Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I in the Place of God?

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 50: 15-21 and Romans 14: 1-12 Sermon Title: Am I in the Place of God? Preached on September 17, 2017 To me, one of the most powerful lessons from our Lord Jesus Christ is the one he taught us when a woman was caught in adultery. You know this one well. A woman, we don’t know how old she was. We don’t know what she looked like. There are few details, so we don’t whether she was caught in the act, or if this punishment has come after the fact, nor do we know where her partner in crime was in this moment of condemnation, but what I imagine, without really knowing, is that she was alone, cowering as a crowd of self-righteous men gathered around her, stones in their hands. The Lord kneeled next to her, wrote something in the dirt with his finger, and said with conviction but to no one in particular, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” This is a radical word, and here in lies a radical lesson for all of us who would stand in judgement of our sister, for he doesn’t argue for her innocence. What he argues for, is for us to recognize our guilt. That’s important to do. And in a way, here at this church, we reinforce such a lesson every Sunday. Today like every Sunday when we first gathered here to worship God we began by confessing our sins – recognizing our guilt – which is important to do. I wrote the prayer of confession that we used today, and we prayed this prayer together, out loud, for everyone to hear, so now I can assume that you, like me, have trouble with forgiving your neighbor as you yourself have been forgiven because you made this confession with me. You might have just been following along with what everyone else was doing, but I’m going to call it a confession because you said the words: “The Lord does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities, but I retain the sins of my neighbor, refusing to let go.” Maybe now you’ll think twice before reading along with what’s printed. Maybe you didn’t realize I was listening for a confession, but that’s exactly the point of the prayer. What is required of us, we who gather here to worship, is so similar to what is required of those who gather for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The first step in AA is: “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” And this first step towards sobriety is the same as the first step towards salvation – what’s required is not innocence, but confession. We admitted we were sinners in need of a savior, and we found one in Jesus Christ. We aren’t here because we’re innocent. We aren’t here because we’re good. No, what qualifies our membership here is a confession of sin, an acknowledgement of our need for a savior, and a willingness to admit that we cannot save ourselves. The Good News for our world full of people struggling to save themselves is that we don’t have to. That Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners, but the problem that Paul addresses for us today is that while we may rationally know and accept the truth of that statement in our hearts, we are too often like those men with stones in their hands, as though not being guilty today were the same as being innocent. Sometimes, we act like vegetarians. Not the kind who just don’t eat meat – I’m talking about the ones who don’t eat meat and like to make sure and tell you about it. Did you hear the one about the vegetarian who walked into a bar? In 15 minutes, he had told everybody. Paul says it like this: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those eat; for God has welcomed them.” See the point? The point is not that vegetarians should eat meat. They’re just fine, and in fact, when you consider how our rainforests are so rapidly being depleted, not just by deforestation, but to make room for more and more grazing land for beef cattle, we carnivores who enjoy breathing would do well to thank a vegetarian every once in a while. Instead, we meat-eaters make fun of them. I saw a t-shirt for sale in a BBQ restaurant one time that said, “vegetarian” is the Cherokee word for “he who can’t hunt.” That’s not nice – and “who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?” Paul’s point here is that we are all the woman caught in adultery. Maybe we did less and she did more, or maybe we have even more to be forgiven for than she did, but that doesn’t matter. The point is – if you have been redeemed and forgiven than stop acting like you don’t need the same forgiveness that your neighbor does. “Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God [not the judgement seat of you or me or your daddy or your self-righteous sister] - we will stand before the judgement seat of God and if you’re judging your neighbor than you’re in the wrong seat. Get down from the judgement seat – that’s the point. That’s Paul’s point. And Paul must make this point because those who comprehend the grace of God should have no need to distract from their own guilt by pointing out the sins of their neighbor. Christianity can’t be about shaming or making someone feel guilty, but that’s the practice of so many who claim to follow Christ, so Paul has to make this point. Paul knows what motivates our finger pointing – we judge when we feel judged. We make others feel insecure because we feel insecure. We withhold grace from our neighbors because we withhold grace from ourselves, which is an awful thing to do in Paul’s mind for if we don’t enjoy the grace that God gives than to use his words, “Christ died for nothing.” That’s Galatians 2: 21: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And what does that mean? That means that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t be perfect. And if we go trying to be, if we go around acting like we are, then all that suffering that Christ endured for us and for our salvation was for nothing. We are saved by the grace of God – so don’t judge yourself or your neighbor by a standard of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect, because he was perfect for us. That’s Good News. And that’s the kind of Good News that changes things. Consider how it changed Joseph. There’s a picture of him on the cover of your bulletin. He’s there with his brothers, and you’ll notice that he’s in the judgement seat on the right, but on the left he is cowering in the shadow. If you were Joseph than most people would say that you had a right to be judgmental. Think about what his brothers did to him. Do you remember? They were jealous because daddy loved him the most, gave him the nicest clothes and the easiest jobs, and motivated by their jealousy they threw him down into a pit, which was better than their original plan which was to kill him, and then, they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelite’s who took him away. The story gets worse. I like to think that older siblings will look after the younger ones, but these guys – they sold him, told dad he had been eaten, he ended up in Egypt, then was falsely accused of a crime and ended up in prison – any and all of these events are good justification for being angry with these brothers when they come to him, now looking for help, but how could he be angry when it was these events that led to Joseph to rise in power, for it was in the prison that he met Pharaoh, interpreted his dreams, and became his trusted advisor. Now, as these brothers grovel before him, on the one hand what Joseph must have seen were the big brothers who now weren’t so big – but instead, what he saw, were the men who were used by God to help him rise in power and status, now putting him in a place where he can save his family from starvation, and so Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Can you really get mad if everything turned out this well? Can you hold a grudge, when God took someone’s evil intentions and did something wonderful? Would you dare stand in judgement, taking the place of God, when you know that through the grace of God life for you is good? To quote the Frozen soundtrack: “Let it go.” Just let it go. Forgive them, because you have been forgiven. That’s the lesson. And if you take it to heart, then you won’t be a part of the self-righteousness that fuels so much division in our country and our world. It’s hard for me to watch the news these days. A lot of the time current events reminds me of that old Buffalo Springfield song: “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Just as Paul addresses this congregation all torn up over who eats meat and who doesn’t, we live in a country where family’s divide and friendships end over who gets elected and who believes what. There are Fox News people and CNN people. Red States and Blue States. Prolife and prochoice and in this day and age to me there’s been no more helpful advice than the 1952 speech by Mississippi state representative and judge Noah “Soggy” Sweat Jr. Addressing the contentious question of prohibition, Judge Sweat stood before the Mississippi State Legislature and said: My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, this is how I feel about whiskey: If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally take the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentlemen’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, and pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise. We get so caught up in who is right and who is wrong – but are we not all wrong? And is he not the only one who ever got it right? So quickly we gather stones, but am I in the place of God? Knowing what is right and what is true? No, I am not. Thanks be to God, I am not. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our Heritage of Love

