Monday, January 31, 2011

God Chose

1st Corinthians 1: 18-31, page 166
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
John Satterwhite and I were sitting in the den at Martha Matthews’ home talking about Columbia – how things have changed – what’s different – what’s still the same. Mrs. Matthews was thinking of the many parents she has known, like the many parents we all know, who spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about the right school for their children – the right college – hoping and praying that a good education will get them into the right job – but never give a thought to getting their children into the right church.
It’s true, to some it would seem it’s true now more than ever, that many people don’t give church a thought – they dismiss it – they don’t see the point.
But for some it’s a matter of work – the work week has changed so much and the Sabbath no longer has the protection it once did even here in Columbia, so some people end up working on Sunday mornings and don’t make it to church.
For others it’s a matter of time – they’ve been going like crazy all week – maybe they’ve worked a 60 hour week and they just need some time to rest.
Many in the Church have been fighting against these trends – worried that our society has become far too secular, afraid that if this secularization continues it will hurt the church even more.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul isn’t so worried about what is happening in his society and how that will affect the members of the Church in Corinth in this regard. The Apostle Paul doesn’t address either of these areas in the lesson we just read, and we certainly won’t gain any sympathy from him regarding these complaints because the church in Corinth was a church in a non-Christian country where most people had never even heard of the Sabbath and everyone besides the lazy and the rich worked seven days a week. Surely some in his congregation had to work seven days a week 24 hours a day for no pay making their way as slaves in the ancient world.
Many in our world want society to change in the hopes that if society changes then people will return to church – but here was the church in Corinth making its way in a society that gave church no respect, gave its people no time off, and yet, people were there worshiping God and today we have to wonder why.
What we find in our lesson for today is the reason they were there and it’s the same as the reason that we are here: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are”
The church in Corinth was made up, not of the wise, the powerful, or the well born mostly, but those whom society called foolish, weak, and low class. Outside the church these members heard words that told them who they were, kept them in their place - they were treated as less than most – so when they heard good news about a God who cared about them as much as God cared about everybody else, they found the time to go and listen.
To those who have been cast out of proper society, news about a God who cares is worth showing up for.
To those who have been put down by the wise, called foolish, illiterate, uneducated, news about a God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom is worth making the time for.
And to those who have been made weak by the powerful, news about a God who shames the strong needs to be heard.
But what has this news to do with us?
The straight “A” students, the doctors, the teachers – what we read today doesn’t necessarily sound like good news as you’ve worked too hard for those grades to hear that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning.
The bankers, the managers, the store owners, the wealthy – what we read today doesn’t necessarily sound like good news as you’ve spent too much time, too many years building up from where you were to hear that God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
The well born, the descendants of land owners and businessmen – this doesn’t necessarily sound like good news as your parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, they spent too much of their lives in the hopes that life would be better for you just to hear that God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.
Maybe you can relate to those who aren’t here at church because the good news doesn’t always sound all that good – it certainly sounds like foolishness at times – certainly like foolishness in our world where people are judged by what they have worked for, what they have earned, what their last name is.
What we hear today from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is so different – the news that we hear in our lesson for today is about a God who comes to us – not because of what we’ve done, who we are, what we’ve earned – God simply claims us.
All the wisdom that the wise thought would bring them closer to God is rendered foolish – because getting closer to God isn’t the work of human hands.
The strong who thought their strength would elevate them in the world are shamed – because it’s not our strength that makes us worthy in the eyes of God.
And those who have grown used to their name meaning something are reduced to nothing – because it’s not who you are that matters to God – it’s who God is to you.
So many people take so much time worrying over where their kids will go to school – but where else will they hear the good news – that in a world where grades mean so much – God will be your God regardless of your place in the class.
That in a society where what you earn seems to mean the world – whether you’re retired, employed, or laid-off – God sees your worth and it is our God who has made you worthy.
That in a world where who you know matters just as much as what you know – who you are in God’s eyes is really all that matters – and this day I want you to hear the truth – who you are in God’s eyes is beloved.
