Monday, December 23, 2013

It took place in this way

Matthew 1: 18-25, NT page 1 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Sermon I love to carry up the boxes from the basement that contain all our Christmas decorations. These boxes are not touched and are hardly thought of during most of the year, but every December I love to open up these boxes with my family to unpack the special things they have inside. You wouldn’t necessarily know that any of these things were special upon first glance, but of course they are. There’s a little wreath my mother knitted when I was a child and that she gave Sara and me to put on our first Christmas tree in our first apartment. There are new ornaments that our daughters Lily and Cece have made at preschool with glitter and felt, and there are old ornaments that my wife Sara made with those same materials when she was just about their same age. There’s also a nativity scene that we unpack from those Christmas boxes that Martha Boone gave us, and Mrs. Boone, in her infinite wisdom, gave us two baby Jesus’ for this nativity so that our girls wouldn’t have to fight over just the one. In some ways this is absolutely the height of irony. It would seem to most people that the baby Jesus in the nativity shouldn’t cause conflict, baby Jesus is supposed to bring peace on earth and not disputes between siblings, but sometimes it is better to face facts – baby Jesus, maybe his birth especially, has an effect on people that is often more conflict than peace. It’s true. I’ve seen it, having been to Walmart more than once this December. And yesterday, because I’ve been trying to tackle a home improvement project, I drove to Lowe’s on James Campbell twice, and each time was impressed by just how many people were rushing from one store to the other, rushing with such urgency that I noticed four wreaks. The people standing outside their cars didn’t look filled with joy. Their expression was not so much peace on earth as how am I going to pay for this on top of everything else, and that’s a sad reality this time of year. There’s a look on peoples’ faces in Kroger as well. It’s not panic exactly, but as they go from aisle to aisle, you can tell what they’re thinking. They’re worried about dinner – high stakes dinner – dinner where everyone will gather at one big table with placemats and cloth napkins and unrealistic expectations. They’ll be expecting perfectly smooth mashed potatoes, buttery yeast rolls rising just enough, and turkey. There’s a Christmas turkey that I’ll never forget at a Christmas table several years ago. It wasn’t store bought, but had been shot not long before it was served. It looked perfect on the outside, and only as it was carved did anyone realize that Uncle Al knew enough about killing turkey to kill it himself but didn’t know enough about killing turkey to have cleaned it properly. There was grass still in the craw, and thinking of things that should have been cleaned properly before they were cooked reminds me now of some chitlins I had with Ron Neal last week, but more than that I think this turkey also acts as a symbol for Christmas – sometimes we anticipate so much that reality becomes a notorious disappointment. The baby Jesus is to be born, but like his reproduction in the nativity that we unpacked from that big Christmas box, sometimes the birth of Christ causes more conflict, more anxiety, more pressure than peace. For this and many other reasons it’s important to remember that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” Can you imagine that? Maybe you can – after all, it happens more often than you might expect. For Joseph, this news of Mary’s pregnancy was no doubt a shock, and more than a shock, it’s a horrible disappointment, possibly a heartbreak if there was real love between them – this new reality that she was pregnant and the baby isn’t his. But Joseph isn’t a cruel man, if anything, his kindness towards this woman is profound, for while it was his right under the law to have her humiliated publically or even killed, Joseph instead decides to have her dismissed quietly. I don’t think anyone could have asked for anything more than that. He’s a good man – because while he could have acted out of his anger or his heartbreak, dismissing her loudly and cruelly, exacting the same hurt on her that he believed she had exacted on him, instead, what he could have done loudly he seeks to do quietly and with compassion. An ideal has been destroyed – his expectations are shattered – but still, Joseph is a kind man and wants to act kindly which is miracle in and of itself. He’s like a child who doesn’t get anything that he want’s on Christmas, but still he is nice about it, still he thanks Santa Clause and forgives him for his mistake, assuming that his letters weren’t written clearly or there was some kind of confusion at the North Pole. He looks under the tree and sees nothing but educational toys and politely smiles anyway because he is a kind young boy, not wanting to appear ungrateful or rude. Could any more be expected? Certainly it would be nice if more people acted this way, certainly being quietly disappointed would be an improvement to being loud and rude and classless, but the Lord requires even more of Joseph than kindness, the Lord expects him not only to be kind, but faithful. The Lord expected him to see that more than his disappointment and more than his failed expectations were at work so many years ago. The Lord expected him to believe that it is when everything does not go according to your plan that God’s plan unfolds. This is a hard lesson for you and for me. So often it seems that Christmas is the time when everything is supposed to be right in the world – that Christmas should be the one day when everything is perfect – when the children are happy, when the family gets over their grudges, when everyone settles down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life with a perfect fire in the fire place. No one should have a drinking problem on Christmas. No one should get divorced No one should be fighting, and I’m sure that Joseph was thinking that Mary should not be pregnant – but it’s here that he is an example, for rather than throw up his hands proclaiming that “Christmas is ruined,” instead he remains faithful – and it is in this way that the birth of the Messiah took place. And it’s that same thing that is required of you – to be faithful enough to believe that Christmas can survive a roast turkey still full of her last meal. To be faithful enough to believe that Christmas can survive some harsh words and some damaged relationships. To be faithful enough to believe that when your plan falls apart, God’s plan holds a broken world together – for the birth of the Messiah took place this way – not the way Joseph wanted it to – it took place this way. I was thankful to talk with Lucy Scotty Kuykendall this weekend. As the wife of an obstetrician and as the mother of another, Lucy Scot has heard more incredible stories of childbirth than most. She’s heard many stories of men in the delivery room who took one look at the baby and realized only then what Joseph was told in a dream, and while there have been those who walked right out of the delivery room or fainted on the spot when faced with this harsh truth, more often the birth of a child is such a profound thing that even the most betraying details become simply details. I pray that the same will be true for you this Christmas. I pray that in witnessing the birth of the Christ child you will realize that nothing else – not the imperfect turkey, not the senseless arguments, not the un-received gift or the broken expectation will matter so much as the birth of a child. Joseph managed to do what so few people ever achieve – to look at life and to accept it for what it is rather than what you had wished it would be. He witnessed the birth of a child and realized that nothing else really matters, for this child, “he will save his people from their sins.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Help me to sing

Luke 2: 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 he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, according to the promise he 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 Something that I’ve learned is that you kind of have to know who you are talking to, before you go and tell them just anything. You need to know about who you are talking to, because, at this point, how you talk about President Barak Obama depends on who you are talking to. How you talk about health care, even what you call it – Obama Care or the Affordable Health Care Act – that depends on who you are talking to, and if you misjudge who you are talking to you may end up not in a conversation but an argument. You know who Paige Chamberlain is – he is one of my favorite members of our community, one of our most well-known and respected – and I went out on a limb the other day and told him that I had recently been to a yoga class. “Yoga?” he said, “That hurts me to hear about.” And that is just reality – if you want to talk about yoga you have to choose wisely who you are going to talk to about yoga or the conversation may end up being even shorter than that. Fortunately, for Paige and for the sake of our lunch together, there are many other things to talk about that spark his interest and mine, and, on which, we can stay on the same wave-length. Over lunch at Christy’s with Bob Towler last Thursday we talked about all kinds of things that interest all three of us – who lived in what house and when, who is still alive and who isn’t, and can you trust Bob Duncan’s account of such and such event or can’t you. While we were talking about this kind of thing we were interrupted, as one often is when it comes to lunch with Paige Chamberlain who taught English to nearly half our community, and there engaging Paige was a man wearing a San Francisco Giants jacket and shorts. “It’s a little cold for shorts isn’t it?” Paige asked him, and then I stopped really listening assuming that a man in a San Francisco Giants jacket and shorts in January might not be talking with Paige about anything that I really wanted to hear about until this man asked Paige whether or not he’d like to go with him and his wife to see the opera. Unlike yoga, Paige loves to talk about the opera, and so they went on talking and talking about Puccini, Strauss, Stravinsky, and whether or not Gershwin qualified. Paige finally came to his senses, reconciling the appearance of this man and his great knowledge of opera. The man seemed to realize this and said, “It’s amazing the music you’ll start to love if you just give it a try.” It was at this point that I introduced myself to Peter Hudson, realizing that the former owner of Sam Hills is much more than meets the eye – but that’s just how it is. We look for people to share ourselves to – we look for people like us – and we trust our likes and dislikes, our passions and hobbies, our politics and our religion, mostly to people who we hope might understand. So Mary goes to Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth is the one who just might understand, after all, she’s pregnant too. You see, they were already whispering about Elizabeth in the streets and at the luncheons. Mary wasn’t the only one who had gotten pregnant when she wasn’t supposed to. “At her age,” they were saying, “at her age people will be mistaking her for this child’s grandmother,” and they were saying that because she was older than she was supposed to be. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting and their barrenness had defined them during those years that normal people start their families and went on defining them far beyond those years, so when an angel came and told Zechariah that Elizabeth would be having a baby he no more believed it than Mary’s mother would have believed that she was still a virgin should Mary have been foolish enough to tell her mother about this pregnancy. And can you imagine that – being pregnant and not being able to tell your own mother for fear of how she would react? Of course you can – it happens all the time. If your father wants you to grow up and be a doctor like he is, then you don’t rush home to tell him that you got the lead in your first off-Broadway play because he will be incapable of giving you the congratulations that you want. If your sister hates him, then guard yourself before you tell her about your engagement. And if your mother will see that pregnant belly and will only think about how you’ve just lost any chance of a proper wedding – how Joseph now has every right to walk away once he finds out – if you’ll want sympathy for your swelling ankles know that all she’ll be able to focus on is the lack of a ring on your finger – if you want her to be happy when she’s afraid that you’ll be stoned for adultery – then you are going to have to go to see someone else – you are just going to have to go and talk to someone else who might understand. So, “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.” Do you know how much that meant to her? Do you have any idea what it must have felt like to finally have someone who wasn’t ashamed to have her in her house, to finally have someone who would believe her story, and to be able to sit down in her kitchen so that Elizabeth might share in Mary’s joy? A large portion of our scripture lessons for this morning is one of the most well-known passages of scripture in the Bible – it’s known as the Magnificat. The Magnificat is Mary’s song of joy, of faithfulness, of hope. She sings: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” It’s important to read this passage in its context, because she doesn’t sing right after the angel comes to see her to tell her about this pregnancy. No, she sings in Elizabeth’s house, and I’ll bet you know exactly why. She sings then, because it’s not always possible to sing when you are alone. In the funeral services at our church we often sing hymns, but rarely is the family able to sing out the words, so overwhelmed by loss and sadness. And I stand here and watch as the congregation carries them, singing with and for mourning families when they’re not able to sing alone. You do the same thing for parents when their children are baptized. I’m standing next to them and I know they’re not singing the words to “Jesus loves me” that we sing after every baptism, and they’re not singing because they aren’t thinking about singing – they’re thinking about finally getting their baby who has been on the brink of crying for the entire service up until this point out and into the nursery where she can have her pacifier and get into some clothes that aren’t family heirlooms, and can cry as loud as she wants. They can’t be expected to sing in that moment – so you sing for them – and they can’t be expected to raise that child on their own either – so through the liturgy of baptism you promise to help them raise their child in the faith as well. And children can’t always be expected to sing either of course. I watch my own daughter stand during the hymns next to Susie Baxter, standing just how Ms. Susie stands, holding her hymnal just like Ms. Susie even though it’s upside down. And Ms. Susie helps her to sing you see. Last Sunday during communion I watched as John Satterwhite walked down the aisle, and he stood right beside Ava Corbin who was serving as an acolyte. I watched as he put his arm around her so they could share her hymnal – and I don’t really know who was helping who to sing, but it was a beautiful image that I won’t soon forget. Mary sings – but Elizabeth is there to help her sing those words when her own mother was tied up in worry as mothers sometimes are. Elizabeth is there for the girl to help her to sing, just as you must be there to help the children of this church sing faithful songs in a world where so much happens that they’ll know neither how to explain nor accept. This world of ours is full of tragedy and miracles, so stand beside one another, and stand especially beside the children and the teenagers who you have promised in their baptism to nurture in the faith – and help them to sing. Help them to sing songs of hope when the world as they know it comes to an end. In that moment help them to sing about God’s constant presence for when the Lord might have seemed to be clearly absent Mary sang, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Help them to sing songs of trust when life’s path takes an unexpected turn and everyone it seems is against them for “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” And help them even then to sing songs of joy, for with Elizabeth, Mary sang in what might have been her darkest hour, “He has helped his servant Israel, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” This Christmas give thanks for those who have been Elizabeth to you, and sing, out of praise to God just as Mary did so long ago. Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Let Us Walk

Isaiah 2: 1-5, OT page 631-632 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; All the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! Sermon I’ve told you before about my grandfather, my mother’s father, who grew up in a place called the Caw-Caw Swamp in the Low Country of South Carolina. He was born into a world I have to work to imagine. In the time and place of his childhood things were different than what they are now. You couldn’t just run to the store to get what you needed, there were no stores to just run out to, so mostly what you didn’t have you learned to do without. There was no access to Spanish or Italian wine in the Caw-Caw Swamp, so my grandfather’s mother made her own in the bathtub. And when my grandfather was born, several weeks premature, there was no specialist to refer him to if there was a doctor present at all. Nor was there an incubator to put him in where he might slowly make up for lost time in the womb, he was born and his only chance of survival was his mother’s ability to make due. It’s a well-known story in my family, that when my grandfather was born premature, my great-grandmother put bricks in the fire place, and once they were good and warm she used those hot bricks to fence in the pallet she made on the floor for my newborn grandfather. There he stayed warm, and there, by the grace of God and his mother’s ingenuity, he survived. Now that I have children of my own I have gained a small sense of what this must have been like for her. Before the baby is born, the dreams and the worries can be big. There are bikes and worries over elementary schools. There are thoughts of college and how it will be paid for. For the parents of little girls, there might even also be thoughts of marriage and how much the wedding will cost, but somewhere in the hospital other possibilities become so real and the dreams become smaller. Parents hope, as nurses hover around and monitors chart a little heartbeat, not for Harvard, but simply for another heartbeat. In the delivery room, there is no thought of the perfect wedding, but just for a baby who keeps breathing. So, I imagine my great-grandmother, in one scene feeling her pregnant belly and dreaming big dreams, but then I see here there, warming bricks in the fire and stacking them around her newborn son, just praying that he’ll stay with her another hour, maybe another day. Her dreams became small surely, as sometimes dreams have to. The dreams of the Israelite people had become small at the time the prophet Isaiah saw the vision that our second scripture lesson is based on. They were a small nation, no longer the military power that they were at the height of King David’s reign, and during the prophet Isaiah’s lifetime they had to fear the great power of Assyria, who will eventually force them out of Jerusalem and into exile. Their dreams had become, not big dreams of greatness and strength, but simply of survival. You can imagine the hope that they had for their children – maybe that they would have the chance to leave home and work in one of the Assyrian cities where they would have the chance to do something with their life. They hoped small hopes for their daughters – that she would marry well, marry a man who could scrape together a living – thinking little of love and even less of happiness. Israel – what hope had Israel? But the prophet saw a vision. A vision in which people will not stream out of Israel for some place better – no, that is too small a dream – the prophet sees a time when all the nations shall stream to Israel. They will not go somewhere else to learn something worth knowing – for – that is not aiming high enough. The prophet sees a time when all people will seek out the house of the God of Jacob to learn how to walk in paths of righteousness based in the word of the Lord. And the Lord shall judge between the people, bringing forth righteousness and justice – the time of frustration and futile hope will be over. Even those who are bold to hope for a time when Israel might defeat Assyria haven’t hope for enough for the time is coming says the prophet, when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” But maybe you think that’s dreaming too big? Or maybe you’re not dreaming big enough. On Thanksgiving Day a man in Culleoka killed his wife over a pair of shoes. This event causes me to wonder – have we hoped for enough? Is there no more to life than a pair of shoes? Surely this Christmas there are those who will settle for small hopes. Rather than dream big dreams of happiness, there are those who will settle to hope for the things that the world has told them to hope for: a new television, some video game system, while others will go so far as to dream for a new Lexus parked in the driveway with a bright red bow – but I tell you, none of them has dreamed for enough. Just think about the world we live in – just think about what God has done already. Our own Beth Himes now oversees a floor in our local hospital that can do things for premature babies that my great-grandmother would never have dreamed of in a million years, so why then would you underestimate the power of God? The commercials tell you to want the kinds of things that are possible, but I’m telling you today that Christmas wishes should not have so much to do with what is possible according to human power. By human power there is a chance of all kinds of gifts and delicious food, and all it will take is a maxed-out credit card. But as I consider the prophecy made in Isaiah I realize that our dreams have become too small. Too often we leave the notion that swords will someday be beaten into plowshares to the foolhardy idealists who don’t understand how the real world works – but in dreaming too small, have you failed to understand how God works? The Lord can change what you cannot. The Lord can bring peace to the very heart of war. The Lord knows your inmost desire – that hope so fragile that you wouldn’t dare speak it much less actually hope it – the Lord knows what you really want for Christmas and I tell you that you should not be so quick to settle for the same thing you asked for last year. Have you given up on the idea, the dream, that everyone would give up fighting this season – that your children and grandchildren would calm down long enough to get along - and have you resigned yourself to something less? Have you given up on the idea that there would not just be a full house, but a house full of love? Have you started to dream of something smaller because your heart has gone hopeless? Have you stopped dreaming of a better life and just started hoping for some better channels on TV so you don’t have to think about it anymore? Have you stopped dreaming the big dreams? If you have than remember that Isiah is talking about a day when war will be no more – and if the Lord is about doing such work as that don’t you imagine that God can handle something more than a stocking full of Lifesavers? Dream big dreams. And until they come true, “let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Walk in the promise, not of what is, but of what will be. Walk in the light that shines forth from the God of heaven and earth, and know that no darkness will ever overcome it. Walk towards such a future, such a dream, greater than what you have dared imagine, and know that the Shepherd of Israel who is to be born in a manger will lead you there. Amen.

