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.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Shine, That We May Be Saved

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 80: 1-7 and 17-19, and Isaiah 64: 1-9 Sermon Title: Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Sine, That We May Be Saved Preached on December 3, 2017 Today is a special day. All Sundays are special of course. I used to work with a Music Director who said that the most important Sunday of the year is the next one coming up, but today is a special Sunday - the first Sunday of Advent, plus we have these new hymnals, we have communion. I have an early memory of communion here at this church. I was a couple years older than Doug and Andy Miller, who were twins and close friends with Mickey Buchanan, and the first time those three were allowed to sit by themselves in a worship service it was a communion Sunday. I guess they were 8 or 9 and when the bread came they did just what they were supposed to do, but when the cup came, before drinking they all toasted each other with the tiny little communion cups. It’s amazing what kids do without their parents sitting close by, but the truth of the matter is that when no one is watching, all people act a little differently. Even a little bit of freedom can be dangerous for anyone. I remember the first-time wine was served at Sara’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It was several years ago now, and when we gathered around the Thanksgiving table with my wife Sara’s family, the adult places at the table came complete with a wine glass, and while that may sound normal enough, this is something that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were alive. While Aunt Ester was alive, all alcohol was forbidden, and every Thanksgiving dinner at her house, a group of us dissenters, we would assemble with sweet tea in our glasses – but we were mad about it. We’d huddle together on the deck or front yard, just out of ear shot from the matriarch – and together we’d dream about the day when prohibition would end on our corner of Knoxville, Tennessee. It did. Wine was served the first Thanksgiving after Aunt Ester’s funeral. That year Thanksgiving was hosted by another member of the family who was excited to take up the torch, and Aunt Janie was not a teetotaler, so not all, but many members of the extended family quietly sipped from wine glasses at that first liberated Thanksgiving, whispering to one another, “This never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around”. The next year, wine was served more openly, then by the third year everyone was just about comfortable; but by the fourth year after Aunt Ester’s death – the invitation to this big Thanksgiving dinner for the whole extended family never came. The host family needed a year off, and Aunt Janie asked that families celebrate their own thanksgiving, a meal for all the cousins and everyone at her house was just too much. We all understood. And we gave thanks in smaller numbers, around dining room tables in Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, and Spartanburg, SC, all looking forward to getting back together the next year. But another year passed. Then another without the invitation, and now we don’t even look for it, so today, on Thanksgiving we take the wine for granted, but we miss our extended family. Now a Thanksgiving where we don’t all get together - that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around. Do you know this feeling? You’re finally free to do what you want, only the freedom is not as wonderful as you thought it would be. Maybe you’ve been like me, unsupervised at Home Depot, shopping for Christmas lights, buying without moderation, only to get home to wonder, “Where am I going to put all these Christmas lights?” Freedom is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Hear again these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” What the Prophet means here is that without God, the people left unsupervised have so lost track of who they are that they call on God to return even if it means punishment. “Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” According to the Isaiah we are all like kids who come home from school to an empty house. The computer is locked, but we figured out the password, and the liquor cabinet is too, but we’ve had enough time to find the key. No one is there to stop us. As adults, we face the same problems with freedom - we spend what we want on credit cards sent in the mail, because we’ve been given the freedom to take on debt, even debt that we’ll never emerge from. We eat what tastes best, forgetting the doctor’s orders even when it jeopardizes our health. We speak without thinking, act without thought to consequence. Sometimes when I read the headlines of the paper it reminds me of that book I read in English Class years ago: Lord of the Flies. We have freedom, but Piggy’s dead and we need some real grown-ups to save us from ourselves. We’re losing decency and moderation. Even our leaders speak without thinking, take without asking, because no one is around to supervise us. Maybe you saw the political cartoon in this morning’s paper. “More harassment Charges” is the headline and the woman says to a friend – “I used to have coffee with my morning shows, popcorn with my moved…now, I just eat tums.” The Prophet cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” because you are the glue that holds us together and if you are gone than things fall apart. “You hid yourself, we transgressed,” because temptation is too much if you are not there to stop us. “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” We have done all this – created a world of materialism where we all rush through giving thanks to get to spending more money than we have. We work and we work, and no one is there to tell us when to stop, so tension rises in our homes. There is no rest, even on the Sabbath, because who is there to speak over the loud voice of our culture that never stops telling us to produce and spend? And so, we are entertained, but seldom happy. Our bellies are full without ever being satisfied. We keep going at a fools pace, but where are we headed? “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Deliver us Lord, from the hand of our iniquity. Come, Lord Jesus, we cry, for we are like grown children home from college, sleeping on God’s couch, lulled into the illusion that we own the place and can do what we want. But he’s coming back. We anticipate his birth during this season of Advent, preparing for his arrival as a precious mother’s child. May your prayer and mine this Advent Season be a simple one: Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Sine, That We May Be Saved from our selves. And in His face, see the abundant life that can be ours. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