Martha Matthews’ told me last week – “You can go to Harvard, but if you don’t have a church, something’s missing.” And she’s right – because if you don’t have a church you might go your whole life thinking that what you can do is all that matters in this world – but to those of you who are being saved – you’ll know – that regardless of what you know – you are a brilliant creation of the most high God – regardless of what you do – you are the beautiful work of God’s hand – and regardless of who you are – you are God’s. God chose, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


1st Corinthians 1: 10-18, page 155
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The Deacons here at the church have been kind enough to take me along on their visits, and last week, thanks to Bill Handy and Doreen Wohlfarth, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim and Lenora Parnell. About half-way through our visit Mrs. Parnell looked at me and said, “Well Joe, you’re from Atlanta. What do you think of us?”
It’s not really the kind of question I’m accustomed to answering, and only having been here for four weeks I’m not able to answer it with any kind of confidence. It takes a while to answer a question like that, “What do you think of us?” but that doesn’t always keep people from offering their assumptions.
The night before my last Sunday at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the church I last served just outside Atlanta, the congregation gave a dinner and roast in honor of my family and me. The president of Good Shepherd’s senior group, a fine man by the name of Gus, stood up and presented me with a gift. “All the members of the senior group got together Joe and we raised a great deal of money,” he said. “We’ve come up with $5,000 as a sign of our appreciation, but the president on the bills is Jefferson Davis – we’re hoping they still use confederate money up where you and Sara are going.”
Of course, while it might be fun for folks from Atlanta to make jokes about folks from Tennessee, assumptions that we make about other people can sometimes not be so amusing. Everyone in Atlanta knows that people in Tennessee don’t use confederate currency; everyone in Atlanta probably knows that people in Tennessee do wear shoes; but it probably is true that people from Atlanta really do think they are better, more refined, than every other group of people living in the South, so assumptions that people make – even when they are joking can be dangerous – and I would go so far as to say that assumptions that we make about other people can sometimes take a nasty turn.
So Paul worries about the Christians in Corinth. How they are dividing themselves up into groups – saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” as though Christ could be divided.
Paul worries because once folks divide themselves up into groups they get comfortable. The ones who belong to Paul don’t spend quite as much time with the ones who belong to Apollos as they used to – maybe they still worship together but on different sides – it’s just nice to spend time with your own kind. And before long the ones who belong to Paul have gotten away from the ones who belong to Apollos to such an extent that their opinion of each other is no longer based on experience but assumption. Paul’s people haven’t asked Apollos’ people why all the donuts are gone from Fellowship Time before they even get there – Paul’s people just assume that Apollos’ people are greedy. And Apollos’ people haven’t really talked with Paul’s about a good date for the church picnic; they just assume that Paul’s people won’t be able to make it.
It goes on like this OK until the two groups are so divided they don’t even sit together and they don’t even live on the same side of town.
This past Monday, on the other side of town, I had the pleasure of joining a group of a hundred or so people, several who are members of this church, gathered in front of one of Columbia’s African American churches. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King we marched from there to the court house, but on the way we stopped at the sight of the 1946 Columbia race riot, a riot that, like so many race riots that followed World War 2, involved military veterans who were unwilling to accept segregation in the country they had put their lives on the line for – they were frustrated that store clerks, who seemed so in need of their service before they left, would not respect them enough upon returning to offer them the same decency they gave to white citizens.
So when James Stephenson felt that his mother was being disrespected by a local department store clerk when they went together to pick up her radio, something erupted. The store clerk may have assumed that Stephenson’s mother should be satisfied with the service she received, while Stephenson may have assumed that the store clerk was treating his mother badly based on the color of her skin. Then maybe the clerk assumed that Stephenson was another angry, black, veteran – the kind who would resort to violence - and so he defended himself accordingly – next thing you know the clerk winds up through a window and by nightfall the Mink Side was surrounded, shots were fired, four patrolmen were wounded, windows were broken, houses were raided, weapons were confiscated, and more than one hundred African American’s were arrested.
It all started with a store clerk and a customer – a simple exchange, nothing more than a broken radio – but because this simple exchange took place between two groups of people who had forgotten how to deal with each other things went in a different direction.
When people forget how to talk with each other – when assumptions guide our behavior rather than experience – things can take a nasty turn.
So Paul calls the congregation back together: Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
This was a tall order for them as it is for us, as a world without divisions is hardly imaginable.
A world where people don’t see race or class.
A world where association with a particular church, a particular club, a particular strata of society doesn’t matter nearly so much as accepting ourselves and each other for who we are.
A world where people don’t assume they know how another group of people thinks or acts, but instead takes the time to learn.
