Sunday, July 22, 2018

Who Will Build the Temple?

Scripture Lessons: Ephesians 2: 11-22 and 2nd Samuel 7: 1-14a Sermon Title: Who Will Build the Temple? Preached on July 22, 2018 Recently I took our girls to see the Incredibles 2. It’s a new animated movie out, and we all liked it a lot. Seeing a movie is a good thing to do on a summer afternoon. You have to pay $20.00 for popcorn, but it’s a fun thing to do. Before the main attraction, before the Incredibles 2 came on there was an appetizer movie. A short cartoon to get us warmed up that had a genuine impact on me that I want to tell you about. It featured a lonely woman who took her time to make her husband the most delicious steamed dumplings for their lunch. She made them for him with painstaking care. She made the filling from fresh ingredients, folded the dough around it with beauty and precision, then steamed these precious dumplings and she set them on the table before her husband who scarfed them down in seconds while never taking his eyes off the TV. Then he’s off to work and the lonely woman eats her dumplings in lonely silence, when strangely her last dumpling comes to life. A dumpling is the perfect food to make into a baby too – this dumpling baby had fat, doughy cheeks that the lonely woman pinched. Eventually the little dumpling sprouted arms and legs and could move around, and that meant that the lonely woman was no longer alone. She took her dumpling baby out to grocery shop. He went with her to tai chi in the park and having this dumpling to love and care for and feed made the lonely woman happy. But then the dumpling boy grew, and he saw some boys playing soccer in the park and didn’t want to do tai chi any more. He wanted to play soccer. This is where the problem began, because the lonely woman didn’t want her little dumpling playing soccer. She wanted to keep him close by her side, so she jerked him back. You can see where this is going – the lonely woman loves her dumpling and doesn’t want him going anywhere or getting himself hurt, but the dumpling wants to grow up. Eventually he goes out, comes back home with a tall, blond girlfriend. The dumpling tells his human parents, “We’re getting married.” When the lonely women protest by stomping her foot and crossing her arms, the dumpling and his blond fiancé try to storm out. But before he makes it out the door the lonely woman scoops up her dumpling boy and eats him. That was a dramatic twist. Only it didn’t end there. Maybe you can imagine that in this cartoon, the dumpling that the lonely woman doted over, was a stand in for her real son. The cartoon went on to tell us that as her human son grew up he pushed her away too, and the more he pushed the tighter she tried to hold him close, until eventually he ran off. That happens sometimes, we choose to cling too tightly and lose control rather than accept the reality that people will fight to be who they are and against who we want them to be. So, maybe you haven’t carried around a dumpling or taken it to tai chi, but have you ever wanted to hold close someone who was pushing you away? Maybe this cartoon was a little strange, but it reminded me of the day I dropped Lily off at Kindergarten. That day, and only that day, the impulse to homeschool was strong. I dropped her off. She didn’t want to go. She was so little, and after leaving her in her classroom, where I’m sure she was perfectly happy, I made it back to the car and sat in the driver’s seat and cried. It was awful. But maybe like me you can relate to the impulse to scoop up a little dumpling and never let her go because letting kids grow up is so painful. Loving someone and having to let them go – there’s just nothing easy about it. And allowing people to be who they are rather than who we want them to be or being who we are despite the pressure to be someone else – none of this is easy. Though these are all challenges that are a part of our life together – both in families and in a community. Such challenges were in David’s life too. Consider David’s father, who was supposed to call all his sons to see the Prophet Samuel that he might pick one to be the king, but his father left little David out in the field, because sometimes it’s hard to allow your children to be who God calls them to be. Then there was this conflicted relationship David had with King Saul. Saul who loved David until he got too big for his britches and stepped out of Saul’s shadow to become king himself. So often there’s the conflict – a projection cast on a loved one of who we think they ought to be – and when the boy grows into a man or when the dumpling exerts a little independence, what happens inside the heart and mind of those who want the dumpling to stay at arm’s length? Last week we heard about his wife Michal who despised David in her heart – why? Because David turned out to be the kind of king who danced rather than the kind of king that she expected him to be. So, as it was with David, so it is with us, life is full of human relationships with push away and pull back. A dance of childhood loving closeness one minute, exerting adolescent independence the next, and today we see that King David’s relationship with his God was not so unlike his human relationships. Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” What does David want to do here but build the Lord a house. To keep God close by. This is a kind thought, a loving gesture, but have you ever been given a present that the giver wanted to give more than you wanted to receive it? A knew a man in Tennessee named David Locke. Mr. Locke used to say, “Always accept what someone gives you, because sooner or later they’ll give you something that you actually want.” That’s one way to think about it, but that’s not how God thought about it. David wants to build God a house, but did David ask God if God would like one? No. There’s two kinds of unwanted gifts. There’s the unwanted gifts that people give you because you need them, and you don’t know it – like nose hair clippers. Husbands – if your wife gave you nose hair clippers it’s because you need it, and I know you didn’t ask for it, but you should accept the gift for your own good. Then there’s the other kind of unwanted gift – the kind of gift that’s been wrapped in a motive. The kind of gift that says more about the person giving it and their hopes for who you’ll be than their understanding of who you actually are. How many little girls woke up to find that Santa had brought them a tutu instead of the pocket knife that they asked for? How many mothers opened up an Instapot on Mother’s Day and wanted to use it for target practice? These gifts often say more about who the giver wants you to be than who you actually are – and that happens because it’s hard for some people to let the ones who they love be themselves. For years I had to go to dance recitals for my sister, who really did ask Santa for a tutu because she loved to dance, and I remember that every once in a while, a group would come on stage that had a boy in it. That whole group of girls and one boy, and I remember my mother saying, “the bravest person in this auditorium is that boy’s father.” She said that because allowing someone who you love to be who God created them to be takes strength. And allowing God to be who God actually is rather than who we want God to be takes strength as well. It takes a particular kind of strength that we call faith. So, now comes the real story. The life lesson: But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Whenever I have moved about among the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” God never said, “It sure would be nice to have a solid roof over my head.” God never said to David: “Look at you, resting easy, and I’m in this old tent.” It wasn’t like that. God was happy that David was settled in his house, but God didn’t want a house of his own – that was what David wanted God to want. David, like all of us, has this problem of projection. He was limiting God according to his image of God. He was boxing God in, according to his perception of who God was and what God wants. Again – this is normal enough, but it’s dangerous, because mothers have to let their little dumplings grow up and be who they were created to be. A husband has to listen to his wife so well that he knows her – that he’s heard what she fears, that he knows what she worries about, and can be reasonably sure of what she likes and doesn’t – so then he can buy her what she actually wants and not what he wants her to want. And the same is true for our relationship with God. We Christians – we have to listen to God. We have to conform to his will – because God will not conform to ours, though so often we will try to get God to or will speak as though God always takes our side. We must remember that while God is always with us, God does not support all that we do. God is not just along for the ride. Last week I saw a picture of a black Labrador retriever. These dogs are known to be compassionate and loyal, and below the picture was the heading – Man’s true best friend and below that was a test to prove that statement, “men, if you want to know who your true best friend is, lock your wife and your dog in the trunk of your car for an hour. Then let them out and see who’s happy to see you.” That’s funny – but you shouldn’t put your wife in a trunk. You shouldn’t put your dog in a trunk either, and you definitely shouldn’t try to put God in the trunk and take God along for the ride regardless of where you are going. Bumper stickers used to say, “Jesus is my co-pilot.” Remember those? Then a counter bumper sticker came out, “If Jesus is your co-pilot than you’re in the wrong seat.” Sometimes we just want God to go along with us and bless our ride regardless, but what if we’re going in the wrong direction? What if God is calling us to turn around? What if God doesn’t want us to build him a house? Preachers have that problem. I was preaching at a camp meeting a few years ago. We were outside, cars parked all around. And I thought I had this great sermon about how God often speaks through interruptions. Well, someone’s car alarm started going off and interrupted my sermon. I gave a frustrated look in the direction of the perpetrator. An embarrassed man turned the alarm off, finally, so I could continue with what I wanted to say. Then it went off again, and again we waited while he turned off the alarm. Then I continued, but when the alarm went off for a third time I finally realized how well I was proving my point that God interrupts but we just keep on going by refusing to be interrupted by God’s divine interruption. You know – we want to build God a house, but what if God doesn’t need one. We want our children to change, but what about the change that needs to occur in us? We sing “God Bless America,” but God cannot bless our every endeavor – for so much of what we do is contrary to God’s Word. Too often we only want God to support what we’re doing already – we look to Scripture, not