Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why were you searching for me?

Luke 2: 41-52, NT page 59 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Sermon It has been said that the first person enlisted in every war, regardless of nation or era, is God. We all, especially in times of great need, call on God to support our cause, which makes the words of Abraham Lincoln especially noteworthy: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” Many are not as wise as Lincoln, but assume that God goes along to love those whom they love, hate those whom they hate, pay attention to the sins that they pay attention to, and look over the sins that they are guilty of. This kind of person deals with scripture in the same way, reading the Bible not to be challenged but to be congratulated, focusing on those passages that justify their way of life, validate their self-righteousness, while ignoring those passages that call them to question what they already believe. And Christ - well, they assume that Christ is right there with them, as though he were something that they could slip into their pocket and take along for the ride, not realizing that they've been traveling in one direction for some time while having left Jesus behind back in Jerusalem. "Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey." A day's journey feels like a very long time to go without realizing that your child is gone, but I'm reluctant to be judgmental, just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean I won't. And the greater point of this story is not that his parents left him behind, assuming he was with the other children or with an aunt or uncle whom they were traveling with, but that his parents assumed he would be going along with them and following their travel agenda – after all, they are the adults here, while Christ clearly is exercising a mind and a will all his own, not following close behind but deciding to stay at the Temple independently. Certainly, when it comes to Mary and Joseph’s frustration with Jesus’ independence I can relate. Already I've noticed myself not letting my daughters become their own people, make their own choices, but wanting them to like the same things that I like and enjoy doing the same things that I enjoy doing. At bedtime they get to pick their bedtime stories, and I won't attempt to manipulate their decision - if I don't want to read Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink for the 500th time I won't steer Lily into choosing a different book, I'll just throw Pinkalicious under the bed and when she looks for it I'll pretend I don't know where it is. Eventually they'll figure my little trick out. I'll no longer be able to hide the books I don't want them to read under the bed. More and more they'll make decisions on their own, more and more they'll become their own people with their own wills, and this is how it’s supposed to be. Our first pediatrician told us that as soon as the umbilical cord is cut it’s a parent’s job to help her children be functioning and independent adults - but what if that child starts doing things his parent doesn't like - what if he grows up and becomes his own man before his parents are ready to let him go? After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. "When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." In one way it seems strange to think of Jesus' parents searching for him. Hasn't Jesus always been beyond their control? Surely his parents must have known that this child would be no typical 12-year-old after his immaculate conception and everything else the angels told them, but none of that has kept any of us from making the same assumptions. Still too many Christians believe they are the ones setting Christ’s agenda. Several years ago a seminary classmate of mine told our class about a mission team waiting for their flight to Haiti in the Atlanta airport. To keep track of each other they all wore bright orange T-Shirts with the slogan, "Bringing the light of Christ to Haiti." Now I don't doubt that they did bring the light of Christ to Haiti through their benevolent actions. I just hope that they weren't surprised when they got off the plane and found that the light of Christ had beaten them there. He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" We should have known, but so often, rather than accept the reality that Christ will go where he wants to go and will be present with those whom he wants to be present to, we believe that he is ours and that we carry him along for the ride. He rides with our caravan – after all, we’re his parents. He supports our causes – after all, we’re his people. He votes with us – after all, we’re the Christians in this race. And maybe that’s true, but we must never be so bold as to assume that we set Christ’s agenda, for Christ, even as a 12 year old boy had a mind of his own: He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Still they were surprised to find him there, some place he went on his own, without their permission. But this is the case – he goes where he will – and if you want to know him, don’t ask him to ride along with you on your way. Do everything in your power to instead follow where he leads. Rather than assume that he’ll rubber stamp our bad habits, we must be bold to listen when he calls us to change. We ask him to preserve our way of life while ignoring his call to a completely new way of life. And we hope he is with us where we are, not realizing we left him behind. If you’ve realized this to be the case, don’t keep going. Turn around – for he’s waiting for you back at the temple. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mary was expecting a child

Luke 2: 1-14, NT page 58 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Sermon Many aspects of this birth story are not ideal: for one thing, engaged to be married and married are two different things. Mary is also not safe at home preparing the nursery, but on the road, forced to travel for the sake of an emperor’s whim. And, while hospitals were rare in those days, midwives were not, nor were clean sheets and hot water, but Mary finds herself without any of these things – alone, without the guidance of an experienced obstetrician or even a sister or mother she gives birth to this child in a barn in the presence of livestock, not on a bed of sterilized sheets but a nest of hay. However, none of these less than ideal circumstances threaten the only aspect of this birth that really mattered: Mary was expecting a child, and regardless of marital status, geographic location, or sanitary condition, this child would be born and he would be Mary’s, and when you get down to it, that is all that really matters to a parent. James Fleming left a pregnant wife at home while he was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was in the time before ultrasounds, so as James says he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl or a whole litter. An ocean separated him from his expectant wife and he was in the dark until the Red Cross delivered a telegram from his mother that said, “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, please don’t swim ashore.” Regardless of where the father was he was the father and the child was his. Still, it must be hard for a father to know that he has a child, and to not lay his eyes on him or her until he returns home. James would not see any of his children until they were months old, and this is still the case for men and women who serve their country in far off places, but today a father need not have to wait until his child is born to see his face. Thanks to advances in medical technology, mothers and fathers can see their son or daughter while he or she develops in the womb – as James Fleming would say, “It’s not Pot Luck anymore”. Dr. Sam Kuyrkendal, the man who helped deliver half of Maury County, brought a cartoon to my office that depicted a new sonogram machine that can not only give expectant parents a picture of their growing child still in-utero, but can load that image directly to their Facebook and twitter accounts. As many well know, this was not always the case. There was a time when young fathers had no idea that their children started life out looking like aliens with cone heads and off color skin. I recently heard a story about a newborn daughter, handed to her young father who had been waiting in the waiting room before the days when fathers were invited in to witness what some romanticists call the miracle of child birth. After a good bit of waiting and pacing back and forth, a nurse handed him a baby girl. He took a good long look and then handed the bundle of pink blankets back declaring, “She’s not mine – she can’t be mine.” I’m proud to announce that this daughter, despite her father’s initial rejection, grew up to become a healthy and fully functional woman, and thankfully, today her father not only claims her but is sitting next to her in this very sanctuary. The child was his – and Mary was expecting a child as well. Joseph “went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” Take away the guidance and experience of one who might have held her hand through this process and leave this first time mother alone to deliver; take away the comfort of being at or near her home and send her to a foreign town; take away the clean sheets and hot water and put her in a manger; but do not take away her right to this child. Regardless of with whom, when, or where, the time came for Mary to deliver her child and that’s all that really mattered to her. But the child was not to be hers alone. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you is born – not just to Mary – to you. To some degree or another this is always the case. Children never belong just to their parents, but become gifts to us all. Last Wednesday night groups from this church went to sing Christmas Carols to various members of our church, particularly those unable to attend Christmas services for whatever reason. The group I was with went to Life Care, a nursing home on James Campbell Boulevard, and 10 or 12 of us were given the clearance to enter the Alzheimer’s unit where Mrs. Nancy Thomas, our former Director of Christian Education now lives. I know that she knew none of our names. I know that she recognized none of our faces, but she did know the words to the familiar carols that we sang, and I also know that when little Annie Scott and little Grayson Hayes hugged her neck and kissed her on the cheek it was the greatest Christmas present she could have received. These little girls are not her grandchildren, but for a moment they were hers. To you is born – not just to Mary – to you. And for this moment, on this night, let him be yours. For like many today and many before us, we are left sleeping in the cold of night, confused and alone, lost in the world, wondering who it is that God favors. But hear these words, let them be like a kiss upon your cheek - “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” To you is born this day – to you – and his life is the greatest gift that humanity has ever received for the birth of Christ is the great sign that to you he was born for it is you whom God favors. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Zechariah spoke

