Sunday, May 27, 2012

But Peter raised his voice

Acts 2: 14-21, page 119 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slave, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Sermon It’s possible to misread a situation, and that’s just what James Fleming and I did last Friday. James and I were on the way to visit John Satterwhite at the Vanderbilt hospital, and worried as we were about John, James still got out a dollar to give the homeless man standing on the exit ramp selling newspapers. It’s an amazing thing about Nashville, just how many homeless people are able to make a few extra dollars, not panhandling but selling a special newspaper called the Contributor. This paper is sold by them especially and is published at Downtown Presbyterian Church. But there was something to be cynical about, too, as this homeless man wasn’t just selling papers, he was standing next to an 18 pack of Bud Light. “Look at this guy Joe – he’s got himself a case of beer,” James said. With this observation our image of him changed. I rolled down my window to hand him the dollar and get the paper, though I felt a little different about it than I had before, and the man said to me, “Hey, do either of you guys want to buy a beer? Somebody gave me that 18 pack of Bud Light but I don’t drink, so I thought I’d try to sell it. I’ll give you the whole thing for five bucks.” Just sitting in the car with the windows rolled up you can come to conclusions about all sorts of things, but rolling that window down and hearing what people have to say can change that. This is not so different from what happened in Jerusalem so long ago. Our scripture lesson begins, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” It’s no wonder the crowd assumed those disciples had been drinking. That’s a rational explanation. This group of disciples, now joined by “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers,” had all stood before the city of Jerusalem speaking in languages they had never spoken before. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean? But others sneered and said, they are filled with new wine.” Of course they did. That’s just what people do – some are so bold as to ask, “What does this mean,” while others are so bold as to think they already know the answer. A homeless man standing on the exit ramp next to an 18 pack of beer – the cynic in me doesn’t need to ask what this means because that part of me is bold enough to believe I already know. No questions need to be asked. Nothing more needs to be said. With the windows rolled up I give myself permission to keep on driving, not thinking another thing about it. The problem is, I would have driven off without the truth. Apparently there was a time when more journalists were interested in getting to the truth. Last week Representative Sheila Butt wrote about how much has changed since her days of being the editor for her high school newspaper: “Since that time I have been very aware of trying not to pass anyone else’s thoughts, ideas, or opinions off as my own. Integrity is very important to me. However, with the free flow of massive amounts of information on the internet today, it has become a convoluted issue.” There is a lot of information available out there on the internet, and much of it passes for fact. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internet – but many news outlets are guilty of reporting half-truths, not having gotten to the bottom of anything, but have opened their mouths with authority while only possessing half the story, a premature assumption, or worse, nothing more than an opinion dressed up as a fact. That’s just the nature of our world today. Apparently Mitt Romney, like many of us, did some things in high school that he regrets. He’s been accused of being a high school bully, and the news media is happy to do more than just report on these facts, they’re also happy to beef up this story and to tell you what these facts mean. Unfortunately, many are willing to take their word for it without asking another question. Thankful not to have to think, or grateful for a story that re-enforces what they already believe, so many are willing to take their word for it without thinking another thing about it. And so President Obama is still called Muslim though we all know his pastor’s name and have heard him preach. He’s accused of being a socialist as well; even his citizenship is doubted. In these cases there not much a point in arguing as minds have already been made up. Why take someone seriously when he can be so easily dismissed with just a bit of miss-information or opinion masquerading as fact? Why stop to get the whole story when it’s so easy to explain it away and to go on about your business? But Peter raised his voice. Did he know what he was going to say before he started? Was he worried about the crowds of cynics who assumed he was drunk? Did he still worry that someone might recognize him? Certainly these are all possibilities, but his determination to define this event was stronger than all else and he wasn’t willing to let meaning be assigned by the masters of spin. He begins on the defense, “Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose,” then diffuses the tension with a little bit of humor, “for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” Then he tells the crowd what this miracle really means: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” There must have been many who still walked away, drove off with their windows up and went on believing what they had before; never putting into question assumptions they had grown used to believing. I can understand that. Life is easier if all homeless people deserve their home on the street. If they’re all drunks and drug addicts I don’t have to worry about them as much, nor do I have to worry about the world that we live in with systems that allow people to sink down into poverty without a ladder to help them climb back out. Life is easier if political opponents deserve to lose. It’s easier to form a campaign on the basis of good versus evil, and it’s easier for voters to choose if the decision is already made for them. Ideas that challenge need never be considered. Radical changes can be so easily dismissed. And you and I are given permission to go on thinking and believing what we always have even though we may well be wrong, even though we may well be missing out on that bit of truth that can change our lives forever. That’s the only problem. Peter raised his voice and those who walked away walked away missing out on the grand declaration that God has not left this world to burn itself out. That God has not left this world to rot away. That God has not left this world to plunge into the abyss – no – “in the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit.” Our world seems happy to let you ignore this testimony. You’re easier to control if you’ve given up such hope, if you never change, if you accept everything they want you to believe. But Peter raised his voice – and he raised it in defiance. He raised it in truth. He raised it that you might be saved. Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


