Monday, March 19, 2018

The Greeks Wish to See Jesus

Scripture Lessons: Luke 7: 1-10 and John 12: 20-33 Sermon title: The Greeks With to See Jesus Preached on March 18, 2018 This last week I was so glad to get to know our neighbors better. I had lunch with Father Roger Allen, the rector at St. James Episcopal Church, and the Associate Rector, Daron Vroon, but before we went to have lunch they gave me a tour of the church. Like us, they've been here for a while, and like us, they've seen some changes. The new sanctuary was built in the 1960's, and the oldest part of the campus is a chapel that predates the Civil War. In it is the 3rd oldest working organ in the state of Georgia, and Father Roger told me that that very organ was torn apart by Union Troops, they filled up the pipes with molasses, then threw it into the street. That night, members of the congregation went out and collected the pieces, so eventually they were able to put the organ back together. A few years after the war ended, the organist was asked to play the reconstructed organ for a wedding. To be married were a nice Marietta girl, and a Union Soldier. The organist agreed to play, but to make her true feelings plain, she wore all black to the wedding, and as the bride walked down the aisle she played Chopin's Funeral March. Isn't that story amazing? Well, after the tour we went and ate sushi, and doing that so casually in Marietta, GA is amazing in and of itself. So, on the one hand, everywhere around here are reminders of two clashing cultures - you can't go anywhere in Marietta without thinking about the war between the states. But on the other, there are the signs of cultures not clashing, but cooperating. Our historic square that's seen so much is also home to diversity, where we can eat food from the other side of the world. And that's good, because Southern culture isn't known for its sushi. Think about all that we have access to because of the diversity of our community. Have you ever had a Mexican popsicle? You can get one down Roswell Road, and you should go try one because their popsicles are better than ours, just like French baguettes from that bakery on South Marietta Parkway (however you say the name) are better than the baguettes you can buy at Kroger. Different cultures bring particular gifts. I think that's true. But to get back to the Civil War, what do the Yankees who come down here do better than Southerners? Nothing. I'm just kidding. Mike Velardi told us last week about the menu he's preparing for when we host our neighboring churches for lunch hour holy week worship services. That he'll be preparing Mutsa-rella sandwiches with basil and tomatoes for lunch to go with soup, and I know that Mike's "mutsa-rella" sandwiches will be more delicious than had they been made with regular old mozzarella. Culture. When you think of culture and our world's history of immigrants, civil wars, foreign languages, and foreign food, you know that culture brings with it particular gifts and particular resentments. That's why you can't just gloss over this week's significant detail in the Gospel of John. It's not by mistake that the Gospel of John tells us that these particular people who "wish to see Jesus" were Greek. And what do you think of when you think of Greek culture? First thing I think of are gyros, or jy-roos, year-os, whatever you call them. But after that I think of this great culture whose influence is still obvious, even today. The gifts of Ancient Greece are Democracy. The philosophy of Socrates and Plato. The literature of Homer. The medicine of Hypocrites. I remember my Greek professor in Seminary telling us that she still believes that the literature of Ancient Greece has yet to be surpassed by any culture, and we were learning to read Greek in seminary because this New Testament that we read from every Sunday was originally written in Greek. Their language was the language of the world. Theirs was the culture imitated across oceans. They were the educated, the refined, and they possessed the great wisdom of the age. Why then do they wish to see Jesus? I've told you for the last two Sundays that the Gospel of John is full of important details, and this one is important. John doesn't tell us that these were foreigners or pilgrims, but specifies Greece, and that means something. It means they're not Roman, and that's interesting to think about. All over Jesus' neighborhood, since he was a kid, were Romans, but how many Romans "wish to see Jesus?" The only one I've been able to think of is that Centurion from our First Scripture Lesson, a Roman soldier, who called to Jesus out of desperation, that his slave might be healed. Isn't that when we're most ready to cross those boundaries of culture and class? When we're desperate for help? Consider the Greeks then. The age of Jesus was the age of Roman power and Roman rule. What was Greece at this point in time but the Rust Belt? The has been? As the Roman star rose, so the Greek star faded, and what does that mean? That means that like the desperate Roman Centurion, the whole Greek nation was full of people who were ready to ask for help. So, "among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus." Why all the back and forth here? I don't know, but when they finally got to him what did Jesus give them? What did he offer these Greeks