All We Like Sheep

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 34: 11-16 and 20-24, and Matthew 25: 31-46 Sermon Title: All We Like Sheep Preached on November 26, 2017 The book of Genesis begins our Bible, and tells us that out of an outpouring of love, God created the heavens, the earth, and the living things who inhabit the earth. On the earth, the Creator set a garden, and in this Garden, among other things, there was notably a man, a woman, a serpent, and a forbidden tree. You know the story – you know that the Creator said to the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” This was clear enough instruction, drawing the line between obedience and disobedience, but of course, the serpent suggested to the woman that they eat from it, and she did. Then she took some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. This was wrong, but it gets worse for after they ate they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” They were hiding, because that’s what people who have been disobedient do. Years ago, we were 10 or 11 and had the great idea that we’d explore the great big storm drain running beneath the Charlton Forge neighborhood where we lived. I don’t remember that we were explicitly forbidden from doing so – maybe our parents never imagined that we’d do such a thing, but we didn’t want to risk missing out, so without permission we explored the underbelly of our neighborhood and when I went back home my parents asked me what I had been doing. Assuming that they didn’t want me exploring the sewer, I told them I had just been over at Matt Buchanan’s house, which was sort of the truth, though it didn’t explain why I smelled so bad, so I was then grounded for two weeks, not only because I had disobeyed, but because I lied about it too. Such a two-fold ethical failure is what Church history calls the Fall of Man. And since the beginning, since the 2nd chapter of Genesis, we have been falling and falling again – first with an act of disobedience, then the cover-up which always makes things worse. This is the human condition. All we like sheep have gone astray. That chorus was in my mind this week as I read two of the many passages of Scripture that describe God’s people as sheep. This morning we have two Scripture passages where humans are personified as sheep, and so the song that was in my mind reading this last week was that great chorus from Handle’s Messiah: “All we like sheep, have gone astray.” That’s true. And what’s worse, is that once we’ve gone astray, we lie like Joe Evans or we hide like Adam and Eve – and why would we hide? We hide, because we misunderstand love, assuming that the natural result of going astray must be rejection, but that’s not so with a loving God. Here’s another familiar Bible story – a young man asks for his inheritance before his father has even died. Then he takes the money and squanders it on loose living – and loose living is exactly what you imagine it is – all the money’s gone, spent on things that nice people don’t spend money on. Assuming that he’ll be punished by his father for losing everything he’s afraid to return home. So, instead, he works as a laborer for so little that he winds up jealous over the pigs, who at least have pods to eat in their slop bucket. Only in desperation does he return home. Realizing that his father’s hired hands live better than this, and hoping to become one of them he goes back – but upon his return his father rushes out to embrace him, and treats him like a long-lost prince. Why? Because this is who God is – this is who the Bible describes God to be – not just the one who created us and legislated the great commands to guide our behavior, but the God of Scripture is also the Father who so deeply longs for his son to return home that he is full of forgiveness – the God of Scripture is a husband who’s love for his wife can never die – the God of Scripture is a Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep even after they’ve gone astray, then become trapped in the brambles of fallen-ness. All we like sheep – have gone astray – and the great God of heaven and earth longs to gather us in – “For thus says the Lord God (from the book of Ezekiel): I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” That’s God. That’s Scripture. Can you believe that? I hope you can – because it’s hard for me sometimes. Sometimes I go back to that image of God that I remember from fiery, manipulative preachers – who convinced me that the question was not whether or not I’d be going to Hell, but how soon. However, the message of Christianity as recorded in Scripture – is not condemnation for the imperfect. The Bible is not a record of continued abuse on the fallen. No, in the pages of Scripture are the magnificent stories of grace for the lost, and so that great hymn goes like this: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost but now am found Was blind but now I see All we like sheep, have gone astray, and the Shepherd longs to bring us home. That’s Christianity. Not perfection, not condemnation, not self-righteousness, not judgmental legalism that calls some good and some bad – no – this faith of ours is all about the Great Good News that Jesus Christ, Lord of all, created you and redeemed you, and now wants you to come home, and if you’re too ashamed, the Good Shepherd will even go out to find you so that he can bring you back. Here’s again what we read from the book of Ezekiel: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. But there’s a catch. The catch is in the next verse from our 1st Scripture Lesson: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” And our Second Scripture Lesson put it another way. In this last parable of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the separation of the sheep and the goats, we hear that there will be no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven without a recommendation from the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the least of these – for if you believe that all we like sheep have gone astray but are welcomed home, if you’re ready to accept that kind of grace and that kind of undeserved salvation, then the requirement is that you remember that once you were lost – that once you were blind – that once you were wretched - so how can you not offer your kindred lost sheep the same grace that you have received? If you believe that all we like sheep have gone astray but are welcomed home, then you have to be ready to pass grace on to some other people who don’t deserve it either. And that’s hard – because once you’ve made it, it’s easy to forget where you came from. Think of Middle School – she was our best friend one minute, but the second she got caught picking her nose in class we all pretended we’d never met. Now we know that’s wrong, but it’s easy to keep doing it. If all we like sheep have gone astray – then we all have to