Thursday, February 15, 2018

Be Reconciled

Scripture Reading: 2nd Corinthians 5: 20b - 6:2 Sermon Title: Be Reconciled Preached on 2/14/18 Ash Wednesday is a relatively new concept for Presbyterians. Of course, it's not new at all, it's ancient. But it occurs to me that Ash Wednesday still warrants an explanation. After this service if you go to Kroger someone may ask you about the smear on your forehead, and I want you to have a good answer. The Ash Wednesday ashes could be explained this way: "The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door…" These inhabitants, both men and women, busied themselves debating what should become of the woman who was to be released. "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die," one shouted, but then the lock of the prison-door turned, and out came the condemned, Mistress Hester Prynne. "She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day;" having grown accustomed to the "grey twilight of a dungeon." "When the young woman - the mother of the child - stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. [For] on the breast of her gown.. appeared the letter A." Every English teacher knows that these words open The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorn and tells the story of a woman whose guilt was broadcast by the letter A embroidered on all her clothes. There, for everyone to see, was the sign of her sin. What then is this ash that we will soon have on our foreheads? It is our own scarlet letter - it is the symbol of our guilt, our sin, our mistakes, our failures. But here's the miraculous thing about Ash Wednesday - the miracle of this church and all those like it - we all wear our mark boldly, willingly for everyone at Kroger to see. My ashes will be the sign that I am guilty. Guilty by what I have said and by what I have left unsaid. Guilty by what I have done and by what I have left undone. Guilty, disobedient, prideful, selfish, distracted, judgmental, and just as deserving of punishment as every other Puritan assembled outside that prison door. Now consider that. Imagine if everyone who was guilty had a letter on their chest. That's Ash Wednesday. And, when everyone wears their scarlet letter, the symbols power changes. In here, all of us with our shame broadcast for all to see - it's not like the Puritan Settlement, the Middle School, or any other place where the ones who pretend to be innocent circle around the guilty like vultures, because in here we are all acknowledging the truth of who we are - that not one of us has the right to cast the first stone. These ashes help us to get the truth of what we know about ourselves deep down out in the open, the shame that lurks "in here" comes out, and once the truth is out we can stop pretending, we can stop fearing, shame loses its power when it's not kept a secret, and then we are all finally free to follow this great charge that Paul gives in 2nd Corinthians: "Be reconciled" he says. And "be reconciled" is so different from "be condemned" or "feel really guilty" or "you should be ashamed of yourself" because this charge from the Apostle Paul gets to the heart of what our God actually wants - for our God wants reconciliation. Not condemnation - reconciliation. Not shame - redemption. Not secrets - but open hearts. Tonight is about acknowledging sin, but it isn't about guilt. This isn't about shame. This service and these ashes are about confessing the stumbling block and putting back together the relationship that's been harmed by finally being real. Hiding our problems won't make them go away - so we wear this sign on our foreheads and say it plain: "I am a sinner, in need of forgiveness, and I'm ready today to accept the grace our God provides." Why wait? Why hide in the darkness any longer, when we can come into the light right now? That's what tonight is about. We read in 2nd Corinthians: "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" These ashes are the confession, that I have not been who I ought to have been, but I am ready to be made new, so this Lent I will give up what stands in my way. So, maybe I will give up Facebook. Then I will spend no more of my precious time searching for political comments that only fuel my anger and further wedge the divide between me and my relatives. Why give up chocolate when I could give up the bad habit that keeps me from reconciliation? If politics is dividing you and your sister - give up the news for these 40 Days of Lent. The world will still turn without you watching, but that chasm between you and her will only grow unless you change the conversation. Let us give up building up walls for Lent and spend this time that we have building bridges. Can we give up fear - anxiety - perfectionism, to really live the life that honors our father in heaven? Be reconciled to God. Give up what holds you back and divides you from the one sitting next to you - give up what keeps you from listening to the Good News and what distracts you from the Holy Spirit. Take out those earbuds and turn off the TV long enough to enjoy the world God created for you to enjoy. And if you do - your relationship with your Creator will be strengthened - and you will give God what God wants - not shame but reconciliation. Be reconciled to God. Open wide your heart - for in the Lord Jesus Christ who suffered for 40 Days in the Desert only to face a brutal death on the Cross, is the obvious sign that God's heart is open wide to you. Remove the stumbling block. Tear down the wall. Turn off the phone. Accept the grace and let it flow out of you. Be reconciled. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Down from the Mountain

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Kings 2: 1-12 and Mark 9: 2-9 Sermon title: Down from the Mountain Preached on 2/11/18 As I'm sure you've noticed by now, in addition to being Transfiguration Sunday, today is Scout Sunday. Some of the Scouts who meet here at our church began the service by bringing in the flags, and I am thankful to serve a church where Boy and Girl Scouts are invited to meet, where the Cub Scouts have their Pinewood Derby. It's wonderful. As I've mentioned before, I was once a Cub Scout. Carl Dimare was my Den leader. A few months ago, he gave me a picture of our den that he took during a camp-out at the Woodruff Scout Camp. It's on my desk. Den 11. My Dad and me standing right next to each other, and now I look more like him than the 8-year-old version of me. Participation in scouts was a family tradition of ours. Both my Dad and my younger brother are Eagle Scouts. When they were active here in Troop 252 my brother and several others who are members here today were signed up and ready to go on a big canoe trip up to the Boundary Waters. Those are the lakes that dot the border between Minnesota and Canada, and when my Dad wasn't able to go, I was invited to go in his place. This was a big deal for me. I was excited to go, but you know, the whole ride up there I'm starting to worry. I remember getting nervous about what life in the great outdoors was going to be like for a full 10-day span. And then they showed us what we were going to be eating and I got really nervous. But here's the thing about camping. Here's the thing about big trips in the great outdoors. It takes a little while to get used to it. You have to ease into a trip like this one. But once you're into it, day two or three, you start to forget that civilization even exists, and you say to yourself as you're watching the sun set, "I could just stay right out here for a while." "I