that no one else could have? What was it that he gave that their own culture could not? He taught them about death. He told these Greeks, whose ancestors built the Parthenon, but that they had seen crumble, that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Do you know how that radical teaching would have sounded to them? I can't say for sure, but from time to time people will look at me with pity in their eyes, asking, "Joe, it must be a hard time to be a pastor at First Presbyterian Church. We've heard all about it. How the church split, and the membership declined, and the budget got cut. How are you doing with all that?" People who ask these kinds of questions - they don't realize that when a culture or a church has to face a time of desperation, it has been given the opportunity to reconsider her identity. That when a church faces a hardship, her congregation is invited to stand and fight for what matters. When people look on a church with pity, what they don't realize is that sometimes a grain of wheat must fall in order for new life to rise up and bear fruit - and so I tell them, "Every day is a joy and an adventure, because hope is alive, and God is good, and the Holy Spirit is at work shaping our church into something new." And we can say that, because we know that Christ changed the meaning of death. He redefined hardship. Christ flipped the meaning of suffering. He transformed the grave - this dark place that all people throughout history have feared. He made it into the womb where ever-lasting life is born. But no human culture knows anything about that on her own, and only the desperate cultures go looking for such truth. Rome was busy crucifying criminals to preserve their power, because ultimately, that's what human institutions are all about - preservation of what is. I think that's true. Consider the Greeks. In their hay-day, what did the Greek doctors want to do - preserve life and extend it as far as possible. The philosophers were only considering ways to live well while your heart was still beating. Then you had Dionysus, the Greek god who said, "You're going to die anyway, so you may as well drink good wine while you can." What did the Greeks have as the Parthenon turned to ruin and the Romans rose to prominence while coopting their culture? The Greeks were up a creek without a paddle, because it won't do you any good to preserve life or enjoy it when you're looking down the barrel of decline. That's why Christ taught them about death. That's why he told them that through death, comes new life. Now that's a radical teaching for every culture. And the next verse is even more radical: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this will world will keep it for eternal life." What does he mean - he means that we need to think again about this way of life that we're fighting to uphold. This reckless defense of gun rights. And this foolish idea that only gun owners are to blame. We can't be open to the Holy Spirit if we're so busy holding on to self-righteousness. Do we really want to hold on to the conviction that it's someone else's problem when children are dying? Politicians can't fight for what's right if they're solely focused on re-election. That's why our doctors have to think, not just about length of life, but quality of the life that we have left - for so often when we struggle blindly just to hold on to what we have, we are resistant to what God would give if we would simply let go. Don't work so hard to save this life, that you miss the invitation to something better. C. S. Lewis wrote in his great book Mere Christianity, that we are all like children, making mud pies in some back alley, who are reluctant to accept an invitation to the beach. For too often we fight to preserve the life that we know, rather than accept God's invitation to something far better. Those who love their life will lose it, sooner or later, no matter how hard they fight for it. All of what we have we will lose. That's just the way it is. So, don't ever forget, that that those who are willing to let go of their life in this world, who are working for something better, who are trusting God to provide a New Heaven and a New Earth, all of you will be like the child who leaves the mud pies of this present age for the ocean's bright sun and cool waves. What has to happen for all of us is this - we can't be confined to who we are, and we can't be fighting to preserve what we have now. Neither of those matters nearly so much as who he is and where he's leading us. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Come to the Light