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 33: 7-11 and Romans 13: 8-14 Sermon Title: Our Heritage of Love Preached on September 10, 2017 Today is really something, isn’t it? Never in my life have I worn a kilt. Never in my life have I had the opportunity to wear a kilt. This is a new experience, and up until this point, the most I had ever done to celebrate my Scotts-Irish Heritage was to occasionally use Irish Spring Soap; eat at a little dining establishment founded by a couple of Scottish brothers called McDonalds. This is a special day. A day like this is a gift, because celebrating who we are, where we came from, can be joyful and life giving, but, celebrating heritage in this day and age can also get a little dicey. Just this word: Heritage. Considering headlines in the past few months, that word has been and will continue to be contentious, especially if you are a white-southerner, so for me, this has been another year of wondering how to celebrate heritage. When it comes to heritage, I am often wondering, how can we, without offending our neighbor, be proud of who we are and where we came from? That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time. I remember being on the 8th Grade trip to Washington D.C. when I was a student at Marietta Middle School – a group of us were gathered around a display case full of Rebel Flag patches. I bought one, used the hotel sowing kit to sloppily attach it to my jacket, which seemed like a pretty cool way to celebrate my southern roots, until some of my African-American classmates noticed it. The look on their face is something I’ll never forget. What do we do with heritage? Some say, especially in reference to the Rebel Flag, that it’s “heritage, not hate,” but if it feels like hate to my neighbor I’m a little reluctant to celebrate it. Simply put, that’s Paul’s message to us today – we worry over heritage wanting to celebrate what is near and dear to our hearts – but it must not be only our hearts that we are mindful of, for any commandment is summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Still, there are particular genes that make up my body, that I long to celebrate in a loving way. There is a particular blood flowing through my veins. I am from a particular place which makes up my heritage. There’s no denying that – I face it every time we go to the beach because I turn bright red in five minutes while my wife and children turn a gorgeous shade of brown. I also feel something when watching a movie like Braveheart – that these people are my people. This is some of where I came from, and today, what’s special about today, is that today I’m invited to wear a kilt and to be proud, and isn’t that wonderful? It’s so wonderful, that I understand the Episcopalians are wanting to have their own Kirkin' of the Tartan, even though that wouldn’t make any sense. In fact, thinking of how their tradition emerged from England just as ours has strong roots in Scotland, what should really happen is next year we should all paint our faces blue and stand in their parking lot: “You may take our lives, but you’ll never take our freedom!” And maybe that’s back to the problem with Heritage: - you can’t talk about bagpipes without thinking about how they were once outlawed, and who outlawed them. -you can’t think about Scotts-Irish immigrants without thinking about how they faced such hardship, fled to escape it, only to find it again once they set foot on these shores. -you can’t talk about being from the South without thinking about slavery and war and discrimination, for as we go back in history, as we talk about heritage, we have to be careful because when we go back into history it takes about five minutes to find something that one group did to another, the scars of which are still all around us. Here we are in Cobb County, where the Cherokee People were removed. Where a Jewish man was falsely accused of a crime and was lynched. Where a war was fought and people died as the institution of slavery hung in the balance. When it comes to heritage, looking back on the past, it’s hard not to keep score. It’s hard not to keep track of who has been wronged, who has a debt to pay, who has blood on their hands, for in so many ways the story of human history is an account of one group of people, one culture, doing their best to lift themselves up while pushing the others down – so heritage gets tricky. However, as Christians, our heritage is not just a story of what was done or not done by our ancestors. Ours is not just a story of who is best and brightest, who’s family has been here the longest and who’s blood is the bluest for on a day like today, the point is not that Tartans were brought into this Great Hall in a grand procession, but that here at the chancel those tartans were blessed by God. So, yes – we have some trouble when it comes to celebrating heritage, but let us grateful for a day like today, when we are invited, all of us, to celebrate who we are, while claiming the truth of the Gospel – that truly, while we cannot be proud of all that our forefathers and foremothers have done, today we bow before the who God who loves us and calls us his children still. Therefore, what we must celebrate today, is not only the legacy of greatness, struggle, hardship, and glory nor only a heritage of prejudice, racism, genocide, and slavery. Instead, what we celebrate today is that despite our sinfulness, we are all the children of God. That’s what we remember at Pentecost too. I’m sure you remember how after the Lord ascended into heaven the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit came to them like a mighty wind, giving each of them the gifts of tongues, so that every inhabitant of the Holy City heard God speaking to them in their own native languages. These weren’t perfect people – among them was Thomas who doubted, Peter who denied him – in some way or another, like us they had all done things that they were ashamed of, but still, God worked through them, and it’s not that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were all able to speak the same language – no – they all heard God speak to them in their Mother Tongue, and that’s different. You remember that great quote from the first female governor of Texas, Miriam Ferguson: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas school children.” Now, there’s a problem with that statement. The problem is that Jesus, while we all like to make him look like us, was a Palestinian Jew. He spoke a particular language. His hair and his skin reflected the particularities of his native people, and when he traveled around people made fun of how he talked and what he ate, just as people up in Tennessee thought it was funny that I consider boiled peanuts a delicacy. And they are, but as we consider heritage, let me tell you something interesting about peanuts – the peanut was first domesticated in South America, and when the Spanish arrived there 500 years ago they took it worldwide, but where it truly flourished was in West Africa – and some have claimed that the ancestor of the peanut that makes up the contents of your jar of JIFF at home was smuggled over here in the pocket of a West African Slave. But not only that, it was not until former slave, George Washington Carver developed new growing techniques as well as hundreds of recipes for it that there was much agricultural production of the peanut in the South by white farmers, so therefore, without the South Americans, the Spanish, the West Africans, and a former slave, there is no peanut farming President Jimmy Carter, and there is no redneck boiling peanuts on the side of the North Georgia highway. We get so torn up about race and culture – heritage – but are we not indebted to each other? Are we not far more entwined than we are separate? And are we not above all, not vindicated nor condemned for our part, but rather, indebted to God who works through us despite our imperfections. Our history books are full of great deeds and tragic mistakes, a mixed bag of heroes and villains, and we Christians who pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” must be careful with heritage – for we all stand before God condemned, but we have received a grace that we cannot deserve. How then can we withhold such grace from our neighbors – that’s what Paul asks. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Still, there are those of us who are tempted to keep score and to puff themselves up just as we read in Ezekiel – the prophet has been given a message to preach to the people, but he only wants some of them to hear it and be saved. So, God had to correct him just as God must correct us: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” As I look at our world today, I worry that too few are ready for that kind of message. Are we ready for a God who wants to save everybody regardless of native language, skin color, or nationality? Are we ready for the God that Paul testifies to? In whose sight there is “no Jew, nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female”? The Gospel lays it on our culture pretty heavy. So many of us are ready to celebrate who we are and where we came from regardless of how it makes their neighbors feel. So many of us are only willing to treat the people who look like us and talk like us as equals, while pushing those who act a little different to the margins. That’s why Paul has to remind us of those radical words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s a hard thing to do…especially during college football season. You watch the crowds and listen to what they say, you have to wonder, if Georgia fans hate Florida fans this much, then how are we ever going to get along with people who really are different? How are we ever going to get along with those who we have done harm to and those who have done harm to us? Tomorrow we remember that horrible day when airplanes were used as weapons by men who called us infidels, and we’ll remember all the blood shed in the wars that have followed. But may the blood shed on our sanctuary floor so many years ago help us to remember something else – that while the war raged on Kennesaw Mountain, in this place there was healing. And we have been called on to be a place of healing again. Last week a Nursing Home in Savanna, GA called the church looking for a place of refuge during the hurricane. They needed us to be their plan B, for they had a place to go in Augusta, GA, but if the hurricane went that way they’d need a safe place to be. The Session met. Rev. Joe Brice, Martie Moore, and Andy Tattnall led the charge, all believing that what Joe Brice said was true: “That if this church has already been a hospital, then we can be a Nursing Home.” Of course, now, it may be us who are evacuating to them, but the Session amazed me in discussing all this, because opening up our doors this way to a bunch of people we don’t even know is a radical thing to do. There’s a part of our heritage that makes us suspicious of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, who aren’t from around here, but we, who know that we are sinners, know that we stand as debtors before the God of grace who has redeemed us. What is required then, is that we see our neighbors, not in light of what might be gained from them or what they might take away, not in light of what they’ve done to deserve our help or not deserve it, but to see them only in light of what we might give them, acknowledging the truth – that by God we have been given far more than we deserve, so we must pass our blessings on. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness [or any of the other ways that we humans have for treating our neighbors like objects of physical pleasure], not in quarreling and jealousy [for are we not all God’s children?].” Instead of rivalry and war, let us love on another. For it is in loving one another that we so truly celebrate our heritage, not our heritage of hate, but our heritage of love. Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

He Did What He Meant to Do

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 15: 15-21 and Romans 12: 9-21 Sermon Title: He Did What He Meant to Do Preached on 9/3/17 Last Thursday I faced a sort of moral dilemma. Last Friday night I faced one too – Martha Goodlett asked me whether a preacher should be cheering for the Blue Devils when they’re playing Holy Trinity, but I want to talk about the moral dilemma from last Thursday. I blocked off a small part of my morning to go to the Chiropractor. I’ve found that chiropractic really helps with all kinds of aches and pains, especially my migraine headaches, and I have this wonderful new chiropractor who you know – Dr. Janet Lewis, but I didn’t have an appointment, I just hoped the wait wouldn’t be too long, and I blocked off this time to slip in. However, it was 8:30, when everyone else was trying to slip in – or, when everyone else had made an appointment like a respectable patient. The waiting room was full, so I asked the receptionist how long she thought the wait would be. She said, not too long 15 or 20 minutes, but my car was at the mechanic and Sara needed her car that I was driving back, so I told the receptionist that I would come back later. Now the moral dilemma. Kelly Dewar keeps up with my schedule. She sees when I block off time for the chiropractor, and doesn’t plan any meetings for me during those times. It’s wonderful the order she brings to my life, but when I get back to the church, I’m thinking, what if Kelly asks me, “how was the chiropractor?” What am I going to say, since now I didn’t actually even go? I blocked off time to go to the chiropractor, not to drive in the car for 30 minutes. That’s not something I would ever schedule. So, what I mean here is this – what do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Or to think in terms of faith – is there such a thing as a non-practicing Christian? What do you call a person who says he believes but never puts that belief into action? Who never does the thing he meant to do? I had lunch with Dr. Sam Matthews this week. He’s the Senior Pastor over at First Methodist. We were at the Country Club and he pointed out this table in the corner. He said, “You see those ladies. That’s the No Sew Club.” “What is the No Sew Club?” I asked. He told me that, “They used to sew and now they don’t, which is like a lot of my church members – they’re in the No Church Club – they used to come and now they don’t.” What do you call it if you only used to do something? Or, what do you call it if you never did? You only meant to? Something that Paul brings to light today in this lesson from the 12th Chapter of his letter to the church in Rome is that Christianity is not a noun but a verb – when you stop being a Christian, when you stop living as a Christian, are you really a Christian any longer? These words are the perfect Benediction, because they send us out into the world to live our faith: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” You’ve heard these words before. As I’ve settled into my office upstairs I open the main drawer and there they are: Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted” – you know these words because Dr. Jim Speed sent us all out into the world to live them every Sunday. Every Sunday he preached here he reminded us as Paul does that we must live our faith. And it looks funny if we don’t. As I mentioned before, my car has been in the shop. Mary Margaret Doyle sent me to see a man named Gary at the Jett Shell on Roswell Road, and he told me that if I mention him in the sermon he’ll give me a 25% discount. I’m just kidding about that. But he did give me a ride back to the church after I dropped off the car, which was wonderful. And this guy – he’s in a book club with John Knox, he’s been in the mechanic business for years, he’s a grandfather, he’s a wonderful person, and listen to this – his grandfather was a Baptist preacher. Gary the mechanic’s grandfather was bi-vocational, meaning that he worked in the mill up in North Georgia during the week and preached all around on Sundays, and Gary, as a young man, cherished this time when he remembers ridding the circuit with his grandfather, hearing him preach as he traveled from church to church. His grandfather, a seasoned preacher, told young Gary the story of the most memorable funeral he officiated. As he entered the sanctuary he could smell the flowers before he saw them. There were more flower arrangements than he had ever seen before. The chancel was covered. He could barely make his way to the pulpit. Obviously, this was a well-loved woman who had died. You could see it. But the last song of the service was that old Gospel Song: “Just One Rose Will Do.” The soloist sang, among all those flowers: When time shall come for my leaving, When I bid you adieu; Don’t spend your money for flowers, Just one rose will do. And yet the chancel, the pulpit, the whole room was covered in flowers. What do you do with that? What do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Can you sing the words without living them? Can you believe in