remember who we were. So, life of a redeemed sheep has to look different too than that of the self-righteous. Those who won’t even speak the word divorce. Who pretend like their houses are always clean. That relative who makes you feel insecure when she asks about your children because you know what she’s really listening for. You know this lady – you probably saw her at Thanksgiving. There are too many like her – and there are far too many who call themselves Christians but who rejoice in pointing out the speak in their neighbor’s eye, blind to the log in their own, having long forgotten that all we like sheep have gone astray – and even they were once lost but have been found. We, who have received grace, cannot disassociate from those who need it. We cannot operate according to the rules of middle school or proper society. Because while many are mindful of being seen with the right kind of people, who you are seen with matters to Jesus too, but he expects you and me to be seen with the lost. His law is so different from the law of Middle School, for according to Scripture, the hand extended with dirt under the nails and no shoes on his feet is the one who holds the Keys to the Kingdom. The voice that’s dry and raspy, lips cracked – “sir, if only I had some water to drink” – it is this one who shows us the way to Eternal Life. The stranger who walks into town with a name that no one recognizes from a place that no one has ever heard of – she has an opportunity to offer you and me. For some who sought salvation asked: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ These are questions that the condemned ask, because they failed to offer their kindred lost sheep the same grace that they once received. May these words guide your behavior: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ All we like sheep have gone astray, and we can’t forget it. Because the lost sheep who has been found is obligated to share the same grace that she once received. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

They Were Stewards of Their Lives

Scripture Lessons: Micah 3: 5-12 and Matthew 23: 1-12 Sermon Title: They Were Stewards of their Lives Preached on 11/12/17 I heard a joke at a Kiwanis meeting last week. Andrew Macintosh and I were proud to be the guests of Margaret Waldrep, and after lunch the speaker was introduced. Buck Rogers is his name. He’s the president of the State Bar of Georgia, and he gets up there and he says to the group, “Do you know how many lawyers there are in the state of Georgia?” And some smart Alek in the back shouts out: “Too many.” I like lawyer jokes, and I like them a lot better than preacher jokes. A group of kids were standing around having a lying contest, and the preacher over heard them. Offended by the idea that they’d compete in telling the biggest lie rather than practice being trustworthy and honest, he marches over there and tells them, “You boys should stop telling those lies and should be more like me. I always tell the truth.” They look at each other, and then shout: “You win pastor! That’s the biggest lie we ever heard” This morning Scripture demands that we come face to face with the reality, that the Church is not nearly so unlike Wall Street or Washington as I would like. That those many politicians, so self-serving as to be completely ineffective, that those business executives, so cutthroat as to worship the might dollar, are not so unlike a lot of clergy I know. And I went through college and seminary preparing myself to be different. That I would be real, faithful, and honest, but every day I face the same reality of being human, and spearing far more like a Pharisee than I would like. Jesus’ warning to them – it could be directed at me just as well. Jesus said that, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” And last Wednesday Night, there I was, finally in the kitchen, cooking for Wednesday Night Supper, so proud of myself that I put my picture all over Facebook, because I love to have all my deeds seen by others too. Did you see me posing with that pot? Jesus said that the Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others,” and I have to be careful about that. Jesus also said that “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues” and have you seen where I get to sit in here? Right up front. And then those Pharisees – Jesus said that, “They love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them Rabbi,” and maybe we don’t have a marketplace and maybe no one calls me Rabbi, but watch me walk through Kroger, scanning the aisle for who I might know. Unless I’m in the beer aisle that is. I am a sinner. There’s no doubt about it, but this is a reality, not to run away from or hide, this is a reality that I have to come to terms with, because here I am up in this pulpit. I have on this fancy robe, and this microphone that makes me feel like Madonna. But every time I put the stole around my neck, do you know what I think of? This stole represents the towel that Jesus used to wash the disciple’s feet. We preachers need to remember that. Because the model of Jesus is a different model than the world of business or commerce, politics or power. I’m not the CEO of First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, GA. No – to quote the Psalms: “I’m a doorkeeper in the house of my God.” That’s what I am. A sinner who can write a sermon and lead you in prayer, invited to help keep the doors of this mighty house of God open. Don’t let me forget that, because bringing honor to myself, falling down that trap that the Pharisees fell into, it will lead to the kind of self-serving misery that I long to avoid, for there is no more miserable person than the one who seeks only to honor himself. There’s a better way to live, and Jesus shows us how. Think about him – the Creator of the Universe, who comes down from heaven to wash the Disciples Feet. The all-powerful God – who takes on human sin and dies a criminal’s death. We know that he is full of mercy and truth, that he all divinity and majesty, but he lived a human’s life to proclaim a mighty Gospel. “Live this way,” he says. Not like those Pharisees who teach one thing and then do another – no – remember that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Think about that. And remember – there’s no more miserable person than the one who always tries to get ahead without thinking of her neighbors. Joanne and Jim Taylor are different. You might know Joanne and Jim. They don’t live far from here – just over the railroad tracks and off Maple Street. Joanne and Jim Taylor were sitting on their porch one evening, talking about the lot across from their house, thinking that if the lot every came for sale, how they’d like to buy it. Well, two weeks later it did come up for sale, and Jim was out of town so Joanne called him and told him that she was ready to make an offer. Jim asked her what she’d