Sunday, October 28, 2012
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
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
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
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.