Monday, July 29, 2013

See to it that no one takes you captive

Colossians 2: 6-19, NT page 200-201 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from which the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. Sermon On Monday morning I was on my way to meet with several members of the church staff to plan out the church’s calendar for the upcoming school year. It’s important that we do so, to work towards not scheduling too many events for the same day and to plan out the year so that as a staff we can be better organized, support each other better, and better serve and communicate with all of you. On the way to this calendar planning meeting I needed to stop at Office Depot to buy a nice big calendar that I’d use to list all the events for music, Christian Education, the youth group, and everything else. Monday was a good day to stop in to Office Depot too, because it was packed full of school supplies. Not having anyone to really buy new school supplies for, that’s something I had not been thinking about, but walking around and looking at all the three ring binders remind me of how exciting it was to get the list from my teacher and go out with my mom to buy everything that I would need for the coming year. Before the pencils are out of their box, before the first piece of loose leaf paper has been written on, it’s all potential. A new school year is kind of like a blank slate. Last year’s teacher might have gotten the idea that you were an underachiever, but with a brand new year, a brand new class, nothing has been decided, you’re a blank slate as your teacher and your classmates have yet to really know who you are. There are hints you give to yourself and others at the beginning – a well prepared girl will show her teacher that she has the makings of a straight “A” student, but a boy who comes in late with only half of the supplies needed for the first day of school may give his teacher the impression that this year will begin and end badly. That’s why I think the school supplies drive of the Family Center which supplied over 500 students matters so much – your supplies say something about you, both to yourself and to your teacher, but Office Depot has enabled students everywhere to make an even more specific statement about themselves with their new line of school supplies endorsed by the boy band “One Direction.” You can’t just pick up a notebook – no – students today will have to decide between five different notebooks, all exactly alike except that each notebook features a different member of “One Direction” on the front. Each member has his own three ring binder and tape as well, and each member also apparently makes a different statement about who you are to your teacher and your classmates – you see Zayn’s neon yellow notebook carries with it the slogan “unique,” apparently because Zayn is the unique member of the group and if he’s the one on the cover of your notebook you can let everyone in your class know that you are “unique” as well. Liam is “true” which matches his blue notebook, Harry is nice, Louis is “original,” and the fifth one whose name I can’t pronounce but its spelled N-I-A-L-L has purple notebooks with the word “confident.” What these notebooks do isn’t unique, they’re just a little more obvious, as everyone knows, if only subconsciously, that the clothes that we wear, the car that we drive, the restaurants that we frequent, and the homes that we live in all make a statement about who we are and what we stand for. It’s helpful to have a notebook with the word “confident” on it if your agenda is to show the world that you are confident – having the word there so blatantly can expedite the process of sending such a message, but dressing in the right suit communicates confidence just as well. So also a mini-van can be the outward sign of a parent who takes the care of her children seriously, a sports car is the outward sign of youth and speed and power, so also a Subaru that runs on vegetable oil tells the world that the driver is smugly serious about caring for the environment even if no one else is. However, while these outward signs, these objects, can be used by you and me to make a statement about who we are and what we hold dear, we all must be careful not to let the objects take us captive. No – let the iPhone make a statement about who you are but do not let the iPhone tell you who you are. I think it’s nice to wear nice clothes, the right clothes can make you feel good, can even make you feel important - but don’t rely on these clothes and begin to think that you aren’t important without them. And while I loved having all the right school supplies – I remember having them and feeling as though I were smart and capable and organized – do not be fooled into thinking that you can’t be smart