It’s foolishness really – nothing more than a dream, because for whatever reason, it’s easier to go on believing that our assumptions are right than it is to put them to the test.
That some kinds of people are naturally hard workers;
While some are either happy being poor or aren’t willing to do anything to make their lives better.
That the way things are meets everyone’s needs so there’s no reason to change.
In this kind of world it becomes particularly important to remember that our salvation comes from the God who chose not to assume. That our God didn’t assume anything about life on earth – rather than assume, our God became one of us.
While Christ certainly could have stayed with the angels of heaven, he came down, and after living among fishers, adulterers, the lame and the blind, he was handed over to be crucified in-between two thieves.
It would have been easier to leave it to assumption, just as life is easier for us if we never put to the test the kind of assumptions about particular groups we have learned to believe.
The world is an easier place to live in if you go on believing that the way things are is the way they need to be. That people always get what they deserve, and if they really wanted to improve their lot in life they could.
The world is an easier place to live in if the poor are poor because they’re lazy, just as the Pharisees believed the sick were sick because of their sins.
The world becomes a strange place when you start to question these assumptions, and no one should be surprised - for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Be foolish today – put the assumptions of the world to the test – living not confined to the group you are most comfortable with, but out among – working with, eating with - those you assume you know but you may not know at all.
This is the heart of the gospel – that when people the world has called different do something as bold as sitting around one table, breaking bread together and sharing wine – such a thing is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You Were Called

1st Corinthians 1: 1-9, page 155
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be as blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful; by God you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus our Lord.
Discipline is a constant struggle – for parents, for teachers, for dog owners – for anyone entrusted with the care of another being whose behavior lies somewhat out of their control and is too often found to be lacking.
I know all about it – not only am I a father, but I’m also a dog owner – not just a dog owner actually; we have three dogs, two of whom are terribly badly behaved. And it’s not their fault, it’s mine. I’m the one who brought them into the house, so it falls on me to set the limits, but what can I say, I’m a push over. And when they bark at some kind person who has come to the house to say hello or drop off something nice, I can only hope that you can’t hear me threatening them over their barking.
Threats tend to be the last weapon in our arsenal – they’re our last resort – but while they feel effective coming out of our mouths I believe that they’re better for burning bridges then mending fences or getting bad dogs back on the road to obedience.
Maybe that’s why, in these first verses of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he doesn’t resort to threats but exhorts the church to remember who they are and who God is to them.
I don’t know that there’s another way to explain why he sounds so nice here – he’s not the kind to put on a polite face when he’s angry – and you can be sure of this – he is mad at the Corinthians. Not only have they divided themselves up into factions in the face of Christian unity, they have been guilty of graver debauchery than even the pagans of the time. Paul, having heard from Chloe’s people of the grave sins committed by some of the Corinthian congregation, is too far away to travel and lecture them to their face so he has no other resort than to write a letter.
But it’s not hate mail.
He doesn’t really begin by letting them have it, does he?
We are used to threats, because in our society, out of desperation maybe, people jump to threats so quickly.
When an article that offends us appears in the newspaper, we don’t write a letter to the editor that begins, “I give thanks to my God always for you” as Paul does, we threaten to cancel our subscription in the hopes that such a threat will get some attention.
When things aren’t going the way we like in some group which we hold membership, a team, a club, a church, we don’t write to the board or the pastor hoping that God “will also strengthen you to the end” as Paul does, we threaten to withdrawal membership, or worse, suspend our dues.
And when our government seems to have turned its back on us and our values, we don’t remind our representatives that they were called by God “into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus our Lord,” as Paul does, we threaten to kick them right out of office – while the worst of our society, upon hearing such threats, finds encouragement to commit the unspeakable.
Last week President Obama attempted to bring understanding to a cruel act of violence – a threatening act of violence towards all those who don’t think the way a young man thought they should. His violence that shocked Arizona and our entire country may motivate some to change the way they think and act, but I believe that any threat’s power falls short when compared to what people will do when they are inspired to act on behalf of one whom they love.
By President Obama, we’ve all been urged to live in a way that would make Christina Taylor Green, the 9 year old who was shot, proud.
I have no doubt that both Jared, the shooter, and Christina, one of his victims will leave their mark on our country, inspiring people to change the way they think and live – but those who change what they do and what they believe out of a fear of the likes of Jared will never be so powerfully alive as those who change what they do and what they believe in the hopes of making Christina proud.