Scripture Lessons: Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 1-21 Sermon title: Come to the Light Preached on March 18th 2018 As I said last Sunday, the Gospel of John is full of important details, and some of those details are both significant and unique to John's Gospel. The important detail John gives us at the beginning of our Second Scripture Lesson for today is this detail that "a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews…came to Jesus by night." Not in the day - by night. And you know why people choose to do some things at night. No one has to buy a new car under the cover of darkness. No one sneaks in to a Post Office to deliver mail. This Pharisee, Nicodemus, he goes to see Jesus, not when people would have been out and noticing things, but at night when the Mrs. Kravitz' of the world were in bed sleeping. Why then does he go at night? You have that think that Nicodemus goes to see Jesus at night because he doesn't want anyone to see him going over there. He's like the guy you know who parks at the Publix but goes into the liquor store. You know this kind of person. He's like the woman whose husband is drawing unemployment, but she maxes out the credit cards on a big vacation so she can still send out a Christmas card of her family at the beach. Why? Because all of us are interested in keeping up appearances, but so often that's doing us more harm than good. Nicodemus going to see Jesus at night reminds me of Jan Brady when she hid her glasses in her purse so Bernie McGuire wouldn't know that she wears them. Maybe you remember that episode of the Brady Bunch. Jan rode home from the library with her glasses still in her purse and crashes into the garage. Isn't it strange that sometimes we'd choose wreaking our bicycles over being seen for who we really are? Nicodemus goes to see Jesus at night, and you know why. Because we all go to Jesus out of our own version of the night, not sure whether or not we're ready to be really seen. Not sure if we want anyone to know who we really are and what we're struggling with, and most of us feel this feeling so profoundly that we even hide the truth from our doctors, our children, some even feel compelled to hide here at church. We cover up our struggles with Easter Bonnets. It's hard to ask the Sunday School class to pray for you when you're struggling, because we'd all rather brag to them about how well our kids are doing or how we're going to redecorate our kitchen. Everyone is glad to come to church when they're preparing for their wedding day. Meeting with the organist, picking out the flowers, talking about the details, and going in to the pastor's office to discuss the ceremony. But it's so much harder to get here when you're going through a divorce, even though that's exactly what this place is for. This is a hospital. We come here because we're sick and want to be healed, but it's so hard to come to terms with our own affliction. We'd all prefer to be well, so that's what we pretend, and that's the story that we tell ourselves and our friends. Nicodemus is afraid to go see Jesus in the light of day for the same reason that people use Facebook as a giant forum for pretending that everything is OK. But we have to be real to someone. If we don't, hiding the truth will kill us, but telling the truth requires overcoming some serious obstacles. In the words of John Calvin, that great theologian who laid the ground work of our Presbyterian faith: Nicodemus, is of the Pharisees. And "this designation was, no doubt, regarded by his countrymen as honorable. Hence we are reminded that they who occupy a lofty station in the world are, for the most part, entangled by very dangerous snares." And what are those snares? The snares of decorum that keep people from being honest. The snares of familial obligation that push some to uphold a certain image and keeps them from airing their dirty laundry. The snares of appearances that keep the powerful from apology and any semblance of weakness. The snares of ego driven fear that keep the religious from enjoying the benefits of grace, for sometimes even we Presbyterians choose to appear like we have it all together rather than reveal our need for mercy. Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night, because for those who feel inclined to maintain the air of having things under control, words like: "I don't know what to do," or better yet - words like: "I'm lost and need help" are so hard to say that only the bravest among us just come right out and say them. By so many, these words are mostly whispered, and only then if no one is looking. Maybe while in the car - when the one talking and the one listening are both looking at the road and don't have to face each other. Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night, because how else could he say, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Think about those words. "Rabbi," which means teacher - says a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who is supposed to be a teacher himself. Then, "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." What a confession this is - and I say that it is, a confession, an act full of precious vulnerability because Nicodemus had all the credentials, all the certifications - he was by all standards a holy man of Israel and yet this Jesus of Nazareth is the one who is doing all the signs and wonders. You know what this is like - it's like an orthopedic surgeon, going to a chiropractor. Seeking out help from him requires complete vulnerability. For fear that they'll be attacked, some never let their guard down this much. Show weakness - never. Admit that someone else can do it better - no way. Ask for directions? I'd rather drive all night having no idea where I'm going than risk being shamed by a gas station attendant who'd look down on me saying: "You're not from around here, are you?". Vulnerability - even small acts of vulnerability are tough. Someone asks how you're doing. "I'm fine. I'm fine," and I'll go on pretending that I am because taking the risk of being honest is