Jesus, remember me

Luke 23: 33-43, NT page 89 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leader scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Sermon There are at least two ways to look at something, and maybe you could so far to say that there are as many ways to look at something as there are people to look at it. Last Thursday during Disciple Bible Study, a three hour Bible study course that includes all kinds of homework but that gives anyone who takes the course a true knowledge of scripture, Lee Brown, one of the participants, told the class about a friend of hers who never went to church and who never brought his family to church. There are a lot of ways to look at this situation which is becoming more and more common. You can accuse these people who never make it to church of not taking their faith seriously, you can say that they are missing out on the joy of being with other believers, there are more than two ways to look at their situation, but when Lee asked her friend why he doesn’t have his young children in church, he told her that they were home churched. Things have changed in the world, and while home schooling wasn’t an option you heard much about 20 and 30 years ago, the rise in home schooling shows that there is more than one opinion when it comes to education just as there is more than one opinion when you look at all kinds of things. Take my grandfather’s goat for instance. My grandfather was raised in a place called the Caw-Caw Swamp, a rural part of the Low Country of South Carolina filled with alligators and deer. And where there were alligators and deer so there were hunters, both legal and illegal, and that’s where my grandfather’s father came in. My great-grandfather was a game warden in the Caw-Caw Swamp who arrested poachers among other things. And that’s where my grandfather’s goat came in. It was my grandfather’s job as a young boy to raise goats that his father would use as bait to catch poachers. The goat would be tied to a tree near the road, and whenever a truck pulled to a stop to shoot the goat from the road my great-grandfather the game warden of the Caw-Caw Swamp would be there to arrest him. You can tell a lot about the Caw-Caw Swamp based on the fact that pulling over on the road to shoot animals from your truck was such a problem that my great-grandfather spent all his time preventing it. There are at least two ways to look at something, but in this case there are not, the Caw-Caw Swamp was that kind of a place, so my grandfather’s job was to raise these goats. And he knew that these goats would be used by his father as bait. That was the sad reality – in order for his father to do his job of stopping illegal hunting, something had to be sacrificed, and in this case it was a goat. I’m sure my great-grandfather saw it as the necessary sacrifice of doing this kind of job, but my grandfather as a young child didn’t see it that way. He raised these small goats, and he would talk to them. Out there in the Caw-Caw Swamp there weren’t many friends to be made, so he told his goats everything he had to say. When he was sad, he told his goat why he was sad. When he was happy, he celebrated with his goat, and there was one particular goat that he went so far as to name Daisy. When my grandfather knew the time was drawing near when his father would need to tie Daisy up out by the road, my grandfather couldn’t face it. Instead he developed a plan – he would take Daisy away from the house to some place where neither one of them would ever be found. This place had green grass for Daisy to eat and my grandfather would watch her eat that grass and he would live on the milk that she would produce. You see – to one person this goat was just the cost of doing business – no poachers would be caught if a goat didn’t die. But to the other person, this wasn’t a goat at all, this was a friend. The same is true for all kinds of other things in our world. I am convinced that there is so much disagreement in our society simply because we aren’t seeing anything the same way. There are those who look at education differently – and because we look at education differently those who are for private schools and those who aren’t can’t begin to have civil conversations about education because while they are both looking at the same exact thing they do not look at it the same way. The same is true for simple things, like the question any of you are asked at Bucky’s when you go through the line: “roll of cornbread?” My answer is both, but not everyone looks at even bread the same way. To those with wheat or gluten allergies, a roll looks like an upset stomach but to me it’s just delicious. Then we have abortion, birth control, and gay marriage - there are those who call the death penalty justice while others call it murder, and in our second scripture lesson for this morning, here we have a man sentenced to death – and some saw this event as his great humiliation while we call it part of the greatest event in human history. The cross itself is a symbol that you can look at differently. To the Romans, that cross was their electric chair, it was how they exercised capital punishment. But it was more than just that because they always did it publically – when you rode or walked in to a Roman city, instead of a great sign from the Chamber of Commerce saying, “Welcome to Galilee, we’re glad you came to see us,” a visitor would ride into town and would know by the men and women hanging on crosses on either side of the road that this was a place where one should not step out of line. The cross was the symbol or order, what they called the peace of Rome. It was a symbol of justice to them as well, and more than that, the cross was the great symbol of their power. But there are at least two ways to look at something. Today we consider the cross and do not see Rome, as those who crucified him are not as important now as the one who was crucified. Nor do we look at the cross and see a victim, a powerless criminal – for God has taken this symbol and made it into something else. God has taken this symbol of humiliation, of powerlessness, and made it the great sign of God’s strength. While the citizens of the Roman world saw this symbol and thought of Roman power, we all here look at this instrument of death and see nothing if not a throne for the King of Kings. And this is the power of God – to take something as humiliating as death on a cross, to take something that was so clearly the end, and turn it into something else completely. Today is Christ the King Sunday, so today we consider the cross, not as a symbol of Roman power but of divine power – we see it today not as a symbol of death even, but as a symbol of everlasting life. We celebrate Christ the King Sunday and we acknowledge him as Lord of all, but we also acknowledge that because of who Christ is, there is always two ways to look at something. Consider the choir’s anthem, for they sang it well. Christ is a paradox of sorts, just as life has become a paradox because of Christ. Today you can look at divorce and see the clear end. You can look at your divorce and see failure, but if God took an instrument of death and made it an instrument of life, why would you not look at your divorce with new eyes? It could just as well be a door opening, so why call it anything else? Then there are those with depression, even those who have, because of their depression descended into the deepest sadness. And there they lye convinced of their humiliation, convinced that their failure has been made clear and that worthlessness is certain. But if Christ can take the great symbol of humiliation, the symbol that Rome used to show their people that the power of Rome was greater than all other power – if Christ can take that symbol and make it not a sign of humiliation but a sign of victory, why not look at depression through the same lens. A cry for help can get you the help that you need, so why look at it any other way? Don’t you see that bankruptcy doesn’t have to be the thing that they say it is? Because of Christ, don’t you see that nothing has to be what the world has told you that it is? And you are not who they say you are even. Because of Christ, because he is King, the powers that seem to govern this world have lost their power over you. You are no longer who they say you are nor are you defined by their terms that the world imposes. If the world has been telling you that you are too old to be beautiful, too fat or too thin, know that you are not defined by who they say you are but by who God says you are – and to God you have been made in the image of divinity. If the world has been telling you that it is too late, that you are too far gone, that it is over, know that the great Roman tool for silencing dissenters and bringing their power to an end became to God the great sign of new beginnings – where Rome preached death God preached life so why would you give up now? If you are sure that sin defines you, that hopelessness has overcome you, and that sadness has swept over you and covered you up – look here and know that no power is as great as the power of God. Christ is King. He is Lord of Lords – and you are not who they say you are - no more than he was who they said he was. Halleluiah. Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Do not be weary in doing what is right