could just paddle this canoe with my brother, Hal McClain, and all the others. Live on MRE's and Tang. We'll be just fine," I remember thinking that about day 3 or 4 of that trip watching the sun set. It seems like you hardly ever take the time to watch the sun set until you're camping, and as I did I felt like making a life for myself out there in the woods. Do you know that feeling? Not everyone does. Andrew McIntosh, our Youth Director, nuanced Henry David Thoreau this week. He said, "I went to the woods to live deliberately, and I deliberately went right back home to civilization." But if you know the feeling that I'm talking about then you can start to imagine what is going on in Peter's head, because just as it can be nice to be on a long canoe trip or to spend a week on the beach and away from it all, you can't stay up on top of a mountain. But Peter was ready to stay. I love this about Peter. Of course, everybody loves Peter, because Peter says the dumb thing that everyone else is thinking. "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Isn't that surely what they were all thinking. There they were, up on top of this mountain, and at the top they see their teacher, their friend, transfigured before them and his clothes became dazzling white, and there appeared to them Elijah, the Great Prophet, with Moses who led the people out of slavery in Egypt. These heroes of the faith were talking to their Jesus, so of course, why not pitch a tent and stay there for a while? You know what I'm talking about. You have an amazing experience. You escape from the world for a little while and your spirit lifts. The Youth Group goes to Montreat, North Carolina for the big youth conference. It's a week full of these great worship services. Everyone meets in small groups composed of youth from all over, but the others in the small group start to feel like family. Then you go hike to the top of Lookout Mountain and somebody says, "I wish we could just stay here forever." Of course, you do. But you can't. Why? Because real life isn't lived up on a mountain. You have to come down from the mountain to really live. Let me tell you what I mean. Back in Columbia, TN, the night after Dylan Roof walked into Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a Bible study, then walked out a murderer, the pastors of the AME churches in Columbia, TN called on every pastor and every elected official to meet for a worship service at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. It started about 7:00 in the evening. There were a lot of people there. I remember preaching, then going back to my pew to sing with everyone else. We sang one then another, and it was so hot that I felt like I was sweating through my suit jacket, but the Holy Spirit was in that place and everyone there could feel it. A few more pastors went to preach, then a man named Chris Poynter went to the pulpit. He was the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club and he told us that this worship service was a joyous event, that he hadn't felt so inspired since the pep rallies he went to back in High School. "But the game is tomorrow," he said, "it's not tonight that is going to change our community or our world, it's what we do tomorrow when we go back to the real world. How will we live then?" You see, you can't stay on the canoe trip. You can't just have a wonderful worship service and think that the daemon of racism is dead and gone. You have to come down from the mountain and back to the real world, because it's in the valley that life is lived. So, Peter, he can't make three dwellings. They can't just stay up there. No, they had to go down the mountain and as they were "coming down the mountain, [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." Now this isn't the first time Jesus told them that he would die. In fact, Jesus had been telling them about how he would have to undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. He had even told them before that he would be killed, and after three days rise again, but I bet you that this is the first time they believed him, because it's one thing for your friend to mention something of that gravity in conversation and it's another thing to see your friend transfigured before your eyes as he talks with Elijah and Moses. I believe the real reason Peter wanted to stay up on that mountain is because Peter now knew as Elisha the Prophet knew, that he would soon lose his friend whom he loved. Peter knew Jesus would go down that mountain and if he kept preaching and healing the way he had been preaching and healing, then he would be on his way to the Cross. You know this scared Peter, so he wanted to stay up on that mountain, and you know that's what Peter wanted because that's what we all want. To avoid the pain. To reduce the risk. To never lose the people we love. But Jesus knew that you can't live life on the mountain. Life is lived down in the valley, and so he goes down, because you can't be the Savior of the World if you're hiding from the world. You can't be the King of Kings if you never face your people. You can't live your life's purpose if you're afraid to live. Life is lived in the valley, and so we must take those mountain top experiences, those lessons that we learn from the woods, and we take all that back to our life in the valley because if we don't then we can't be a blessing to the world. And maybe it's hard. Risky. It's like the difference between singing in the shower and singing in front of people like all these good choir members do week after week. Or how well I preach my sermons when I'm practicing in my office. I have this lectern set up in front of a mirror, and man - you should hear me preach when there's no one there to listen. That's because everything is easier if it doesn't count, but if you want to make an impact on this world. If you want to live out your purpose on this earth. If you have a gift that you just have to share you have to come down from the mountain top to sing your song in the valley. That's life. So, that's what Jesus did. And that is what leads to his death. This reality is sobering, isn't it? And as it was true for him, so it's true for us. You can't just stay up on the mountain top. You can't live out in the woods no more than your four years of college should stretch out into 5 or 6. The point is to prepare you for life in the real world, not to avoid it. But the real world can kill you. You know what I'm talking about. Valentine's Day is this week. Wednesday. And Valentine's Day is risky. Say you pine for some young lady or young man. You dream about him or you imagine the day when she'll finally notice you, but do you say anything? No - if you say something she might reject you. But if you don't try you never know. The same is true of writing. Who knows how many great writers are out there who have yet to sit down and write a book. Who knows how many people have a story to tell but are afraid to tell it, because writing hurts. Many writers have offered some version of the great quote: "writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed." Which is to say that you can't do it if you are unwilling to come down from the mountain where life is all possibility, and no one has to get hurt. To write you have to go down to the place where rejection and pain are both possible - but this is where life is lived. Life is lived in the valley - where there is risk. I learned earlier this week, that just before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech, a white Presbyterian, Rev. Eugene