Luke 1: 57-80, NT pages 57-58 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for the he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. The Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as the Lord spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus the Lord has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us, that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before the Lord all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. Sermon Many times in my life, words have failed me. There are occasions when I should have said something, but couldn't seem to say anything, other times when I said something but should have said nothing, and then there have been innumerable occasions when I said exactly the wrong thing. It is a momentous occasion, to be handed a newborn baby. I remember exactly what I said when the nurse picked up our first child Lily, handed her to her mother, and then turned to walk out of the room. “You’re leaving,” I said. “What are we supposed to do?” This occasion deserved, certainly something more confident, more celebratory, more articulate. In fact, I think even saying nothing at all would have been better than, “What are we supposed to do” to a nurse after she hands you your new baby. I not only remember what I said in this moment. I remember how she looked at me too. Maybe she was expecting something different, but we can’t all be Zechariah. Zechariah is a new father in our second scripture lesson for this morning, and while words failed me they did not fail him, as to celebrate the birth of his new born son he bursts into beautiful prophecy: “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel – for the Lord has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…And you child will be called the prophet of the Most High; and he will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” It’s a beautiful song is what it is – even more beautiful when compared to my, “What are we supposed to do?” But Zechariah is different and he knows exactly what to do and how to say it, so he is able to declare what God will do through his son. The entire time Elizabeth was pregnant he was unable to speak, punished by the Angel Gabriel for his lack of faith, so he did have a good bit of time to think this song up, but even still, compare this optimistic statement of faith to my “what are we supposed to do,” and you have the difference between night and day. And then, at the time of John the Baptist’s birth, the preacher who would prepare the way for Jesus Christ, it was night all around. The Roman Empire ruled the people through force. There was violence in the street, armed soldiers standing on the corner – not to defend Zechariah and his people but to keep them in their place with the shield, the spear, and the sword. Life was valued; so much as that life benefited the Empire. People were free to do what they wanted, so long as they only wanted to do what the empire allowed. And the future – was sure to be worse than the past because no one could imagine a day when Jerusalem would not be covered by the shroud of Roman rule. You bring a newborn son into that kind of environment and you are wise not to hope for too much. Maybe just that the Roman taxes won’t get so high that he’ll have to miss too many meals. Maybe that he’ll stay away from the young men who terrorize the Roman legions, burning their bridges and vandalizing their property. Maybe he’ll be able to go to school without having to fear for his life. I read in the paper last Thursday that the sale of a bullet resistant shield that can be inserted into a child’s backpack, has spiked in recent days. This shield turns what holds my daughter’s little pink lunch box and her folder that holds her art work into something that she can kneel behind should the unthinkable ever happen. Now that is not what I want to be shopping for this Christmas. I do not want my children to have to live in a world where such a product even exists. In times such as these words may fail us all, so we lean instead on a man who had time to think about what a faithful person who knew firsthand the might power of God should say: “And you child, will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This Christmas all is not right with the world. Some presents will go unopened because the child who was to open them is gone. We sing of peace on earth while fathers and mothers are away fighting other fathers and mothers in faraway lands. And we are all tempted to expect a little bit less of the future, we worry for our children, and we wonder, “What am I supposed to do now?” We imagine that Christmas shouldn't be this way, but it always has been. It is not the time when all is right with the world. Christmas is instead the time to celebrate that it will be, for “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He is coming. The Prince of Peace is coming, and he declares: “Let the little children come unto me.” Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1: 39-56, NT page 57 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name. God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. Sermon Last Monday I was proud to be invited to attend a meeting of the Monday morning Presbyterian Women's Circle who met at Carolyn Fisher's home, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season. Carol Turner was leading the discussion, and invited everyone to share a story about one thing that they inherited, which seemed appropriate as Christmas is a time where family gets together, and important memories and traditions are inherited by new generations. For some, an intangible inheritance has become most important, and it was the faith of her parents and grandparents that Nancy Wells shared with the group last Monday. For others it was tangible, inheriting a treasured ring or bracelet, and that’s how it is with my grandmother too. Once she retired from nursing after 50 years she was able to focus on her true passion, shopping, which left more than enough for everyone to inherit. I don't say that jokingly. Shopping was honestly her hobby, and while he complained about it like any husband would, the way she decorated her home is still a source of pride for my grandfather. In her spare time she filled every open space on a shelf with a knickknack, every square foot of wall space with a picture, and her closets were full of what had either lost its place to something more perfect or purchases bought without a place to go. Some people fear death, others fear public speaking, but my grandmother - she would often say to my mother, "Cathy, when I die, if I hear about you carting my furniture outside for a yard sale, you better know that I will haunt you for the rest of your life." She knew what many do – that what is valued today may not be valued by the next generation, and what was a treasure to her might not be valued by her family when she’s gone. Mrs. Jean Lock has a rocking chair, and according to Miss Jean it’s not very comfortable and it probably needs to be reupholstered. This rocking chair is not obviously precious, but when Miss Jean was 4 years old she remembers sitting in that rocking chair in the days following her father’s death. Her grandfather rocked with her there in his lap, back and forth, and today Miss Jean looks at that chair and is thankful that as a four year old girl she was able to provide for her mourning grandfather some sense of comfort in the wake of his son's death. "I don't know where it will go next" Miss Jean said, but in a world where so many people need comforting I have no doubt that a chair like that one will find a good home. Ours is not always a culture of grateful inheritance; what is offered by the old to the young is not always accepted graciously, so it’s a rare scene in our second scripture lesson for this morning. "Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." Mary, not old enough, and Elizabeth, a little too old; they both are in need and they both are able to provide something for the other that no one else would have. When everyone else was wondering if Elizabeth had lost her mind, having a baby at her age, Mary knew it wasn’t a scandal but something holy. When everyone else was looking down their noses at Mary, this unwed mother to be, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." It’s after these words from the only person who would understand that Mary sings out: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God's servant." You've heard these words before - when sung this section of the Gospel of Luke that our pew Bible titles "Mary's Song of Praise" is known as the Magnificat, and while beautiful all on its own, the words to this song take on particular meaning when you consider that Mary doesn't sing in the presence of the angel who tells her that she will give birth to the Son of God, but when she is in the home of her cousin Elizabeth, when she is safe with the only other person on earth who could relate to what she was feeling. It’s the common bond between women united by their miraculous pregnancy that makes Mary sing. Just as it’s only in the safety of the common bond between mothers and mothers to be that the truth comes out and the real questions the weigh heavy on worried hearts are ever asked. The same is true for recovering alcoholics, who, in AA that find that the struggle to sobriety has been done before and may be done again. The same is true of the common bond of war that forges friendships between veterans that will never be broken. These two women, Mary and Elizabeth, understand each other despite the years that separate them, in a world where no one else would. But this song that Mary sings here is not just a bond between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary's song had been sung long before Mary's birth, long before the birth of the Roman Empire, before even the great Kings of Israel. In the early days of the Temple, when the people were new inhabitants of the Promised Land after generations of slavery in Egypt and wandering through the wilderness, there was a woman named Hannah who dreamed of a son. She made a deal with God, promising that if God would give her a son she would dedicate that son to serve the Lord at the Temple. After his birth, on the day she left him there at the Temple, she sang this same song to her son Samuel, the boy who would grow up to become a great prophet, ushering in the monarchy, even choosing David who became the greatest of Israel's kings. This song passed from one generation to the next - from mother to son, son to kings, kings to their children, from one generation to another until it streams forth from the lips of a young woman, a would be bride, who carried God's very son in her womb. It