for challenge but for affirmation - but is God’s Word not a refiner’s fire? If only we weren’t so resistant to being refined. It reminds me of one story of how Columbia Theological Seminary got started. The great Presbyterian Churches of the Antebellum South used to send all their fine pastoral candidates up to Princeton Seminary in New Jersey for training. Problem was – they’d all come back abolitionists. Rather than listen to what these preachers had to say, rather than hear the truth – that God calls us to see our brothers and sisters not as property – we just built a seminary in the South where we wouldn’t have to hear it. Does God need us to build him a house? Does not God need us to instead listen to his Word and be changed by it? And will God not freely give greater blessings than we could ever dream of should we be so bold to change according to his divine will? The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Let us always remember, that unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, labor in vain. Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Whenever I Am Weak, then I Am Strong

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Corinthians 12: 1-10 and 2nd Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10 Sermon Title: Whenever I Am Weak, then I Am Strong Preached on July 8, 2018 In the past two weeks, as is often the case, I have come to a better understanding of my personal failures and limitations. I had a meeting at Cool Beans Coffee Shop on the Square with David Eldridge, the pastor of Stone Bridge Church, and David wanted to introduce me to another pastor who was in there – it was pastor’s day at Cool Beans I guess. The other pastor that David wanted me to meet had just started at Roswell Street Baptist Church. I shook his hand, his name was Mark, and in the course of his introduction I suddenly realized that this was the very Mark who had been trying to get in touch with me. I had failed to return several of his messages. He had been emailing me to see if I might be interested in this new imitative he’s getting started. Has this ever happened to you? That the person you’ve been avoiding, either intentionally or unintentionally, is suddenly right in front of you? David said, “Mark, this is Joe Evans at First Presbyterian Church.” I added, “The guy who has failed to return your messages.” Then he said, “Don’t apologize. You’re not Jesus.” Isn’t that the best response? I’ve been thinking about how I might use that phrase, because it’s such a freeing reminder of the truth. Of course, I know I’m not Jesus. None of us are, but that truth doesn’t always keep us from trying to be perfect. In reality, we’re limited. Fallible and forgetful, but we don’t want to be. In fact, we’re often actively trying not to be. So, I’m grateful to this Mark, because he helped me to face the reality that I’m just me because I often want to be more than me. I want to be King David. Don’t you? In our 2nd Scripture Lesson from the book of 2nd Samuel, David’s accomplishments are listed: -David, who already had been embraced by the Southern Tribes, now unifies the nation by gaining the esteem of the north as well. -He made a covenant with the Elders of Israel. -Was anointed king. -He captured the ancient city of Jerusalem, established it as the City of David, then built it up. -Scripture also mentions that he does all this by the time he turned 30. -But here’s the main thing. In verse 10 we read: “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts was with him.” With this simple verse it becomes clear why David was able to all these things by the time he turned 30. It was not because of his own strength that he became great, but because “the God of hosts was with him,” and should we continue to consider the reign of David, then future years will show that when he forgets this vital fact, when he fails to accept the limit of his power and instead, steps beyond to seize more than he has right to, his great story turns from victory to tragedy. The human condition is, that even the greatest of us are limited, and one of the beautiful gifts of our faith is to embrace our limits, not with resentment, but with gratitude. Paul said it like this in our first Scripture Lesson: “On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” He then goes on to describe, without specific detail, the “thorn” which keeps him from being “too elated.” “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this [Paul wrote], that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” That’s a hard truth to accept, but it is truth. I recently heard a philosopher describe Superman. How the writers of this comic book ran out of stories to tell about him, that his popularity began to wane, until they introduced kryptonite, the mineral that zaps the super hero’s strength. Of course, we would all like to be super heroes: strong, fast, ageless, beautiful. The perfect mothers, the sole provider. We want to wake up early, exercise, walk the dog, feed the family, then go off into the world prim and proper, witty and informed, caring and concerned, and I know that’s true, because when we have the chance to project our image out onto the world, we show the Facebook Community, not the truth, but what we want the truth to be. Our children must make good grades, and make the cheerleading squad, and act in the school play, while attending to her grandparents, looking grownups in the eye, minding their manners and writing all thankyou notes no more than four