like to do with the property. She didn’t want to fix up the little house that was on it; she’d rather just tear the house down, plant some flowers and turn it into a little park for the neighbors – that’s what she told her husband. Jim thought that sounded fine, just so long as she didn’t put any tacky yard art out in it. Well, you might know, especially if you live somewhere along Maple, that Jim relented on the tacky yard art. In fact, the 6-foot cowboy boot that sits out there is his doing, and he just ordered his wife Joanne a life size cow statue to put out there for Christmas. These two bought a park, and I wanted to understand why they did it, so as Marti Moore and I were talking to Joanne last Tuesday (Marti and I, we like to patrol the neighborhood every once in a while) and as we were talking with her you could just tell that Joanne loved her park, and she didn’t even mind it when other people use it. In fact, she was on vacation and her neighbors called to tell her that someone was having a wedding out there and did she know anything about it. She didn’t, and she doesn’t mind at all, because the park, it doesn’t make her any money. It doesn’t do anything in particular that she can put her finger on, it just makes her happy. That’s a big deal, and she’s not the only one. Herald is like that. A lady named Dawn Taylor told me his story. She wrote about it and it appeared in the local paper back in our town in Tennessee. She’s the lady in charge of the Family Center, an organization there that’s a lot like our MUST Ministries, so people who need something to eat go there, homeless people who need a shower go there, and every year there’s a big drive to raise money for Thanksgiving turkeys, so that every family in Columbia, Tennessee has a big, happy, Thanksgiving. Well, Herold heard about it. Herold sleeps in his car and every month he receives a disability check, so he has money to eat, but he sleeps in his car and he uses the shower at the Family Center, and last week he walked right in Dawn Taylor’s office and gave her $23.00. “I saw you were collecting turkeys form the newspaper. I want to help, I want to buy someone a turkey.” That’s what he said. Dawn wouldn’t take the money. She said, “Herold, you’re homeless. You can’t give me any money. You need that money.” But he insisted saying, “I saw the article in the paper. I want to help. It’s not Thanksgiving unless you are eating turkey and watching the ball game, I want to help someone do that.” Can you imagine? Where’s he going to watch the ballgame? Where’s he going to cook his turkey? Why is he giving away his last $23.00? Because it is better to give than to receive. Because there is something there in our hearts. We’ve been preprogramed to think of the needs of others. We stop being who God created us to be when we become self-consumed like the Pharisees, and so Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And Herold wasn’t giving until it hurt. No, he gave and as a result there’s this joy that just oozes out of him. Don’t you want some of that? You can have it. I know that so many of you already do. Because you gave it to me. One of the most wonderful things that’s happened since coming here is introducing my two daughters to my 3rd Grade Sunday School teacher. Mrs. Florrie Corley – for years she did that. And then there was Tim Hammond who drove me back and forth to Mexico beginning when I was about 14 years old. This was back when he was about 10 feet tall. He’s still doing it, and there are plenty of people who would like to know why. Why would Jimmy Scarr show up here every Sunday night to feed our youth group? Or these days - what is Mike Velardi doing with an apron around his neck every Wednesday by 1:00 in our church kitchen and why does he stay from then until the last pot is clean? Why does Melissa Ricketts work 60 hours every week and then sit up there with the cameras for two services every Sunday morning? Why? Why? Because it feels good – that’s why. Our Stewardship theme this year came from 2nd Corinthians: “Share abundantly in every blessing,” and I want you to know that I’m not talking about sharing abundantly in every burden. Sharing abundantly in every bill. Or sharing abundantly in every grueling task that it takes to keep this church going – I’m talking about inviting you to share in the blessing of living out your life for a bigger purpose. Thinking of others besides yourself. Knowing the true joy that giving brings. And finding out that when you do – God takes what you offer, and does far more than you could ever imagine. Think about Mike’s pig. Think about how God used Mike’s pig. You see – some would say, “But I’m just a regular guy. Or I’m just a little old lady. Or who am I to be used by God for some great big purpose?” But that’s the strength of our Scripture Lesson for today – we clergy are tempted to think that we know everything and that God can use only us, but again and again experience teaches me that the Church is the sign of God doing miraculous things through you. I remember the first Sunday our Lily got to sit in big church with her friend, McKennon Jones. They were 3 or 4 and I walked in the sanctuary and got up to the pulpit, and McKennon looks to Lily and says, “What’s Joe doing up there?” And Lily says, “I don’t know.” A long time ago I knew that I wanted to give my life to ministry. When I meet my Maker I want to hear, that sure I binge watched the 2nd Season of Stranger Things on TV, but for the most part I used my life to do some good. How much more will that be said of each veteran who stood this morning – they who have given their lives for a higher purpose. Have not they been Good Stewards of their lives, setting an example for us to follow? They were Stewards of our lives, and their example calls us to do the same, because our church today and our world out there – it needs our voice and our example now more than ever – and if you look into your heart you’ll know that you need it too. Take your pledge card – consider your gift – and use your life, your treasure, your time to make this church stronger – to make the witness of this Church louder so that our world in need will hear some good news. Be a Good Steward of Your Life, and Share Abundantly in Every Blessing.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Great Ordeal Will Not Stop Them