was an inheritance. And no matter how old, how in need of being reupholstered it was, this song filled a young mother with hope and joy, and she is joined in singing it with that ancient mother Hannah who felt Mary’s same feelings before. The best kind of inheritance speaks this way, saying, “You are not alone.” And in your fear and anxiety here Elizabeth and Mary have something to offer you – because they know how you feel. They have felt it before. To have children is to be simultaneously joyful and terrified, and so they offer you a song that passed through the generations from one woman to the next, to give you the strength to face the same heartache and the words to express the same miracle of life by borrowing the same song that express a feeling that they felt and now you feel. Isn’t that what you’ve been looking for – someone who understands? Children know that Santa Clause can bring them the perfect gift, knowing them so well as to deliver the joy of their desire on Christmas morning, but through the years more and more you wonder if anyone really knows you that well, if anyone can really understand. Last Friday after 20 children and 8 more adults were murdered in that Connecticut elementary school President Obama addressed the nation. He could not reverse the events of the day, he could not fix it, but in wiping away his own tears he showed our nation something else – that the parents of those lost children are not alone in their grief. What is Christ if not the sign from God, that in our sadness, in our desperation, in times of tragedy, God does not turn and walk away but is born unto us. Unto our lives, unto our imperfection, Christ is born to know our pain and sorrow, and in him we know that God knows what it means to love and lose a child. This Christmas mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, will fight through lines, navigate through malls, surf through websites, to find the perfect gift for the ones they love. To achieve the intended result on Christmas morning, credit cards will be swiped, the bottom of the barrel will be scraped, and budgets will dip into the red, but remember this - the best gifts that will be given this year may cost much less though they are infinitely more valuable. Love one another, seek to understand one another, for all anyone is looking for is to know that they are not alone. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

He took away the disgrace

Luke 1: 5-24, NT page 56 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you now. Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." Sermon Last Friday I was surprised to read that, "When Columbia Central won the Class 5A state football championship in 2010 it was the second title in school history, but the first in 58 years" (Justin Lamb, "Lions set sights on title," The Daily Herald, Friday, November 30, 2012 1A). Having only followed the Central Lions since 2010 I na├»vely assumed that Columbia was used to winning high school football games. I wonder what changed, and how hard it was to change, as I imagine that going from 58 years without a title to reaching the state finals three out of the last four years even though running back Jaylen Herd single-handedly beat them last Friday night, demanded a dramatic change of expectations. Expectations can be powerful things, and there’s a big difference between the expectations that we’ll have for the Central High School Lions for the next several years and the expectations we had for them before 2010. Still there is a problem, as getting used to success and developing high expectations after 58 years of low expectations means that now we risk being disappointed - Tennessee football fans might say that even mediocre expectations mean that you risk being disappointed. However, expectations that are too low are dangerous as well and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - for those who expect to lose probably will. I think it’s also true that children who don't have someone to believe in them stand at a true disadvantage to those who do, for those who aren't expected to make anything of themselves probably won't. But then I also feel sorry for the kids who have parents that tell them everything they do is amazing regardless of whether it really is or not - every soccer season deserves a trophy, every scribble on paper deserves to be framed, and every miniscule milestone is deserving of photo documentation. You know these people. I might be one of them. They show you the video of Billy's first step, which is significant, but it’s followed by Billy's second step, and then the video of his third. Then you have to watch his first experience with a stair case, the time he pointed to a squirrel - it’s all amazing - and if this attitude continues into high school Billy will subconsciously chose between two doomed scenarios: either he is going to think that he really is as amazing as his parents say he is and will wind up surprised that no one else seems to agree, or he will stop trusting his parent's praise and their words will become empty. Both scenarios are sad, the young man who suffers from high-selfesteem and the young man who stops trusting his parent’s praise, but it’s that distrust of praise, those empty words that lose their meaning that I think religious people like us can relate to the most. Every Sunday, after we pray the prayer of confession together, I stand up here and tell you all that "your sins are forgiven," but do you really believe it? Every Sunday at the end of the service I look you in the eye to tell you with all the conviction that I can muster that "you are God's own," but have you heard it so often that its becoming too commonplace to mean anything? And once a month we gather around the communion table to "take and eat" the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much as to give us his body and blood, but does communion strike you that way every time or has it been done so often that now it's not much more than a piece of bread and a tiny cup of juice? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. Our second scripture lesson from Luke tells that story in a way. The two main human characters, Elizabeth and Zechariah were good and righteous people, our lesson goes so far as to say that they were, "Both of them... righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." Not only that, Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the original priest of Israel. There can be no doubt that both of them knew right from wrong, went to the Temple, not just when they had to but as often as possible. We should all assume that they knew how to pray, and when they had trouble conceiving they knew who to ask for a miracle, but at some point or another they must have stopped believing that it would actually happen. Month by month the disappointment became too much to take, and rather than be the victim of their high expectations, they lowered their sights and settled into the reality that children would just not be in the cards. After all, "both were getting on in years". Their disappointment wasn't going to stand in the way or their faith, and Zechariah continued on as a priest, wearing his priestly garments, saying his priestly prayers, and was surely honored when he was chosen to go offer incense in the holiest place on earth, the sanctuary of the temple, the place where all good Jews knew God was must truly present. Surely he was honored, but did he really expect to meet God there? He had been a priest long enough to get used to the idea that God was at work in the world. He had been a priest long enough to know that God is watching, and that God's law is a gift and should be respected and obeyed. Surely he had been a priest long enough to know the significance of being chosen, what he was supposed to do once he got in there, and what all the pomp and circumstance represented, but what did he expect to really happen - what did he expect to see? When words become empty it’s easy to participate in rituals without believing that they mean much of anything. I think this is true of Zechariah, this man who must have known all the stories of scripture by heart, all the accounts of God speaking - to Abraham and Sarah and Rehab and Jacob and Moses, all the times angels appeared, all the miraculous events that changed the course of history, still this man was terrified when an angel of the Lord was there, exactly in the place that an angle of the Lord is supposed to be. I can't say that I blame him. I talk about God all the time, and I believe that God is present with us here, but after an evening meeting and I am left to turn out the lights in this room late at night I flip the switch and run the other way for fear that the God I confess to believe in might actually show up. And Christmas is about this God being born – really being born and walking around on the earth, but do you really believe he’s coming, are you really ready for his birth? Zechariah wasn’t a faithless person – he was a priest after all – but when an angel really showed up and told him that his prayer for a child would be answered – he was terrified. His wife on the other hand, you might be thinking, “and you thought Zechariah was afraid,” but our lesson tells us that “after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me when the Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people." There is so much ritual to our celebration of Christmas – but do not forget that there is something terrifyingly real beneath all the wrapping paper. He is coming – the one who will take away your disgrace is born. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Truth