days after her birthday party. That’s what many of us want from our children because we hold ourselves up to such high standards. Success in life demands rising to the high standards set by culture, but what about the moment when they run into their own Mark, who wrote them an email that they’ve failed to respond to for days or weeks. Will they rejoice in being reminded that they aren’t Jesus? And don’t have to be? Or will they promise to try harder to be perfect in the future? A requirement of having faith in God, is not having absolute faith in ourselves. That might sound strange, but if we could do it alone what need for God would there be? When Paul says: “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” he is reiterating a point that he’s made several times before, that if we could be perfect, then what need would we have for God’s grace? If we could master human existence, going through life without making mistakes, or, if we could rise to every occasion without the need of God’s sustaining hand, then why believe? If perfection were ours, if holiness were something we could work for and eventually gain, if it were possible for us to rise to every challenge without ever falling or failing, then what did Christ die for? Therefore, we are better – far better – when we know our need, for then we can give thanks for our shepherd who supplies it. We are mighty – not when we are strong enough to do it ourselves, but when we must lean on the ever-lasting and almighty arms of our savior. When we remember our blindness, then we can give thanks to the one who opens our eyes. And when we know what we can’t do, then we can trust the one who can. Those children who grow up believing that it all rests on their shoulders – who forgot how to play and spend their vacations at the beach studying for the ACT – we worry about the pressure that they’re under but don’t know what to do about it, because we adults can be just as bad. We adults, who live into the lie, the idolatry that the future rests in our hands, are to be pitied for foolishly trying to carry a burden that already rests in our savior’s hands. Too often I try to carry it myself. After all, I am the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, GA. I’ve now been proud to call myself your pastor for nearly one year. This summer is the one-year anniversary, and daily I’m thankful to be here among you. To call myself your pastor, and being your pastor has its many perks. Sometimes I’m recognized by people I haven’t met. I was having breakfast at Come–N–Get It and the man at the register, who I’ve only met once or twice before, called me by name. “Thank you for your business Rev. Evans,” he said. This was an occasion for my head to expand. Only later did I realize that I was wearing a name tag. I’m still me, you see – and you’re still you. The struggle is to accept such limitations, and even to rejoice in them, for in recognizing what Christ does in our weakness, we are more fully Christian, and less failing superheroes. I’m sure that you’ve heard by now, that a Long-Range Planning Committee has been formed at our church, and that they have been meeting, organizing five task forces to strengthen our churches’ technology and communication, as well as our youth group, preschool, and Club 3:30 After School Program. They’ve focused on these areas because you, the congregation, talked more about these five areas than any other, for you know already that God is alive and at work in those places, and to be a stronger church means for us that we join God where God is already at work. We’ve adopted the statement: that First Presbyterian Church exists to change and transform lives with faith, hope, and love – and it sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying, that the transformation begins with us. That our lives are transformed, when we stop relying on ourselves for direction and guidance. When we stop trying to figure out what is right in our own minds, but instead rely on the teachings of Scripture to lead a life of faith. That our lives are transformed when we stop relying on ourselves to create a better future, but instead rejoice in the truth that God has been at work in our world, making earth as it is in heaven for in God is our hope. And we believe that God is transforming our lives with the gift of love. A God who loves us despite our weakness, a God who calls us to love each other despite our sins and shortcomings. What it all means is that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” because in my weakness I must depend, not on myself, but on my God. And when we think too highly of ourselves, we are fools. When we think too highly of ourselves, we are like children who don’t stop to thank the parents who put food on their plates and keep the lights on in the house. We sometimes live in the illusion of self-sufficiency but consider all that we don’t know – we can’t even cure the common cold. I’ve never seen where a hummingbird sleeps. Is it in a nest? Under a leaf? When we see only the strength of the one who looks back at us in the mirror, we fail to give thanks for the one who put the stars in the night sky. And we fail to rely on the one who is strong when we are weak. We must remember that whenever I am weak, then I am strong, for there is danger in relying too heavily on human strength. The strong keep going in their marriage while it falls apart, while the weak trust in a higher power and ask for help. The strong face hardship that they can’t see