without those school supplies because it’s not the cloths that make the man nor is it the supplies that make the student – it is God who made you both. We all must be careful you see. “See to it that no one takes you captive” and tricks you into believing that you are defined by anything but Christ Jesus. The author of Colossians warns us against being taken captive because he knows that it’s possible – that being defined by goods or philosophies, empty deceit or human tradition has been a problem for human beings since Adam and Eve bit the apple. Inanimate objects become a sign – a mark – that we can’t get rid of. Mistakes become defining detriments that we can’t live down. Ideas come into our heads, and they don’t just float around in there – they take up residency – they fill our minds and corrupt our hearts changing the way we see ourselves and our world. One of the most obvious examples to me recently has been a voice in my mind that I’m getting better and better at ignoring. This voice whispers to me soft doubts about my voice, it worries whether or not I’ve turned off this microphone, and it used to cause me to sing softly so that even I won’t hear and be offended. This appears to be a problem among Presbyterians in general – though I know that at least part of the problem comes from me when I ask you to sing hymns you’ve never seen before – but there is a chance that when we go to join the heavenly choir we’ll be asked to sing something besides Amazing Grace or Blessed Assurance and if we can’t all learn to sing with confidence songs that we don’t know we’ll all be in trouble. But the voice is there – a voice in my mind who tells me that singing is like spandex shorts – it is a privilege and not a right. And this voice is telling you that you can’t. It tells you that you can’t unless it’s beautiful by the standards of the world, that you can’t unless it’s done properly, but I tell you that while the world is saying that you can’t the Lord is telling that you can and you should, and it is the Lord who gave you your voice so who should you be listening to? What does the Lord desire – beauty? Sure. But what the Lord most truly desires is a joyful heart lifted in praise but you can’t lift your heart in praise if you’re always listening to the voice in your head who tells you that you’re not good enough. Criticism – self-criticism – is so natural a thing these days. I read the paper and listen to people talk and realize that all of Columbia is getting awfully good at looking for problems. As a matter of fact, I think that a good number of Maury County residents would willingly change our county motto to “Not as good as Williamson.” And maybe a little bit of criticism is healthy, but too much will take you captive, not only finding room for improvement but redefining everything until suddenly all anyone can think about is what’s wrong as though what’s wrong with this county were more important than what’s right. We don’t have the education that Williamson County has – we don’t have the tax base – we don’t have the jobs or the stores or the money. Let me tell you what else we don’t have that Williamson County has – the traffic. We also have the tight nit community that I will always choose over the Williamson County indifference. And we have history which I would choose any day over another shopping mall that could just as well be in Tokyo as Middle Tennessee. Do we have problems – of course – but do not let yourself be taken captive by envy lest you forget that we have much more going for us that cannot be ignored. You see – you will all be defined by something – but do not let your community, do not let yourself, be defined by any problem, any shortcoming, any philosophy or human tradition – no “See to it that no one takes you captive…for you have come to fullness in Christ.” The reality is that every day you are exposed to ideas and ways of living, so many of which will hurt you and cause you harm, and while no one can prevent being exposed to products on a store shelf, drugs on the street, violence, divorce, failure, consumerism, negativity, death, or self-doubt – while all of these things will fight to define you, you must not be taken captive by any of them. Tear off the Scarlet Letter. Christ has triumphed over all things – all earthly rulers and powers he has put to shame. And in your baptism he claimed you – in your baptism he called your name – in your baptism he defined who you are and who you will always be. Not only are you redeemed – you have been deemed worthy of redemption. Not only are you forgiven – you will not be defined by your mistakes or failures but only by the grace poured out upon you. And not only are you God’s – forever you will be called a child of the Lord. “God has made you alive” and do not forget it. Amen.