John 18: 33-38, NT page 113 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. Sermon On the wall of our church library are the pictures of nearly every pastor who served First Presbyterian Church in her 201 year history. All of these pastors pictured are male, as none of the associate pastors have made this wall of distinction. Some served for over 20 years, one only two, and now, if only temporarily is the picture of Bob Duncan who served this church as her preacher from November 4th, 2012 to November 4th, 2012. Bob’s picture fits in up there – he looks as wise as the other preachers. He also has the appropriate hair line, and while my own hair line is rapidly retreating, once I have a picture made and hung on that wall I will be the youngest among a crowd of distinguished clergy, and compared to some I look much more like their grandson than the man who fills their same office. It was a bold choice you made to call me, who, on my first day, was only 30 years old. Many people, who know this to be a church of great distinction, meet expect me to be older – and while I look forward to one day looking like the kind of person who actually knows what he’s doing, the advantage to being a young pastor is that I am allowed to ask questions that some would be too self-conscious to ask. You see, I have nothing to lose because so many people assume I’m too young to know what I’m doing. There is a refrain to the hymn following this sermon. “This is an unfamiliar hymn,” Marcy told me, “so how would it be if the choir sang the stanzas and the congregation sang the refrain?” This question was met with silence, so Marcy asked, “Joe, do you know what a refrain is?” I’m worried about getting older, because it’s not my ignorance that I’m going to lose. What I’m going to lose is the freedom to ask questions, because the more wizened you look the more people assume that you know, and the more you stand to lose if you have to ask. I am convinced that, while it’s been all over the news lately, very few politicians actually have an idea what a “Fiscal cliff” is, but all of them have to pretend that they do – if they didn’t think of what they’d stand to lose. Or how would it be, if instead of making an authoritative declaration, referees at football games asked the fans for advice on close calls. Fans give them advice freely of course, but if the officials showed any sign of weakness or indecision the very essence of sports would change forever. Not everyone can go asking questions, especially people who stand on the house of cards that power and authority can be. Still, Pilate does what so few are courageous enough to do, asking Jesus, “what is truth?” This is his final question, and without even an answer from Christ Pilate bravely stands before the Jews and told them, “I find no case against him.” A bold move, considering how much this Roman authority, assigned to control the Jews, stood to lose. Jesus has a way of forcing people to take inventory of themselves, and rather than simply answer Pilate’s first question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” as though Pilate were simply appeasing the religious authorities, who, if Pilate didn’t play his cards right, could insight a rebellion that would lose Pilate his job and possibly his life. Pilate tries Jesus only because he is asked to do so by a certain group of people who happen to be the kind of people that you shouldn’t make upset. You don’t go standing up to them, because they can put you back in your place. You don’t go ruffling their feathers, because they are the kind of people who talk. You don’t go asking too many question either; they’ve already supplied Pilate with the verdict he is supposed to deliver, and if Pilate is smart he’ll just do as he’s told, but there’s more to Pilate than that. “What is truth,” he asks. Is truth what will keep me in power? If it is, than certainly the truth is that Christ is guilty and deserves to be condemned to death. That’s what the religious authorities want, so if truth is power than truth for Pilate is whatever will keep him in power. Is truth what will keep the peace? If it is, than certainly the truth is that Christ is guilty and deserves to be condemned to death. A rebellion could ensue over protecting an innocent man from a mob that wants his head, so abiding by the truth must mean doing what will keep the peace. But what if the truth is something else entirely – what is truth, Pilate is bold to ask. Such an important question that often goes unasked because we already know the answer we’re supposed to give. You’re supposed to laugh about how Uncle Bob is so much fun at Thanksgiving, and not worry if he had a few too many, but what if the truth came out? You are expected to keep quiet about the boss who skims off the top; he says it’s no big deal, but what if the truth came out? And you can get used to pretending to be someone else, not really ever being yourself to ensure that the love you want won’t go away, but what if the truth came out? What is truth? You know what it is, and it’s as terrifying as death. All it would have taken for Christ to leave that trial with Pilate, to walk away a free man, would have been a little white lie about who he was and what he came to do, but rather than live that lie Christ chose death, because Christ refused to be anything but true. That’s a scary thought for people like me, who would rather keep their mouth shut than risk upsetting someone, even someone who’s wrong. And it’s a scary thought for people who want to be loved, who need to be loved, for being true about who you are means risking being rejected for who you are. Of course Jesus can do it, of course he can embody the truth, he’s Jesus. But even Pilate, he is brave enough to question what could have gone unquestioned. To ask: is it really the truth if it feels like a lie? Is it really love, if it can be lost for just being yourself? Is it really justice, if it means condemning an innocent man to death? Is it really authority if maintaining it means bowing low to the cruel and the manipulative? Just what is truth? Know that once you’ve found it, the truth can set you free. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hannah's Song

1 Samuel 2: 1-10, OT page 245 Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by the Lord actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; the Lord brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; the Lord brings low, the Lord also exalts. The Lord rises up the poor from the dust; the Lord lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them the Lord has set the world. The Lord will guard the feet of the faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! The Lord's adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; the Lord will give strength to the king, and exalt the power of the Lord's anointed." Sermon I once spent a long summer as a chaplain intern at the Metro State Women's Prison in Atlanta. My supervisor assigned me to spend one morning out of every week on the floor where the developmentally delayed women were held. One woman I remember clearly was 6 and a half feet tall, 300 or so pounds and her file told me that she had nearly killed a man with a rake. I can't say that I was completely at ease in her presence, and neither was I comfortable when the rest of the women from the floor gathered to meet me. After a while, one woman with pig tails and glasses told the guard that she was ready to sing. That sounded like a strange request to me, but the guard wasn't surprised, and quieted the group down and into seats while this young woman stood. She couldn't have been more than 20 and had probably never had an easy day in her life, but she stood before the whole group and sang, "His eye is one the sparrow, so I know he watches me." After that another stood to sing, then another, finally the big woman stood up, and I looked around the room to make sure there weren't any rakes. Then she sang, "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." She was said to have the mind of a seven year old, but she still knew well enough that someday the Lord would sweep her up and take her home. They all changed when they sang. Their expressions changed, their kaki prison issue jumpsuits became choir robes, and the room itself - cold, hard, cinder block walls became peaceful as though we weren't in prison at all. That's what music does. These songs they sang must have been learned at church, but even at the alternative school where my sister works, she says that all those kids with their discipline problems will get along well enough with each other to sing all the words to Justin Bieber when his song “Boyfriend” comes on the radio. His song might not have the same effect on us – though I’ve caught our organist Wilmoth trying to learn it. This ability to transform that music has is a power that mothers have always known about – how a baby so worked up, face contorted in discomfort and frustration, back arched – can be transformed back into that angle you know and love with the right song from the right voice. It’s this power that today’s scripture lesson posses, as I can tell you it’s not just a prayer as the heading to your pew Bible suggests. How would a prayer prayed for the first time have made it in the Bible – as no one was there to write it down, Samuel too young to do such a thing? No, this is the song Hannah, Samuel’s mother, sang to her stomach when it finally began to bulge with child. She waited for so long to have this baby. There were years of waiting, endless prayers prayed at the Temple, years of frustration, years of disappointment finally over. “My heart exults in the Lord” she sang to the long-awaited baby inside. Samuel had heard it so many times it was familiar to him before he was even born; it was the only thing that calmed him down when he woke up in the middle of the night, tired but too frustrated to sleep. Every parent knows you’ll do or sing anything to get that child back to sleep in middle of the night, but Hannah already knew what to sing – it was the only song that would do as she rocked the baby who would become Israel’s prophet in her arms. It’s a song he knew so well before he could even know his own name that even the first note brought a smile to his face. So when Hannah brought Samuel to the temple, so grateful for him that she felt she needed to dedicate him to God, it was the song she sang to give her the strength to follow through with this promise I bet she wished she would had never made. Singing this song one last time, a song Samuel knew better than any other, she wiped the tears from his eyes and walked away, no one to wipe the tears away from her own. Leaving her son at the temple with one last gift, a song. But it was a powerful gift that she gave him – a gift that transforms reality. This is the gift she gave him one last time the day she walked away from the temple leaving her son to be brought up in the House of the Lord. When he woke up cold and alone on the temple floor, it was this song that kept him warm. Homesick and hungry, nothing else could give him comfort or remind him of his mother’s love the way this song could – transforming his solitude, if for only a moment, to feel his mother’s arms around him once again singing the words: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” Too small to defend himself against the abuse of the Temple priest’s spoiled sons, this song promised him a new day when the, “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.” And as he grew up, old enough to notice the pain of his people, the struggle of the widow, the plight of the poor, so frustrated he just wanted to escape a world so dark and cold, he would sing this song and know justice, for “The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; the Lord lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” You see, music transforms; and a song, the right song can tide you over until justice comes. This was the song that carried Samuel through his struggle. It kept the light of hope burning brightly, when it was hopeless all around. This is the power of song and our choir knows all about it. These children who just sang their song of Thanksgiving know the words and those words will be there on that dark night when they need them. That’s why music matters. The prophet Jeremiah