just too painful a thought. And why is that? Many experts believe it is because of shame. In his book, Spirituality in Recovery, a 12 Step Approach, Dr. John Ishee, a good Presbyterian and the retired Director of Pastoral Care at Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center in Nashville writes: "There is an important difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is the feeling that we have done something wrong - that we have violated our conscience. Shame is more. It is the feeling that we are wrong - flawed, defective, less than, unworthy, deficient, disgraceful, bad - even evil. Guilt prompts us to think or say, "I made a mistake." Shame prompts us to think or say, "I am a mistake." There are religious groups and churches at work in this world who are so capable of inspiring their congregations to feel shame, that they will convince you that it's not a matter of whether or not you're going to Hell, just how soon. For years, I believed, and some days I still do, that sin is not so much a reality that can be forgiven but a state that I am sentenced to permanently. "Sinner." Shame keeps us resigned to the darkness. Shame convinces us that we cannot be healed as the Israelites were in the wilderness when Moses listed up the serpent and all who looked upon it were saved. Shame convinces us that it's not our deeds which are evil, but ourselves. And shame causes us to misunderstand who Christ is. But listen to what he said: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." A man came out of the 8:30 service this morning and told me that a coach long ago told him not to go complaining about his problems to anybody. "60% of people don't care, and the other 40% are glad you're suffering." But that's not so with my Lord. Our challenge is simply that the road to healing is a road, not of denial, but of vulnerability. The position to receive salvation is one of surrender. Using Nicodemus as our model, we all must step out of the shadow and into the light, not as we long to be but as we are. In need. Weak and broken, ready to receive healing, mercy, and acceptance from a loving Savior. The hymn got it right: we need not tarry till we're better, or we will never come at all. Come to the light - no matter how long you have walked in darkness, the darkness does not define you and you need not be afraid. For anyone can be born again after having grown old - and everyone, no matter how old, is still in need of the Savior who makes all things new. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Braid the Whip

Scripture Lessons: Malachi 3: 1-7 and John 2: 13-22 Sermon Title: Braid the Whip Preached on March 4, 2018 You might know that last summer our youth group went on a mission trip to Mexico. This was the first trip back there after several years of not going, and when Errol Eckford, the chair of the Family Council, reported at our congregational meeting that last summer our youth group built two houses in Mexico it took me right back to the trips I went on to Mexico as a high school student. These were life changing trips for me, and they continue to be for those who go, but kids are kids, and discipline was an issue back when I was in high school, which makes sense. How do you keep a large group of high school students under control when driving them across the country? Some would say, "Well, you don't." But our leaders tried to keep us in line, and one technique that I remembered during Errol's report last Wednesday Night were these bracelets our leaders gave us when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. It was just a simple bracelet that we all wore, but on it were the letters, "WWJD," which stood for, "What would Jesus do?" Maybe you remember these bracelets. I imagine that we were given them so that before we did something against the rules, like sneak out of our hotel rooms after dark, we'd ask ourselves, "Now, is this something that Jesus would do?" The bracelets made us stop and think: "Would Jesus make fun of his friend?" Or, "Would Jesus conceal ex-lax in a chocolate wrapper and trick his friend into eating it?" We did that anyway, but Jesus wouldn't have. No, Jesus would be nice. Jesus was always nice, is what we were thinking as we wore these bracelets. But Jesus wasn't always nice. I'm not saying that he was ever mean. I don't believe that, but from Scripture you can see that Jesus wasn't just nice, or peaceful, or serene. Last Friday I took our girls to tour the childhood home of Martin Luther King Jr. When looking into the dining room our tour guide told us that Dr. King's father required all the children to quote a verse of Scripture before taking their first bite of supper, and young Martin was prone to quote, John 11: 35, "Jesus wept," the shortest verse in the entire Bible. That verse, "Jesus wept," and another like it, "Jesus laughed," are short, but they tell us so much about this savior of ours whose emotional life we are prone to reduce to a perpetually heavenly gaze. We think of that painting of Jesus by Warner Sallman. He's bearded and looking off in the distance, neither stoic nor emotional, just serene. Then there's the other popular image of Jesus welcoming the little children, which of course he did, but he wasn't just nice. He also wept, he also laughed, and he also got angry. He had emotions, just like we