Carson Blake spoke. He told the crowd assembled, "We Presbyterians have come to this Civil Rights Movement late, but we are here." And why were we late? Because walking into the valley, stepping away from what is and towards what could be, challenging the status quo, worrying our parents, speaking out on difficult issues - all of that is a risk that few people take because most of us are just fine building our tents up on the mountain top. But you know what Dr. King said. Not so long after he spoke in Washington DC with Rev. Blake, he said, "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will." We Christians - we can't just be mountain top Christians. We can't just be Sunday Morning Christians. We must take the lessons that we learn here, the feelings that fill our souls here, the new life that we hope for here - and walk down the mountain side, out into Kennesaw Avenue and Church Street and our work place and our neighborhoods so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed. And yes, there's a risk. For when it comes to what matters, there is always risk. Then the question becomes, would you rather just play at being a Christian, or are you ready to follow him where he leads? Amen.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mending the Nets

Scripture Lessons: Jonah 3: 1-5 and Mark 1: 14-20 Sermon Title: Mending the Nets Preached on January 21, 2018 This has been a big weekend at the church. Yesterday was the church officer's retreat. Your elected Elders and Deacons were here. We were talking about the future of our church with excitement, moving forward into this new year, and in addition to all that, in Holland Hall yesterday was the Cub Scout's pinewood derby. I remember being a Cub Scout in Holland Hall for the pinewood derby. The scene was just about the same as it was then. There was a long track. It used to be wood, but now its metal. The cars line up in heats, and the cub scouts still all huddle around the starting line cheering for these cars that they either made by themselves or with a parent. Two of Judy and Bob Harper's grandsons are in our Cub Scout Troop and we were standing together with their son-in-law Rob. I asked Rob about the construction of his son's cars. How much of the pinewood derby car he was responsible for as opposed to what his sons did? He was telling me about how they did some of the sanding, but as for sawing the wood, he did most of that, and at that point in the conversation the father in front of us turned back and said, "Really, it all depends on whether or not you want to make a trip to the ER." This is still the same. When it comes to the pinewood derby there's often that balance between letting your son figure it out for himself and a father doing it all for him. That's how it was when I was a kid too. My dad insisted that I lead the project. He helped me do whatever I wanted done, but he wanted me to be in charge, which was fine while we were making the car but sad in the race because I always got beat by some kid whose engineer dad had done the whole thing for him. Looking back, I can see that maybe that boy won the pinewood derby, but where does it stop? And at some point, it has to, because to become an adult, we all have to step out on our own. The disciples knew about that. "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God…" And as he passed along the Sea of Galilee, there were two brothers who were mending nets with their father. "Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him." What about that? You've heard a story like that before. Dad's an optometrist. He builds up his own office, and it's not easy making it on his own, what with Lenscrafters and Walmart basically giving glasses away. But he keeps going because he has a daughter who's a student at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, and he dreams of handing that practice over to her. Only guess what? She falls in love with some guy and they start a family What about that? Or consider this father. Last summer I bought this pasta maker at a yard sale. I bought it for 20 bucks, which is a lot to spend at a yard sale, but I handed it over because I thought: "what a great bonding experience this will be for me and our girls. Who cares that you can just buy a box of spaghetti for 99 cents - they'll love it." And I guess they did, or Lily did for about 5 minutes, so mostly it was me making pasta, then cleaning it up, for probably two hours. It also all got stuck together, so it wasn't all that pretty, but it tasted good - and the receipt was still in there. New that thing cost $175, which I would have paid because I love spending time with our girls, but they don't always want to do what I want them to do. You know what I'm talking about. Father Zebedee would understand. You think ol father Zebedee didn't love having his sons out there with him. You think he didn't have dreams like that optometrist. And now who is he going to pass those nets down to? One of the hired hands who are only after a day's pay? He can't do that. What is he going to do? A hard thing about being a parent is that you can't help but build expectations that you have no control over - and a hard thing about being a child is that you can't help but disappoint your parents even though half the time you don't even know why. But eventually every mother realizes that her sons have to decide on their own, every father realizes that he can't stand in the way of his daughter's dreams, and every child who successfully grows into adulthood has realized that he has to make his own pinewood derby car and even if it loses every race at least he tried and did it on his own. Faith is like that too. Last Monday was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in a sermon he once told the story of such an experience. For him it wasn't a pinewood derby car that he had to build on his own, but a long night in Birmingham, AL where he needed God, and he had to turn to God on his own. Early in the day, his life and the lives of his wife and children were threatened because the words that he had said and the changes that he supported, inspired someone to throw a brick through his window with a note attached. The note told him that if he didn't stop talking and get out of town, his life and the lives of his wife and children would be in jeopardy. Dr. King wanted nothing more than to have his father by his side, so that he could comfort him, that together they might turn to God in prayer, but his father was about 150 miles away. That night, Dr. King got up and made a pot of coffee because he couldn't sleep and he pondered the brick that had been thrown through the window of the house his wife and children were sleeping in and he began to pray, praying for what he said may have been the first time he had ever really prayed in his life. "My father wasn't there to do it for me," he said, "so I prayed to God myself." All believers must do that. There's an old saying that goes: The Lord doesn't have any grandchildren - and what that means is that developing a relationship with God isn't something that parents can do for their children - because to God, being related to a Christian isn't the same as being one yourself. We all must learn what it means to be the children of God on our own. At some point we must all learn to follow Christ ourselves, even if we've been drug into a church like this one for our entire childhood, at some point we have to get up and go ourselves. We have to make the choice, and for some of us - that means, not just doing it on