their way out of and break, while the weak call on the ever-present help in times of trouble and because they’ve called on God, they are more than conquerors. The strong see death as the end, but the weak sing their loud halleluiah even at the grave, giving thanks for the strength of Christ who carries us from death to new life. Who leads us out into an ever-changing world with faith, hope, and love. That’s the symbolism of the acolyte. The hardest job in a worship service is the job of the acolyte. It’s the only job that involves a flame in an old wooden building, so with the acolyte is the greatest potential for something to go badly wrong. But not only that, there are so many variables. The flame could go out on the wand. The wax from the wick can melt in the tube and won’t come out. Every once in a while, there won’t be enough oil in the candles, so they won’t light while everyone is watching. Plus, you have to lead the worship leaders into the sanctuary – walking first in line down the aisle in front of your church family. It’s a lot of pressure. Last Sunday some things went wrong. The light went out on the wand before Emma Grace could make it down to the front. Her dad and I had to run up with the lighter to get things going in the right direction again. But Emma Grace persevered you see. It was her first time to acolyte in the 11:00 service, and even though everyone was watching, she didn’t give up. She persevered, and when I think about life, isn’t perseverance more important than strength? Certainly, it’s more attainable than perfection. Knowing where to go for help matters more, because no mortal always knows the way. Having the courage to ask a question is more important in the grand scheme of things, because we all hit a point where we don’t have the answer. Perseverance then. Because of her perseverance, at the end of the service, Emma Grace took up the acolyte’s wand once again, and with it lit she lead us out of this sanctuary, reminding us that the light of Christ goes out into the world with us. We are not alone, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong, because Christ gives me strength. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

For Your Sakes He Became Poor

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Corinthians 8: 1-15 and 2nd Samuel 1: 1, and 17-27 Sermon title: For Your Sakes He Became Poor Preached on July 1, 2018 The Fourth of July is this week, and so today, in preparation and anticipation of celebrating our nation’s birthday our hymns for worship, especially the last hymn, are a little more patriotic than normal, which makes sense. This church of ours not only makes its home in the United States of America, but Presbyterians were there when it all began. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that there were more Presbyterian signers of the Declaration of Independence than any other denomination. If you see any Baptists or Methodists this afternoon, be sure to remind them of that. So, this week I’ve been thinking about how more than 200 years ago Presbyterians were there declaring independence from England and her king – and how quickly and definitively the line between the mother country and her colony became a battle line. How the Declaration of Independence was like a Dear John letter to say, “We’ll be getting along better without you.” How after the Boston Massacre, British soldiers were seen as enemies who could not be trusted. How the Boston Tea Party violently expressed the resentment of American consumers. How at that time British sympathizers were tarred and feathered by mobs made up of their neighbors. I think about all that, for today I see the same kind of rift that steadily grew between America and Brittan spreading to divide America against herself. On Friday June 22nd, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, press secretary, and defender of President Donald Trump, walked in to a little 26-seat restaurant called the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia. The chef of the restaurant called the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson at her home, telling her “The staff is a little concerned. What should we do?” Ms. Wilkinson left her home, drove to her restaurant, met with her employees and said to them: “Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave,” and they said “yes.” Stephanie Wilkinson then politely asked the press secretary to leave, and the Press Secretary did. I would have to. After all, if the chef and waitstaff didn’t want her there, who knows what they would have done to her food, but that’s not the point, is it? The point is that on the eve of the Fourth of July, it’s obvious that our nation cannot eat at the same dinner table. That’s a big deal. And while I suppose we’ve always been divided or dividing, there’s always been a difference between Republicans and Democrats, it seems to me that this is a newly challenging and confusing time. As Christians, in times of challenge and confusion, if we are wise and faithful, for guidance we turn not to Twitter, Facebook, not to whatever we consider to be the real or fake news, but to Scripture where there is always guidance and hope. In this time of division, where compromise seems impossible, and party loyalty seems paramount, this morning we turn to the transition of power from one king to another in Ancient Israel to see how God’s chosen conducted himself in a time of conflict. Today we turn to David, who was chosen by God and anointed by