do. He was sometimes sad, just as we are. He often laughed, just like we do. And he sometimes got angry, just like we do. But the difference between him and us is in how he expressed his emotions. That's something we don't all know how to do, even though Mr. Rogers tried to teach us. I saw a video this week where Mr. Rogers walks towards the camera and he says, "I'm angry." Of course, he doesn't look angry. It's hard to look angry in a cardigan. Then he starts singing, What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems Oh, so wrong, And nothing you do seems very right. That's life, isn't? We get mad, but what do we do with the mad that we feel? Mr. Rogers has this other song where he plays the piano because he's angry, and he sings this very un-angry sounding song. "I'm angry. I'm angry." He doesn't sound very angry singing this. It's hard to sound angry when you sing, but then he sings, "I'm angry. I'm angry. And I can tell you why." We read from the Gospel of John that Jesus told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" That's one way that Jesus' anger is different from so much of ours. He feels the feeling that we feel, but he can say what he's angry about. Not everyone I know can do that. In fact, I know a whole lot of people who won't even admit that they're angry. I'm one of them. It's hard for me to say that I'm angry, because I think I'm always supposed to be nice. My parents would ask me, "Joe, what's wrong?" I'd tell them "nothing." These days, Sara will ask me, "What are you so mad about?" And I'll say, "I'm mad about you always asking me if I'm mad." That's not true of course, but that's what I say, because just that simple thing: saying what I'm angry about, is hard for me to do. And I'm not alone, so let me say that in taking a lesson from Jesus, we first have to accept the reality that being angry is a part of being human. Then we have to come to terms with the truth that sometimes our anger is telling us something so important that we can't ignore it. That we must say something, and maybe even do something. Let's use the Son of God as our example: What was Jesus angry about? His Father's house had been turned into a marketplace. You can understand why he'd be upset about that. Anger isn't always so unreasonable. Most of the time we are justified in our anger, but we get all messed up in coming to terms with what it is that we're really angry about, and then deciding what it is that we're going to do about it. The most wonderful detail in our Gospel Lesson for today is there in the third verse we read. Verse 15: "Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle." In all four of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry he storms into the Temple kicking over tables, scattering the coins of the money changers, and setting free the animals, but only in John does he first make a whip of cords. Do you know how long it takes to braid a whip of cords? I don't. And I don't know, not only because I've never done it, but also because when I get angry I don't stop to do anything that might help me calm down or process my thoughts. Instead, I either just start talking without thinking or go silent and brooding. Hardly, if ever, do I stop what I'm doing to sit down to think about why it is that I'm angry and what it is that I'm going to do about it. Jesus is different. Jesus gets angry and then he braids a whip of cords. Do you know how counter cultural that is? There are those among us who get angry and send off a Twitter message. Others who get angry, then yell at the first person they see. There's an old cartoon I remember where the boss yells at dad in the office. Then dad comes home and yells at mom in the kitchen. Mom goes upstairs to yell at their son, who then walks out into the yard to kick the dog. Anger. It can destroy a family like a disease that gets passed on from one to the next. Another thing we do with anger is keep it inside so that it rots our guts and hollows our spirit. Some try to drown it with liquor, numb it with drugs, either of which is destructive, and few take the time to sit down and really think about it. What am I mad about? Then, what am I going to do about it? The knee jerk response to get somebody fired or lock somebody up can do more harm than good, We must braid the whip. Because in our world today we are all angry about something, but we have to stop and listen to our anger for it to do us or our world any good. If you read the article this morning covering Chief Justice Harris Hines' farewell address to the judiciary as he prepares for retirement, then you know that he has worked to fight the old "lock him up" order from the bench to get to a better solution. As a culture. As a nation. We have to learn what to do with anger, because right now anger is tearing us a part, but you know what it's supposed to do? Purify us. Significant background for understanding what it means for Jesus to storm the Temple is found in the Old Testament book of Malachi. You ever read Malachi? I'll give two free tickets to the Talent Show to anyone who can turn to Malachi. Just kidding. But let me remind you of what we read earlier: "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." And when he gets there, he won't just be nice, walking around shaking hands and kissing babies. No. According to the Prophet Malachi "he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness." Jesus, fueled by anger, purifies the Temple so that it might no longer be a marketplace, but a Temple. No longer a den of thieves, be a sanctuary for the hurting. No longer a place where money is exchanged, and debts are paid, but a place where debts are forgiven - and how did he do it? Through anger. Through an anger that is frustrated with what is and directed towards that which stands in the way of a better future. Jesus didn't get upset at the Temple only to go home to type a rant on Facebook. He didn't go home to pout to his Mama. Nor did he walk into the Temple with an AR-15. Instead, he braids a whip. And after braiding it. He kicked over tables, he scattered money, he chased off livestock, and no one got hurt. No one died. And through him, and the Temple that was his body, we are given a new relationship with God, and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. We must learn from him to braid the whip. For in your frustration with this world lies the motivation to make some changes. Braid the whip. Because you deserve better, and your anger, channeled, will help you get there. Braid the whip. Stop and listen, for the Spirit still speaks, calling us away from the ways of death that we have grown used to, and towards new life. Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Divine Things and Human Things

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 17: 1-7 and 15-16, Mark 8: 31-38 Sermon Title: Divine Things and Human Things Preached on February 25, 2018 I watched the Emoji Movie this last week. If you're a parent than you might be thinking, "what he means is that his kids watched the Emoji Movie while he looked at his phone or read a book or something," but that's not what I mean. What I mean is that I watched the Emoji Movie. One top critic reviewed this movie and wrote: "The film is boldly bad, yes, but also boldly boring." Another wrote: "Disregard that PG rating and keep your children far away from director Tony Leondis' vile animated faux-comedy." These are harsh words, and some would heed such warnings, but not me. No, after watching the first half of the movie with our daughters I had to tear myself away to get dressed and get to the church last Tuesday morning, so I watched the second half by myself Wednesday because I had a vested interested in finding out how the movie would end. Why? Why would I can so much about about a frowny face, that doesn't just want to frown. He also wants to laugh and cry. Because for some reason I could relate to him. I also started to care about the other main character. This princess emoji who ran away because she wanted to be an outlaw computer hacker emoji. Now, granted, none of this describes what anyone would call a good movie, but I have a feeling that every person in this room, whether she knows what an emoji is or not, has felt the pressure to be, not who she was created to be, but who everyone told her she was supposed to be. I'm working on that too. All the critics told me I would hate this movie, but I kind-of loved it, and that's what I want to preach about this morning. We live in a country where everyone is telling us what to think. And not just about movies. Even Russia is trying to tell us what to think, how to vote, and what to feel about our neighbors and our political candidates, and if we can't learn to think for ourselves, then there goes our democracy, our freedom, and our faith. There is a very real struggle at work in our world today. There is a very real struggle, as forces fight for control of our human hearts determining whether will we be ourselves, or will we lose ourselves to the pressures of conformity? To spoil the Emoji Movie, I'll tell you that despite the social pressure the frowny face gained the courage to cry and laugh out in public, and the princess got to be an outlaw because not every girl wants to be a princess, and in the end, the world changed, and everything turned out perfect. I suppose that's the happy ending we are all after, but getting there is a struggle. You heard what happened with Jesus. Last Sunday Rev. Joe Brice preached a beautiful sermon concerning Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. But the temptation didn't end there. After 40 Days in the desert with the devil tempting him to take power and seize control, to be someone other than who he knew in his heart he was meant to be, Jesus emerged from the desert only to be tempted by his friend. We read from the Gospel of Mark: Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Why? Because Peter didn't want Jesus to be that kind of messiah. Peter didn't want Jesus to upset all those people. Peter wanted a nice, quiet Messiah, who would be everyone's hero and who would one day retire with him to the beach and together Peter and Jesus could look back on all their years of ministry and Peter would say to his friend in the beach chair next to him, "Jesus, it's been a wonderful life, hasn't it?" Maybe there was a part of Jesus that wanted this kind of life too, so he must rebuke Peter just as he rebuked the devil back in the wilderness: "Get behind me, Satan! [he said to his friend] for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Isn't it easy, to set your mind on human things? The Great Rev. Billy Graham died this