2nd Thessalonians 3: 6-13, NT page 207 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sister, do not be weary in doing what is right. Sermon Idleness is clearly bad according to the author of 2nd Thessalonians. Idleness, in a religious or spiritual sense as well as idleness in a practical or work ethic sense, does not imitate the tradition that the Christians in Thessalonica have inherited and brings no honor to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there are still idle people out there, believe it or not. I’m telling you it is true – I have seen them. The clocks in their cars and in their houses read 12 o’clock right now, because they are so lazy that they’d rather wait for the time to change again than turn their clocks back an hour. And they aren’t really very interested in working hard – as a matter of fact – the only thing that they work hard at is avoiding work. The year between my college graduation and my first year in seminary I worked as a lawn maintenance man, and because of my driver’s license I was promoted up to truck driver in a matter of months. My first partner was a man named Mike Callahan. He walked slowly, he talked slowly, and certainly, when and if he worked, he worked very slowly. I would run around trying to make up for his slow pace, I’d soak my shirt through with sweat, I’d work so hard that I would go through bottles and bottles of Gatorade. Mike, on the other hand, didn’t drink Gatorade. He drank gin. I put up with him. However, thankfully, eventually I ended up with someone else to work with, a man named Jorge. Jorge was a very hard worker, and he was also a faithful man – every dollar he made after he paid his share of living expenses he sent back to his wife and children in Mexico. He would talk about them often, and I knew that he missed them terribly, but his father-in law who worked for this same company, his name was Juan. Juan wanted Jorge to be the kind of man who was able support his wife, Juan’s daughter financially, and so Juan insisted that Jorge not go back home, but stay and work cutting grass in Atlanta. But Jorge couldn’t take it, and he asked me to drive him to the bus station so that he could make the long trip back to Mexico. And that was an interesting moment – I couldn’t clearly tell what I was supposed to do. If I told him yes I would be hurting myself because I’d be losing a good worker. I’d also be complacent in a scheme that ran contrary to his father-in-laws wishes, and what if his father-in-law found out – would Juan be mad at me and did I want Juan to be mad at me? Basically, as much as I enjoyed imagining myself as Harriet Tubman, whisking Jorge out of minimum wage lawn maintenance and towards love on the underground bus line to be reunited with his wife and family, this request of his was putting me in a compromising situation. I could have said no. That would have been easy, but would it have been right? I am confident that the forces of evil aren’t simply causing our worst selves to be attracted to choices that are wrong – more often evil is lulling us towards what in the moment is the most easy. Many things are easy that are not quite wrong, but aren’t quite right either. Television is one – is it wrong to let your children watch TV? Probably not. Is it wrong to let your 2 year old walk around with a pacifier? Probably not. Is it wrong to eat fast-food? Probably not – and it’s not wrong to eat dinner in the car either, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is right. I was enjoying a grilled pimento cheese sandwich with a strong member of our church last week, and in thinking about the world today she told me that what the world needs now are more dining room tables. That’s an interesting thought, and I’m not sure how many people would agree – surely there are more who are convinced that the problems in our world would more likely be solved with more food, more money, more guns, more leaders, but not more dining room tables. I asked her what she meant and she explained that the dining room table is where you find out how your children are really doing. It’s where you teach them how to eat with a knife and fork, and how to talk about their problems so that their problems aren’t all bundled up inside. The dining room table is the place where stories are told, advice is given, and prayers are made. What happens in the drive through line at McDonalds – that’s just where food is consumed, and that’s not wrong, certainly sometimes it is even absolutely necessary, but is it right? Our scripture lesson, boldly proclaiming that the Christian life be not characterized by the easy path or idol hands, ends with the phrase: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right,” and this phrase makes sense to me, because when I am weary, while I still know to stay away from doing what is wrong, I am so often tempted to do what is in the moment easy instead of doing what is right. To avoid a fight I’ll keep my mouth shut. Even though the truth is prying my lips apart to get out, I hold it in telling myself that I’ll be honest another time, and oddly enough that another time never comes. To avoid confrontation I’ll do almost anything. I’ll look at my shoes, I’ll pretend that everything is fine, and you can’t really say that doing so is wrong but I am convinced that it isn’t right. What happens is I grow too weary to do what is right, and as maybe you know, sometimes people get lulled to sleep by habit, becoming so weary that the best option seems to be keeping things the same rather than addressing what is wrong. How many mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives put up with an addict, enabling him to continue harming himself and others, because standing up and speaking out is so hard and risks so much. We put up with too much. And we put up with it, not because we are happy, but because we are weary – weary and too tired to stand up when there is already too much to do. You have a job, you have bills to pay and phone calls to make – the world has already made you weary – but in your weariness – do you honor the Lord? St. Isaac the Syrian, a 7th Century figure in Christianity who was known for his scholarship and strict monastic lifestyle, living in the desert on three loaves of bread a week along with some raw vegetables, is known for saying, “Knowledge of God does not abide in a body that loves comforts.” I am convinced that St. Isaac the Syrian preaches a challenging word to his homeland – how many Syrians are ready for a simpler path, an easier day, how many are weary and tiered of being persecuted for being a Christian? It must be hard just to walk out the door, and yet some still do – convinced that there is work to be done. Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Do not grow weary, though the world likes you weary – you’re easier to control if you’re so beaten down that you never challenge anyone or do anything. It’s an easy thing to handle, a ward full of Senior Citizens huddled in front of day time TV – not that there’s anything wrong with day time TV, but there isn’t much right about it now is there? And it’s an easy thing to handle, a wife who never complains, a husband who works all the time – you can get along that way for a good long while, but is that all you want? Just to get along? Society is happy for you to settle. Don’t complain – don’t dream – and don’t ask for anything more. “Be weary” the world may as well be saying – but here the Gospel is calling you to something higher, something better, something life giving. Do not grow weary in doing what is right – because even though doing what is right is hard, doing what is right is what will make you happy and will cause you to live out the Gospel that you have been called to follow. I remember well enough picking up Jorge and driving him to the bus station. His English was bad and my Spanish was worse, but I knew that he appreciated me helping him. I am still unclear – did I do what was right? Did I do what was wrong? For all I know he may have not been a lawn maintenance man at all but a cocaine smuggler who I aided and abetted. Regardless, this event for me was good practice – for it was true then, just as it is true now – when the choice is unclear it is most often best to choose the option that pushes you the hardest. The Hebrew people did not rush to freedom, so much in the end as they were forced into it – and if Pharaoh’s chariots had not been on their heels they may well have turned back to what was known rather than what God had in store for them. Had the disciples not been the kind of men who were capable of bold choices their names would not be known to us now – they would have lived their lives catching fish and collecting taxes, wondering whatever became of that bearded preacher people called Jesus of Nazareth. And now, do not be lulled to sleep – do not grow weary in doing what is right – for just as your forefathers and foremothers in the faith worked for the good of the Kingdom, you are called today to not grow idol nor to fall into the habits of busybodies for the radical work of the Gospel calls you now. Do not be weary in doing what is right. Though the world around you is perfectly happy for you to leave your questions at home, do not grow weary in doing what is right. Though the world will put up walls to stifle your drive and your passion, do not grow weary in doing what is right. And though the easy path is calling you away from conflict, trial, and hardship, this path does not lead to everlasting life but to a slow and easy death. Live for him then. Live as Christ lived, and do not grow weary in doing what is right. Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013