Monday, July 8, 2013


2nd Kings 5: 1-14, OT page 336 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and he halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Sermon People will try all kinds of things to be healed. I took a fly ball to the nose when I was on the high school baseball team – one of my more embarrassing experiences – and ever since this injury I have been particularly susceptible to sinus infections and I will do almost anything to get rid of them. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one before – maybe you’ve never heard of it – but one of the things I’ve used to try and get rid of a sinus infection is called a neti-pot. There’s not much to it, it’s pretty much a clay pot with a long nozzle that you use to shoot salt water up your nose. Ideally the salt water goes up one nostril and out the other, taking with it any pollen, dust, or bacteria that’s causing the problem, but the first time I ever tried it the salt water went up one nostril and never came out. After that I took up the habit of trusting a doctor with this sort of thing, and I’m thankful for Dr. Corbin who has taken care of a number of my sinus infections, though the last time I went to see him I was a little disappointed. He was kind enough to see me in his office, looked up my nose to see whether or not my sinuses were swollen, and then broke the news to me – that in fact I didn’t have a bacterial sinus infection this time, it was viral, and the thing about a virus is that a lot of the time you just have to wait it out. This was disappointing, because what I wanted was some medicine to fix it. He told me that he would not prescribe me an anti-biotic because it wouldn’t do any good against a virus, and I guess that makes sense, but there’s something about a prescription, going to the drug store, picking up your medicine that ensures me that everything is going to be better soon. I tried to trust his professional opinion. I tried to wait out that virus. But two days later I called him back because I was sure my sinus infection had gotten worse and I was sure that I needed some medicine. In the back of my mind I was also sure that he was sorry he had me as a patient, but Dr. Corbin remained gracious and he told me he’d call a prescription in at the pharmacy, so about an hour later I picked up an orange pill bottle that was probably filled up with tick-tacs – and even if it was I don’t really care because it’s hard for me to believe that getting healed is as easy as just waiting a few days. No – getting healed must be complicated. It must take work. Surely being healed can’t be as easy as just waiting, drinking plenty of fluids, getting a little more rest than usual, or taking a bath in a river. When Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and “he halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house, Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman heard this simple piece of medical advice and he automatically believed that the prophet wasn’t taking his illness seriously. Then he considered the messenger who delivered the prescription and assumed that the prophet wasn’t taking him seriously either, and storming off angry he cried out, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” He did not, and to make matters worse, Naaman is offended by the whole idea that the brown waters of Israel would heal him when the waters of his home land could not. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he asks, “Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” Of course Naaman is not the prophet and I’m not a doctor, but that didn’t keep either one of us from our preconceptions about what would make us well. A preconception is a funny thing. Some people would look at our new friend Dakota Hill and assume that because of his youth he’d never be interested in something as old fashioned as a pipe organ. Some people look at me and assume I’m the son of the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church. And maybe not most people, but certainly a lot of people, drive or walk by this church with its columns and its windows and assume that this place must be full of the stogy and the wellborn, the self-righteous and the self-important. They’d be wrong, but a preconception is a funny thing because it can’t replace the truth but it sure will get in the way of finding it. There are plenty of people who can’t let go of their preconceptions about young people, old people, church people, what it takes to be healed, what it takes to be happy, and certainly people have preconceptions about what it will take to be forgiven. Naaman’s preconceptions were so strong he nearly walks off without being healed because he is so sure of the form his healing will take. The prophet will emerge from his tent, kiss his feet, thank him for coming all the way out to the back country of Israel – then he’ll wave his hand over the spot and will vacuum the leprosy right off his body in a burst of flame and smoke – surely it will take something magical to rid this man of a disease that has marked him for so long. Surely it can’t be as simple as getting into a river. A river is just water. There’s nothing to it. He could have also looked down his nose at the slave girl who urged him to seek out help in the prophet of Israel, this girl captured in a raid who claimed that Naaman could be healed. It’s easy to assume that if the great doctors of his homeland, if the powerful and prestigious of Aram didn’t know where to go than why would a slave girl have any answers? And so we go to the