Scripture Lessons: 1 John 3: 1-3 and Revelation 7: 9-17 Sermon Title: The Great Ordeal Will Not Stop Them Preached on November 5th, 2017 Revelation is really something. There’s a part of me that always wants to avoid it. It’s a book of the Bible that’s hard to understand, but plenty of people think they know what it means, and so many people who don’t know have tried to tell us, and now we all carry baggage to this book of the Bible with all its symbols and prophecy. But we can’t just avoid Revelation because it’s a wonderful book of the Bible, an important book of the Bible, and if we let fear of this book get the best of us than we’d miss out on all the beauty that it contains. The passage that I’ve just read is full of beauty. There’s this great multitude – so big that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They’re all there in heaven and they’re singing, “Salvation belongs to our God.” This is a powerful image. And just the composition of this group is enough of a subject to preach a sermon – there is this great big diverse group there in heaven and one of the elders addresses the author of the book who’s also the narrator, the visionary. This one elder asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” The Elder wants to know who this great big diverse group that just arrived in heaven is, and the meaning of his question is like that old joke Presbyterians tell about Baptists. One Presbyterian, arrives in heaven and says to another Presbyterian, “Why all the whispering up here?” And the other Presbyterian says, “Because God put the Baptists just on the other side of that hill and they think they’re the only ones who made it here. We don’t want to spoil it for them.” There are all kinds of people in this world, aren’t there? And some people believe that they’re the only ones with the answers, that they’re the only ones who have a right to the Kingdom, but in our world, there are all kinds of people who believe different things and who come from different places. Every color, shape, and size, they are precious in his eyes, Jesus loves the little children of the world. We’ve been singing some version of that song for a long time, but the words are still radical. An old friend back in Tennessee told me one time, that it’s not just that the members of West 7th Street Church of Christ think that Presbyterians are going to Hell, it’s that the members of West 7th Street Church of Christ think that the folks over at Graymere Church of Christ are going to Hell, and so are the members of Mt. Calvary Church of Christ. They think they’re the only ones going, just like this Elder who asks, “Who are these, robed in white?” So, according to Scripture, who are these, robed in white? They’re the children of God, that’s who they are. And I’m one. So are you. As are the little children who come to Club 3:30. As are our neighbors in this great big diverse county that we find ourselves in. There are all kinds of people in God’s Kingdom, and that’s good. I met a different kind of a person last Wednesday morning. I was standing on the corner at the cross walk waiting for the cars to stop so I could walk, but you know this kind of lady. She wasn’t waiting for anyone, and she just walked right into that crosswalk with authority and the traffic stopped for her. Or it almost did. One car scooted in front of her and she yelled at the driver, “I’m walking here!” And I said, “Lady, I like your style,” and she showed me this whistle she has around her neck that she uses to blow at the cars who don’t respect the cross walk, and I laughed so she told me that her husband said he’s going to buy her a paintball gun so she can mark the cars who don’t stop for pedestrians. I was amazed by this lady. And only later did I put it together that here was this lady, standing up to oncoming traffic, the day after a man in a rented truck from Home Depot killed eight people driving down a bike path in Manhattan. And what’s worse – he did it in the name of religion. Now he claims to be a fundamentalist Muslim, and some people get caught up in that, but I want to say that this crazy idea of one person having all the answers and everyone else being so wrong that they’re less than human is an idea that infects every religion and every person, but any Christian who falls for this idea that religion is about you being right and everyone else being wrong, has never met the Jesus that I know. There’s this whole multitude up there. And one elder is wondering who they are because that’s a weird human defect we suffer from – the idea that I have it right and everyone else must have it wrong. The idea that I matter more. And that my agenda is so important that these other people in my way aren’t people but speed bumps. The extreme version, the sick version, is what we saw last Tuesday in Manhattan, but there’s a problem when any and all of us are so busy rushing through life with an overblown sense of our own importance that we fail to stop and consider the people in the crosswalk. Hurrying as though eternity depended on what happens in the next 15 minutes. We can’t speed through life. And, we can’t get so caught up in our daily routine that we are fooled into thinking that our lives constantly hang in the balance. I’m prone to that kind of anxiety, but not everybody is. Rev. Joe Brice seems immune to it. I was rushing around doing something one day and I realized I had forgotten to give Joe some piece of important information. Worried that he’d be as anxious about it as I was, I apologized to him and Joe responded, “Man, that’s no big deal. Don’t worry about me. Everything that really matters to me already happened.” Everything that really matters to me has already happened, says the sage of Paulding County. And like Joe Brice, these saints in the book of Revelation - they are defined by what has already happened. You see, they are those who have come out of the great ordeal. And we don’t know exactly what that is, but from the book of Revelation we can infer that the great ordeal is a time of suffering and religious persecution. A time in human history when life is challenging, when money is in short supply, when life is lived under the shadow of an oppressive government. When war is the rule and not the exception. When hardship surrounds us and every day seems a grueling struggle to make it from one day to the next. And what makes this multitude dressed in white exceptional, is that these saints, they have come out of the great ordeal, but the great ordeal has not stopped them from singing. They can see what God has done. They know the gift that God has given. And no matter the hardship and pain, it can’t overshadow the redemption and the joy. No matter the oppression, it can’t touch the freedom that they have in Christ. No matter the struggle, they say, “How can I keep from singing?” For my life goes on in endless song Above earth’s lamentation. I hear the real, thought far off hymn That hails the new creation. Above the tumult and the strife, I heard the music ringing; It sounds an echo in my soul How can I keep from singing? That’s what they sing. Because everything that really matters has already happened. For Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, That’s why tyrants tremble, sick with fear, They hear their death-knell ringing, And friends rejoice both far and near, So how can I keep from singing. Life can seem like a struggle, but the struggle cannot be what defines