Ephesians 1: 11-23, NT page 192 In Christ, we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Sermon All Saint’s Sunday is today, and soon I will read from the list of names there in your bulletin, but to you and to me it is much more than a list. It’s not just a list of names – these are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, these are friends. Today we even go so far to confess that they are saints, believing that while their earthly life is over, our relationship to them has not changed. They have not disappeared nor do they cease to exist, they are in our hearts though they have gone on to be with the Lord where we will meet them again. The list is made up of the names of those members of our church who died over the past year, and I’ll do more than say their names and you’ll do more than hear them – you’ll hear them named and you’ll remember, as no one in Columbia could just say William H. Pigg Jr. and not think about the finest men’s store that our region has ever seen; no one could just hear the name Nancy Thomas and not think about the seeds of faith she planted in generations of children right c attended our church, I’ll never hear the name Peggy Bivens, my grandmother, and not think certain thoughts, hear a certain voice, even smell a certain smell. Last November Sara and I were in her house, the house she called home until she died, and I walked into her closet before all her clothes were taken away, just to breathe in her smell one last time. Her closet was a special place. It felt like a piece of her was still in there, and it makes sense that she would still be there in her closest as her clothes were more than just clothes. Like many people, she used clothes to make a statement. What my grandmother had on mattered a lot to her. She took clothes seriously, and she had a lot of them. I’d unload her luggage from the car when she came to visit and it would take three or four trips to get it all in the house whether she was staying for a week or just a weekend. People would see her in the mall or a restaurant wearing animal print with a giant golden belt-buckle shaped like an elephant and they would stop to compliment her outfit. Very rarely did I see her dress down – once I saw her in a sweat-suit and I remember her apologizing for it – and one Christmas Eve, late at night, I saw her in her bathrobe without her makeup, the only time I ever saw her before she had drawn on her eyebrows. That was a surprise. For some reason, I had never noticed before that my grandmother shaved her eyebrows and drew them back on, but now that I think about her it only makes sense – this was a woman concerned with appearance, and such things as eyebrows, you couldn’t leave that up to genetics or nature, you had to take the state of your eyebrows into your own hands because they had to be absolutely perfect. I inherited this trait to a certain degree. These eyebrows of mine aren’t drawn on, but while carving pumpkins last week I carved the left eyebrow of our jack-o-lantern just how I wanted it, then I carved the right eyebrow, only to notice that the right eyebrow was bigger than the left. So I made the left one bigger, but made it too big unfortunately, and had to then make the right bigger – and this back and forth continued until the eyebrows were so massive that the jack-o-lantern looked just like Gene Shalit. But I inherited more than my grandmother’s drive to produce perfect eyebrows. All her life I was the recipient of her pride. Every nurse she worked with recognized me as they had all been forced to admire my most recent photographs and had to hear all about whatever mediocre achievement of mine she wanted to tell them about. I never felt like I had done anything to deserve her being so proud of me – as a matter a fact, I know I didn’t do anything to deserve her being so proud of me, and her pride often embarrassed me because I couldn’t understand what it was about me that she thought was worth bragging about. She would be there to watch my baseball games and she would talk about my athletic prowess, even though I very rarely played. She would make the six hour trip just to watch my middle school band performances, even though I was fourth chair trombone, and I remember new student orientation at Presbyterian College when she made the drive so that she could be there to see me receive my schedule, tour the campus, and meet some of the men and women who would be my professors, as well as meet some of the young women, who, by her excessive comments on my look and demeanor, she ensured would not become my girlfriend. I didn’t understand it then, I hadn’t done anything worthy of her attention and because I hadn’t done anything worthy of her attention her attention mostly embarrassed me, but today such pride as hers provides me a framework to understand God’s grace. In our second scripture lesson the Apostle Paul refers to the inheritance. This is an inheritance not unlike all others that are given and not earned. And the one who gave it, he gave it not because you did anything or you could have done anything – “In Christ, we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” The inheritance that Paul speaks of is salvation, and those who have inherited this gift from Christ are called Saints – they are justified, redeemed, saved. But while these words, saints and inheritance, both speak of receiving without earning – because of my grandmother I can grasp the concept of inheriting some great gift just because of the kindness of the one who gives it and not the worth of the one who receives it – to be called a saint however, grasping that title in my mind demands some serious work. Saints must be the kind of people who give everything away to the poor. Saints must be the kind of people who never say harsh words, who are always gentle and loving. And saints have to wear certain clothes – simple, brown things that are rarely washed and that irritate the skin– certainly none of the saints in my mind are dressed in animal print with golden elephant belt-buckles, none of them that I can think of have shaved eyebrows either. However, according to Paul here in Ephesians, there is no particular dress code for saints. Nor, in reality, is there a well-defined life style that merits the title. What there is, is a particular inheritance, received by the saints not because of their worth, but because of the worth of the one who gives it. Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas argues that Christians cannot try to become saints. Rather than being great heroes or heroines of the faith, they are “people like us who have been made more than we are by being engrafted into God’s kingdom.” To become a Saint then is to accept a gift – that is the requirement – and it is a requirement that sounds simple but is certainly one that humans make complicated. Like grandsons who sit the bench on the baseball field and don’t understand why their grandmothers insist on coming to watch and take pictures, there is a human tendency to over think God’s gifts and to imagine that we can’t deserve what God offers because we haven’t done anything to deserve salvation or sainthood. Paul therefore prays. Our second scripture lesson reads, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Of course we need a spirit of wisdom and revelation, we need the eyes of our heart to be enlightened, because such a gift as the one that God offers makes so little sense that some cannot see it nor can they understand it. It is Good News, and like all news it requires a reporter, but being as hard to believe as it is, it has to be modeled as well. Modeled by those who have gone on, who learned the good news from their parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, pastors, and friends who went on before them. From one generation to the next the good news has been passed down, inherited and not earned, and now this good news is yours, but it is not yours to keep as your role in the process is not to take it with you but to give it to the rising generation so that they might know who they are in the eyes of God as well. The church then is called, not just to speak about God’s love and grace, the church is called to show the world what such love and grace look like. All of you are recipients of it, some of you can even see it, and so many of you show such love and grace in your actions. Dawn Taylor, one of your elected church officers, who has for years been giving her time and energy in service to this church, especially this church’s children and youth, has shown such love and grace to her church, but has benefited from such actions more recently. Two weeks ago her house was broken into, a serious blow for this single mother, considering how last year she lost her job. In an effort to provide some comfort and recovery to Dawn, you responded by lifting her up by your actions and your prayers, and she wrote the following letter to you to express her thanks. To my beautiful church family, Last Sunday our guest preacher Rev. Dr. Henry Strock gave us a wonderful sermon called “Roots are for the Wind”. The premise of the sermon was growing roots so deep you can withstand the winds life sends your way. The stronger your roots, the more you can survive and continue to stand strong. One point which was particularly significant and something I never considered was “you receive compensation for helping someone grow their roots by your roots growing in return”. In other words, the more you help others, the stronger your roots grow. My vocation in life has always been to help others; either through work or church, it is my purpose in life and one I take great joy in. You want a house built? Sure let me do that…you want pictures on the wall to inspire children to learn about God? Of course I will…Let’s have a treasure hunt on Genesis Sunday! Help teach Sunday School? In a heartbeat! Anything our church has needed I have been grateful to have a chance to help. I do it because of the love I have for this congregation, because of all that you have given me and allowed me to do and because to help others brings me a feeling of gratitude unsurpassed by anything else I do. I never realized my own roots were growing as I was helping others until I heard Sunday’s sermon. This past week Anna Grace and I needed to learn on our roots. It is very hard for me to be in a place where I need help, it is hard to feel powerless and scared when I am usually the one helping others in this situation. However, the love and support we received from this congregation has lifted us up, the gift you gave us will help put the pieces together and knowing we are in your prayers will help us heal. I have found comfort in this ordeal as I realized the roots I have at First Presbyterian Church run deep and strong and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. Having a church family to love and pray for you is such a breathtaking feeling. It is not something to take for granted and I am very humbled to have it. I appreciate the kind words and encouraging hugs more than words can say. As my roots run deep from helping others, your roots run deep from helping me and my daughter. This congregation is truly a family; we cry together, laugh together, mourn together and celebrate together. But most of all we love together. Thank you so much for loving Anna Grace and I and thank you so much for the roots, words will never express what they mean to me. Sincerely and with great love, Dawn and Anna Grace Taylor Today we celebrate with all the generations of saints who have inherited God’s great gifts of grace and love. They are cheering you on, and they call you to pour out this gift that you have received on those whom you love so that all might know and believe. Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I will not let you go

