Sunday, November 25, 2012


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.