the Prophet Samuel long before he had the chance to sit on the throne and rule. He had been waiting and waiting, only now he is finally poised to sit as King of Israel for King Saul is dead. Effectively, this is exactly what David wanted. This is what any of those who were close to Saul and knew his paranoia first hand were waiting for too – the nation was ready for a new king, and possibly David was readier than anyone. But as David hears about Saul’s death, will he celebrate? Will he pontificate? Will he boast in his own superiority over the leader he is to replace? Will he play up Saul’s weakness or highlight his mistakes? Will he add fuel to resentment, make a monster out of the former king and tell Israel that now that he wears the crown, everything is going to be perfect? No. The messenger who delivered the news of Saul and his son Jonatan’s death is killed and not rewarded, and rather than dance on the grave of the dead King Saul, Scripture tells us that “David intoned this lamentation”: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! It’s hard to imagine some politicians doing something like that today. Maybe you remember the presidential debates a couple years ago. Someone asked the candidates, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, to say something nice about the other. A man named Carl Becker stood up and said, “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” It was the one of the most awkward moments I’ve ever seen on television. Today I’d love to hear President Trump sing a song about the former president the way David sang about the former king, so I wrote a couple verses. Imagine President Trump singing this: He could beat me in basketball. He has a great head of hair. The way I’ve criticized him, hasn’t always been fair. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening. On the other hand, as the Marietta Daily Journal covered the death of long-time football coach James “Friday” Richards, I read a quote from Scott Jones, who started the Kennesaw Mountain High School football program in 2000. He referred to Coach Friday as the “comrade of coaches” and said he acted, not only as a coach, but as father figure to everyone. Now he said that “although [Coach] Jones had only one win against Richards’ Marietta teams in all the time they played against each other.” Jones said Richards was always generous before and after their games — win or lose. “He was a competitive coach who wanted to win,” Jones said, “but in the grand scheme of things, he was not all about that.” It seems to me, that considering politics in the United States of America today, in the grand scheme of things we are exactly all about that. Politics today seems to be a zero-sum game, where the only thing that matters is winning, and whenever winning and the chosen method of pretending to lead is pointing fingers rather than looking for solutions we the people are in danger. The great Hubert Humphrey, who served as Vice President under Lyndon Johnson, is quoted as saying: “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.” That’s funny, but in this country today we are tearing at the seams. Friendships are ending, crowds are chanting, fingers are pointed. It has become commonplace for some to express their discontent, not in words, but in bullets and our leaders can’t seem to pull us together to do anything about it. Every news cycle it gets harder to imagine those on one side of the aisle sitting down for a meal with those on the other, and that’s bad, because sitting down for a meal together is one of those powerful events that enables us to see those who think or act differently as people. Let me tell you what I mean. I once worked with a big group of men and women of questionable citizenship status. I was a lawn maintenance man, and as one of few among the group with a valid driver’s license I was quickly promoted to crew leader. One morning, driving in to the shop I noticed that a rabbit ran out into the street and the car ahead of me hit it. A few minutes later, as I was loading the mowers and weed eaters into the truck, one of my crew mates, a man from central Mexico named Miguel, rode into the shop on his bicycle. One hand on the handlebars, the other, holding a dead rabbit by its hind legs. He skinned the rabbit. Cleaned it with a hose. Then he asked me to stop by his apartment on the way to our first job so he could put it in his refrigerator. This was one of those jobs where they didn’t want to pay us overtime, so when we had made 40 hours by Friday morning, they sent us home early and Miguel invited me over for lunch at his apartment. I was nervous, but I reluctantly accepted, and there we ate tacos; fortunately, they weren’t rabbit tacos, but over the lunch table, I learned a lot. I learned that six of them lived in a one-bedroom apartment so that they’d have more money to send home to their wives and children. I learned that only one of them knew how to cook, because all the others had left wives and mothers back in Mexico without learning how. I learned that back home they were professionals, one was a dance instructor, but they all had come to Atlanta in the hopes of providing a better life for their loved ones. That’s what I hope for. I hope for such a table even more than I hope for a song – I hope for a table that our whole country can sit around and get to know each other again. A table where people overcome difference and see each other not according to label – not as legal or illegal – republican or