Genesis 32: 22-31, OT page 30 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Penuel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Sermon Still in our Gathering Area, are on display many works of art that deserve your attention. As you’ll be able to tell by looking at the paintings, photographs, quilts, sweaters, model planes, bowls, and books on display there today, God has richly blessed the members of our church with many gifts and talents. I am excited to see these works of art and I am excited to celebrate the gifts given by God to the members of this church, so I am thankful to Pat Smith who has the gifts of hospitality and organizing, and so transformed our Gathering Area into an art exhibit hall and called these artists within our congregation to put their work on display. In the last two weeks the gifts of our own Jeff High have been on display as well – a book he wrote, More Things in Heaven and Earth, which was released the first of this month is the first in a series of books about a young doctor who moves to a small town in Tennessee called Water Valley. The release of this book signaled a considerable change for Jeff. He’s been on the road signing books and giving interviews, and if you haven’t bought the book already you should. The title of the book is a line from Hamlet. Hamlet says to his scholarly friend Horatio as they try to wrap their minds around the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The quote occurs in Act 1 of Scene 5, near the beginning, but this line pushes the whole play along. This ghost, being Hamlet’s father, is able to tell his son who he was murdered by. So the ghost gives the main character a piece of information, the ghost reveals the truth, and the truth of his father’s murder sends Hamlet on a quest for revenge. There is a literary term for such a moment, “An-ag-noris-is.” The term is defined by Merriam Webster as, “the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character's true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation.” If you understand the meaning of this word than you can make sense out of Hamlet, who after hearing the ghost of his father speak suddenly recognizes the true identity of his uncle Claudius and knows what role he himself much play. The plot of Jeff High’s book certainly has moments of “an-ag-noris-is” as well, where the main character, who thinks that he is the author of his own destiny has moments of enlightenment where he realizes that there are in fact “more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in his philosophy.” And certainly our second scripture passage is a moment of recognizing the truth, when Jacob comes face to face with God on the bank of a river, unable to prevail without suffering the dislocation of his hip. This passage presents an interesting image of God. I’ve experienced God as many things – a kind stranger, a beautiful sunset, but never have I imagined that God might take the form of a wrestler. But the point of the image has more to do with Jacob than with God, perhaps. Because Jacob has been wrestling with life since the beginning, so God must come to Jacob in a form that he can understand. From the very beginning of his life Jacob has wrestled. Wrestling his twin brother Esau in their mother’s womb, causing her considerable pain during pregnancy, and Jacob wrestles with Esau in the birth canal to be the first born and therefore the inheritor of his father’s property. Despite Jacob’s efforts, Esau is born first with Jacob following close behind holding onto his brother’s heel. Jacob will not accept his fate as second born however, and one day, many years later, as Esau comes in from the woods after a long day spent hunting, Jacob trades his brother a bowl of lentil stew for his birthright. This is a mean thing to do, but Jacob operates under the assumption that one must wrestle with the world in order to receive anything from it. He wrestled with Esau in the womb, he took advantage of his brother’s hunger and foolishness to wrestle away from Esau his birthright as first born – then when the time came for their father Isaac to pass on his blessing, Isaac called for Esau, but Jacob disguised himself as Esau and received his father’s blessing instead. When Esau found out he was enraged and Jacob had to run for his life. Possibly, he always kept one eye open, but still Jacob became wealthy out in the world on his own. The way Jacob would have told it, he became wealthy because he was the kind of person who took life by the horns, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, he wrestled out of every situation some kind of blessing for himself. Such a world view caused Jacob to put himself in the center of everything. Success was for him to earn, failure was no one’s fault but is own, and little did he know that there were “more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in his philosophy.” Up until this wrestling match that we’ve just read about in Genesis 32, the relationship between Jacob and God was kind of like a lady whose cell phone rang on Sunday morning in the middle of a worship service at Brentwood Baptist Church. This happens sometimes, so the preacher was a little annoyed, the cell phone ringing right in the middle of his sermon, but he understood. Until the lady had the audacity to answer it, and as she did she looked up at the preacher and gave him the hand-signal that she would just be a minute as she carried on with her conversation. Little did she know, that Sunday morning is the time to acknowledge the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dealt with on our cell phones, but that’s a concept not everyone is naturally comfortable with, Jacob included. Many people believe that they are in charge, that their time and opinion and force of will governs their existence, and they have difficulty with the concept that success might come from luck more than skill, or even more offensive, that blessings come from above or below rather than from the work of their hands. Take Pip for example, the main character in Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations. Having been financially supported by an anonymous benefactor for years, finally he comes face to face with the one who has been propping him up, but when he does he does not breathe a word of thanks – instead he is confused and devastated to find that he has been receiving help from a murderer on the run from the law. Such a gift has strings attached, and Pip longs to stand on his own two feet with no one but himself to thank or be obligated to, but life is not so much up to you, and some of us have to be wrestled to the ground before we learn to accept this truth. Though I didn’t wrestle with God through the night, I was restless a few years ago, as the church that I served faced a financial challenge that I couldn’t see a way out of. The estimated deficit was over $100,000, about a fourth of the annual budget, and I remember going to visit the Presbytery Office to ask for help not knowing where else to go. The Executive Presbyter is the title for the person who oversees the region of churches called a Presbytery, and I went into his office to report this challenge that seemed insurmountable to me. I told him that I didn’t know what to do, nor did I know what to say, but I was the pastor of this church so I had to do something. “It’s a financial problem that your church is facing then,” he asked. “Yes, and it’s a financial problem I can’t figure out how to make any better,” I responded. “And how much do you know about finances Joe?” he asked. I answered, “Well, I can’t seem to correctly balance my checkbook sir.” He looked at me kindly and said, “Then what makes you think that you should be the one to fix the problem?” There are members of that church here today, and I am proud to say that Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church recovered mightily from such a financial crisis, but in order for the church to recover their pastor had to get out of the way. I had to realize that “there are more things in heaven and earth, than I might have ever dreamt of.” There is help, more than you imagined. There is the opportunity for recovery, more than you have conceived of. And for Jacob, there was more forgiveness, more than he himself knew was possible. Jacob wrestles with God on the bank of the river on the night before he goes to meet his brother Esau – the brother who he wronged so cruelly many years before. Assuming that he was the one who would have to wrestle anything good out of life, to fall at the feet of Esau, in his mind, could only result in punishment or more likely death. There was something in Jacob that had to be defeated – something that had to be wrestled down, in order for him to accept the forgiveness he knows he doesn’t deserve. Jacob has been saying, “I can do it, and I will do it myself,” his whole life, but when he finally says “I can’t, I have lost, I am defeated,” that is when he hears the voice of God saying, “Come to me, for I can do what you cannot.” Whatever it is within you that is trying to hold everything together. Whatever it is within you that stays up late at night wondering how you’ll pull it off. Whatever it is within you that drives you to see yourself and your role in this world in cruel proportion, with you so large that nothing can happen if you can’t make it happen, know that when Jacob surrendered to God on the bank of the river, he finally knew what victory really was. “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” but to know what they are you must first get over yourself as Jacob finally did. Only defeated did he begin to see the world for what it truly is, and only defeated did he come to understand himself and his God. “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” After the night of your great surrender, the sun will rise upon you as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thank you