asks, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” But slaves in this country boldly proclaimed that there is – that there is a balm in Gilead that will make the wounded whole, that will heal the sin sick soul.” The slave owners knew that song’s power, and so they took away the drums, policed the night for fear of such songs of freedom – but the slaves sang and they sang – praising God for a freedom that wasn’t yet here but was surely on the way. They kept on singing as Samuel did, even though the world tried to silence them, tried to teach them a different song to sing. Replacing songs of change with songs about how nothing will ever change. Replacing songs of Thanksgiving, praising God from whom all blessings flow, with department store jingles about over spending and buying happiness. Putting away songs of joy for songs of lamentation. Songs that tell us that there’s no use praising God for what’s on the way, for the good old days are long gone – that tomorrow should be feared for don’t you know it just won’t be as good as yesterday. So you’ve been angry, dissatisfied and frustrated. Maybe disappointed with who’s lost, and already skeptical about tomorrow. So Hannah comes with a new song to sing. A new song, so rich and so true that when Mary found that she was pregnant with the Son of God, though she was afraid, though she was worried, though she was certain that she would be ridiculed and shunned as an unwed mother there was really only one song for her to sing. Let us join her in singing Hannah’s song. Because with our heads bowed low and our worries fixed in our minds there’s nothing but that tired, sad, lonesome, boring song that’s sticks in your head and is never going to get you where you need to go! It’s time for you to sing a new song – a song about a new day that isn’t here yet – but you better know it’s on the way. A song about a new world of justice and peace – that isn’t here yet – but you can sing it as we walk this road until we get there. A song about hope, and change, and the God who is even now making a way, building up a new Kingdom, setting the captives free – and when that new day comes you better know the words to sing. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” Hallelujah! Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The threshing floor

Ruth 3: 1-5, and 4: 13-17, page 243 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Sermon The book of Ruth is the story of great risks. Naomi, the mother-in-law from this lesson in Ruth, and her husband and sons left their home in Bethlehem during a great famine. They were bold to believe, as many have before and many will again, that life might be better somewhere else, so they left Bethlehem for Moab where their sons married Moabite women. Life for these immigrants was better in Moab, but then Naomi’s husband died. She lived there for 10 more years until both her sons died and her only family in this foreign land was her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. This relationship between Naomi and her daughters-in-law was a special one, as even after their husbands, Naomi’s sons, died, Orpah and Ruth wanted to stay with her. Eventually Naomi was able to convince Orpah to go back home, but Ruth was determined to stay with Naomi, even after Naomi decided that there was nothing left for her to do but return to her homeland in Bethlehem. Now this has happened before too, and it will surely happen again, that having lived away in a foreign land and exhausted all opportunities, there was nothing left but to return home, as word had it, there was food once again in Bethlehem. So Naomi returns to her childhood home, and brings her daughter-in-law Ruth with her, but surely while Naomi would find Bethlehem familiar, everything about Naomi had changed. Years ago she left Bethlehem for Moab with a husband, and now that husband was dead. She left home hoping for a better life, and now she returns not having found it. Like so many who leave home, she left hopeful about the place she would make for herself, but she returns to Bethlehem saying, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” She returned home destitute, homeless, either she had failed or God had failed her, and to make matters worse she was stuck with only her daughter-in-law. She was probably like most daughters-in-law too, didn’t want any advice, didn’t know how to cook – it’s no wonder her son was dead, he probably starved to death. She would wash the dishes but Naomi had to wash them over again because Ruth didn’t do it right. She never was good enough for her son and now this daughter-in-law was following behind while she went back to Bethlehem because there was nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. Certainly things were bad, and Naomi is so sure they won’t be getting any better she renames herself Mara, “for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” The two of them survived only because of this ancient tradition among the Israelites, that when grain was harvested reapers were only allowed to pass over the field once gathering as much grain as they could in one pass, everything they left behind belonged to the poor. To survive, Naomi sent her daughter-in-law Ruth to glean a field, and this particular field that Ruth searched for grain in belonged to a man named Boaz. Boaz happened to notice Ruth, and with his notice Naomi saw her chance – if Boaz would marry Ruth than Ruth would survive even beyond the barley harvest. She tells her daughter-in-law, “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor.” The threshing floor plays an important role during harvest season – this is the place where the barley is brought so that the grain can be separated from the chaff. The grain is saved, and the chaff is burned – it’s one or the other. That Ruth goes there she must know that there’s a chance that like grain she might be saved, but considering everything she’s been through, all the hardship, all the pain and disappointment, surely she knows there’s a greater chance that like chaff she will be swept away. The thing about hardship is that since it’s happened once it could happen again, but there’s something incredible about Ruth who still goes to the threshing floor despite how life has been in the past. Regardless of whether she’s the kind of woman who puts all her hope for survival on her ability to attach herself to a good man, there’s something worth admiring about a woman who has faced as much bitterness as Ruth has but goes on believing that life could still get better. I’ve seen that kind of determined faithfulness before, and believe what you want to believe about illegal immigrants, after working beside them for a lawn-maintenance company I saw a strength in them, a refusal to give up, that I will always admire. You think about how they cross the border; so many of them who get across only get across on their second or third try. It takes some strength to pay someone thousands of dollars to get you through, to cross a river, climb a fence, walk across the desert, only to be sent back and then want to try it all again. There are desperate people – who no matter how many challenges they face, no matter how bitter their lot, no matter how cruel or violent their days who keep on going, and this kind of desperation has something to teach you and me because while I know I would have given up Ruth goes on to the threshing floor to face the chance of disappointment once again because she hasn’t given up on the idea that life could still get better and that God might still have some joy and security in store for her. How many would never have gone. How many who get knocked down by life never get back up. How many who have seen their dreams crumble never dream again. How many who have been laid off define themselves by it and are never able to try again for fear that they are chaff and deserve to be swept away. On this Veterans Day I am reminded that every soldier faces unimaginable trials in combat – and for so many, after seeing so much death and destruction – even returning home becomes a trial. To believe, after seeing so much to the contrary, that life could be good again takes the determined faith of Ruth, for Ruth faces the threshing floor again, and finds that she is worth saving. But not just worth saving; Ruth goes to Boaz and now history knows her as the grandmother of King David, the greatest King of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus Christ the Son of God. The book of Ruth is the story of great risks. And I pray that you’ll be so bold as to take one yourself, for God is still about the work of saving us all and defining us not by life’s tragedy, but by miracles beyond your imagination. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bartimaeus

Mark 10: 46-52, NT page 47 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. Sermon Jesus makes a habit of slowing down to listen to people, maybe especially people sitting by roadsides, which often seems like a quality worth modeling. It seemed that was the case a couple of weeks ago when our Director of Christian Education, Susie Baxter, was leading her group of children up the stairs and to the front doors of this sanctuary. She was leading her Wednesday evening lesson, and so she told her group that there are things that you do when you’re preparing to enter a lot of places. When you get ready to go into school you make sure you have the right clothes on, your lunch packed, and your backpack ready. At the movies, you make sure you have your drink and your popcorn, and you have to have your ticket out to hand it to the person taking the tickets. “The same is true for church,” Miss Susie said as they stood just outside this sanctuary, “when you get ready to go into church it’s your heart that you have to get ready. You have to prepare your heart for worship.” After that she took the kids, I guess there were 10 or 11, back down the stairs and past Melvin who was sitting there, as he so often is, by the side of the road on the corner of 7th and High. Melvin looked at Miss Susie, then at the line of children following behind her, “All those your kids?” he asked. “Yes they are,” Miss Susie responded. At first glance you might think that she was only joking, but those who can really see know that they are all Miss Susie’s kids. But of course, not everybody can really see, and this blind man, Bartimaeus was blind to the world. He couldn’t work, he needed help getting from place to place, he had to sit by the roadside begging, never knowing whether someone had put a coin or a piece of broken glass in his bowl. He couldn’t see, but still he could see well enough to know that Jesus could help him, so when the opportunity came along, Jesus, Son of David, walking down the road that Bartimaeus was sitting beside, he would not be silenced by the crowd grown used to ignoring his shouts, and yelled out until he got Jesus’ attention. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” This interchange seems unnecessary in a way. Why did Jesus need to ask what Bartimaeus wanted? Shouldn’t Jesus have known that the blind man would want to be able to see? But Jesus lets him ask as though he were allowing Bartimaeus to decide for himself, the same way he lets us all choose to see. Miss Susie will take care of your kids whether you notice that she cares for them as her own or not. The choir will still sound just as good regardless of whether or not you know how much they practice the songs that they sing here on Sunday morning. Wilmoth will keep on playing – though she is really hard to see and maybe all you’ll ever see of her is the top of the back of her head. And the donuts will still be there, whether in your mind they just magically appear or you are given the eyes to see that Joe Graham has been bringing those donuts every single Sunday to our church for the last 12 years. You don’t have to see it, but if you ask and are given real sight, you will find yourself in the same position Bartimeaus did: able to clearly see what Jesus had done for him. Sometimes it’s easier not to see it this way. So many who benefit from miracles never fully recognize the magnitude of what’s been done for them. Some kill time in between cancer treatments by sitting by the fountain at the hospital smoking cigarettes. Some are spared from death by heart attack, and then send for McDonalds to celebrate. And then there are those who will beg you for your last dollar, then spend it on what will only make their life worse, because seeing a miracle for what it is demands something that not everyone is prepared to give. In a way it’s better to not see this church for what it is, because in recognizing how every part of this place that you enjoy got here there is only one thing you can do. Once you’ve realized that the only reason you have a place to sit is because a group of people gave money they could have spent on their selves, That the only reason you have a roof over your head is because a group of people pledged their hard earned money, That the only reason there is a railing to hold onto as you climb those steps out front, that the only reason we don’t burn up in the summer and freeze in the winter, that the only reason you have music to hear and a preacher to preach is because people, not different at all from me or from you, reached down into their pockets and gave of their time to make sure that this place kept going. But what else could they have done? Christ saved them. He gave them sight. He redeemed their life. Just as he filled Bartimaeus with comfort and hope, and able to clearly see what Jesus had done for him, he could do nothing else besides follow Christ on the way. This is the story of Bartimaeus, once blind but then given sight, but is it not your story as well? Once you were blind but now you see. Once you were broken but he put you back together. Once you were lost but now you are found. So today is the day for you to throw off your cloak and to follow him, to be about the work of doing for others what Christ has done for you, spreading the Gospel by not only benefitting from this church and all it offers, but participating in its work and becoming a part of this great work that God is doing in our world. You are not only the beneficiary of the gift that is Christ Jesus. You are invited to become a part of the work that he is doing. The pledge card you were given with your bulletin is an invitation – to contribute, with your money and your time in the work of God in the world. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Can You?

Mark 10: 35-45, NT page 46 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Sermon It’s in high school that social divisions are the most clear, as nowhere else are the classes of human society divided up between tables at lunch. To move from one table to another seemed impossible to me – you sat where you sat and you made sure to stay in your place. There was a table for each grade, freshman to seniors, but more than that there were subgroups, tables within these grades. There were a few for each sport, one for kids dedicated to drama and art, another for the ones who were accepted and a table for the ones who were not. I remember where the pregnant girl sat, and I remember walking over to her table after being recruited for an abstinence campaign sponsored by the Rev. Billy Graham. It was called True Love Waits, and I was distributing the sign-up cards, as discreetly as possible, to several tables in the cafeteria when I came to her table and asked her if she’d like to participate. “So I’m supposed to sign up and promise I won’t do that before I’m married,” she said. Then she looked down at her pregnant belly and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little late for that.” After this encounter I didn’t hand out any more cards. Something about the campaign felt very strange, and though I didn’t intend to do anything besides hand her a card, I knew something was wrong about the way I made her feel. Indeed, something is wrong about the kind of Christianity that makes people feel that for them it is too late; something about it is wrong and very far from what Christ intended. But Christianity has this tendency – to pat on the back the pure and the righteous, while it was Christ who spent all his time around outcasts and sinners. While it doesn’t always feel that way, the Gospel is a radical message. Those whom society has left out must be brought in, and those who wish to be first must become last. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him with a request that they want Jesus to agree to before they even tell him what it is: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Let us be, not just associated with you, but right there next to you, let us be seated there at your table. Little did they know that the two who will be eternally remembered as being beside Jesus were two criminals, crucified beside him, one at his right and one at his left. Christianity is not for the self-righteous or the self-promoting, but for those who would willingly follow the example of a King who is not greeted by cheers of adoration but taunts and insults. He is not pictured seated on a throne but is nailed to a cross. He does not benefit from servants who dress him and attend to his needs; instead he kneels to wash his followers’ feet. He will not be forever associated with the pure of heart, mind, and body, but will always be remembered as the great friend to sinners. It’s still easy to relate to James and John, who do not offer a strange request. They want to know how high they will climb the ladder, if they will make it right up there to the top, the beneficiaries of prestige and respect, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” I know why they ask this question, and maybe you do too, as for our entire lives we have been ranking ourselves in relation to those around us. As children: who is the fastest, who is the tallest, who is the oldest. As teenagers: who looks the best, who has the most money, who has gone the farthest. And as adults, we would like to have matured beyond high school but few ever do. Our obsessions are the same, our concern with appearance remains, and we continue to gravitate towards the right kind of people, the kind of people who can help us advance in the eyes of the world, not knowing what it truly means to be great. Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must by your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” In high school there were those who sat at the top of the social hierarchy, and I remember a teacher telling my class, “Those of you who are cool today, enjoy it, because soon enough you’ll be working for the classmates you’ve been making fun of.” The last will be first and the first will be last, and whether you feel as though you are at the top or the bottom, be aware of how you treat those whom you consider beneath you because the abuse of power is never Christ-like and it always results in harsh consequences. The football team in Mt. Pleasant has made headlines the past two weeks for all the wrong reasons. Players with the assurance of a bright future now may well watch their aspirations dashed through the bars of a jail cell. Some will blame the parents, others the school, but truly we must all acknowledge that there is always something inside driving us to take advantage of whatever power we have at our disposal. Treating teenage football players like heroes will always result in the abuse of power. Politicians will always be susceptible to the idea that the ones who make the laws are also exceptions to the laws. And every person must be wary of the human tendency to look down on those who clean their house, wash their dishes, and serve their table for it was Christ, the incarnate creator of the universe who came to this earth not to be served but to serve. Your relationships must be viewed with this truth in mind, and I am thankful for this church that will help you do it because the world will not. While the world allows for those who can get ahead to get ahead, this church provides space to the Boys and Girls Club and Time Sharers, both of whom provide tutoring and afterschool care so that girls and boys who might fall farther and farther behind in school learn and study with the help of volunteers, many who are members of this church. While it is possible to go through life forgetting that there are people without enough food to eat, this church supports the People’s Table that feeds hungry men and women who live in our community, by the belief that all God’s children deserve to be served a good meal. And while those who suffer the stigma of being HIV positive are often pushed out of sight, this church supports Columbia Cares to provide counseling, support, and rapid testing, for truly the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and neither can you claim to follow him without caring for all those whom society looks down on. This is the Stewardship season at First Presbyterian Church, and so I call you to consider, not just what you ought to do with your money, to realize not just where it came from, but to imagine how your money might go to honor those who are in need. How your money might do something to convince those who believe that they don’t matter that they so truly do. How your money might change the mind of those who believe it is too late that in Christ it is never too late. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be a servant.” If you wish to be great your time, energy, and money will not be used to honor yourself so much as to honor your neighbor, not so much to make yourself feel special, but to make the children of our world who think they are forgotten learn that they are honored by you, to make the poor of our society who feel left behind and cast aside feel like a priority, and to make sure that those who believe it is too late for them feel as though life is only beginning. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why have you forsaken me?