week. One of his most famous quotes is: "My home is in heaven. I'm just passing through this world." But it's easy to get stuck in this world. Isn't it easy, to set your mind on human things? A Puritan prayer book that I love says it this way: "O Savior of Sinners, raise me above the smiles and frowns of the world, regarding it as a light thing to be judged by humans." Do you know anyone who needs to pray that prayer? I know I need it. Maybe you do too. And Poor Marco Rubio definitely needs a prayer like that one. Did you see him? I was hurting for Senator Rubio this week. It seems like he gets enough abuse with the President calling him "Little Marco," but it got worse. On Wednesday a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida asked him if he'd stop accepting money from the NRA, and poor Senator Rubio. You don't need to have seen the video to imagine the face he was making, because he was making that face that we all make when we feel so trapped that we can't win for losing. We ask ourselves: "How will I even open my mouth, when I'm faced with mollifying one group of people but disappointing another?" How can I speak, when someone out there is about to walk out of this place and hate me forever based on how I answer? You know this struggle. It's a fool's errand but I've been that fool again and again and again, and I bet you have too. You lean one way and you're someone's hero but someone else's enemy - and it sure does feel like you're dying a slow death if you are unable to rise above the smiles and frowns of the world. If it's impossible for you to regard it as a light thing to be judged by humans, because your mind is set on human things. Jesus said to Peter: "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things," and if that's the way we choose to live, then it's going to be nothing but torture from here on out. It was that way for me in my first year of ministry. I began my ministry at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church out in Lilburn, GA, and I was going to be everything to everybody even if it killed me. Someone asked me if I liked to listen to the Fish - that Christian radio station, and so I started to listen to it. A group wanted to start a Bible study, and so I helped them get it going, then another group wanted one, then another, and before long I was leading a Bible study every day of the week, listening to the Fish in the car. There was no place of solace. Basically, the hardest thing about my first year of ministry was that I was trying to be, not the pastor who I was, but the pastor who I thought they wanted me to be. Then one morning I woke up with a rash on my stomach. It started out red and itchy, and it wouldn't go away. Sara finally sent me to the doctor. He told me that is was hives, and that he could give me some medicine for it, but really it was just from stress and what I needed to do was find a way to relax. "You're a preacher, right?" my doctor asked. I told him that I was, and so he said again, "What you need to do is find a way to relax. Have you ever heard of prayer?" What is prayer, but the constant reminder that our identity comes not from humans but from God. That our primary relationship must be between us and our creator. To quote that great prayer for illumination: "Lord, among all the changing words of this generation, speak to us your eternal Word which does not change," because it is God's voice that must define us, not the whispers of the gossips or the pressure of the lobbyist. "Who do they say that I am?" Jesus asked his disciples. And the difference between him asking this question and us asking the same of ourselves is that he didn't really care who anybody said he was. Because he already knew. But what about Senator Rubio? If you're actions are tied to public opinion or interest group donations, can you really be free? And what about the accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz? If you have to murder the people who hurt your feelings, if you aren't man enough to voice your anger, then you are letting other people and your out of control emotions define who you are. We all have to slow down and think. Or better yet - we all have to slow down and listen - because in our baptism the Lord already told us who we are: "You are mine, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased." The difference between all of us and Jesus is that he never forgot it. He was always bold to believe it. And he never depended on humans to tell him who he was or how he should live. Let our prayer be: "O Savior of Sinners, raise me above the smiles and frowns of the world, regarding it as a light thing to be judged by humans." And may our song be like the hymn we sang at the 8:30 service: But if, forgetful, we should find your yoke is hard to bear; If worldly pressures fray the mind and love itself cannot unwind Its tangled skein of care; our inward life repair. For how will we make it to the Kingdom of Heaven, if we long for the approval of this broken world? We must set our minds, not on human things. But on divine things. Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Be Reconciled

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Down from the Mountain

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mending the Nets

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