us, because what defines us, we whose robes have been washed in the blood of the lamb, is the great act of Christ’s salvation. Our lives, then, which have already been saved from the pit, must not be a hurried mess or a stress-filled struggle, but a great song lifted to the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us still. Our first Scripture Lesson from 1st John said it all: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” So, live your life, not complacent in the struggle, but singing your part with the great choir of angels and all the saints in light, giving your time, your talent, your treasure, to the glory of God the father, like so many saints of this church who we will remember later in the service, those saints who were such stewards of their lives that they made this church what it is today. . A pledge card was given to you this morning with your bulletin, and it’s important to consider what it is and what it means. I pray that it will cause you to stop, to take a break from the fever of life so that you can reflect on the gifts that you have received, and to take the time to show your thanks to the one who always gives us a reason to sing. For the Great Ordeal of Life – it must not stop us either. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your faith in God has become known

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 45: 1-7 and 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Sermon Title: Your faith in God has become known Preached on 10/22/17 I’ve just read the opening to a letter. That’s what 1st Thessalonians is, a letter, and letters are interesting things. I remember running out to the mailbox after elementary school, going through all the letters only to be disappointed because everything was addressed to my Dad. I didn’t know anything about bills back then, so only now do I see the benefit of mail that’s addressed to someone else, however, I wish this letter that I’ve just read were addressed to us. In a sense, it is. We believe that Paul wrote this letter that we call 1st Thessalonians to a church in Greece, in the city of Thessalonica, and like we often do when the letter is particularly meaningful, this church saved his letter. We know they did because we have it now and can read it as they once did. I think it would have been an honor to receive this letter, because Paul’s words here in the first chapter are so encouraging. It would have been extremely encouraging to read: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers,” and it would have been a matter of great pride to read “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.” Think about that. Paul wrote these words to the church in Thessalonica because the neighboring Christian communities would brag on them to Paul. We read there in verse 9: “The people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living, and true God.” Two things then – hospitality, and idolatry. We can do that. But that requires knowing what idolatry is. What is idolatry? On the one hand, it’s obvious. It’s number one on the 10 Commandments, a copy of which is displayed right by our front doors that once hung in the Cobb County Court House: “You shalt have no other gods before me.” What’s idolatry then? It’s worshiping something else, somebody else, giving anything the kind of priority in your life that only God should have. A good example of idolatry from the Old Testament is the golden calf from the book of Exodus. You know the story well. Moses went up on a mountain to get the 10 Commandments and when he came back down, these people who had been without his supervision while he was up on Mount Horeb, had melted down their gold to make a calf that they worshiped. They shouldn’t have done that. That’s idolatry, and on the one had we don’t do that now. Paul might as well be proud of us just as he was of those members of the Thessalonian Church who had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living, and true God.” We don’t have any Golden Calves around. The closest thing to a golden calf around here that I could think of is that statue of Alexander Stephens Clay on Glover Square, which doesn’t count because a statue isn’t the same thing as an idol. We don’t worship Alexander Stephens Clay, but this statue, which I take a moment to look at every time I walk through the Square so I can check on this hornets’ nest that’s found shelter right under the front of his overcoat, does help to describe what idolatry is, because while I was checking on the hornets last Wednesday I finally read the inscription at the base of the statue: It reads “Alexander Stephens Clay – his life was largely given to the service of his people.” Idolatry. What is idolatry? One form of idolatry is selfishness, because the devotion that should only be given to God is given instead to self. The great preacher and theologian Fredrick Buechner describes idolatry as “the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth,” and in saying that selfishness is a form of idolatry I don’t mean that the self is worthless, but that plenty of people go around trying to make themselves happy by thinking only of themselves, and when that’s the case what happens is they make themselves miserable. I have this friend. His father spent all his money on this beautiful house in Montana. The scenery is absolutely magnificent, but his wife divorced him, his children never come to visit, so this friend of mine told me that his father’s home is basically a prison cell with the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen. Idolatry. Selfish idolatry, will leave you empty and alone. So, when Paul applauds the church at Thessalonica for turning away from idolatry, what we must see is that they turned from death to life. From giving devotion to the created to giving devotion to the creator. They turned away from chasing after all that will never lead to true fulfilment and towards the only thing that ever will. What they did was they turned away from idolatry, and we must do the same because we worship idols as well, and I know it not because we have graven images all over our houses that we need to get rid of, but because if you looked at our credit card statements you’d be able to tell what it is that we think is going to lead to abundant life. We live in a culture of idolatry I believe. We worship fun and entertainment. We spend our money on toys that we think will make us happy, but you know what they say, the two happiest days for a boat owner are the day that he bought it and the day that he sold it. Why would we spend our money on what won’t make us happy? Why would we go into debt for things that won’t make us happy? I don’t know, but I’m good at doing it. Before I checked on the hornets’ nest I spent $20.00 on a salad. And I was hungry again about 15 minutes later. What will fill us up? What will lead to fulfilment, satisfaction, and