top – for advice we seek out the successful, the ones who have made it; who can help me lead a life worth living – surely the banker or the counselor can help, but does not the homeless man on the corner, also have something to teach you and me about what it takes to make it in this world? Maybe? But I have a feeling that for you, and by you I really mean me – I assume that for me the assumption is most often that real answers, real solutions must be paid for, must be sought out, must be worked for – that healing must at least require a plane trip to another city and forgiveness must at least require a little bit of pain. That’s what I assumed when I was a child. In a game of baseball I got a hit, and instead of dropping the bat behind me I slung it back to hit the catcher, who wasn’t wearing a mask, squarely in the teeth. I was completely prepared to never play baseball again. I was also prepared to never again leave my room to avoid the risk of seeing that teammate of mine. I don’t know what I thought would happen when I would face him – would he want to sling a baseball bat into my teeth? I had no idea, but surely he wouldn’t want to be friends again. However, for some reason my father got the idea that I was being a little overly dramatic and so he forced me to pick up the phone to call him. What would I say I wondered? My father said, “You’ll tell him that you’re sorry and I bet he’ll forgive you.” “It can’t be that simple,” says my preconception. But my father told me that it could be and who do you think was right. Just this morning, the Rev. Jennie Barber told you all that having confessed your sins you are now forgiven, but I’m confident that many of you don’t believe her because you have preconceptions about forgiveness too. That somehow the punishment should fit the crime, that the magnitude of what you did wrong should be matched by the magnitude of what it will take to make it right again, that having fallen from grace you’ll have to climb back up for the rest of your life if you ever stand the chance of reaching forgiveness at all, but that just isn’t how God works and you can’t let your preconception about God replace the truth about God. Elisha sent out a messenger to give Naaman some simple instructions – and you must let me give you some simple instructions as well. Forgiveness is for you. If it is for the general of a foreign army surely it is for you. And if the waters of the river could wash off that man’s leprosy who is to say what the waters that you were baptized by can or can’t do. Surely your preconceptions will get in the way, just as preconceptions always do. Surely you will find yourself feeling as though you can never be forgiven and so the best option will be to rejoice in other’s mistakes feeling as though if you can’t be made right at least they can’t either, but before you walk away from this place settling for something so shallow - remember that had the prophet commanded Naaman to do something difficult he would have done it – how much more should you believe when all it takes is to wash and be clean? Amen.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Elijah and Elisah

2nd Kings 2: 1-14, OT page 332-333 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. Sermon From what I’ve heard, Bill Williamson was an excellent pastor here at First Presbyterian Church. He served this church for more than 20 years, and I am certain that I benefit from following in the footsteps of someone who continues to be so well-loved and who faithfully served this church and this community for so many years. However, I also often wonder if I am measuring up to his legacy, and when I wonder about that, I am thankful that at his retirement, that he was not swept up into heaven in a whirlwind. In the same way that I follow in the footsteps of Bill Williamson, so James Marshall follows in the footsteps of Lacy Coleman who served this church faithfully for over 40 years. Mr. Coleman is reported to have been able to fix anything here at First Presbyterian Church including the organ. His wit and wisdom are legendary, as is his strength. I heard a story about him pushing a piano from the first floor to the second all by himself – quite a legacy, but again, at least he was not swept up into heaven in a whirlwind, then working under his shadow would be even more intimidating. So also Renea Foster follows in the footsteps of Debbie Sherman who was such a mainstay in the church office that some claimed she was chained to the desk. Her voice is synonymous with this church for some, and when calling the church her voice is the one they still expect to hear. She is now enjoying her retirement, enjoying the gazebo that you bought her as a retirement gift, and I am thankful for that because if she had been swept up in a whirlwind on her last day in the office we would still have a vacancy in her position. And now today is the last Sunday for Wilmoth Foreman as our church organist. Wilmoth has served this church, off and on, since her children were babies. She has been through two organs, she learned to work with and plan worship with nearly half a dozen pastors between this church, First Methodist in Pulaski, and First Presbyterian in Mt. Pleasant. She has led music with various music directors, played innumerable choir anthems, accompanied who knows how many choir rehearsals, brought her musical gifts to funerals and weddings and Christmas Programs, and Wilmoth, more than anyone else has been like a back-bone to the music program of this church, as she has always been here to play when