our own without our parents but following Christ in spite of them. Somebody asked me the other day if my parents were excited when I told them I felt called to the ministry. But my parents knew far too much about the lifestyle that serving God as a pastor requires. So, they weren't excited. They were worried. And still, they talk to us about going up to their house for Christmas, refusing to accept the reality that I'll be preaching every Christmas Eve from now until I retire. But that's nothing really. Consider this daughter. She's the first one in her family to go to college. Some parents would be proud, but hers can't understand and don't see the point. "Come back and mend the nets," she can hear them say. Every church officer who was just ordained and installed probably faced some version of that. A call came from the Officer Nominating Committee asking them to serve this church in a leadership role, and if not in their ear then surely in their head were the voices of spouses telling them, "But we have kids to raise and house to run. Don't say yes, come back and mend the nets." Friends who said, "Someone else will say yes. It doesn't have to be you. Come back and mend the nets." This is life. I was in Confirmation Class years ago, but my friends got the bright idea to skip class and hang out behind the Cotton Building. That was really fun for a while, but at some point, I started feeling real guilty and was easing my way back to where I was supposed to be. "come back here and mend the nets," my friends called - and I told them I'd be right back, I just needed to use the bathroom, because I wasn't strong enough to tell them I wanted to go back to class. If I said that I was leaving them to go to class would they still be my friends, I worried. It costs something, doesn't it? And parents, we raise these children best we can - then we have to let them go and that may mean they move far away, destroying all our plans and expectations, even breaking our hearts. But who can blame them? For when the chance for new life comes walking down the beach calling us to follow, we all have to listen. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Come and See

Scripture Lessons: 1 Samuel 3: 1-10 and John 1: 43-51 Sermon Title: Come and See Preached on January 14, 2018 Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? What a question. What a human question – and what a relevant question for us to ponder this Sunday morning. You and I know already, that Scripture speaks truth to our world. We get out of bed Sunday after Sunday to hear it. We put the pulpit right here in the center of this great, revered room we call the Great Hall because the Word that Scripture reveals we put right at the center of our lives. That’s why the Beadle carries the Bible in with dignity and respect, because the Beadle knows as we all know that the Bible is not some dusty book passed down from generation to generation, but the most relevant book that we could possibly read. But who would have thought that this book, so ancient and removed from 21st Century America, would lead us to ponder a phrase nearly the same as a statement the President is reputed to have made just a few days ago? Nathanial asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And allegedly claims the President, “Can anything good come out of a place like Haiti? Can anything good come out of Africa? Isn’t it true that the best people come from Norway or someplace like that?” Those aren’t the words exactly, but you’ve watched the news and heard all about it. Regardless of exactly what was said and by whom, this is a very human assumption. We all try to get to know people and one of the very first questions we ask is, “Where are you from?” as though that could tell us something. My grandfather came from a place called the Caw-Caw Swamp. I’ve never been there, but he’d tell us these stories of how they’d catch turtles and would fatten them up in copper pots before cooking them for dinner. How the teacher would come to the house before the school was built, and there was a door to the front that only the teacher was allowed to use. Then when the school was built, my grandfather was the oldest school age child and so he was chosen to drive the bus. How old was he? “Oh, 12 at least,” I remember him saying. One day he fell asleep on his desk and some kid dropped a bb in his ear, and the story goes that because of the damage done to his ear drum he was never again allowed to swim. I told Dr. Jim Goodlett the story and he told me that a bb would just fall back out again. That a bb is too big to do any real damage considering how narrow the ear canal, but Jim is a real doctor and who knows who my grandfather saw out in the Caw-Caw Swamp? The first time he went to the beach, he told me, he fully expected to look right across the water to see Europe, which doesn’t speak too highly for his school system, and as he started out in business in the nearest city which was Charleston, South Carolina, who knows how many people looked down their noses at him when he told them he was from the Caw-Caw Swamp? I can’t tell you exactly where the Caw-Caw Swamp is, but it is definitely not South of Broad. People think that where you live really means something, so they ask about where you’re from to learn about who you are. And that can be good. But to really get to know someone you have to do something more. You have to go deeper. I’ve been interested to know how strategic some people are about using their Kroger Fuel Points. I ran into Wilkie Schell as I was dropping the girls of at school, and he told me he was checking the gas levels of both their cars, because Libba and Wilkie wait until both cars are on empty before they go to gas up so that they maximize their fuel savings at the Kroger. Amazing. I’ve been to a Christmas Party where the conversation completely revolved around tips for gaining a greater discount at the Kroger gas pumps. That tells you something about a person, though I’m not sure what. Getting to know people. Getting to really know people. How do you do it? We once rented a house from a man named Greg Martin who later told me that he always made a point of looking inside a person’s car before renting him or her a house. And that, for him, was a good way of getting to know someone. So, if you want to know someone: how clean is their car? How much do they care about Kroger Fuel Points? I’ll tell you this: you learn more when you know either of those than when all you know is where a person came from. I was in New York City one summer. I told a man I was from Georgia and he said, “I know.” A friend of mine, his name is Will, and he’s a Presbyterian minister down in Savannah. He went to a boarding school up north and when his roommate learned he was from Tennessee he was surprised that Will owned shoes. You ask someone where they’re from, and what do you learn? Maybe nothing. But what do you assume? A lot. You remember Hee Haw? Grandpa comes down stairs: “Well everybody. I’m getting old. It’s time for me to move up North.” “Why grandpa?” Everyone wants to know. “I figure it’s coming close to my time to leave this earth, and it’s better if we lose one of them than one of us.” Philip says to Nathaniel: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Stop and listen to that. We think we can learn something about someone based on how long his or her family has lived here or whether they’re from Cherokee or Paulding County. But take note. Jesus the Messiah comes from one of those places that people make assumptions about. However, where