isn’t that wonderful? But these are bold words. And while they are back in our hymnal now, they haven’t been in a Presbyterian Hymnal for long a while, two editions or so. So, back in Tennessee at the church I served, the church secretary asked Mr. Lacy Coleman to carry all the hymnals to her desk so that she could paste the words to that hymn inside the front cover. Mr. Coleman had been the church custodian for 40 years, and he knew the congregation well. As he handed the church secretary the hymnals he looked at the words to the hymn she was pasting, and he said, “So they’ll know they are Christians by their love, huh? Well, you’re sure not going to know these folks are Christian by how they talk or how they act.” That’s not a good sign, is it? But it is an indictment of us all. Certainly, preachers have tried to encourage their congregations to do better. Christians have been encouraging each other to get out there to be a light to the world, but it’s hard. Years ago, I was a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Marietta High School. Billy Graham was coming to Atlanta and was preaching the message of “true love waits.” We were handed these “true love waits” cards, and were sent into the school, armed with this message, and I went right up to this table of girls I hardly knew, handed out the cards, one of the girls pointed to her pregnant belly and said, “I guess it’s kind of too late for me.” I threw the rest of the cards away after that, feeling like I had been sent out as a sheep to the slaughter, to say nothing of how I made that poor girl feel. It’s hard to know how we are supposed to be in the world, but back to our liturgy. At the end of the worship service we follow the acolyte out into the world as she carries the light of Christ who leads us out there, and that’s different from saying – we go out into the dark world to take the light with us. A group of young missionaries was at the airport with t-shirts that said, “Taking the light of Christ to Haiti.” That’s one idea, but here’s the thing, what makes us think he’s not there already? The song I love so much says it different: And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land. And 1st John says it like this: “As he is, so are we in the world.” That’s what the Bible says. That’s what the liturgy reinforces, but sometimes I am afraid, we Christians, we think of God as being more in here than out there. I led chapel for the preschoolers last Wednesday. I asked them about the baptismal font. If they knew what it was, and one little boy said, “Jesus was born in there.” It’s true that we gather to worship God in here. We sing God’s praises here. We follow the liturgy in here. We read from Scripture, but Jesus wasn’t born in here, nor is God confined to this place – and it’s important that we get used to thinking that way. The ancients were a little better about this than we are. The picture on the cover of your bulletin is a 13th Century map of the world. We’ve sung before: “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” and if you look closely, to the East and the West you can see his hands. To the South, his feet, and at the top, his face. Somebody looked at this map and said, “Where’s the Big Chicken?” It’s not on there. According to the New Testament professor who showed it to many of us a few months ago, this map reflects the medieval world view, that Christ is a part of this world – that God and God’s creation are hardly separate, and just as we go out into the world following the Acolyte’s flame, so Christ, already at work in the world, already a part of the world, will meet us out there and we Christians have to get better about not be confined to the four walls of our sanctuaries. I know that things have changed. Sporting events used to begin, not only with the pledge of allegiance but also with a prayer. Even school used to start with prayer, and some Christians have raised up in protest: “bring prayer back to schools,” but I heard someone say, “as long as there are tests in school, there will be prayer in school.” I like to go eat at Gabriel’s Restaurant, and we were there a few days ago, saw Wanda Reese walk in with her niece. I watched as Wanda took her niece’s hand, and they bowed their heads to bless the meal. “You can pray just as well at a restaurant as you can at home,” Wanda told me last Thursday, and she’s right. “As he is, so are we in this world.” That’s what Scripture says, but we have to live that way, for to quote the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 8: “We are not as sheep led to the slaughter, but we are more than conquerors.” The Psalms say it too: “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it,” but too often we Christians live like maybe he hasn’t. We walk around with our heads low and our faith hid beneath our coat as though our faith were something to be ashamed of. Sometimes we treat our sanctuaries like bomb shelters – the place we go for protection – while treating the world like a trash can, as though the God who created this earth no longer cared about it. I’m not talking about “evangelism” this morning. At least not the way we’ve been thinking of it, because the only person who wants you to go knocking on doors less than you do, is the person whose door you’re about to knock on. Instead, what I’m talking about is the love that we know about, the love of God that we witness and hear about, it is running loose in our world. And he is calling us to join him. “As he is, so are we in this world.” I heard a story about a church in Syria this week. Paul Phillips and I got to have lunch with a man who supports churches all over the world, and he told us about this church in Syria. They have a preschool, that serves families in the neighborhood, and late one night the city was falling into chaos, troops moving through, planes in the air, the pastor rushed to the church to see it surrounded by armed Muslim men. One approached the pastor, and he said, “Go home pastor, we will protect the church. Our children were students here. Go home, we will stay to protect the church.” God is at work in our world, changing and transforming lives. And as God has transformed our lives, we are now invited to join God at work. As you go out into the world today, remember the liturgy, and may it make you comfortable in an ever-changing world, reminding you of the thing that will never change: “As he is, so are we in this world.” Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Good Shepherd