this church needed her the most. Who will play the organ after today? That’s one question that is easy enough to answer – next Sunday we will have a new organist who will occupy her bench, but will he be able to fill her shoes? I hope that today a wind will not blow to sweep her up into heaven or her legacy will be even more intimidating than it already is. As we have read this morning, Elisha was not so fortunate, and it’s not as though the legacy of Elijah weren’t intimidating enough already. Elijah was numbered among the greatest of Israel’s prophets having brought a child back from the dead, called fire down from heaven, and confronting the King to inspire his repentance. Certainly this is already a legacy impossible to replicate, a shadow cast by a great man that Elisha would not soon get out from under, and surely Elisha would want to work to get out from under it. I say surely he would, because that’s how most people are. The younger sister gets tired of constantly being compared to her older sister by all her teachers. Before she even turns in her first paper the expectations are set and intimidation weighs heavy. She’ll want to make a name for herself or feels as though she’ll suffocate under the weight of her big sister’s shadow. For sons it’s not so different. Should a son follow in his father’s footsteps, take over the family business, or even in the case of the Bush family, become the President of the United States, I can’t imagine many things more difficult than asking your father for help. No, the son will want to make sure that his dad knows he can do it on his own. He’ll want to show everyone, his father especially, that he is ready, that he can do it, and will surely wait until failure is obvious to ask for any kind of advice. Asking for help is surely among the most difficult things. When the shoes that you’ve been asked to fill are too big most will pretend that the shoes fit when they don’t, if not for their sake, for the sake of everyone else. As though it weren’t bad enough already, the thought of getting along without Elijah, Elisha also has to deal with the anxiety of every other prophet in Israel. Every place they stop the company of the prophets come out saying, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” I don’t know what Elisha wanted to say to these prophets, but if he’s anything like me, then when a group continually states the obvious that happens to be the very thing that I am fearing the most, responding with, “Yes, I know; keep silent,” sounds beyond polite. Should he have been around a group of people who didn’t need him to be brave I am sure he would have voiced his fear. Should he have been around a group of people who didn’t need him to start acting like a leader I am sure he wouldn’t have felt the need to sound confident. And should he have been around a group of people who weren’t dreading Elijah’s departure I’m sure he would have wept, but Elisha couldn’t weep – the heir apparent to the chief prophet of the nation can’t weep. Or at least he felt like he couldn’t. Be brave, be confident, don’t cry – that sounds like what a new leader should do – and certainly don’t ask for help. Now that’s not very good advice at all, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who live by it, believing that pretending to know what they’re doing is better than asking for help – while Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you?” And Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” I hope that our new organist will be able to play well. I hope that he won’t play so loudly that he’ll drown out the choir and you’ll all be saying that this thing needs a muffler. But more than anything else – I hope that he’ll ask for help when he needs it. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no shame in acknowledging your limitations There is no shame in asking for help. As a matter of fact – I am convinced that it’s only those who ask for help that stand any chance in this world, as the precondition for getting better is acknowledging that you aren’t perfect, the precondition for receiving forgiveness is acknowledging that you’ve done something wrong, and the precondition for salvation is not being a good person, but in acknowledging the fact that you aren’t. You see our world is full of fakes – people who don’t know how to do their jobs but are afraid to ask for help for fear that they’ll be fired, people who know deep down that they don’t have it together but are scared to death for fear of what will happen when their friends find out that they don’t, and plenty of people who think that only good people get to go to heaven when the Bible makes it absolutely clear that it’s the good people who are in trouble because if you’re good enough on your own you don’t have any need for the only one who can save you. Elisha asks his teacher for help – and don’t you know that it is in this moment that Elijah knows he picked the right man as his successor. And I need help, you need help – and it’s when we cry out for help that we receive it, and it’s when we pretend that we’re just fine that we are the most lost – for in pretending we risk never being found. Know that you can call on him for help. Call on him and know that when you are brave enough to call on him you can stop pretending, you can stop pretending that you are just find and that you’re doing OK, and in the freedom of that honesty know that you will receive salvation – for salvation isn’t given to those who deserve it. Salvation is only given to those who know that they need it. Amen.