1st John 5: 6-13, page 241 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to the Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made God a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning the Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in the Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. Sermon It’s easy to be worried about humanity. Considering this past week alone I can think of multiple reasons to be worried about who we are and what we are capable of. The week began with a televised custody battle on the Today show. Custody battles are always troubling – husbands and wives turned to bitter enemies - the one who you love the most can also be the one you most despise – only this custody battle wasn’t over children. Craig Dershowitz has spent over $60,000 on lawyers in an attempt to regain custody of a dog. Our scripture lesson for today from 1st John claims that, “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater,” but I worry that the author of 1st John gives us too much credit. How could people – you, me, and Craig Dershowitz ever say anything that could contribute to what God has done and said? I wonder especially about our ability to make the testimony of God greater considering, not only the human capacity to spend too much on a dog but considering the human capacity to commit unspeakable violence. On Monday, the Maury County Historian and member of our church, Bob Duncan, took a group of us on a guided tour of Shiloh Battlefield. It only takes one trip to a place like that to be convinced that the testimony of God can’t be made greater by what humans do, rather it seems amazing the testimony of God would survive despite us. As a result of the battle at Shiloh over 25,000 men lost their lives. Many were killed by bullets, bayonets, or cannon fire. Others were merely wounded but died among the piles of men fighting for a sip of water around what has come to be called “the bloody pond.” Others died on the surgeon’s table without any drug to dull their pain. Still others gave their last breath out there on the field wondering how human beings could do this to each other. Surely we cannot be trusted to make the testimony of God greater, unless there was no other way. Speaking of times when there is no other way. I learned last week that there is only one way to get a job as a barber. I got my hair cut last week at the barbershop right on the square where I always go. You can spend a long time waiting in there, so given the choice I always chose one of the new barbers who everyone else is wary of. I sat down in the chair and I realized I didn’t have any idea about barbers – where they go to school, how they get started in a new shop, what happens when they move to a new town. My barber told me he had been to school, but that a degree isn’t enough. When you come to a new town and you go out looking for a job, you don’t just leave your resume with the shop owner, you have to prove that you know what you’re doing, and the only way to do that is for the owner to see you give someone a haircut. “Well who would be willing to be the guinea pig?” I ask. “No one would,” he said, “so you usually have to give the owner himself a haircut.” I couldn’t believe it, but it gets worse, because that barber shop down town is the kind that cleans up your side burns and neck with a straight razor. “Surely the owner doesn’t let someone who just walks in the door looking for a job put a straight razor on his face,” I said, “he could lose an ear!” The new guy cutting my hair said, “Not just his neck and side burns. The owner of this shop requires applicants to give him a straight razor shave.” I don’t know about you, but my hands shake in job interviews, and I can’t imagine how a job interview could get any worse – you’re nervous already but you have to calm your nerves enough to shave the man who could potentially be your new boss without slicing his throat. But the question isn’t whether or not it’s a good idea to let someone nervous use a razor on your face or to let someone who you don’t even know put a razor up to your neck, the real question is, if you need to find out if someone can actually cut hair and shave a face is there any other way? The human capacity for evil is clear, but the issue is not whether or not God could have made a better choice, the real question is, what other way is there? Karl Barth, the most celebrated theologian of the 20th century wrote that, “The amazing thing is not that there is a God, but that there is a world.” The amazing thing is that God chose to make you and me and to ask us to contribute to the creation itself – for through “human testimony, the testimony of God is greater.” In so many ways here is a terribly unfortunate reality – as God’s creation, we, despite our brokenness, our capacity for trivial pursuits, and how frequently we chose hatred over love – God calls us to make our mark on creation. There will be many who will never be brave enough to attempt it however. Holding the razor in their hand they’ll never shave the boss for fear that their shaking hands will slip. The fear of saying the wrong thing will prevent them from saying anything at all. The fear of doing what is evil keeps them shut behind a wall of inactivity. The fear of falling short stops them from ever trying. There is something worse than living with the reality of the human capacity for evil – it is allowing that capacity to stop you from ever trying. This May young men and women will graduate and go out into the world. Some fear becoming their parents, others fear never amounting to anything, while many of the great achievers of the class of 2012 fear that they’ll never become who everyone said they would. Better to never try than to fail some will say. All the while, the testimony of God will suffer without men and women who are bold enough to speak. What about the words they will wonder. What will they say? Who are they to speak? It seems like it would be so much easier to preserve the sanctity of God if God’s testimony were never touched by those with unclean lips – but without your unclean lips who will speak? It seems like it would be easier to maintain the austerity of this sacred space if the sinners were kept out – but without sinners who would fill the pews? It seems like the world would be better off if we kept out of it and let those who seem to know better do what seems best – but without you, what would our world be? So much more is required than an hour every Sunday morning. The God who gave you everything that you have requires that you use all of who you are for the good of the gospel. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life,” the author of 1st John writes. In a world where some can’t compromise over a dog these words are worth saying. In a world of war, hunger, violence, and strife those words matter more than all else. But these words require your voice to be heard. Speak, live, tell your story, whoever you are, that others might know and have eternal life. Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Let us love one another