In the same way, while the Russian army during World War II hurled themselves upon their enemy out of fear that they would be shot by their own countrymen upon retreat, it was the likes of one American, who upon seeing this sanctuary’s dome knew that he fought for something worth fighting for, fought to stop the Nazis in their tracks, defending his people and his country out of love.
Tomorrow, as we remember the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., we bear in mind one who heard more threats than most. But rather than shudder, rather than be intimidated, rather than keep the truth of his message bottled up, he championed one of the greatest movements our country has ever seen proclaiming the truth that all are worthy of full acceptance in the Kingdom of God, that God loves us regardless of race – and this was a message too strong, too true, to be stifled by threats.
While surely those threats were strong – and surely they were real – but they were powerless in the face of King’s defiant message of love, a message whose source is God our creator.
While threats of damnation may have inspired the conversion of many of you as they inspired me, I pray that for you your life as a Christian is not motivated by that same fear, but today is marked by a love for the God who first loved you.
I must have responded to 5 alter calls before I really heard the good news – God doesn’t call us to turn away from our sin so that we can avoid some impending judgment – God calls us to turn away from our sin because it is only in fellowship with his Son that our deepest joy will be fulfilled.
For while so many have turned their lives around when threatened by damnation, those of us who know the love that God has for you – who know the depths of compassion that God has poured out on your behalf – who know the truth, that the creator of the ends of the earth, the one who gives us breath and life, and who laid down his very life that you might know how to live – will go on living this way until the day of our Lord Jesus.
Do not be afraid, even in the midst of your greatest sin, deepest insecurity, harshest criticism, for Paul offers you words of love from God who is faithful. Once you come to know this love you will be amazed by what you will do for the one who loved you first.
For our God has heard your cry – has drawn you up from the desolate pit – and has called you to new life.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Now It Begins

Matthew 3: 13-17, page 3 of the New Testament
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It has been a wonderful week. I continue to be moved by your hospitality, and my family and I continue to be thankful to be settling in to such a wonderful place as Columbia, TN, such a wonderful church as 1st Presbyterian.
This was my first week in the office, but more importantly, this week also began our 200th anniversary celebration with dinner last Wednesday night where I learned more about this church in an hour than most would be lucky to learn in a year. I suppose Bob Duncan just has a way of getting secrets out of people, doesn’t he?
Last Wednesday evening gave me a lot to think about, and one thing in particular stands out – when Mrs. Doris Kibbons stood and told the group about memorizing the Shorter Catechism as a child, and so was rewarded with a leather bound copy of the New Testament from the Presbyterian Committee of Publications in Richmond Virginia.
I held in my hand a copy of such a New Testament, Frank Dale’s aunt Carolyn having earned the same honor – and I wondered to myself just how many know how impressive memorizing the Shorter Catechism is. All I know is that it’s name is relative – it’s only short in comparison to the Longer Westminster Catechism – but even I can’t tell you a whole lot more than that.
In so many ways things have changed – so many don’t come to Sunday School at all, much less come and dedicate themselves to such a degree that they can memorize the Shorter Catechism. Ours doesn’t seem to be a time of demanding more from members of our churches, of being challenged to deepen our faith, do homework, and take time out of busy schedules to memorize. Ours is a time when we just want people to come to church – have your child baptized – put a little money in the plate – and please come back next week.
For so many churches, sessions and ministers are just thankful to see too many families who only come on Christmas and Easter that we fear encouraging them to come more often; we don’t want to require too much in a class that introduces new folks to our church, we just want them to join before they sneak out the door; and we would never consider requiring anything of anyone who wanted to be baptized – though we know that for so many children, we promise to nurture them in the faith but never have the opportunity to do so.
We don’t want to ask too much, because we are thankful for what we’ve got.
But maybe were not so different from John. As Jesus approaches him for baptism he doesn’t require that Christ attend some kind of class, doesn’t ask for his credentials, he doesn’t look into Jesus’ sordid family history, wondering if the story about Mary’s virgin birth is for real. He is reluctant to baptize Jesus, not because Jesus hasn’t done enough, but because he’s already done too much: “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?”
John surely knew who Jesus was, having heard about the birth from his own mother, and so knew that he was standing before the one so many had been waiting for – the one who scripture said would “faithfully bring forth justice,” who “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”
John knew then that Jesus was not the kind who would come and get baptized, fulfilling some obligation to his grandmother only never to be seen again. John must have known that this baptism was only the beginning of something much bigger.