democrat – but as a child of God. In this church there is a table. You remember who he ate with – tax collectors and sinners. Fishermen and Pharisees. He even calls on us to come and eat with him, despite our questionable status, despite our guilt. Having been invited by him despite our depravity, we must be bold to live up to such a gift of radical and undeserved graciousness. For your sakes he became poor – is what they said to the church in Corinth, “so who do you think you are keeping it all to yourself?” For our sakes he became human, so who do we think we are pretending that we’re any better than anyone else. For our sakes he gave up his life – that’s what this table is about – and you and I are invited, but if we receive this grace, we had better be prepared to pass it on to our neighbor who doesn’t deserve it either. David was generous to Saul, though Saul was trying to kill him. And Christ is generous to us, so he invites us here. But we must be as gracious to our neighbors as Christ has been to us. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Open Wide Your Hearts

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Corinthians 6: 1-13 and 1 Samuel 17: 32-49 Sermon title: Open Wide Your Hearts Preached on June 24, 2018 Our girls joined a swim team this summer, so last week we attended their second swim meet. This was the second swim meet I’d ever been to, so I was going into this without knowing exactly what I was getting into. Initially I thought that these things would be like every other kid’s sport – I thought we’d watch them swim for 45 minutes, then go eat ice cream – but swim meets are different from the other sports they’ve played. At last week’s swim meet, the first race we had a child in was race number three. That was good. We got to the pool, immediately saw some action, but the last race we had a child in was race number 78, so with a swim meet, we’re talking about a four-hour commitment. A lot of waiting. A lot of just passing the time. A lot of parent watching, and you know there are different kinds of parents at a kid’s sporting event. There’s the worried parent, who’s kid is trying to get over to the starting block, but she just keeps applying more and more sun screen. There’s the “still at work” parent, who missed his kid’s race because he got a call from the office. Then there’s the overly chatty parent – who missed her kid’s race because she was talking – but worst of all is the dreaded phenomenon of the parent who is way too in to his kid’s race, yelling, cheering, videotaping. Like a zoologist, I was observing all this, but this being our second meet I was also trusted with a job. I was supposed to record who came in first, second, third, and fourth for all these races, so with all the other parents who had jobs I went to a training in the clubhouse and in the training for this job, the swim-meet official added fuel to the overly-competitive parents’ fire by saying, “This is my favorite age to officiate, because one of those kids we see swim today could be a future Olympian. I’ve seen it happen.” As she said that you could see some parents put their chest out a little bit. I like kid’s sports, and I like a lot of the lessons that kids who are in sports or other competitions learn. After all, life is a struggle, so I think it’s important that kids learn to work hard and try their best. But thinking back to those parents hoping their child is a future Olympian, I worry about those parents who put too much hope in their kid’s athletic ability, because sooner or later we all line up on the block next to a Michael Phelps – some guy with four-foot arms and flippers for feet, and when he leaves us behind in his wake, what will we do? You know, I bet Goliath’s daddy would have loved kid’s sports. You saw him. You’ve heard about him. The measurements listed in Scripture are ancient. 1st Samuel tells us that Goliath of Gath’s height was “six cubits and a span.” That the weight of his coat of mail was 5,000 shekels of bronze. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. We don’t have the conversions down exactly – but, know this: he was far bigger than everyone else at the time. Depending on whose conversion chart you use, and which scroll you base your conversion on, Goliath was either 6, 9, or 12 feet tall, carrying around a spear whose tip weighed at least 15 pounds. That’s amazing. Imagine that. Imagine what that giant would do to a soldier with a spear tip that weighed 15 pounds. But really, he didn’t really have to do anything with it. It was scary enough just seeing the man carry that thing around. Every day for 40 days Goliath stood before King Saul’s army and taunted them saying: “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together,” but no one was ready to step up. No one wanted to face him. They just looked at him and his spear. Then looked at the spears they were carrying around and sheepishly walked back to their tents, questioning their manhood. His spear tip weighed 15 pounds. That must have been sending everyone to the blacksmith for a bigger spear tip – because that’s how we think. We have to win, and if winning means investing in some better equipment so be it. You might have read what Darrell Huckaby wrote in the paper last Thursday. “The changing cost of baseball” was the title. He reported that the new median price for a kid’s baseball bat is $250. That’s really something, isn’t it? But that’s human. Maybe you remember the good old days when you could just use your big