he was from didn’t tell Nathaniel anything, because getting to know people, and I mean really getting to know them, is valuable and life-giving, but it isn’t easy. Because you have to turn off the part of your brain that relies on assumptions and operates on fear. You really want to get to know someone you have to do more. You have to move in next door. Here in Marietta, we live close to our neighbors, and this new proximity has made us aware of how loud we are. We have two dogs, and one day I opened up the back door to tell one of them to stop barking, only to hear our next-door neighbor yelling: “Junebug, be quiet.” It’s bad when they know your dog’s name, but unfortunately, or fortunately, our neighbors don’t just know us, they really know us. And that’s what it takes. To really get to know someone have to be around them. You have to know what they eat and where they sleep. You have to see what they’re like when no one is looking or when they think no one is looking, so the Gospel of John begins like this as Eugene Peterson translated it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” That’s what the Lord did – he moved into the neighborhood. He didn’t rely on assumptions or operate on fear. Out of love he came down here to really get to know us. That’s who God is: A Creator who longs to know his creation. To use the words from our Call to Worship, quoted from Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You are acquainted with all my ways.” God was acquainted with Nathaniel, having knit him together in his mother’s womb. But more than that, the Lord saw him underneath the fig tree. Do you know what that feels like? You leave a message on someone’s voicemail, but instead of hanging up properly like you thought you did at the end of your brief message, you start in on your husband once again and the true state of your marriage is preserved on someone’s cell phone. Or maybe you were in the middle of a sensitive conversation in kitchen when your daughter barges in. You don’t know how long she’s been listening or what all she heard, but you wish that the words that just spilled out of your mouth could be sucked back in. It’s a strange thing to know that you’ve been seen. It’s intimate and makes you feel vulnerable. To be known is this incredible thing, but this is God’s reality and we are wise to remember it. God sees so much that we would rather hide. God knows us at this deep and substantial level. All that we would deny or run away from, he sees and knows. But here’s the big deal: even in knowing all that he comes to earth to get to know us even better – and then – and this is the really big news – even after seeing us for who we really are – God invites us to take part in what God is doing. You can see what an honor that is. The difference that this kind of invitation makes in peoples’ lives. Did you see that picture of a Haitian born cadet who wept as he graduated from West Point? Or did you hear about the boy who grew up in the Caw Caw Swamp to set records in insurance sales for Life of Georgia. Then there’s the kid who was left at a Temple by his mother, raised by a blind old man, bullied by the man’s two sons – but was woken up in the middle of the night because God wanted Samuel to crown Israel’s greatest kings. We are all Nathanial’s – we look down on others because we fear we are nothing ourselves. Forget all that. Let me tell you the truth. You might have come from some place that presidents and disciples would call a back-water or worse, but you are precious in his sight. And, God has some work for you to do. God sees in you the potential that no one else ever saw. God sees the worth that you long ago forgot all about. God knows when you are sleeping and he knows when you’re awake – and the greatest gift he could give he has given and the most important news he entrusts to you that you might proclaim it – just come and see. Just come and see who you really are. Just come and see – and take part in the redeeming work that God is doing in our world. Amen.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Into What Then Were You Baptized

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 1: 1-5 and Mark 1: 4-11 Sermon Title: Into What Then Were You Baptized Preached on January 7, 2018 Some would say that the hardest words to believe in the Bible are those in our first Scripture Lesson: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light.” Science tells us a story about a big bang and an ever-expanding universe, survival of the fittest, natural selection, and for generations now, it’s as though faith and science have been battling it out for a right to the truth. Like me you might say that this is no either or, but maybe you’ve had an argument with your friends about this. Some friend who sees the first two chapters of Genesis as the great stumbling block that keeps them from faith in God – but I say these words in Genesis are no stumbling block. They don’t need to compete with the words of science, because science can tell us things that religion never will, and Scripture provides insights that science cannot, but beyond that, these from Genesis aren’t the hardest words to believe in Scripture anyway. No. If you get right down to it then you know that most people wrestle with not the words of our first scripture lesson, but the words of our second. It was just as he was coming up out of the water, when a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Most people can’t believe that God or anyone else would every say that to them: “You are my Daughter, whom I love, and with you I am well pleased.” “You are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” “You are my husband or my wife, whom I love, and with you I am well pleased.” These words are common enough, but they’re also different from what we’re used to because God’s not saying to Jesus or to us that God has high hopes for who we might become. God’s not saying that once all the laundry is washed or when we get that raise so we can put a pool in the back yard, then God will approve of us. Rather, what God is saying to Jesus in his baptism is that it’s because of who you are right now, that God just has to say, “You are mine. The one I love, and with you I am well pleased.” I know a woman who went on a date set up by one of those match-maker websites. This guy said to her: “You have the exact skill set that I’ve been looking for in a partner.” That’s not very romantic. It sounds more like engineering than love to me, but we hear those kinds of words so often that not all of us are able to let the Good News in. We’re not used to the truth: that in our baptism what God said to Jesus, God says to us as well. That in baptism, God takes us as his own. God loves us as his own. God claims us as his own. With us, even with us, God is well pleased. And Presbyterians, we baptize infants, and we need to stop and think about what that means. What has a four-month-old done to qualify for these words? Nothing, but that’s grace. That’s God’s love, and considering Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, even for Jesus it’s not so different for him than it is for an infant. This morning we read from Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel – the very first chapter. No miracles precede this baptism. He doesn’t say anything wise to please God so that he deserves this affirmation. Instead, Jesus just walks in the water and God speaks these most important words, because that’s what baptism is. It is undeserved grace and love that some struggle to accept for their entire lives. Like us, he is a child of God. But unlike us, when God tells him so, he is bold to believe it. Like us, God who holds the whole world in his hands also holds tightly this Jesus of Nazareth. But unlike us, Jesus never doubts it. Like us, Jesus hears this Good News, that God is well pleased with who he is. But unlike us these words free him from shame. “You are mine, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” Jesus heard these words. He never doubted them. Even as God called him to face the Cross still he knew who he was, that he was beloved of God. But can you and I let these words in? There’s a power in words. That’s the difference between the Creation account in Genesis and the story Science tells. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong – it’s that science tells us that it’s all about molecules and energy and that’s fine and good, but none of that matters to your soul nearly as much as words do. So, in Genesis God spoke and there was light. That’s the truth, and you know it, because it’s not photons but words that bring light to so much of the darkness that we know. But some never hear them and others can’t believe them. Isn’t that the truth? The 17th Century poet George Herbert, in his third poem titled Love, wrote: “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.” That seems to be the natural human reaction. Valentine’s Day is coming up, and over the years I’ve read a lot of children’s books about Valentine’s Day from the library, but they’re all just about the same. In every one a little girl sends a valentine card to a little boy, then on the playground or somewhere she sneaks up behind him and plants a kiss on his cheek. 100% of the time – in every one of those books - the little boy runs away. Little boys are funny about love. It was when I was in second grade that my teacher asked our class to go home and ask our parents about what is essential for life. It was science class and we were learning about what it takes to survive, so I went home. My parents and I decided on water. “Water is essential for life,” I reported to my class, and was proud to find that this was a good and acceptable answer. “Yes, water is essential for life,” our teacher responded. Then a girl in the class answered oxygen, which was also a good answer. Then another said food. The teacher approved and said that food is also essential for life. A boy in the row behind me reported that love was essential for life. I couldn’t get my head around that, so I went home and asked my Mom. She agreed with the boy and told me that no one could live without love which didn’t make any sense to me at the time, so I went to my father and he told me that the boy’s parents must be hippies. Love. It’s essential, but sometimes it’s easier to joke about, so the poem from George Herbert continues: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back… But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack… Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning If I lacked anything.” The poet answers: I lack what would make me worthy. There’s the real challenge. Like the poet we say: Surely, I’m not worthy of love. I should have to pay for it, work for it, aspire to one day deserve it. But what if it’s just like the Gospel of Mark says it is? What if all you have do is come up from the water and hear the words? Words are powerful. God speaks them and the earth is created. And God speaks them in baptism and our lives are changed completely if we’ll let the power of the words do their work. So, if your earthly father never said them, or never said them enough, then hear them said to you by your Heavenly Father: “You are mine.” Or if you’ve struggled to believe them, because love showed up and then walked away, know that the God who came to earth to say them through his life isn’t going anywhere, least of all away from you: “You are mine, my beloved.” The God of love, he came to earth, and when he came up out of the water he heard these words, he let them in. And for the rest of his life he poured these words out, saying to his disciples, “Take and eat. This is my body broken for you. Drink. Here is my love poured out for you to take in. You are mine, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” May these words free you to stop working so hard to deserve them, because you can’t. May these words free you to be yourself, for until you can you’ll never be satisfied. And may these words create in you a desire for new life, because we can’t be saved from our sin until we accept the truth that we are worth saving. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The One Who Knows How to Turn on the Lights

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 1: 1-5 and John 1: 1-9 Sermon Title: The One who can turn on the Lights Preached on 12/17/17 Every night our girls humor me by asking me to tell them a story, and last Monday Night Lily wanted to hear a story about when I was her age, so I told her about how when I was 8, my favorite school lunch at Hickory Hills Elementary School was something called a taco boat. You might remember those things. The taco shells were flat, but pulled up on the edges like a square corn pie crust, and the lunch ladies would scoop taco beef into them, then lettuce and salsa. I remember all that because this was my favorite school lunch, and talking about these taco boats reminded me of one day when I was going through the lunch line with my best friend Matt Buchanon. I was new at Hickory Hills in 3rd grade when I was Lily’s age, and Matt was in 3rd grade too but had been at the school longer so he was kind of showing me the ropes. We were going through the line, and right before we got to the cash register he says, “Watch this.” Lunch was 85 cents in those days, and Matt pulled out a dollar, handed it to the lady, and said to her, “Keep the change” and with the wink, he walked to our table. I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was like was going through the lunch line with James Dean or something. So, I take out my dollar, hand it to the lady, “keep the change” I say, but she handed me back my 15 cents. The moral of the story: some people have it and some people don’t. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes you just have to stay in your lane, and Matt Buchanon was the Fonz of Hickory Hills and I was lucky to be his less cool sidekick, which was fine because you have to know who you are – and you have to know who you are not. I’m not Matt. I’m also not Sara. There was a month when Sara asked me to take over paying the bills for our family. She gave me instructions, all the passwords. It was still the most stressful month of my life. She’s also who the girls want when they’re sick – unless there’s throw-up involved. That’s me. And when we all leave the house in the morning Lily and Cece both say, “I love you Mama. You’re the best Mom ever.” They love me too, I know that, but there’s something about a mom. That’s just how it is, and that’s fine because it’s good to know who I am and who I’m not. There’s freedom in coming to terms with that, and there’s suffering if you never do – so it is with some joy that I say I’m just Joe. Not Matt, not Sara, not Jesus either, and while that last one may sound the most obvious of all, I’m not the only mortal who attempts to live up to immortal standards. I’m not the only human who has trouble accepting the reality of his human-ness. Consider just the last two campaign slogans for President of the United States. I’m not trying to