Scripture Lessons: Matthew 9: 32-38 and Psalm 23 Sermon title: The Good Shepherd Preached on April 22, 2018 I wondered some about doing that, but if ever there was something worth being able to quote from memory, this is it. And I think we should all memorize it in this translation, the King James Version, because it just sounds so beautiful. But memorizing is hard for me, and for many of the members of my generation and younger. One of the problems with having information always at your fingertips is you get out of the practice of committing information to memory. How many times have I said: Why should I work to memorize it if I can just look it up on my phone. But, I find myself having to look up on my phone, even my own phone number, which is weird, because I still remember the Buchanan’s phone number that goes to a house they haven’t lived in for at least 15 years. The land line of my closet friend from childhood is till right up here, but today, most everything just slips right out. Why is that? Part of it, is because before we could google everything, we had to memorize it. Before fancy cash registers, every fast-food employee knew how to make change. And it’s not that now people are dumb, it’s that we slowly stopped using the parts of our brain that quickly retain information, and those memorizing brain cells got weaker and weaker, so other parts of the brain could get stronger. I don’t remember all the facts and figures or technical language about the subject, but you can look it all up on the internet. It’s true, and it’s probably why some generations in attendance this morning didn’t need to look at the bulletin to recite the 23rd Psalm while others did. And having the 23rd Psalm memorized is good, because cell service is bad in the valley of the shadow of death. When you’re walking through there you have to have some things committed to memory for them to light your way. You have to know it, but we memorize less and less so our brains aren’t used to it and, somewhere along the line, we stopped emphasizing memorization, stopped making sure that every child could say it by heart. I think our confirmation class still has to be able to. When I was in confirmation class here I think we had to, but I’m a little rusty at reciting it from memory. Besides, saying the 23rd Psalm wasn’t something that we did at home. It was something that I only worked on in order to join the church, and a few generations ago, I don’t think it was that way. We used to memorize, but times have changed. Church has changed. My grandfather once took us to the church he worshiped in as a child. He grew up in a place called the Caw Caw Swamp. It’s somewhere in the Low Country of South Carolina. His mother is buried there, and he showed us her grave. Then we walked into the little church, just one room to the place, and walking down the aisle it was like the memories were flooding back to my grandfather. One thing I remember is him saying, “On the back pew there, that’s where the nursing mothers sat.” I remember how scandalized my mom was at the thought. She was sure it wasn’t true, and misremembering is something my grandfather was and is prone to, but maybe she couldn’t believe it because her childhood memory of church is so different. She often told me how she remembers playing with the head of her mother’s mink during the worship service, and how if she wasn’t quiet her mother would pinch her until she was. That might be why, when they first joined this church, they went to the service here that happened during Sunday School. We were young kids, and so we went to class, they could worship in peace, and I wouldn’t have to get pinched. Many churches have been thinking that way for at least the last 50 years: don’t make the kids suffer through, put them somewhere they can be kids, and that’s a thoughtful idea, a good idea in theory, but here’s something that doesn’t happen as much – the faith of our mothers and fathers getting passed down from one generation to the next. That’s a problem. We are slowly loosing something, and sometimes I can see so clearly what it is that we’re losing. You ever ask a Presbyterian to pray? I’ve been to meetings where you can ensure that every Presbyterian will show up on time with the simple announcement: “Last one to sit down has to say the opening prayer.” You should hear my grandfather pray. Big, deep voice. “Let us return thanks,” he’d say before Thanksgiving dinner. And I’ll bet that he could do that because he had seen it done. As an infant in his mother’s arms he heard powerful prayers in a one room church before he even knew what it was. Think about that one room church. As a toddler, there was no nursery for him to go to, so I don’t know what they did with him. They didn’t even have Sunday School rooms, which isn’t perfect, but how far it must have gone towards passing down our faith from one generation to the next. As much as I love and value Sunday School, being in one room to worship together matters. Being in the place where children watch their parents worship God matters, because the way they learn is by watching what we do. And by “we” I don’t just mean parents – I mean me and all of you. I mean