Luke 17: 11-19, NT page 80 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Sermon Last Tuesday I had two meetings in Nashville, a lunch meeting at 11:30 and a 3:00 meeting that afternoon. In between the two meetings I had some time on my hands and I found myself just across the street from the Parthenon, one of the tourist type attractions in Nashville I’ve been wanting to see for myself ever since we moved here. This was my chance to go inside, and so I was relieved to find that the Parthenon is a state site and not a national site, therefore it was not shut-down and I was lucky enough to pay my $6.00 and went inside. I don’t know what I expected. I guess I expected this reproduction to be like every other reproduction I’ve ever been to. In Georgia there is a little mountain town called Helen which aspires to be a reproduction of a town in the Swiss Alps. I have a feeling that Helen Georgia has fallen short of her aspirations, though I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been to the Swiss Alps, but I have a feeling that towns in the Swiss Alps don’t paint little Swiss boys and girls on their trash cans, nor do restaurants in the Swiss Alps specialize in funnel cakes and stores boast of their selection of rebel flags. So maybe that’s what I was expecting – a poor reproduction of the original – but what I found instead at the Parthenon in Nashville was incredible. Humungous columns, gigantic bronze doors, and the most beautiful statue of the goddess Athena, clothed in gold, standing hundreds of feet tall with her right hand extended holding Nike, the goddess of victory. Even her shield was enormous, and there in the middle was the head of Medusa – a thank you present given to her by Perseus after she helped him in his quest to free Andromeda, the woman he loved, from a sea monster. The head of a woman with snakes for hair is dramatic as far as thank-you gifts go, but something was appropriate considering all Athena had done to help him, just as these lepers doing something or saying something was appropriate after Jesus had healed them in our second scripture lesson. However, despite the appropriateness, only one of them does. As our lesson goes, Jesus was not in any region at all, he was in-between Samaria and Galilee, exactly the kind of place lepers would have been. They didn’t live anywhere so to speak, they lived in-between – in-between one side of the bridge and the other, in-between this town and the next – lepers were unclean and were therefore exiled out into the in-between places. The term itself, leprosy, refers to many different skin conditions, as the one that we know now to be so dangerous, also known as Hansen’s disease, was so feared that anything resembling leprosy was treated as leprosy. Don’t go showing the rash that you got from poison ivy to anyone or risk being identified as a leper. If you think acne is feared by 13 year olds today, you can’t imagine how hard those teenagers worked to get rid of their zits knowing that too many could result in their exile to the leper colony. These people were completely defined by the imperfections of their skin, more so even than we are with some today paying hundreds of dollars for wrinkle reducing lotions and thousands for plastic surgery. The degree to which they were defined by the imperfections of their skin is illustrated by their lack of names - the names of these lepers aren’t mentioned, nor were they identified by any particular qualities of character – like prison inmates whose identities are reduced to the number on their chest these men and women were simply lepers. Their lives had been completely derailed. Their families had been forced to turn their back. They had to leave school, leave work, leave home, and why – had they done anything to deserve it? No. And when that’s the case, sometimes being healed and being made well are two completely different things. All ten lepers are healed, 9 return home immediately, not even taking the time to say thank you as though they are just too excited to get back home where they’ll embrace little girls who have missed their daddy, overjoyed to return to the husbands who love them, proud to get back to making a living as an upstanding member of the community, or just to go and sleep in their own bed – all 9 are in such a hurry to get back to life as it used to be that they don’t quite make it. That’s not an uncommon thing. Men and women return from war, some without a scratch and others with wounds healed over, but few are those who come back well. Too many are not able to sleep through the night, too many cannot tame their hands trained in the ways of violence, and too many, while healed in body are not well in soul. Ten are healed, but only one is made well, and I can imagine how the other nine ended up because having been spared from tragedy doesn’t ensure happiness. Regardless of the miraculous healing by Jesus, years have been lost and those years were taken unfairly and will never be given back. Such unfairness isn’t easy to recover from, if anything such unfairness plants a seed of resentment that grows and grows so that while the man has left the leper colony the leper colony has not left the man. The wrongfully imprisoned may be given freedom, but years spent locked behind bars are gone forever; people survive cancer, but can they handle the fact that they were among the unlucky to be diagnosed and forced to go through the pains of treatment; and even the one who learns to walk again may still have anger when he remembers how easy walking used to be. The ever-present question: “why me,” the endless speculation of how it could have all been avoided, the millions of regrets, the innumerable “I should haves,” and the hatred of the one who got you there ensure that healing is not enough – to truly recover, to truly go on with your life, you can’t just be healed, you have to be made well. 10 are healed and only one leper is made well. Considering this difference I can’t help but think of my friend Bryan King. Bryan has worshiped here with us on several occasions, and we prayed for him for some time beginning almost exactly 10 months ago after he was hit by a car on Mooresville Pike while riding his bicycle. From the asphalt road he was life-flighted to Vanderbilt, went through several surgeries, and for the next several months he was not able to work, he was not even able to walk. Certainly he had plenty of time to think – to think about the young man who hit him who was driving while texting on his phone and therefore drove straight into him. The unfairness of the situation was plane, the injustice of it all was as unforgettable as his pain. However, miraculously his body was healing, and after months of recovery, while waiting for one of his last surgeries that would mark the end of his treatment, he was talking to the man in the bed next to his. “What are you here for?” Bryan asked. “They tell me that after today I’ll be cancer free,” the man replied. Bryan noticed how joyful the man sounded, but the man continued, “They’ll be taking both my legs. I won’t be able to walk again, but after today they tell me I’ll be cancer free.” Bryan wanted to put the man in touch with a friend who makes protheitc limbs but the man told Bryan that his condition was such that he’d never be able to uses a prosthesis. The fact of the matter was that he’d never walk again. Bryan considered his own legs, his legs that now worked just fine, his long road to healing that would soon enough be over, but it was only in considering the joy in that man’s voice, his spirit of thanksgiving to soon be cancer free despite the fact that he would never walk again. It was only then that Bryan began not just to be healed, in observing that man’s thankfulness Bryan began to be made well. Looking at his own legs, in the midst of all his frustration, Bryan found something to be thankful for too. That’s the difference between the nine who were healed and the one, the one who was not just healed but by his faith was made well. Despite all his reason to complain he could not help from giving thanks. Despite all his years spent in the leper colony, those years would not define him as deeply as this miracle would. So he “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” He didn’t have to – he was no more healed by giving thanks – but our scripture lesson tells us that Jesus looked at him and said, “Your faith has made you well”. The importance of being made well is made clear when you think of Welfare and Food-stamps, viewed as mechanisms that enable poverty and fuel entitlement rather than as a means to free men and women from poverty. They may be fed, but are they well? Being made well matters just as our country is known to be one of the wealthiest and simultaneously one the most unhappy countries in the world. We may have everything we need, but are we well? Ten lepers walked away from Jesus healed, but only one was made well, because there is something about saying thank-you, because there is something about just being thankful, that matters tremendously, and it is a lesson to you and to me, because Jesus doesn’t just save, he doesn’t just heal, he hasn’t just given you all the blessings that you enjoy, he also here shows you how to be made well. He welcomed that leper’s thanks, not because he needed to be thanked, not because being thankful was a requirement to be healed, he welcomed that leper’s thanks because in giving thanks that healed leper was made well. He welcomes you here to worship him, not because he needs it, but because in worshiping the God of our salvation our spirits are lifted, our minds are unclouded, and our souls are made well. And that pledge card in your bulletin – it is not just about giving this church enough to keep the doors open, it is not just about doing what is right or what is expected, it is about the joy found in thankful people no matter how little they have and the misery so palpable in all those who are only mindful of gaining more no matter how much they have already. Your pledge card – it is an invitation to be made well – but it is an invitation that no one can require you to accept. Being thankful is just as much a discipline as anything else. You imagine that it will come as soon as you receive what you want, but it will not. Being thankful only comes when you realize that what you have is a gift, and being made well – that is a gift that only those who give thanks ever receive. Give thanks to the one who deserves your praise and adoration. Give thanks to the rock of your salvation. Amen.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Increase our faith!