1st John 4: 7-21, page 241 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the Day of Judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Sermon Men and women end up in the Maury County Jail for any number of reasons – public drunkenness, domestic violence, possession of illegal drugs – but no one ever goes to the Maury County Jail for the food. I saw a meal. It had been sitting on a counter, not in any rush, and consisted mostly of starch – pasta, potatoes, rice. Something wet to drink, maybe it was tea, and a piece of cake for dessert. Even with dessert, it costs you, the Maury County tax payer, less than a dollar a meal to feed a Maury County inmate. Those who are guilty or accused of minor offenses go to a large room with about 40 beds. Those who are guilty or accused of something worse are assigned a space with room enough for a single bed and not much more. The walls are hard, the windows are few, the smell is a strong mix of body odor, shame, and disinfectant, and time passes slowly. That’s how plenty of people think it should be – some people deserve punishment. And maybe they do. Many in our world fight to ensure that people get what they deserve – the unlawful deserve punishment, the just deserve justice, the hard working deserve their fair wage, and the innocent deserve to be defended. But there are others in our world who believe something else, and it’s really something very different – that no one should get what they think they deserve. Instead, everyone, whether they think they deserve it or not, should be given love. These people are called Christians. They give away meals – the last Friday of April they gave away 190 meals, better than anything you’d ever receive in a jail, to people who had done nothing to deserve it. They give away property too – allowing boys and girls every day to use a building where they can do their homework in peace without ever paying a dollar in rent. And they give away time – stopping to listen to the cries of the voiceless while everyone else keeps walking. Taking children who have never been before fishing. Spending afternoons working on houses that they’ll never set foot in. Bowing their heads in prayer for people who they don’t know and may never meet. We believe that even in a world where people are controlled by the barrel of a gun and satisfied by the glow of a television, there is truly a stronger force that rules our world though few can see it and even fewer than that believe in it. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” While fear of jail will keep some from stepping over the line, there is a far greater power for motivating women and men to do what is right. I saw a glimpse of it not long ago. I was invited into the home of a widower. He was interested in showing me some pictures of his garden. These pictures were in a picture album, and I, being a nosy person couldn’t help flipping to the beginning of the album though I hadn’t been invited to do so. There were wedding pictures there. A young man who resembled the widower I had come to visit, and a beautiful young woman. I asked him if he remembered that day. He looked off and said, “I, take you, to be my wife; and I promise, before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live.” “As long as we both shall live,” he said, though the love he had for her has lasted much longer than that. No one ever forgets love, especially the kind of love that makes you feel so incredibly lucky – a love that you think you don’t deserve. And here is the foundation for living – not the fear of punishment, but the desire to live in a way that honors the love that we have received. “God first loved us.” How you view the world is related to whether you believe it or not. Believing that you aren’t worthy of love is the sin that leads to every abomination imaginable. Filling up the pit of worthlessness is terribly dangerous business – whether with food or alcohol or drugs – the pit never fills and the feeling never goes away. An early death awaits, but that kind of warning doesn’t change anything for people who believe that death is what they deserve. Warnings and punishment lose their power. But often more than warnings and punishment are at work in our world. In our jails are chaplains whom our church supports. They testify to something that is especially hard to believe in that place – they also pray with and counsel inmates, and have been known to give them rides home when their time is complete. One tells the story that Jim Casselberry told me, that of a young man who needed a ride home. He was given back the clothes that he wore when he first entered that jail, and without any where else to go he asked the chaplain to take him home to his mother. What he expected her to say I don’t know, but coming home from jail is a lot different from coming home from college. He knocked on the door while the chaplain waited, and wordlessly his mother opened the door and wrapped her arms around him. People who are loved this way – in a way that they can’t deserve or earn or even explain – believe that they are worth saving. That’s how change begins – to be saved you must first believe that you are worth saving. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” How could you ever doubt your worth in light of this truth? How could you ever doubt your worth in the shadow of the cross? How could you ever doubt your worth in the sight of this table where he offers you his very body and blood that you might know your worth? “We love because he first loved us,” and that is the foundation of righteous living – not the fear of punishment that keeps us from slipping out of line, but the belief that you are worthy of love is the foundation that allows you to love others. Love one another, as God first loved you. Amen.