brothers hand-me-down bat. I remember that my Dad had saved his wooden bats that he used when he was a kid. He even had this crooked one that was special for hitting curve balls – but I wanted the kind of bat that everyone else had, so he took me to a sporting goods store. They had a whole selection of bats, and I picked out one of the flashiest ones they had – bright colors, cool logo. I could hardly swing it, but that’s beside the point. If the other team has their own batting helmets and bat bags, then we want them too. Give us swim caps and racing goggles. If their football team practices all summer, then we had better do the same. Uniforms, gloves, bats, shoes. Weight lifting, private coaching, traveling from one state to another. Drink Gatorade, eat a Power bar, spit sunflower seeds. In sports it’s all bigger, better, faster, stronger, so we were all standing around the pool – and one mom kept yelling to her daughter: “dig, dig, dig!” And I want our kids to dig too. I want them to dig deep and do their best. But when they dig and dig and hit rock bottom – I want them to know who can get them out. The12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous begins: First – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Second – We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Those are two powerful lessons. Two steps that human competition in sports, school, music, or business would never teach us to take. To come in touch, not with our strength, but our powerlessness. To depend, not on ourselves, but on a power greater than ourselves – if we can’t do that, then what will we do when we face the great challenges of life? There are giants out in our world that we can’t out swim, no matter how hard we dig. Daemons, that we can’t out run no matter how hard we train. Challenges that we can’t push over, no matter how much we work out. There are giants out in our world that we can’t beat on our own, and that’s where the lessons we learn in sports and every other human competition come up short and that’s exactly where the lessons we learn in this place have the power to save. I knew a man once who faced a giant. A lawsuit. It didn’t matter how nice he was or how much he apologized, they wouldn’t drop it. It was the first time in his life that he couldn’t prevail, no matter how hard he worked, because they wanted blood. Night after night and day after day, it was as though the giant was standing before him saying, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field,” so feeling as though he were all alone, this man looked within himself, saw that strength he had in his mortal body was insufficient, and knew he was defeated, because hope for him stopped at the summation of his own power. But David - for David knew that he was not alone, and so he looked not within himself, not at his feeble frame, but to the mighty power of God who had saved him before and would save him again. He said to King Saul: “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine,” and then he said to the giant: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand; so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.” David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; proving to all us mortals, that there will always be someone bigger. There will always be someone faster. The paper tigers will roar, and the giants will rise up for in this life there will always be challenges too big and enemies too strong – cancer, depression, addiction, hatred, ignorance, middle school, just to name a few – all these times where it is easy to feel so all alone and oh so small before forces that could crush us. But as the giants taunt us, we are not alone – don’t forget that. Remember, that at the limit of our human strength is the mighty power of God. From 2nd Corinthians we read, that “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” these Christians endured, not by digging or fighting through. These hardships could not be powered through or out run, but they endured “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; [they were] sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything,” because like David they trusted in something. Like every man and woman who defeated their own personal Goliath – they turned, not inward, but upward. They stopped fighting, to pray. They remembered, that, to use the words of columnist Leonard Pitts, [God’s truth] will blast through [human power] like a comet through a sandcastle,” and giants can taunt, intimidate, pressure, and boast in their own power – but they are nothing before the mighty power of God who makes the sea waters rise at his command and listens to the cries of his children in trouble, regardless of whether they are documented or undocumented. The poet John Milton said it like this: When I consider how my light is spent, Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide… Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: [But] They also serve who only stand and wait. Open wide your hearts – and remember that “when you pass through the deep waters, you are not alone. When you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned.” For hope begins when we recognize the power greater than ourselves. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Israel Demands a King

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Treasure in Clay Jars

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

Prophesy to These Bones

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