Luke 17: 5-10, NT page 80 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’ “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Sermon On the radio, a month or so ago, came the story of a reporter who spent several weeks at a summer camp. There she documented what life was like for campers ranging in age from 10 to 18 who spent the whole summer swimming, canoeing, and doing all other kinds of summer camp activities away from their parents. As any of you who know about summer camp can attest to, often a deep camaraderie builds between the campers who live together in the same cabin without their brothers, sisters, or parents. Relationships also grow between members of the opposite sex, and so on the very last night at camp, just after the big end of camp dance, a cabin of boys gathers around to hear if 12 year old Steven has seized the opportunity to kiss 12 year old Caroline. Steven had been talking about it, amassing his courage, and assuming that after the end of camp dance would be the perfect moment, he told all his friends that he would be sure to make his move then. But, back in the cabin, just before bed, he was ashamed to admit to them that the moment had slipped through his finger-tips. “So you didn’t do it?” his friends asked. “Well, I would have”, Steven responded, “But the wind was blowing really hard… and it kept blowing her hair in her face and I didn’t want to kiss her when her hair was all over her lips, and besides, I couldn’t really get her away from her friends, and on top of that, I had just eaten a sour cream and onion potato chip so I was pretty sure that my breath smelled pretty bad,” and, if you know what it is like to be a 12 year old boy you know that the list of excuses could go even longer. What Steven is saying is that the conditions weren’t quite perfect, that he needed something else in order to make his move, but what you and I know is that really and truly, what he needed was not for the conditions to be perfect. In fact, blaming his failure to kiss the girl on the wind is kind of like a three foot tall white kid who never practices, but thinks that his problems with basketball stem from the fact that his mama won’t buy him the right shoes. Or, this 12 year old Steven blaming his failure to kiss the girl on the wind, is kind of like the apostles, who cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They have just been challenged by Jesus to forgive, not just to forgive once, but “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” In order to live out this radical teaching on forgiveness they cry out to him, “Increase our faith,” but Jesus knows that they do not suffer from a crisis of faith, they suffer from a failure of nerve. Jesus sees through their excuses – he knows that the problem is not the wind or the shoes – the problem doesn’t even have anything to do with faith, for if they just had faith the size of a mustard seed, the smallest of all known seeds – if you had this much faith, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” The problem stems from a failure to act. More faith? Why should he give you more faith? To Jesus, the apostles asking for more faith is like a slave asking for special treatment after a day working in the field - “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?” You want more faith, but why do you need more faith to do what you are expected to do? A slave who comes in from the field to prepare supper isn’t anything special – nothing additional is needed to do what is expected. More faith you want – but what is this request but an attempt to defend yourself, an excuse to hide behind, when you know that what is needed is not more faith but more action. A slave doesn’t serve his master when he’s ready; a slave is ready when he’s called. Just as Christ is saying to the disciples, “you do not forgive when you feel as though your faith is strong enough, you give forgiveness when you must.” In the same way, a soldier serves his country, not when it is safe, but when he is needed. And you, I call you to dedicate yourself to the discipline of Stewardship, both of your time and your money – not when you get ready to, not when you’re comfortable and you run out of excuses not to, but now. You may feel as though first you need more before you can afford to give any away. I know it’s not easy, but for those who serve the Master, the discipline of giving something up, the act of giving something significant back to God isn’t optional – it isn’t pending once all the conditions are perfect – it is required now. He calls on you, not once you are ready, not when you are in a position to – but today. And what other response could there be, when you consider the legacy that you have inherited, the gifts of faith passed down through the generations, and your responsibility, not just to receive but to give back. For while we have benefited greatly by the legacy of all those who have come before us, today is your day, now is your time, and this church needs you to step forward as together we forge the future. I need you to be a part of this future. In order for the future of this church to be as bright as it possibly can be, your gifts are needed. But more than that, the one who has given you everything is today calling on you to act – not to wait for the perfect time, but to act now, to live out your faith today. Today is World Communion Sunday, and today we are mindful of a world reluctant to act – reluctant to respond to Christ’s call. Rather than live out peace, our world waits for the perfect moment, and until then we must live with war. Rather than live out love, our world holds back, and until then we must live with hurt and fear. Rather than live out justice, our world chooses to believe that desperate times call for desperate measures, and so money is valued over human welfare and wealth is pursued while happiness remains elusive. All the while, Christ is here – calling you along with the whole world – to this table to learn that the ideal life may be lived out now should you chose to be more like him – not waiting for the perfect moment, but living out the Gospel today. He did not wait to give up everything – even his body and blood. So how can you? Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A wise investment?

Jeremiah 32: 1-15, OT page 736 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye; and he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall remain until I attend to him, says the Lord; though you fight against the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed?” Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver, I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase containing the terms and conditions and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. Sermon We are approaching the time of year when the air conditioners go off and the heat comes on. And maybe we’re not there yet, but already I’m dreading this change. There’s something about the heat that takes the moisture out of a house, and without that moisture my nostrils dry out and my nose will just start bleeding out of nowhere. Of course, these nose bleeds always come at the most inopportune times – when I’m already late for an appointment, when I am standing behind the pulpit, or sitting at my desk in the second grade, nose bleeding, and everyone looking at me as my name slowly morphs into “Joe the nose picker.” When I got home that afternoon I wasn’t all that worried whether or not the name had stuck, as I had decided that the only reasonable thing to do at that point would be to sell our house so that I’d be able to go to a new school. However, my parents didn’t see it that way. A nose bleed didn’t, in their minds, warrant a real estate transaction where we would essentially pull up our roots and put down new ones somewhere else. That process, is a big deal signaling a big step in anyone’s life, and generally people take such a step seriously. In the Atlanta news recently, the story of two churches who were wrestling with the decision to pull up roots caught my attention. The Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons football team play their games, is due to be replaced by a new stadium nearby the existing dome, but in order to begin building its replacement, first the land must be purchased. Two churches were standing in the way until just a couple days ago, first Friendship Baptist sold for 19.5 million dollars, and on Tuesday night Mt. Vernon Baptist Church agreed to sell its building and property in a congregational meeting for 14.5 million dollars. 116 members of the congregation voted to sell the property, 16 voted not to, and I imagine that you can see the wisdom on both sides, but if you find it easier to relate to the 116 members who voted to sell the church property you may have a hard time understanding why, in our second scripture lesson, Jeremiah wants to buy. The nation of Israel is not just in bad shape, it is in the middle of being invaded. King Zedekiah is frustrated because Jeremiah won’t stop talking about how this invasion is going to end badly, with King Zedekiah’s eventual arrest and displacement in Babylon. Some, like King Zedekiah, aren’t ready to quit fighting, but at this point any wise person is either already gone or is making plans to get out. Jeremiah’s cousin is one of the wise ones, and he is getting desperate to unload his ancestral property so that he can get out of town with a little money in his pocket. Jeremiah buys, and maybe you’re thinking that if he’s interested in buying a piece of property that has become a battle ground and will be flattened until there’s nothing left, then there’s a nice piece of property out on Monsanto Road that he might be interested in as well. But don’t be mistaken, Jeremiah isn’t foolish – he is the Lord’s prophet and he is not in this moment showing us an example of how to make money, in this moment he is showing us an example of God’s unwillingness to pull up roots. Whereas I was ready to move on after my embarrassing incident with a nose bleed, God is not willing to go anywhere, even in the midst of war. God is not one to move after getting God’s feelings hurt at school, God is not about running away when things get dangerous, nor is God about deserting the people in their time of greatest trial – no God is a God of constant presence, and this real estate transaction isn’t about money but truth, hope, and love. However, all that is hard to understand in a world where it seems as though everything is about money. Too often people die before they realize that there’s more to life than that – take our first scripture lesson for example. In our first scripture lesson there was a rich man and a poor man. The rich man knew that there was this poor man who lived outside his gate, but did he care for this poor man’s sores or his empty stomach? Certainly wealth, the accumulation and preservation of it, guided him through his decisions on earth, so what point would there be in reaching out to a poor man outside his gate – how would caring for that poor man help him to achieve his financial goals? It wouldn’t, but we are all foolish to believe that the financial goals that we adopt and work towards mean anything to God – for God is not nearly as interested in the accumulation of wealth as God is in caring for the poor and the afflicted. Vikki Johnston, one of the members of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church who voted against the sale of their church property, spoke to news cameras after the congregational meeting and said, “It is appalling for the city to consider desecrating the sacred ground of two historic black churches to build a stadium facility for a second rate football team.” It is appalling, but it should not be surprising. What matters more to a city than revenue? The spiritual wellbeing of her people? Not even the physical wellbeing of her people compares to our nations concern for collecting income – but know that God’s ways are not their ways. God is determined to be near, regardless of the cost, going so far as to take human form, walk and live among us, and even to face the cross as though he were a common criminal – going this far when it would have been so easy to just pull up roots. God’s concern with us is not rooted in financial gain – no – by purchasing this field the prophet Jeremiah shows us a God who is determined to prove that there is always a reason to hope for a time of rebuilding, even when there is destruction all around. And while God’s ways are not the ways of the world, God’s ways may be your ways. This is the season of stewardship. To take on the discipline of stewardship is to begin the process of modeling the ways of God – retraining yourself to know that there are more important things in this world than the accumulation of riches. It’s not necessarily a wise financial investment to give away 10% of your income. It’s not a wise investment to give away any percent of your income, but God calls you to do so because wise investments are not what truly matter. The pledge card you will receive during this stewardship season is an invitation – it is an invitation to live as a follower of Jesus Christ – who is the greatest sign that God will never pickup roots and leave you. Thanks be to God. Amen.