the Lord Jesus without following him? Can you be a Christian without living out this faith? That’s what got me about my Brother Joel Osteen this week. I call him brother, but I love this church better than his. And I’m a little jealous of his hair, and while we are both preaching the same Gospel, what does it say about the whole Church if we declare a message of “extending hospitality to strangers” but the doors to our church are reluctant to open in the time of disaster and flood? Maybe you heard that eventually the doors to his church did open – that after three days the doors to the church opened to welcome in those who had lost their homes to the flood waters, and I don’t know the whole story. I can’t be self-righteous here, but it did strike me as odd that the Oscar Blues, Muller, Coors, and Anheuser-Bush breweries immediately shifted production from canned beer to canned water while the church took three days to open her doors. What do you do with that? We all have to remember that for some people, the only Gospel they will ever hear is the one that we live through our actions. When our doors are closed, they hear a Gospel of Condemnation. When our hearts are closed, they hear a Gospel of Rejection. When our noses are upturned and our chests inflated, they hear a Gospel of Favoritism. But when we open our arms wide in forgiveness and reconciliation they hear the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must live our faith. Christianity is about what we believe in our minds and carry in our hearts. The Prophet Jeremiah didn’t just carry around a Bible – he ate the pages and lived the words. So, we also must live what we believe, and what we believe is this: That our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth. And when he did, he loved sinners. He ate with outcasts. He treasured children. He forgave sins. He lifted broken women up from a society that had objectified them. He empowered fishermen to preach the most important message this world has ever heard. And he so lived what he believed, that as the great act of love to human kind he gave his life so that you and I might know our worth in the eyes of God. He did what he meant to do. And what does he ask of you? I’ll say it again – not as Paul wrote it in Romans chapter 12, but as the pastor who I grew up with said it every Sunday: Go Forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor all. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

One Body

Scripture Lessons: Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10 and Romans 12: 1-8 Sermon Title: One Body Preached on August 27, 2017 I’ve been in this room many times before. The first time that I remember being in this room it was to hear a children’s Christmas Pageant. I was in 3rd grade and some of my friends were up on a stage, that I think was right back there, and they were dressed as little angels – and it was in that moment that I never wanted to be a part of a choir. I’ve been in here also for Cub Scout Troop meetings. I was a member of Troop 252 which still meets here at this church, and every year we’d have the pinewood derby in this room. An enormous track stretched the length of this room and we’d line up the cars we’d made by ourselves or with our parents, a heat of 8 or 10 cars at a time, and they’d race downhill. It was terribly exciting. I’ve been in this room for youth group events too. Years ago, we had something called Ventures in here. It happened on Sunday Nights, and then in High School we’d do a big grilled chicken fundraiser to raise money for the Mexico Mission Trip. We’d eat in this room. I haven’t been in here for a long time, but when I’m in here I think of all those moments, especially those afternoons when we’d come here to play basketball – so excited as 15 and 16 year olds can be about basketball – but sometimes we’d hit that door only to realize that Scottish Dancing or something else was already happening in here and we’d have to go somewhere else to play. I remember complaining to someone about it, maybe it was Paul Sherwood who used to schedule which group had which room and at which time, and he told me that with a church this big we have to work together – we have to use a calendar and reserve our rooms, and no, I couldn’t just play basketball whenever I wanted. That’s the reality of life in community. You can’t just play basketball whenever you want. You have to think of others. You have to plan ahead. You have to be mindful of what everyone else is doing. So, Paul tells the church in Rome that we must think of ourselves, not as individuals, but as part of something bigger – as a part of the body of Christ: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” That makes sense when you think of a room like this – we have to be aware that there are many members but one body and we have to work together, we have to schedule, we have to be mindful, not just of what we want to do and when we want to play basketball, but of how we fit into the whole. That’s how it is in a church, that’s how it is in a family, that’s how it is in a marriage, that’s how it is in friendship, but today it seems to me that this way of thinking is no longer very American. Today, a lot of kids don’t need a basketball court like this one, because they have their own in their driveway that they can play on whenever they want. There’s a danger in that. There’s a danger in the ability to do what you want when you want, because you may have the freedom to shoot basketball whenever you choose, but you’ll almost always play alone. We were not meant to play alone, and so I worry about our society. I worry about what it is doing to us to have these freedoms that we have, this wealth that provides us two cars per household and we don’t have to car pool because we can just drive ourselves. There’s a danger in that, because if we are able to do most everything that we want to do when we want to do it we start to think of independence as a virtue, and of course it is, but we Christians know better than to think of ourselves and our success as independent of the work of others. So it is in our first Scripture Lesson from the book of Exodus. Certainly, you know who this story is about, the heading of chapter two tells you everything you need to know, it’s the story of the “birth and youth of Moses.” But notice that Moses wasn’t mentioned in our reading for today – he’s not given a name until verse 10. This story isn’t really his story yet – the first two chapters of Exodus is the story of strong women whose names have mostly been forgotten because our world values some functions more than others and imagines that success comes independently. The heroes of this story are Shiphrah and Puah. The king of Egypt said to them, “when you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” Perhaps Pharaoh was so foolish about power, believing that only a man would rebel against him toppling him from his throne, but here he underestimated two midwives who saved the lives of innumerable boys, saying to Pharaoh, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” This is strength – and these are two who Moses depend on. These two are named in chapter one of Exodus, because these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, matter. Without their faith in God, Moses would have been killed at birth. More than that, by these women we know that Moses was not the first to defy Pharaoh’s orders. He was not the first to stand before the most powerful man in the land without cowering. These two women went before him, defying Pharaoh’s power, refusing to follow his orders, finding a means to execute justice in a time of terror and fear. But their names could have been forgotten. Moses is the name that we remember today. He is the one who seems the most important, as it is his function as liberator of the Israelites, bringer of the 10 Commandments, and as the guide into the Promised Land that has been valued by generations of the faithful over these two who function as his crafty and brave midwives. When we remember their names: Shiphrah and Puah, we make two bold proclamations: 1. That the successful, the heroic, the rich and famous – they are always dependent, not independent. 