everyone here who promised to help raise each baby who has been baptized in this church. Do we, the people of this congregation, receive this child of God, into the life of the church? If so, please answer “We do.” Will we promise, through prayer and example, to support and encourage her to be faithful in Christian discipleship? If so, please answer “We will.” That’s what we do. No one ever says, “I will, so long as she isn’t too noisy.” Or, “I will, so long as she never drops a hymnal during the sermon.” Every time we all answer, “We will. Through prayer and example, we will support and encourage her to be faithful in Christian Discipleship.” And it’s through prayer and example, not mean looks and lectures that we’ll do it. We model behavior to children, and when they’re in here with us they learn to worship God as we do. Sooner or later, if they’re sitting in here, they’ll pick it up whether we’re pinching them or helping them color, but if they’re never in here – if they’re always in the nursery or someplace else, they might not. That’s because, in the words of Rev. Joe Brice, the sage of Paulding County, worshiping God isn’t taught so much as caught. You learn to do it, not because someone told you how, but from being surrounded by people infected with the blessing that comes with worshiping God in Sprit and truth. That saying, “do as I say, not as I do.” Doesn’t usually work, does it? So, if your dad sang the hymns, then I bet he never had to tell you to, but if he never cracked the hymnal I bet that even if he told you to sing you learned to do not what your father said to do but what he did. If you heard your mother whisper the words of the 23rd Psalm I bet, you can hear her saying the words with you. If your aunt held your hands when she prayed, I bet it stuck. And if you saw your grandfather serve communion, it meant something powerful before you knew anything about Jesus and the Last Supper. Rev. Lisa Majores told me that she felt a call to preach without ever really having seen a woman do it – can you imagine how much courage it must have taken her to try? To try something that you’ve never seen someone who looked like you do. Now, she might say that her mother preached all the time, just not behind a pulpit, but still - it’s so much easier if you’ve grown up seeing it done. That’s true of sheep too, and I know that because I’ve learned a thing or two about sheep, but not everybody has. Last week Anna Grey Heart, our Preschool Director, arranged for a whole trailer full of farm animals to come to our church. The preschool kids got to pet them and hold them. There was a rooster as big as a four-year-old and there was a cute little pig. Betsy Sherwood told one of her students to stand next to the pig, so she could take his picture, but he looked at her and said, “Ms. Betsy, that’s a hamster.” If you don’t know the difference between a pig and a hamster, you can’t understand the 23rd Psalm, because to get a lot of it you have to learn some things about sheep. I googled “how do you train sheep to follow a shepherd” and here are some interesting facts: Even from birth, lambs are taught to follow the older members of the flock. Ewes encourage their lambs to follow. The dominant members of the flock usually lead, and if there is a ram in the flock, he usually goes first. Isn’t that something. Even sheep have to be taught how to follow the shepherd, and they’re taught by example. We have to show our kids to follow him by following him ourselves, and we have to show them how to follow him, because getting lost is just so easy. From that passage we read in the Gospel of Matthew: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Isn’t that the state of things? Like sheep gone astray, we often look for protection and guidance, and if not from the Good Shepherd, from any cattle thief who comes along. Just as there is the Good Shepherd, there are plenty of bad ones in our world, and I don’t need to name names, you know who all I’m talking about already. There are people in this world who are leading sheep to the slaughter. Treating children like objects of desire, using their hands to strike fear and inspire shame rather than sow love – and these wolves in sheep’s clothes, they are strengthened by our silence. I believe it’s significant that just before Jesus starts talking about people being like sheep without a shepherd, he gives a man back his voice. He helps him to speak again. And I say that this miracle is significant because there are people in this world, whose power depends on us doing nothing. There are men and women who want us silent, powerless, and irrelevant so that they can take whatever they want – but may the Lord give us back our voice. This Sunday, we celebrate the work of the Interfaith Children’s Movement and remember that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. I hope you will notice again the picture on the cover of your bulletin of pinwheels surrounding the statue beside our playground. The Wednesday Night Children’s Program, Mission Possible Kids, put the pinwheels there as a visual reminder that just as a shepherd cares for his sheep, we all play a role in ensuring happy and healthy childhoods for all children. We are all sheep, cared for by the Good Shepherd, and we have an obligation to follow him, so that the children of our church and our community will know who to follow and how to follow. We must use our voices, our power, and our example to show the children of this world that the one who is worth following doesn’t ask you to keep secrets. He doesn’t take from you until you’re empty. And He would never harm a hair on your head. Instead: he restores souls. Leads in paths of righteousness. Provides, safety, comfort, and a path through the darkest valleys. Let us show them. By our example let us show them how to follow the Lord. Amen.