That’s what all baptisms should be – the beginning of a life changed by the power of God – the beginning of a life lived to the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Christ’s baptism marks the beginning of his ministry – he is no longer the sweet baby lying in a manger who threatened Herod’s power theoretically – his baptism is the beginning of his ministry during which he will threaten those in power indefinitely by his defiant words and radical actions.
His baptism is also the end of anticipation, as there is no more waiting for him to grow up – he’s now grown; and there’s no more waiting to see if he’ll be who you were hoping for – he’s about to show you who he is.
Some will be disappointed, having hoped that he would be the kind of Messiah who would fulfill their own dreams, and they will turn away and go on waiting.
Some will be enraged, recognizing that he is one who will change what they don’t want changed and threaten what they hold dear. They will turn against him, siding with those who have the power to silence him with death.
But others will be healed, redeemed, empowered, and renewed, fully changed, finding in Christ their savior.
What we have in his baptism is the beginning of his ministry – the anticipation’s over – now he’ll start losing friends as he begins to say what he believes, doing what he knows he must do to redeem the world.
In so many ways I bet John stood there, reluctant to baptize Jesus not just because John knew who Jesus was, but I bet John stood there reluctant to baptize Jesus because John knew how hard Jesus’ life would be from this time on.
Being born in a manger seems like a walk in the park compared to being sent out to be tempted in the desert by Satan himself – and even being hunt down by Herod seems comparatively painless to having one of your own disciples turn against you. But this was his lot and maybe Jesus knew it had to be this way. There was no more running from it – “So let it be so now” he says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
There are parts of this reluctance that you can relate to I imagine – there are so many reasons to admire Christ’s courage as he comes to terms with his destiny there on the banks of the Jordan. One of the great preachers of our time, Peter J. Gomes, now on the staff of Harvard Divinity School, once wrote: “The great trick in our intellectual world is to think of something that we want to do and then imagine it to be so impossible as not to be able to do it, which relieves us of the responsibility of trying to do it.”
What prevents us from getting to the work we are called to is so often our own hesitation – our own fear – our own doubt.
Maybe college is over, the world is your oyster, and you dreamed wonderful dreams of using all your gifts to change things, travel the world, and get a great job, but now all you want to do is go back home to your old room. Or you wake up, and in the bed with you for the first time is the one who you’ve promised to spend the rest of your life with – maybe on that first morning you’re happy knowing that the life you dreamed of is coming true, or maybe you’re scared to death thinking of what you’ve just left behind.
Or, maybe, you’re the new pastor in town, amazed at how kind people are, awestruck by their well wishes, prayers for you and your family, taken up in all the hopes for what your ministry will bring, but somewhere in the back of your mind is a small voice saying, “of course they love you Joe, you haven’t done anything to make anyone mad yet.”
Christ stood there on the banks of the river, his baptism the point of no return, and I wonder if Christ was tempted to cut and run.
The reality of life, as our own Sam Kennedy has said it, is that you “shouldn’t get in the game unless you’re prepared to lose.” But losing is sometimes enough to prevent us from ever getting started.
Of course, there’s more to living than winning or losing. In our world that seems to be as divided as it ever has been, living and letting people know who you are, means sometimes losing friends – for as soon as you open up your mouth you are put into categories of Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, are you with me or are you with them – sometimes you wish you could be on every side, but the world just won’t have it.
Still God calls us to step out, to use our gifts, and while our words and actions may close just as many doors as they’ll open, to keep who we are and what we have to say to ourselves is hardly permissible considering where those gifts came from.
But we fear rejection, we fear failure, we fear not living up to all the hopes and dreams of our parents, our friends, and our God. So God calls you to the water to hear the words that will give you the courage to be the woman or man you were created to be.
Hear these words if you have been afraid to go after the life you always wanted but were reluctant to pay the cost.
Hear these words if you have ignored your calling, for fear of what friends and family would say.
Hear these words if you know what you have to do but need the courage to do it.
Hear these words if you’ve ever doubted your worth in the eyes of your maker.
Hear these words if you’ve ever doubted your worth in the eyes of yourself: “You are mine, the Beloved, whom whom I am well pleased.”