2. While we are tempted to value some functions more than others, when we do so we are fools who fail to see reality for what it is. That’s why Paul said it like this: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment – for we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, ministry, teaching, but may the exhorter remember that without the musician there is no worship, without the printer there is no bulletin, without the person who knows how to operate the projector there are no words on the screen – without the one who gives in generosity there is no church, without the deacon there is no structure, without the elder there is no leadership – without you there is no me and without God there is no grace – we are not independent but completely and utterly dependent, individually we are members one of another. But - on the other hand, are there not those to whom names like Shiphrah and Puah are utterly forgotten? We know the names of the celebrity, but what about her mothers or housekeepers or agents of celebrities, it’s not their function as nurturers or promoters that society values, it is the one they nurtured or promoted whose name goes up in lights. The same is true for so many in our world who live their lives disconnected from reality and ungrateful to those who held them up. A pastor I know, Rev. Bill Williamson, was known for saying, “There are some people who we were born on third, but think that they’re there because they hit a triple.” So, it goes for the well born who go their whole lives believing that they deserve their privilege, the entitled who believe it is their right to receive gifts and handouts, the 15-year-old boys who get upset when the basketball court is being used for Scottish Dancing. For some life is easy, blessings overflow. And should they ever ask why, we should pity those who reach the conclusion that they deserve what they have been given. Paul urges you, “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,” as those who fall into positions of power, prestige, and privilege without recognizing how they got there miss out on the opportunity to be thankful. Tina Fey is not a notoriously religious woman. She’s a comedian, but in her book titled “Bossypants” she included a prayer titled, “the Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter.” The prayer begins, “First, Lord: No tattoos,” and it ends with this: “And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 AM, all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans [who knows what] off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” For Moses, there were two incredible brave women, without them he never would have breathed his first breath. Then for him there was a mother who hid him as long as she could before she placed him in a basket and prayed; and then there was his sister who watched the basket float downstream into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister was brave enough to suggest that a Hebrew woman be called to nurse him and Moses grew up nurtured in Pharaoh’s house by Pharaoh’s own daughter and his own mother. Without these women, there would be no Moses – so who can say that one gift is better than another. For you there are others – some whose names you remember while the memory of others has faded. There are generations of faithful, those who witnessed firsthand the mighty acts of God all the way to the forefathers and foremothers of this church who gave us a place to hear the Good News and be saved. We are the recipients of their legacy. Give thanks for them all, because without them there is no you – and honor their legacy by remembering that independence is an illusion, for we are all dependent on one another – and without interdependence there is no us. But we live in this world where so many want to have their own basketball court. If God were our Kindergarten teacher I believe he would give us all that harsh mark of: “doesn’t play well with others.” And what’s worse, we’re getting used to it. The constant bickering on the opinion page of the paper and the soapbox of Facebook is starting to feel normal. We have forgotten what it means to live together in this world, we study politics while losing sight of community, and you can see it because we are growing used to life on our own couches, watching the news channel that we agree with, forgetting how to interact with the person who lives next door doing nearly the exact same thing. A room like this then is precious, for our world is really no different than this Holland Hall where we have to respect that many people are working together, reserving space, racing pinewood derby cars one minute and Scottish dancing the next. There is room for all of us – but there is no more room for selfishness that thinks only of what I want and need, and there is no more room for arrogance – for we, who are many, are one body in Christ.” I saw it plainly ridding in a funeral procession. We passed the Havoline Express Lube on the corner of Whitlock and Polk Street. As we passed the men and women working there stopped what they were doing, rushed to the street, and placed their hats over their hearts. It was a vision of community – and to me, it was a preview of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Path of Totality

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8 and Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32 Sermon title: The Path of Totality Preached on 8/20/17 You might have seen a picture of me that I posted a couple weeks ago. Mike Clotfelter brought it by and maybe you saw it if you’re into Facebook and have seen our church’s Facebook page. It’s a picture of me and Matt Buchanan and some other guys when we were in High School. We had a band, though not everyone would call it that, so I use the word “band” loosely. We sort of made music, and seeing this picture was affirmation of something that I already knew: that it’s going to be a little different being a pastor in a church where people remember what I was like in High School. Since being here I’ve been overjoyed to shake hands with old Sunday School teachers – all these people who did their best to nurture me in the church. On my first Sunday here, four weeks ago now, one of the first people I saw was Nate Marini, and all I could think of when I saw him was, “I hope you can forgive me.” I’ve seen Bob and Vivian Stephens. She taught us music during Sunday School and I know that I can sing every song in that songbook verbatim. They’re all right here in my heart, and that’s saying something, because back then I wasn’t in a place where I was paying that close of attention. It’s a lesson in forgiveness being here. Forgiveness, acceptance, a lesson in love – all of that and I say this because the verse that people have been quoting to me since announcing this move has been Luke 4: 24: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” It can be a scary thing coming home, but then there are these moments, like last Thursday morning when Ken Farrah tells a group of 100 or so at a men’s Bible Study that he was my 7th grade Sunday School teacher. And while he had the chance, he left out the details about any misadventures or misbehavior. It’s a gift to be back here. It’s a gift to come home. And I say a gift, because I know better than to take this for granted. Not everyone feels like they can ever go back home, and it is a gift to know that we are welcome back. On the other hand, in fear, sometimes when we think of God, some of us imagine the great scorekeeper who’s been keeping track of what we’ve done and what we shouldn’t have done. One who has been keeping track of debts owed and wrongs to right, but the counter to this image is the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You know this one well. A son goes away, squanders his inheritance on loose living, and in desperation he returns home, just hoping that his father will allow him to come and work as one of his hired hands. He’s surprised then that his Father rushes out the door to meet him, and before he’s so much as apologized, he’s been embraced by the grace and forgiveness of a parent who is just so thankful to have his son come back home. This is God – a Father longing for a relationship restored. That’s a beautiful image, and I believe this image is important. I prayed something similar this past week. A friend named Marcy Lay, she is the Music Director at the church I served in Columbia, TN, she gave me a prayer book called The Valley of Vision. Marcy is the kind of person who will really wear out a prayer book. She gave me this book, and with the book came a note saying that she’d be praying for me as I begin my ministry here, and when Marcy says she’ll pray for you she means it and that’s a real blessing. One morning this week I prayed a prayer from that book with this phrase which struck me as timely: O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me And eclipse thy love. That’s poetic, isn’t it. And prayer books are good this way. The book of Psalms is good this way. The words prayed by others become personal, because they finally give voice to the deep feelings of our own hearts, and these words are way more poetic than any that I could dream up. But they do articulate something that I’ve felt – that the truly detrimental result of my sin isn’t punishment so much as separation, and what God desires deeply is to remove the sin that hides God from me. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a prayer for a restored relationship. This prayer is a request and acknowledgement, a prayer calling on God to remove this obstacle that stands in the way of a full, loving, relationship, and an acknowledgement that this obstacle, this road block, is of my own creation. However, what we believe about Christ is that in his death and resurrection the obstacle has been removed, forgiven, washed away in the waters of baptism so that the Father can rush out to embrace his son. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a good prayer of confession, that must be followed by a celebration, that the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting and in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven. But if you’ll remember, while the Prodigal Son was embraced by his father, the Prodigal’s brother stood smugly by. That’s a horrible place to be. Shouldn’t we all long for the day when God’s love would no more be eclipsed for anyone? And speaking of eclipse. Apparently, something is happening with the sun and the moon tomorrow. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about it. Sara and I plan to take our girls out of school early so that we can all be outside together wearing our ridiculous glasses to witness this moment of darkness in the middle of the day. The moon blocking the sun’s rays just as sin might block God’s love. Even though we are not quite in The Path of Totality, which is, without a doubt, the coolest phrase I’ve ever heard to describe anything – even though we don’t live exactly in that slice of the earth that will experience total eclipse, what I’ll now be thinking about as the moon blocks the sun are the ways that my sin would hide me from God, the ways that I might be tempted to hide from a loving Father. When in truth, what this loving God has done is sent his son to the earth to push the moon aside so that we might all bask in the warmth of God’s wonderful love. That’s grace. That’s forgiveness. But sometimes it is those of us who have received a gift that are the worst about passing it on. That’s why Paul lectures the Christians in Rome about the Jews, saying, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. [And] just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy…, so they have now been disobedient in order that…they may now receive mercy” from you. Now that’s big. And it’s a big warning to any of us who are tempted to act like the Prodigal’s brother. How can you, who have now received mercy, withhold mercy? The issue Paul is addressing here is both historic and timeless. In those days, there was the issue of understanding how the Jewish people could both be waiting for a Messiah while rejecting him once he showed up, and many Christians felt about those Jews the way we feel about any and all of the people who left or rejected us. They can just sleep in the bed that they’ve made for themselves. But, how can I, as one who has received mercy, deny mercy to someone else? That’s the word that Paul has for us today – a reminder of how this grace thing works – a lesson on what forgiveness is – and a call to remember that we are not here because we are perfect, because we are holy, because we are better than anyone else. No. What unifies us who are here is that we know that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and that we have received that forgiveness in a merciful savior who pushed the moon so that we might bask in the love of God. Therefore, it’s always important to remember that we must pass on the grace that we’ve received. Because the world is misunderstanding who we are and what we believe calling us judgmental and self-righteous. Because sometimes we are. And so, as the people of God, when we turn our backs and suspend grace to those who need it, we preach a gospel of condemnation to a people still walking in darkness. But did you hear it in what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” even foreigners and eunuchs. Our expectation must be that God is about the work of gathering more and more and more, rather than fencing out and drawing lines and building walls to keep so many out. We must be about gathering and not excluding. We must be about welcoming and not turning our backs. We must be about grace and love and forgiveness rather than debts and failings and shortcomings because returning home takes courage – far too much courage to greet the Prodigal Son with anything other than the grace that we ourselves received, and as our public discourse becomes harsher, as our country becomes more divided and more self-righteous, the goal must be to move closer to “the path of civility” as the Marietta Daily Journal put it just this morning, moving ever further away from the path of total and complete eclipse blocking redeeming rays of God’s love and mercy. It’s not too late for the Neo-Nazi to see the light – but he must realize that he is no more a child of God than the Jew. It’s not too late for the Klansman to bask in the light of love – but he must not be so bold as to deny such love to his brother with a different shade of skin. And the liberals must remember this as they march, recognizing that just because they believe they have some good solutions to old problems, if it’s only the liberals who are going to make it to the Promised Land leaving everyone else out than I’m not sure I’m very interested in going. No one has all the answers – and just as God is about the work of gathering all people together, so must we. We can’t be like Jonah, disappointed that the Ninivites repent and are reconciled to God. The hatred that infects this nation is the enemy – not the people who embody the hatred – because God wants them back too. God is about removing the stumbling block – pushing whatever it is that separates us from his love out of the way, so we must be about the work of pushing away what divides us – be that hatred, fear, or self-righteous judgment. The goal must be staying together, passing on the same mercy that we have received, rather than standing in judgement. We must remember that salvation is good and joyful. We’ve heard too much judgement and guilt, haven’t we? I remember too well one summer when I was a counselor at Camp Cherokee. The preacher gave his talk to this group of young campers. It was all about the Cross and the suffering of our Lord. He told them about the crown and how when they put the crown of thorns on his head how blood dripped down the sides of his face. “But that’s not what killed him children,” the preacher said. Then they whipped him, and how they whipped him within an inch of his life. “But that’s not what killed him children,” because then they took these big rusty nails, and they pounded those nails into his hands, “but even that’s not what finally killed him children. Do you know what finally killed him?” A young man, 9 or 10, he lifted up his voice and he asked, “Was it tetanus?” You see – salvation is Good News. Forgiveness is Good News. Grace is Good News. Too good for the people who have received it to cover it up with shame, fear, or judgement. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beautiful are the Feet

Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 19: 9-18 and Romans 10: 5-15 Sermon Title: “How Beautiful are the Feet” Preached on 8/13/17 This has been a big week for me at the Church office – I emptied my last box. I am fully moved in – you are stuck with me. As I unpacked my last box I remember what my friend James Fleming said back in Columbia. He was there as I was packing my books into the boxes I had picked up at the liquor store and he said, “I’m not here to say goodbye because it won’t be long before they send you back up here, showing up looking like you have a serious drinking problem.” James is a wise man, and he was worried about how I might be perceived, which is something that we all are worried about or ought to be worried about, because as we go through life people take a good look at us. They see how we choose to present ourselves, the boxes we chose to pack up our books in, and begin making assumptions. I’m not sure how one would define the word assumption, but I do know that assumptions are important, and while they’re not always accurate, they’re accurate enough of the time that they should be taken seriously. For example – if a restaurant has been given a failing score by the Health Department you don’t need to investigate further to determine the quality of the food, but, if a person has tattoos on her arms or a cigarette hanging from her lips, one might make a completely inaccurate assumption about the quality of her heart. Let me give you an example – I was once driving through Chattanooga on the way to Columbia, TN from a funeral in Stone Mountain. I waited too long to stop for gas so I had to pull off the interstate on an undesirable exit. It was dark, the gas station was not well lit, I noticed a creaky old Buick parked by the convenience store, motor still running. Wondering why someone would leave the motor running in this part of town, I jumped out of the car quickly, hustled to the pump only to realize that I had left my wallet in the car. I had changed out of my suit and into shorts before