Psalm 22: 1-15, page 500 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver – let the Lord rescue the one in whom the Lord delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. Sermon In the new Firehouse Subs restaurant on James Campbell Boulevard is one of the most incredible machines – certainly it’s the most incredible coke machine I’ve ever seen. I say it’s a coke machine but it is a lot more complicated than that. It’s called the freestyle, and what this machine does that's different from any coke machine I've ever seen before is that, whereas your standard coke machine at a restaurant has regular coke, diet coke, orange drink, and sprite, this thing features over 120 different drink choices. It's called the freestyle because it gives you, the consumer, the freedom to make up any combination of flavors you can imagine - not just Dr. Pepper but Dr. Pepper with cherry and vanilla - not just orange soda but peach, lime, fruit punch or any combination of the three. The only problem with all these options, all these flavors that you can chose to combine any way that you want, is that every one of them, besides regular coke, diet coke, orange, and sprite is absolutely disgusting. My own combinations have been unpalatable failures, and I am convinced that if I were employed by Coca-Cola as one of their recipe developers I would bankrupt the company in a few short weeks. There's a reason they sell cherry coke and not raspberry vanilla coke in stores. I know this machine gives people what they want - options, freedom of choice, the ability to personalize and make even your drink your own - but I wonder if people are, in general, more satisfied because of it. Has the chance to make it yourself really made anyone happier? Does having more options make life any better, or, regardless of how much freedom we have to decide on our own, does it seem as though complete satisfaction will still remain out of reach? It’s possible that this is what the rich young man in our first scripture lesson was struggling with. Despite all the options, all the freedom that he had, there was something missing, so he goes to Jesus and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It must have seemed like a strange question to many members of the crowd that were gathered around Jesus. The wealth that this young man had gave him options that no fisherman could have imagined. He chose what to eat in a world where so many ate whatever they pulled in from the sea or the field. Wealth gave him the chance to choose how much he would eat in a world where for most people that decision was made – they ate what was provided and there wasn’t ever enough. We know that he chose where he would go with the freedom to wonder off from his job to ask Jesus this burning question: “Good Teacher, I am rich enough to buy what I want, and while I have lived a moral life, by all counts I consider myself a good person, it still feels as though there is something missing, so what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In many ways this question sounds familiar. We are the wealthiest nation on earth, and despite the stress that our economy has put us all under, unlike so many in our world most all of us know where our next meal will be coming from, some of you may be making decisions about where you will go out to eat after church right now (I’m not offended – it’s a crucial decision and let me recommend Firehouse Subs), but the fact that we have such options in our life, even having the assurance of food should ensure our happiness, at least that’s what the advertising campaigns have told us. Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign last year featured the slogan: “Life begins here,” and then in 2012, “Open happiness” as though it could be bottled. Wal-Mart’s new slogan is “Save money and live better” but what if saving money on 400 varieties of pop tarts isn’t enough? “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” ““Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”” The young man heard this and walked away. That’s not too uncommon a thing to do either. It was reported in USA Today this past week that Protestants no longer make up a majority in the United States of America. The Christian majority continues to slide, and while it was Protestants who sought out religious freedom and founded this country, our numbers slid down from 53% in 2007 to 48% today. “Where did they go?” journalists and scholars have been asking. Some fear that they walked away to become Muslims or Wiccans, but the truth is that the Christian faith loses its members, not to another religion but to no religion at all. The fastest growing religious group in our country today, growing from 15.3% in 2007 to nearly 20% today is the religion of “none of the above”. Today those who walk away from Jesus as the rich young man did so long ago walk away towards figuring it out on their own. Dissatisfied with Jesus’ response to their questions they walk away, and turn to something else, because for many there is no obligation to submit to one belief system created by some other authority when you can create a belief system all your own. If you like what Jesus says about love but are uncomfortable with what Jesus says about money, why not combine the Gospel and Atlas Shrugged to create a combination all your own? Take some Socrates and Plato, combine that with a taste of Deism from Thomas Jefferson, and Karma from Hinduism and suddenly you have a faith that can work for you. I’m not going to let the Coca-Cola Corporation choose for me when I can engineer the flavor of my drink all by myself, so why would I submit to the authority of the church when I already know how to be a good person? And the rich young man went up to Jesus asking him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” when the question he should have been asking is not what must I do, what can I do, but can you help me see beyond myself to have faith in something, because I know that if it’s up to me to figure out on my own I will never be able to do it. The world has fooled us all. The world has tricked us into thinking that we can figure things out on our own, that I can do it myself, that I don’t need anyone to help me along the way, and that attitude of the self-made-man looks just fine walking down fifth avenue, feeling like you're somebody, but what about when you have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death? Christ called that rich young man to give up the riches that provided him the allusion of independence – if you want eternal life, give it all up and learn what it means to know you need help – and not just help, you need a savior. I worry about that 20%. I know they are just fine while the sun is shining, the bills are getting paid, and food is on the table. They can choose for themselves how to live and what to do with their money and their time. But what about when cancer creeps in – who will they call out to? When death shows its face, to whom will they turn? When they are lost, when they are poured out like water, when they are laid in the dust of death, will they even know to call out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “In you,” and not in their selves, “our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” Don’t you see – that “for mortals so much is impossible – but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Dedicate yourself to something more than the selfish pursuit of satisfaction. Depend on someone beyond yourself and you will know what it means to live. Do not try to figure faith out for yourself when Jesus Christ, the author of our faith, has already shown us what it means to believe, crying out to God from the cross, quoting the words of Psalm 22 when he could not articulate his thoughts and feelings for himself, depending on the faith of those who came before when his own faith faltered. Use this time of Stewardship to dedicate a portion of your income as an acknowledgment of the one who is beyond you, the one who will come to your aid, the one who has and will suffer with you through whatever trials await. It is in giving up on whatever you think life depends on – your wealth, yourself, your control – that you realize who you truly depend on. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Under Their Feet

Psalm 8, OT page 492 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Sermon When reading this passage it’s easy to imagine the psalmist in an empty field looking up into the night sky. “You have set your glory above the heavens” the psalmist declares, but looking up into the heavens always has a way of putting us, as well as our problems, in bold perspective. When our problems seem big we only need to consider that there are planets in our solar system whose moons are bigger than the planet earth. How big could any of our problems really be when you compare the speak any of us would be on the face of Jupiter? Distance is relative as well. Last week Sara and I drove to Charleston, SC which seemed like a long way away, but is really nothing when you consider that it would take nearly a year to reach the sun, even constantly moving in a space shuttle. In the same way, we amaze ourselves by the work of human hands – the pyramids seem huge, the empire state building seems gigantic, and then there are houses too big to live in and certainly too big to clean – but what is the work of human hands compared to the work of God’s fingers? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established,” it’s only too natural to ask, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” The universe is so big. God has done so much more than we will ever do, and because of that, laying on your back looking up into the night sky can be the most humbling of positions. A position in which everything in life, ourselves included, changes dramatically. In the daily course of things our problems can seem tremendous. So big in fact that we feel obligated to carry them around on our shoulders, let them keep us up at night, and allow them to take up too much space in our minds, but what are our problems in the grand scheme of things? The same is true for distance, which we take seriously, and it can seem as though some distances are too far to bridge. There are the schisms between families, hurts that burned the ties that bind, memories that pull us apart and make being in the same room all but impossible. These distances can seem insurmountable, but what is the scale of such distances in an ever expanding universe? Still we take such things seriously, especially the work of our hands, and so we build. All nations want to have the tallest building, most people would like to live in the biggest house in the neighborhood, and too many decorate as though all it took to make people beautiful were association with a beautiful home. We build and are amazed by the work of our hands, but what is the work of human hands compared to the work of divine fingers? It’s not much to brag about, so many throughout history have been guilty of taking those things that make us feel small down to size. There were authorities in the time of Galileo who fought to keep the earth at the center of the solar system regardless of what could be proven with telescopes; there are those today who subscribe to a young earth theory in order to make our lifespan seem more than the blink of an eye in the history of time and space; and the first time my grandfather went to see the Atlantic Ocean he expected to see Europe there on the other side, never having considered that anything could be so massive as the ocean. It’s so easy to stand there on the beach and to wonder, “Who am I that you could be mindful of me?” In comparison to such things we seem so small, and, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” While your eyes can trick you into believing that you are nothing in comparison to something as great as the ocean, it’s the things that wash up on your feet that really show you your place. God gave us dominion over the works of God’s hands, and while the work of God’s hands amaze us we should all be equally shocked by the marks left on creation by human hands. The tragic signs that we are in fact much more than nothing washes up on the shore of every ocean on the globe. There are tar balls on the Gulf Coast, dead fish in Greece, and seasick trash everywhere else proving once and for all that humanity has indeed left her mark on God’s creation. Like Pharaohs before us, ensuring that time will not forget that we were here, we have left our mark. Such leftovers depict us as a plague on this earth, a disease that creation would be better off without, but scripture tells us there is more to us than that. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” we ask. “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Such a statement is hard for us to believe when staring at the night sky or standing on the beach as cigarette butts crash onto your feet, but truly I tell you that while Christ was with us here on earth, before he offered his very body and blood that you might know your true worth in his sight, he knelt at the feet of his disciples and washed their feet with his own hands. Considering the moon, the sun, and the stars – the millennia of history of which your lifespan is barely a blip – the ocean with her unimaginable depths – Christ, the incarnate God who created it all entered time and space to wash your feet. It is in light of this truth that we know that regardless of what Galileo proved, in the mind of God you are at the center of the universe. And it is in light of this truth that we know that regardless of how small one act may seem in the great course of time and space, this one act of divine kindness resounds as profoundly as sound and light. Rather than look up into the night sky aware of your minutia, consider instead the God who entered time and space to ensure you know your significance. And rather than look out on the ocean aware of its magnitude and the mark human hands have left upon it, consider instead that your legacy could be different – for great acts of love are never forgotten. Despite our importance relative to the far reaches of outer space, God who created those far reaches entrusted them to your care, for as the psalmist said, “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” But will the mark of your time of dominion be the trash that washes up on the beach and along the paths of the seas? Or will you instead take the time and the opportunity that God has given you to make something great? On this World Communion Sunday, a day in which we join with Christians from all over the globe to remember who Christ is to us and what the creator of the universe did with his time on this earth, be aware of the legacy that humanity is leaving, but be more aware of the legacy that humanity might leave should you adopt the lifestyle of Christ. Be reminded of what he did for you. Do not doubt your worth in the eyes of God. But neither should you doubt the impact you could have on this earth. You have been crowned with glory and honor. Now live in such a way as to deserve it. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The War Within

James 3: 13 – 4: 8, pages 230-231 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in us”? But God gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Sermon It’s been another exciting week in the news, and most interesting to me have been the stories of public people having their private life exposed. It’s not easy to be royalty, especially when someone is watching all the time. Despite considerable pressure to stop it, personal pictures of Princess Kate Middleton have been taken, sold, and distributed, proving that the world wants the image of the Princess in her finest evening wear, but even more wants to see her dirty laundry. To some degree, the image of who the world thinks she ought to be – refined, composed, and proper – comes into conflict with who she actually is. The same may be true for Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney who has been facing a similar challenge this week. It began on Monday when a video aired in which Mr. Romney describes 47% of the United States population as entitled victims. "[M]y job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said. “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." For the Democrats these remarks were an opportunity to expose their campaign opponent as the candidate for wealthy businessmen who plans on ignoring half the country, just as they claim, but for Mr. Romney these were off the cuff remarks, neither well thought out nor clearly understood by the media. I see a theme here, for in the first case everyone saw something they weren’t meant to see, and in the second the world heard what only a small group was meant to hear. I can relate to both the anger of Princess Kate Middleton and the frustration of Mr. Romney because I, like many of you, don’t always dress ready to appear on the cover of a magazine, nor does every word that I say make any sense, and that’s OK most of the time because there aren’t television cameras following me around everywhere I go. Because of that luxury I have a private life. I can be relaxed at home. There are parts of my personality that you see here in this pulpit and there are other parts that you might see at the grocery store or the farmers market. And certainly, the way I preach at a tent revival is different from the way that I preach here because we all make adjustments in how we handle ourselves depending on where we are and who we are surrounded by. While it’s still true for us, to an even greater degree it was true for the Christian community that James addresses in our scripture lesson for this morning. To live as a minority within the majority, to adhere to a belief system strange and foreign to their neighbors, to simultaneously claim that Christ is Lord in a culture that pledged its allegiance to Caesar – these Christians had to learn how to be faithful while not raising suspicion, how to keep a relationship with Christ without jeopardizing their relationship to their neighbors who had never heard of him, these Christians had to learn how to be Christian at home, at the church, around their family of faith, while acting differently, acting like everyone else on the street, at the marketplace, and at work. They were faced with a challenge that we all know too well – they were forced to act without losing themselves in the process. This is a challenge that should not be taken lightly. We are led to ask, who is Kate Middleton really – which one is the real Mitt Romney – but more importantly, who are you, really? Are you truly the person you are at home, or are you most yourself at school, at work, or at the gym? The reality is that we are faced with the same struggle that Christians of every time have faced – to remain true to what we believe even in a culture where we often have to adapt to survive. These adaptations must not be taken lightly, for truly there is a war within your very self as each aspect of yourself struggles to define the essence of who you are. Sure you never hang around her at school, but she understands that you have to act one way around them but that’s not really who you are. You are still an honest person surely; it’s just that to play the game you have to play by their rules. It’s not dishonest if everybody does it – right? It seems as though it should be possible to work according to the rules of business, supply and demand, focused on the bottom line rather than the least of these – Jesus wouldn’t have been profitable in the world of business so why not adhere to capitalism during the week and the Gospel on Sunday? And of course you don’t really mean all of what you say in private conversation – it’s just talk and it doesn’t mean anything because they weren’t meant to hear it – but if they weren’t meant to hear it should you really have been saying it? “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Last Monday morning a surgeon gave Mrs. Peggy Fleming a pacemaker to better regulate her heartbeat. That heart of hers has been ticking just fine for a number of years – but just how many years isn’t for just anyone to know. That afternoon I visited her with her son James, and as is always the case with Mrs. Fleming, she did more caring for me than I did for her. On my last visit she shamed me into exercising more often, and this time she recited me a poem that she taught all of her children, James included, by Rudyard Kipling and she told me to look it up and read it, which of course I did because you have to do whatever Mrs. Fleming tells you to do. The poem is called simply “If”: If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies, Or being hated don't give way to hating, And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise; If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much: If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! The title seems appropriate: “If.” If you can do it – if you can live in a world where you may be lied about, but not let that world corrupt you – if you can live in a world of kings and commoners without giving way to thinking that one is more important than the other – if you can talk with the crowds and keep your virtue, only if. Though it must be done, do not be so bold as to believe that living in two worlds will be easy. While there is no other way, do not be so bold as to believe that you can keep one foot in both places without losing your heart to one over the other. Instead “submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” And above all remember that “God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in you.” Amen.