These are words from your creator to you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

They Offered Him Gifts

Matthew 2: 1-16 found on page 2 of the New Testament in your pew Bibles
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
There are many reasons I am excited to be living here in Columbia, rather than in Atlanta. The main reason is that I am here, with all of you, in this incredible church whose nearly 200 year history I am amazed to become a part of. But here, as you all already know, there isn’t any traffic, and in general I expect to spend much less time in the car than I did before.
The only part of spending so much time in the car that I’ll miss are reading the billboards - I haven’t noticed any here in Columbia, maybe they’re like the traffic - you have to go up to Nashville to get any. A few weeks ago I read about 50 billboards that have sprung up in Nashville announcing that we should all, “Save the date: Jesus is coming on May 21st, 2011.”
These billboards have been financed by Allison Warden of Raleigh-based, and they proclaim the upcoming rapture and Christ’s imminent return, based on her analysis of scripture and biblical genealogy.
According to Warden, “All information in the Bible points to this date. God is going to be saving people right up until the last moment.”
While I’m not sure that Warden is right about her date, and while I’m not a proponent of her “End-Times Theology”, I am sure that many people will be influenced by her claim, and I doubt that all of it will be bad, but I’m sure that some of it will.
Because when people hear that Christ is coming they tend to do very strange things.
While many may turn back to the church, many others will worry. Some will invest in gold and canned goods, hole up in shelters bellow ground, amass automatic weapons and ammunition, all in preparation for the end of the world.
People do strange things when they hear about Christ coming.
Some of it is good, but some of it, founded in fear, can be gruesome.
We read in our scripture lesson that when King Herod heard of the birth of “the child who has been born king of the Jews” he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him.
Out of fear for what his coming will mean, assuming that his coming will be the end of his power and authority, he first tried to find this child by using the wise men, asking them to send word once they found him so that he could come and join them in worship.
But when Herod realized that the wise men had tricked him, that they left without leading him to the child, he flew into a rage and commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills.
Herod’s act of terrorism founded in his fear that this child would threaten his power offers a stark contrast to the rest of our lesson for today – and you might say that terrorism and the fear terrorism inspires always offers a stark contrast to the Gospel – as how can you live out the gospel when all your actions are governed by fear?
There can be no doubt that the billboards proclaiming Christ’s imminent return will inspire many to fear in a world where too many are already afraid.
Afraid of not having enough, too many in our world have grown reluctant in giving, holding tight to what they have, generosity a luxury of former years.
Afraid of the influence of a changing world, too many have holed up in their homes or enclaves of like-minded souls, acceptance and tolerance diminishing.
While others, afraid of the future and quite certain that the future will be worse than the past, have grown indifferent, hope left to gather dust.
Afraid that his power would be threatened, Herod strikes out in violence seeking to hold onto what he can in light of an uncertain future.
But in the midst of all of this fear – three wise men offer a baby three precious gifts.
A few weeks ago in Bible study I mentioned that there have never been less appropriate baby shower gifts, but I have realized since that this is not the point at all.
In a world of terror the wise give gifts, while those who are governed by fear take all that they can get, push away those who are different, give up on the future, and kill those who threaten the way things are.
In a world of terror, the wise place their hope in a child while those who are governed by fear hold tight all the power they have left.
They open their doors while others lock themselves away.
In a world of terror the wise reach out in kindness with those who are governed by fear strike out in violence.
The point of terrorism is to break down community, to make people afraid of each other, as those who are afraid and alone are easy to control.
That was the point of Herod’s strike – to communicate his power and to strike fear into the hearts of his people.
But the Gospel calls us to follow another path.
Whereas the fearful would keep what they can get – the faithful give precious gifts to the king of kings.
Whereas the fearful strike out at those who are different, burning Mosques, striking out in hate – the faithful open their doors as this church opened your doors to the very people you have been taught to fear.
Whereas the fearful retreat into sanctuaries of safety – the faithful stay to serve the downcast, the oppressed, homeless, and the hungry as this church has committed to stay and serve those who may well be none other than Christ himself.
While the billboards say that Christ is coming in May – we are called to live knowing that Christ is with us now – like the wise men so long ago – we are called to give our gifts.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand:
For I was hungry and you gave me food
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
In a world of fear we are called to live as the one who gave his very body and blood to us lived – giving when too many are afraid to give.
In a world where terror’s shadow looms, let us live as people of the light – let us follow the light of Christ.