joy? It’s there on the statue: A life largely given to the service of his people. A life largely given to the service of his God. To some degree I learned that a long time ago. My parents taught Sunday School here. They modeled for my brother, sister, and me what it means to give yourself to something larger than yourself, so it seemed only natural to go with the group on the Mexico Mission Trip following my Freshman year of High School. I remember being intimidated by the days of travel, in an old bus, that was reported to have air conditioning. My shirt would stick to the red vinyl seats. We’d spend the night in cheap hotels. And then when we finally made it to the border we’d get stuck for hours because Rev. Robert Hay refused to bribe the customs officials. All this we’d go through, and why? Because there were families down there who needed houses, and back home I would have spent that week sleeping late and watching TV but down there we were stacking cinderblocks and mixing cement and nothing could have made me happier. Selfishness is idolatry you see, because the cult of selfishness tells you to treat yourself, to buy your way to happiness, but devotion to such an idol will only lead to the same emptiness you felt before – only this time you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of stuff you don’t need. You want to talk about joy. You want to talk about abundant life. Then you have to talk about living your life for a higher purpose. Turning away from the cult of self-centered idolatry that permeates everything in our culture from the merchandise at Target to the Storage Unit where that merchandise will eventually be stored. We must turn from idolagry so that we can live the kind of abundant life that Jesus talked about, of loving your neighbor as yourself. Of living a life largely given to the service of our people. Of being a part of the good that our God is doing in the world. And when we turn away from all the false gods of our 21st century culture – the gods of war who promise peace but only give more violence – the gods of greed that keep our eyes searching for pleasure around every corner while keeping satisfaction ever out of reach – the gods of self-interest, self-love, and self consumption who worship at the temple of narcissism and whose priests deliver their message on your televisions, phones, and computers calling you to fame and fortune – when we turn to God from these idols, to serve a living and true God, then we are a part of the great act of salvation that our creator is enacting in our world. We read there in Isaiah: I am the Lord, and there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things – and is his presence not among us now? Like the vibrations of the train, does God’s presence not resonate through these walls? Resound from our roof top? So why would we worship in the temple of self-interest, bowing before the American Idols, chasing after the dreams of the soulless, when we have been invited to proclaim the Gospel of the Living God? Stewardship Season begins today, and as a guiding phrase this year’s committee adopted 2nd Corinthians 9: 8, “Share abundantly in every good work.” It’s not just that we want you to share what you have, and we do, it’s that we want you to share in the work that the God of Creation is doing here in this place. We have been invited participate in the redeeming work of our lord Jesus Christ. We have been invited to serve the living and true God. We have been invited to give our time, our treasure, our pigs, and our hearts so that the Kingdom would be advanced and so our joy would be complete. Yesterday at a Presbytery Meeting they took up an offering. I didn’t have any cash, and I was embarrassed. Martie Moore could tell, so she gave me a dollar. Denise Lobadinski did the same. It felt good to put money in the plate. Mike Velardi told me that a chicken brought a basket of eggs to the farmhouse, proud of her contribution, until she saw the pig, who stood before the smokehouse prepared to make a real commitment and while we want real commitments, let me say this – Stewardship isn’t about giving until it hurts. Stewardship is about giving until it feels so good you can’t imagine not doing it. Share abundantly in every good work. Share abundantly in all the good work that we are already doing. Share abundantly in all the good that we will be doing with your help. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not having a righteousness of my own

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 5: 1-7 and Philippians 3: 4b-14 Sermon title: Not having a righteousness of my own Preached on 10.8.17 A Monday morning can put things in harsh perspective. Last Monday morning Kelly Dewar’s 8-year-old daughter Linley asked her, on the way to elementary school drop off, before Kelly had even had her first cup of coffee, about the difference between irony and sarcasm. Think about that. This is obviously a question that displays Linley’s intelligence, but how did it make Kelly feel? A question like that is a hard way to start your week as a mom. Instead of starting your week with a feeling of “everything is under control and I’m fully equipped for the days ahead,” a question like that is sure to make you wonder if maybe it might be better to crawl back into bed. And this is what happened to me. Sara had been quizzing Lily for a quiz on air pollution. “What are three things we can do to fight air pollution Lily?” she asked, and having just dropped the girls off at school on their bikes, I was riding from the school to the church, while proudly thinking about how we’re setting the example for our kids here. We’re reducing exhaust because we ride our bikes to school. This is great. “In fact,” I say to myself, “really, we’re setting an example for a whole community. People in their cars are probably thinking – look at that nice family, all fighting air pollution on their daily commute.” It was as this self-satisfied thought was passing through my consciousness that I missed a turn, hit a holy bush, and flipped over my handle bars. It was a good thing someone suggested that I start wearing a helmet, so the only real damage done was to my ego. As soon as I got up I scanned the sidewalks to see if there were any witnesses. There was only one, but that was one too many. What would Paul say? Romans 12:3 – “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you out to think.” Or to quote our 2nd Scripture Lesson for this morning: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” What does that mean? “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” In this passage from Philippians Paul may sound like he’s boasting. This morning’s 2nd Scripture Lesson begins with him giving us his resume of accomplishments: -Circumcised on the eighth day -A member of the people of Israel -Of the tribe of Benjamin -A Hebrew born of Hebrews -As to the law a