starting back, and as I was leaning over the driver’s seat to reach my wallet I heard the Buick shift into gear and then a raspy woman’s voice began shouting: “Young man! Young man!” I hoped she wasn’t talking to me, but she was, and I was thankful I didn’t have any cash because by the sound of her voice I knew that I would have given her all of it if she would just leave me alone. I cautiously turned around and the lady says, “Young man! You sure have nice legs.” With that she drove off. Assumptions. Based on my assumptions alone I had prepared myself for a conversation much less pleasant than that one, and that’s how assumptions are – they’re important because sometimes they’re right. But other times they’ll keep you from interactions that bring joy to creepy old gas stations and can sometimes stop meaningful relationships before they even begin. We must be careful about assumptions. Sometimes, what’s required is more research, more data, more investigation. Consider Elijah. Just before the events of our 1st Scripture Lesson take place: “He asked that he might die [saying]: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” That’s a state of hopelessness based on an assumption. Based on his observations he was a failure, abandoned by God. He battled King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, fighting for reform in a time of belligerent governance. He remained faithful in a time when idolatry was convenient. He spoke out in truth in a time when no one wanted to hear the truth, which is the kind of thing that will wear you out after a while. So, having hit a wall, having sunk down into a state of fear for his own life, he surrendered, abandoned his mission, vacated his position, Elijah ran away. You know what this is like. It’s in times of unemployment, infertility, cancer treatment – those dark nights where we knock and knock and knock on a door that no one ever answers. When we pour our days and our nights into the pursuit of something important only to be left empty that we make the assumption that the world would be better off had we never tried. But into his dark night, a voice spoke: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. What you need to know about the wind, the earthquake, and the fire is that the Lord had revealed himself in these three ways to the Israelites more than once. From the time of Moses, who knew God in the burning bush and the great pillar of fire, Elijah knew to look for God in the fire. Likewise, Scripture tells us that in the time of the Judges God spoke through earthquakes and wind, so Elijah knew to look and listen for God in earthquakes and wind. But this time – this time the Lord was in neither the fire, the earthquake, nor the wind. This time God came to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence, which is not the place anyone would have assumed that God would be. “When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Not preaching the truth in Israel, but hiding out in a cave, what are you doing here? Not standing for what is right at the palace, but huddled in the dark, what are you doing here? Not expecting to find me at work in the world, but assuming I had abandoned you and your people, what are you doing here? I know where “here” is. Don’t you? I wasn’t in a cave. For me it was on a subway train in New York City. For a week one summer during college I was able to attend a type of mission trip in New York. We spent our time feeding the homeless in all different types of shelters and soup kitchens. This was the first time my eyes had really been opened to just how many people are living their life without even a roof over the heads, and what hurt my heart the most was how little anyone could do anything about it. All these shelters. All these soup kitchens. All these agencies, but once you’re living on the street without a phone or an address you almost can’t get a job because you can’t be contacted for an interview. It’s just so overwhelming how hard it actually is to get back on your feet once you’re down. All these people, living their lives from one day to the next, and where was God? That’s what I was thinking about sitting on this subway train. I must have looked depressed and the man across the aisle he says, “So what’s going on?” “Nothing is going on,” I say because that’s how I felt. Nothing is getting better. Everything is getting worse. There’s no help, there’s nothing worth doing. I think I’ll just huddle up in the subway train without so much as lifting a prayer to the heavens. I’m done. Then the subway train came to a stop, the man stood up. “Make it happen” he says to me. “Make it happen.” It wasn’t an earthquake or a fire. This wasn’t a blowing wind that swept me up. Just a man on a subway who changed my whole life. That voice dashed my assumptions, and opened my eyes. It happened to Elijah that way. Hope was lost. He was lost, but God tracked him down and asked: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” Did you hear that – I alone am left. That’s quite an assumption, so the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way, [for there are] seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” I’m afraid that sometimes we give up too easily. We assume it’s over when the story has only begun, for it is when hope seems to be lost that God speaks one last word that changes everything. We forget, we assume, we despair, but there it was in Romans: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” and that word spoke to Elijah, that word spoke to me, that word is alive and well here and now finding us, redeeming us, filling us up – and sending us out. “Make it happen” the man said to me. “Go back to Israel” God said to Elijah. And “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” Paul says to us today. “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” Once God tracks us down and speaks to us, we are sent right out to speak to the world. But what will we say? Will we say it right? Will they listen? This is my third Sunday here. The first two Sundays I was nervous, but now I’m self-conscious, because I watched myself the other day. I’ve always tried to listen to myself to hear whether I’m speaking to fast or mumbling. But watching myself might do more harm than good, because Melissa up there in the sound booth who video tapes the 11:15 service has this one camera angle that’s like right on this bald spot that I didn’t even know was there. It’s true. And now as I watch myself preach I can also see who in the choir is really listening and who is just making notes on their music. Who’s sleeping. I couldn’t see anybody sleeping, but it is fun to watch you guys. Jim Goodlett’s face made me feel like I was saying some really good stuff up here, which is nice. Then there are some others who start out listening with their arms crossed but then loosen up and laugh a little, which I like seeing, but still, it’s hard learning how you look and considering how you might be perceived, because you might reach the assumption that nothing is happening and no one is listening. But it’s not just our lips and what comes out of them – it’s our feet. You’ve heard it said that 80% of life is showing up, and I believe that’s true. To show up, to try, to be present – that’s most of it, and there’s more Scripture to back that up. You remember what Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “When they hand you over [to be tried and persecuted], do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” So, there’s a difference between actually being there and assuming they won’t listen so you may as well not show up. There’s a difference between showing up at a funeral not knowing whether or not they’ll even notice that you were there, and assuming they won’t notice so you don’t show up. There is a difference between setting foot in the hospital room to sit by a dying friend not knowing what to say, and assuming there’s no point in going. There is a difference between getting to know a teacher by seeing her in action, and assuming that education in this country is failing and teachers are the problem. There is a difference between setting foot in Roosevelt Circle or Juarez, Mexico and seeing our neighbors face to face, and assuming that there’s nothing we can do to fight crime and poverty in our world. And there’s a difference between walking up to someone who thinks differently and plowing into them in a silver sports car. Yesterday it was in Charlottesville, Virginia. A protest ends in murder as a driver speeds into a crowd of people he disagrees with. Is that what God would do? Is that what God would lead anyone to do? In this world of division, hopelessness, ignorance, hatred, racism, and misinformation, Paul writes, “How beautiful are the feet” of those who don’t put their faith in assumptions, but trust that God, who finds us when we are lost and in darkness calls us out to meet our brothers and sisters who are still there. Ours is a God who has drawn near, walked the lonesome valley with us, not looking down from heaven in times of our distress, but coming as near to us to know all our joy and all our pain, taking human form to know us rather than make assumptions about who we are. So, go and do likewise. Go to them. Go to them and do not assume that you already know who they are. Do not assume that they already know what you have to bring, and do not worry about what you will say – for it’s not the mouth, nor the words, but the feet. Beautiful are the feet. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Come to the Waters