make a particularly political statement. I just want to say this morning that all those supporters who believe that President Trump is powerful enough to go right up to Washington and “Make America Great Again” are going to be disappointed, because no mortal can do it – especially not on his own. But this is politics. Human politicians promising the impossible. They say they can do these things that they can’t, and we are fools to believe them. You remember President Obama’s campaign slogan? Hope. No human should promise that because hope is not ours. We mortals have to come to terms with mortality. We have to understand the limits of our power. We have to know who we are and who we are not – and that’s why it’s important that we go back to the river this morning – back to the Jordan River to visit John for the 2nd Sunday in a row. And who is John? There’s some descriptive information about him in our 2nd Scripture Lesson, but this passage gives us mostly a description of who he is not: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” So, who’s John? He’s not the light and he knows it. A preacher and Bible Scholar named David Bartlett said it like this: “What Would Jesus do?” the button asks. He would walk on water, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.” We have to know who we are not – and who we are not is the light of the world. That sounds obvious enough, but it’s not. Or it’s not for me any way. Last Sunday I was nervous, and it was because I was confused about my limits. I was thinking all Saturday after we’d made the decision not to cancel the 11:15 service – that if these people are going to go through all the trouble of getting here on a snow day, I better have a pretty good sermon. That might be true, but you’re not here for me. If I spend all this time pointing to myself, if this church becomes all about me or you or anyone else, if the focus of our attention is on what any mortal has to say and think and do, then we are a shell of the Church that we could be. Because it’s not me or my words that matter. It’s who I’m talking about. It’s who they’re singing about. It’s who we’re praying to. It’s who we honor and thank with our tithes and offerings. The focus of our praise must never be on a mortal. For it is the call of we humans to use our words and actions to point to the One who spoke light into the world. A great theologian, some would say the greatest of the 20th Century, was a man named Karl Barth. From 1921 until his death, over his desk hung a copy of a painting by Matthias Grunewald. In the center of the painting hangs Christ crucified, and to one side stands John the Baptist – one hand raised and pointing to the Light of the World. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light” and what we can learn from John is that John the Baptist knew he wasn’t. He knew himself well enough that he knew who he was, the gifts that God had given him, and he used those gifts so well because he pointed to someone worth pointing to. He is, therefore, the very definition of humble. The definition of humble is simple. It’s knowing what you can do and what you can’t do, who you are and who you are not. And John was a messenger, not the light itself. We can learn a lot from just that. After all, this is a time of year when everyone is going overboard. Doing too much. Attempting to make real the impossible. Trying to make someone’s dreams come true. This time of year, we forget who we are and who we are not, and that leads to doomed expectations. Grandma died, so someone is going to try to make macaroni and cheese just like she always made it. But even if it’s perfect, we can’t bring grandma back. And last Christmas Charlie was disappointed, so someone here is going to find the perfect thing in the perfect size, but listen – be realistic – you can’t buy joy. You just can’t. Even if this Christmas you were to wake up to a Lexus in your driveway with a big red bow on it, you’ve shot for the moon without reaching it, because you can’t be hope, you can’t be Christmas Joy, and you can’t be the Light of the World, and if we’re busy trying to be that, not only are we doomed to frustration, but we’re missing out on the blessings that our God longs to give if we just stop trying to provide them ourselves. We’re trying to scrape by on your own while he promises abundant life. We’re trying to fill the table for a feast, but he’s the one who turns water into wine. And maybe we’ve thrown some Christmas lights in the tree, but he’s the light of the world. A preacher named Bob Woods tells a story about the light in a cave. This couple took their son and daughter to Carlsbad Caverns. The tour of this cave is like a lot of them. The guide takes you way down there, to the cave’s deepest point underground, and then turns off the lights, just to show how dark darkness can be. Enveloped in complete darkness, the little boy began to cry. Immediately was heard the quiet voice of his sister who said, “Don’t cry. Someone here knows how to turn on the lights.” You see – this time of year we’re busy talking about remembering grandma through the perfect replication of her macaroni and cheese, while Jesus is coming to make the dead alive. We’re busy searching the internet for the greatest gift money can buy while Jesus is born bringing hope to the world. And up in Washington DC they’re doing very mortal things while promising what only God can give – so do not be deceived. Do not be frustrated. Instead, look to the Manger because the one who knows how to turn on the lights is coming. Our Clerk of Session, Carol Calloway, and I were texting back and forth last Saturday trying to decide what to do about opening the church. I asked her if she had power back yet and she wrote me back, “I am very aware of where our real power comes from. Being without power kinda makes that obvious.” My friends, there are limits to human power, but rejoice in this: the one who knows how to turn on the lights is coming to be with us. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1: 1-8 Sermon Title: The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness Preached on 12/10/17 This has been an interesting weekend. It snowed. It’s the very thing we hope for in December, and after enjoying it for about two hours we want it to go away. Isn’t that funny? But that’s life. This week got off to an interesting start for me – it had me really thinking. Lily, Cece, and I were on our way to school Monday morning on our bikes, running a little behind before we had even made it out of the house, and you know how those mornings are – we were late so we became later. Someone had snuck into our house and hid all the shoes and backpacks in places we couldn’t find them. So, after several delays, we finally made it down our steep driveway and we were well on our way when I realized that I was peddling but my wheels weren’t moving. I stopped to see if the chain was off, but it actually seemed as though my chain ring was no longer properly attached to the wheel. That was a problem, and this was one of those frustrating moments – we were already running late; my daughters were ahead of me – their peddles worked you see, and so they had already made it across the street and were on their way around a corner. I didn’t know what to do or how to catch up, and just then, Whitt Smith, who was a year ahead of me at Marietta High School, he stopped in his pickup truck to say, “Ya’ll are running a little late for school.” That was true, but it seemed like an obvious point to make. Then I told him my bike wasn’t