Pharisee -As to zeal, a persecutor of the church -As to righteousness under the law, blameless But he only lists these accomplishments so that we can see them as he does, in the perspective cast by the next to last – he had done everything that would have rendered him blameless and righteous but where did that lead him – to persecute Christ’s church – to hold the coats as the disciple Stephen was stoned. His intent in sharing his testimony is the same as the intent of that great hymn that we sang just last Sunday: When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride. You can see the point he’s making, and he makes this point hoping that we’ll hear it, because like that great church in Philippi that this letter is addressed to, we are like runners who, rather than doing as Paul admonishes us to do, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” even while we run this race in faith, we are busy looking back to see who we’re ahead of. We’re like a certain self-satisfied bike rider, busy judging the minivans that pass by for contributing to air pollution not realizing that there’s a holy bush up ahead. There’s a sense in which competition can be good. We all know that. We want to win, but think of the lady in the restaurant moving her arm back and forth, trying to trick her fit bit into thinking that she really did get all her steps in. Think of the athlete so set on winning that he sacrifices his body to drugs. Consider the football player who sees himself, not as a boy in high school, but as a god among boys, walking the hall with an air of self-importance because he can throw a football further than anyone else. Is he not also a vineyard of wild grapes? That image of the wild grapes growing in the tended vineyard comes both from our Call to Worship (based on Psalm 80) and on Isaiah’s point in the 5th chapter that we read as our First Scripture Lesson. The claim is that while we were created by God, redeemed from slavery in Egypt and from slavery to sin, were planted in this fertile valley by a God who removed the stones and tilled the land, despite all this preparation, all these blessings, rather than yield a bountiful harvest, we are a vineyard of wild grapes. But we think of ourselves as Chardonnay. A man named Roy Brown told me a story once. He played on the Presbyterian College tennis team after serving in World War 2, and after that he always sent in a contribution through the alumni association to the tennis program at Presbyterian College. In his 80’s he received a special invitation to the ribbon cutting of the new tennis courts, and as we sometimes do, he began wondering why he received this invitation to this particular event, “What if they’ve named the courts after me?” he imagined. I would have encouraged him to think this way. After all, he was a veteran, a member of the tennis team, and a long-time contributor, but when they called him down on the court during the ceremony it was to present him with a coffee mug. “Most expensive coffee mug I’ve ever had,” he told me. Why is it that rather than run this race in faith, we want to be first in line? Why is it that rather than confess our struggles to our neighbors, we’re more interested in bragging to them about our European vacations? Why is it that while we are all in this life together, all imperfect people just doing the best that we can – that while not a single one of us has righteousness within her enough to save herself from sin – that while we are all sinners, redeemed, not by our own work, but only by the grace of God, we all still love to imagine that we are winning all on our won while looking back and to see who’s doing worse? Back in Tennessee, the Methodist Church across the street had this pastor who would fall asleep during the choir anthem. Everybody was talking about him and I was enjoying it, egging this on really, until Sara says, “You be careful Joe, because you know how this will hurt when it’s you they’re talking about.” Sara was right. She nearly always is. There’s a log in this eye, and for too long preachers and Christians alike have been walking around, one-upping each other, when really, if Paul says that he has no righteousness of his own I don’t know who we think we are. No matter how much time I spend in prayer. No matter how much more mature I am now than when I was in High School. No matter how low my emissions thanks to my bicycle, I’m still just a vineyard of wild grapes, who by the grace of God has been given the honor of running this race with you. That’s the difference between a Monday and a Sunday morning. On a Monday we feel like we are supposed to have it all together, but on a Sunday we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to look back. Because again, we’ve all done it together – publically said it out loud: “You taught us peace, but we wage war. You forgive us, while we withhold forgiveness from our neighbor. You seek us out, while we hide our face from you. Forgive us Lord – for when you expected grapes, we yielded while grapes – but by the Grace of God – there is something wonderful happening in here. When I think of this church and all that we’ve been through in the past few years I think of that Psalm that made up our Call to Worship. We are a vine, brought out of Egypt. Planted in fertile soil. God cleared the ground, and the mountains were covered by our shade. You remember it all as I do – there were so many of us at the Montreat Youth Conference that we nearly took the whole thing over. We were one of the largest Presbyterian Churches in the South. But then our walls were broken down, so that those who passed along could just pluck our fruit, and I was up in Tennessee wondering why, as I know all of you were. I don’t know exactly why God would permit such a thing to happen. Some have called it pruning, and I like that. But regardless, I know that God has heard our cry. That our God looked down from heaven to see, and has renewed His regard for this vine, and now I can’t walk in our doors without feeling that the Holy Spirit fills this place, but here’s what we all must remember - that’s why the Holy Spirit fills this place. That’s why there is joy and laughter within these walls. It’s not me, and I know that. Listen – I’m still just the kid who skipped out of Sunday School to run the halls and steal cookies out of the preschool cupboards. Like Paul and like you, “It’s not that I have already obtained [anything] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” That’s what we must always be about. Sometimes we are so desperate to see something good in ourselves that we only look for bad in our neighbor, and sometimes we are so practiced in celebrating ourselves that we take credit for what only God can do. And what has God done – revived us again. Let us forget what lies behind, staring forward to what lies ahead – the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.