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55: 1-5 and Romans 9: 1-5 Sermon Title: “Come to the Waters” Preached on 8/6/17 It is such an incredible gift to be here. I have loved relearning this church, amazed all over again at the scope of our ministry. I walked into the Great Hall two weeks ago. The whole back side of that huge room was covered in sack lunches. The members of our church who volunteered must have assembled thousands of lunches for kids in our community. It was incredible. Certainly, I can see that a lot has changed around here. But some things have stayed exactly the same, and our determination to serve this community seems to have stayed exactly the same. Another thing that’s the same: on Thursday, I received a note from Andrea Freund: “Drive by High School to see toilet paper memories.” It took me a second to realize what she meant, but if you drove by the High School on Thursday or Friday or if you saw the front page of Marietta Daily Journal Friday morning you know what she was talking about. Again, I can see that a lot has changed around here, but some things have stayed exactly the same. Marietta High School Seniors are still wasting hundreds and thousands of rolls of toilet paper by throwing it into trees and through arches to cover their High School in soft, white, toilet tissue. But some things change, and what has changed is the administration’s reaction. Did you see that Principle Gabe Carmona, according to the Marietta Daily Journal, called the event, “a great bonding experience for the class of 2018.” And then new superintendent of schools, Grant Rivera, “actually cooked out Wednesday night ahead of [the] rolling party,” and said, “It’s an almost 60-year tradition, something school administrators want to embrace.” This is new. According to the paper, when Mary Ansley Southerland, daughter of the late Mayor Ansley Meaders, was a senior out late at night with toilet paper filling her mother’s Cadillac, she was pulled over by the police – and that experience is much more like my own. At that time, I drove a checkerboard Chevrolet and believe it or not, after seeing the school the night we filled the trees with toilet paper, the police thought my friends and I had something to do with it. The next day the principal had us pick up toilet paper all morning. He made an example of us…not a good example either, so this business of seniors being allowed to roll Marietta High School is new. Some things change, others stay the same. The tradition of High School Seniors decorating the High School with toilet paper is still alive and well, but what has changed is how the administration deals with it, and that change is significant because how we deal with people, how we speak to them, especially when they’re not doing what we think they should, matters tremendously. Consider people who don’t attend Church, ours or anyone else’s. In the time in between serving First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, TN and coming here I had several Sundays off. On one occasion, I was at Home Depot at 11:00 Sunday morning. Now that hasn’t always been possible, but there I was, and there a whole bunch of other people were to. None of us were in church, we were all at Home Depot, which is a strange phenomenon. They say that there was a time when everything was closed on Sunday, because everyone was in church – that’s changed – and all at once we have these people, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, who don’t necessarily think of church on Sunday morning, and might not be able to tell you why they should. The question for Presbyterians is this: what should we do? How can we get more folks out of Home Depot and into a sanctuary? Some would say that this is an issue that Presbyterians have always had a hard time with. There’s a great joke – what do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness with a Presbyterian? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know what to say. What should we say? According to Peter, we must all be ready to “give an account of the hope that is in us.” And, likewise, Paul writes here in the 9th chapter of Romans, not a biting opinion piece raking atheists and backsliders across the coals, but here he offers words of lamentation to his brothers and sisters who do not believe, saying in this morning’s 2nd Scripture Lesson something very close to: “Don’t you know what you’re missing out on?” Isn’t that something? And isn’t that something different from the ways that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are relating to those who haven’t been to church in a while? In the middle of July out on the marquee out front a church right here in Cobb County were the words: “You think it’s hot now?” The church as fire insurance is what it is – the church as deliverance from Hell. Some churches offer that, and consider any who would darken the doors of a Home Depot as on the road, not to home improvement, but fire and brimstone. Others take a page out of the medical profession’s play book, so after worship on Sunday you feel about the same way you do when you leave the Dentist’s office, “You know, I really should do better. I really should be better. I should, I should, I should” and there’s truth in that – we all should be better, we all should do better. Who in this sacred room doesn’t have an area of his life that he’d like to improve, but is that what the Church is? Is that the message we want to send? Sometimes the Church sounds like the angry citizens of our community reacting to a High School covered in toilet paper: “It’s just a shame what they’ve done,” and maybe it is, but shame – sometimes shame does far more harm than good. Paul wrote to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and this is what he said: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Isn’t that beautiful? Paul knows the abundant life that they, his own people, are missing out on, and he so desires that they know the joy that he has in his heart, that in Christ like love, he wishes to sacrifice himself for their sake. This is love – not guilt or obligation. Before that we heard from the Prophet Isaiah: “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” because here we have all that the world is searching for, working for, spending their way into debt in the hopes of finding – here we have the water for the thirsty and the food for eternal life, but all so many churches are advertising to the world is either Hell or guilt. A lot has changed, but some things have stayed exactly the same, and I say that because even though there’s snapchat and Facebook and Instagram, these new technologies are promising the same thing that people have been thirsting for since the beginning: acceptance, love, friendship, and community. A woman named Diane Maloney brought that to light for me. She still serves the church I did in Columbia, TN, and she told me that what technology promises – namely connection – technology cannot provide. You’ve witnessed it – you know someone who has 500 friends on Facebook, but not a single person to call when he needs help moving. There’s another who works so hard to put together the perfect pictures for Instagram, but has no one to talk to about the feeling of inadequacy she just can’t shake. Technology promises connection – but haven’t you seen the couple who sits there looking at their phones, ignoring the human being who sits on the other side of table? This abundant life of connection – to quench our thirst for community and our longing for satisfaction – Apple is trying to sell what the Church has been giving away for 2,000 years. A lot has changed, but some things have stayed exactly the same – this table is the same. The Gospel is the same. The love of God is the same – and we, as Christians, must preach love, hope, community, forgiveness, leaving fear and judgement behind. So, if you find the love and acceptance that feeds your heart here, then I pray you won’t keep such a gift as this to yourself. The deep longing of our human heart has always been the same – it’s as true for me as it is for everyone who is at Home Depot this very minute. What has changed is that so many have forgotten that they’ll only find what they’re looking for in a place like this one. That’s why we must tell them, “come to the waters,” and find rest for your soul. Amen.