working. He told me to throw it in the back of his truck, that he’d drop it off back at our house so I could catch up with Lily and Cece and get them to school safely. I did, and we were only about 15 minutes late for school. Under reason for being tardy I wrote “bike problems,” and then wondered if anyone had ever thought up that excuse before, but here’s the real question that I want you to ponder with me: On my walk from Westside Elementary School to the church, what will occupy my thoughts? Will I spend this quite time walking along the sidewalk stewing in the frustration from a malfunctioning bicycle – or, will I rejoice in thanksgiving for the kindness of an old friend who stopped to lend me a hand with my bike when I needed it? It’s been like this for me all weekend – will I enjoy the snow for the rare gift that it is, or will my cheer be overcome by frustration because the power’s out and so I can’t make coffee properly? I can tell you how it’s been for me – and I don’t like it. I’d much rather focus on how it was for our children who know how to enjoy a gift. We adults – we don’t always see so well. Snow looks like an inconvenience. A friend’s display of kindness gets lost amid frustration. Miracles happen – but we don’t always see them. I’m afraid that it’s always been this way. It’s been this way since the beginning. We just read the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. The first line there is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and while this first line seems standard enough, consider all the other news that hit the papers that Monday morning 2,000 years ago competing for attention: It was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but in addition to that, back in ancient Israel, Herod was the king, and his rule was oppressive and tyrannical. His primary concern being building palaces rather than establishing order and fairness. But not only was their plenty of reason for good people to be consumed with hatred of the local government, Rome was the power that controlled the known world – and Rome maintained that control through public violence, any who rose up in protest were nailed to crosses that marked the major roads into cities. These crosses, they were like our billboards and as you entered Jerusalem they were your warning not to step out of line. Think of that. This good news of Jesus Christ that the Gospel of Mark speaks of – it was first proclaimed in a time when most people believed there was only bad news. Had we been there with them, we would have heard about the Good News among a chorus of government control, taxation, oppression, and poverty – for just as it has been true of us this weekend, so it has always been - in the midst of real, human life – this is when we choose to hear the good news. And I said choose. That’s what I meant. For the Good News is a light – but it’s a light in the darkness. It is a whisper in the cacophony of a city street. The news is good – but it’s good in the midst of bad, so we must be practiced in how we listen and where we focus. Because we have to filter through all the chaos to get to the beauty and the truth. Back in ancient Israel, in order to hear it, some had to leave the city, and they went out to a place where they could listen – they went out to the river to see John. Did you catch those details about John from our 2nd Scripture Lesson? Clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. Who looks like that? Who expects to be taken seriously looking like that? I once had the chance to ask this big time, New York City preacher for advice and he looked me up and down and told me that I need to shine my shoes. That was it. My confusion must have shown because he explained – Presbyterians are respectable people who expect you to look like someone worth taking seriously, and that’s true. I know not to wear my Christmas suit in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, but what do we do with John? What did he wear? A business suit? No. A robe? No. Two articles of clothing did he wear, a camel hair something and you can bet it wasn’t a sport coat, then a belt, nothing more. Why listen? Because that’s what prophets wear – that’s why. And just because we’re used to listening to the news in the paper and the news on TV, sometimes it’s from weird looking prophets that you hear the real truth. But that makes listening hard. That means discernment. Because often times it’s lies coming through a bullhorn while the truth is proclaimed by a man dressed in camel hair. We have to learn how to listen – how to focus our attention, because we’re distracted. I saw a truck advertisement last week. Two little girls in the back seat looking at their IPads: “The new 2018 Ford F-150 with SYNC Connect and available Wi-Fi means you and the family can stay connected.” Connected? What do we mean by connected? How are we supposed to hear with all these distractions? How are we supposed to be a family with all the entertainment? Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent, and today we are called on to consider peace, and to prepare for peace’s coming in the birth of our savior. But how if we don’t even know what being connected means anymore? To start, I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to choose how you’ll focus. To watch for beauty, and to listen for truth. A Bible scholar named Walter Brueggemann says it like this: It is written in Deuteronomy that the poor will always be with you. It is written elsewhere that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. It is written in the American psyche that the big ones will always eat the little ones. It is written in the hearts of many hurting ones that their situation will always be abusive and exploitative. It is written and it is believed and it is lived, that the world is a hostile, destructive place. You must be on guard and maintain whatever advantage you can. It is written and recited like a mantra, world without end. [But] In the middle of that hopelessness, Advent issues a vision of another day, written by the poet, given to Israel midst the deathly cadence. We do not know when, but we know for sure. The poet knows for sure that this dying and killing is not forever, because another word has been spoken [but will hear it?] There was a lady I once knew. She was hard to visit, because she never had anything nice to say. She was always sick, so I’d go to her home or to her hospital room. She was always cold, and in the summer time she’d bring a toboggan to put on in the sanctuary because she didn’t like the air conditioning. She was huddled up under blankets this one day when I went to see her in her home, and she cried and cried telling me that no one from the church ever called, which broke my heart to hear – but in that moment the phone rang, because Doris from the church wanted to check and see how this lady was doing. My mouth hung open because of the miracle, but this lady hung up the phone and said, “Where was I, oh yes – no one from the church ever calls me. It’s horrible!” It’s like the hymn says: And man, at war with man, hears not The love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing. They do sing and they will sing, but we have to be quite and calm enough to listen. We have to be careful with what we pay attention to. And we have to watch our hearts – because you and I can stew all day long on what doesn’t ultimately matter, while ignoring the miracles. They are like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Listen – because that’s hope calling. Amen.