Monday, August 19, 2013
Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2, NT page 226 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Sermon Mrs. Ruth Green revealed to one of her great grand-daughters, that she remembered well the first telephone she ever saw. It was an amazing thing – to be able to speak with neighbors and friends without having to leave the house. It changed things, of course. Rather than always speaking face to face, conversations could take place through the power of modern technology. Things with this new phone weren’t perfect and they continued to progress, but to be able to pick up the phone and talk to an operator who would connect her to the household that she requested seemed quite amazing to Mrs. Green who lived long enough in the world without a telephone to be amazed by the world with it. This innovation changed things considerably. Before the telephone she would drive her mother in to town. They would park the car right up on the sidewalk along with everyone else, then walk up and down that row of cars to visit and catch up with neighbors and friends. There was no Facebook – no other means to share all that news and all those pictures so important but not worthy of the newspaper, so to catch up on the news of new babies, children grown and starting a life of their own, good news, bad news, and everything in between – it had to be passed from person to person directly in that time before the telephone. Comparing this pre-telephone world to her world, Mrs. Green’s great grand-daughter was amazed by the idea that her great grand-mother lived in a world that seems so different from her own, and was even more amazed when she realized that her great grandmother was remembering the world before the telephone and not just the world before the cell phone. I am sure that Mrs. Green’s great-grand-daughters know how lucky they are to hear stories like this. They are blessed to be loved and cared for, not just by their parents, not just by their grandfather, but by three generations they are loved and valued, by three generations they are encouraged, and they benefit from the knowledge and experience gained by three generations of faithful people. They can look at the world around them and know that things have not always been the way that they are now, so there is no reason to believe that they will always stay the same. They will face their own trials and challenges, but they will face them knowing about endurance and strength, having heard the stories of their great-grandmother and their grandfather in addition to the stories that their parents tell, all of whom have already displayed endurance and strength. A race these great-grand-daughters will have to run, but they will not run it alone for they are surrounded by, as the author of Hebrews, our second scripture lesson calls it: “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Of course that is a gift. I did not grow up with a great-grandmother close by, but I remember being in her house. She kept poodles, it seemed like hundreds of them, and in addition to having them groomed she painted all of their nails. She also had pictures all over her house, most of them black and white, and having seen the Wizard of Oz where scenes in Kansas were filmed in black and white and scenes in Oz were filmed in color, and having no knowledge of different kinds of film but imagining instead that there was one kind of film and two different kinds of worlds, I imagined that my great-grandmother was unfortunate enough to have had to live a portion of her life in a black and white world – and how fortunate she must feel to now be living in the color world with us. But those were not pictures of a different world in the sense that there was no color, those were pictures of a different world in the sense that so many of them were taken before the Great Depression, before the 2nd World War. I remember asking my grandmother to describe her childhood, some of those formative years taking place during the Great Depression. She remembered having less, but not so little that her mother, my great-grandmother, didn’t still have her hair done once a week. It’s that story and others that I hold close, especially during the last few years of economic recession. You see – I know people who lived through the Great Depression. I know that there are cycles of loss and recovery, downturn and upswing, so why should I be afraid? It’s a similar message that the author of Hebrews brings, calling to mind great heroes of the faith who, having run their race, have now gone on to their place in glory. Remember that “by faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land,” and know that if the Lord made them a way through a sea so also the Lord will see you from a place of tears to a place of joy – from unemployment to a job that you love – that the Lord will carry you from addiction to recovery - though the way seems impossible remember that the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. Remember that “by faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days,” so what other obstacle might the Lord remove? And what more should I say? Do you know the stories “of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight”? If you know the stories of what God has done for the people in the past than you may be bold to believe that God will do the same in the future – that there is no reason to despair – that there is no reason to lose hope. But if you don’t know the stories – then you are like a child with no great-grand mother, left to believe that the way it is is the way it has always been. This is a dangerous place to be. The one who has always had a washer and dryer doesn’t know that clothes can be made clean without one. The one who grew up in a two car family probably doesn’t know the first thing about getting on a bus or walking to school. And the one who has never had to go without may not have any idea how to make it on a starting salary. Words enable us to speak, new ideas drive the mind, but stories – stories tell us what is possible, what can be endured – stories tell us who we are, and where we can go, because we go following in the footsteps of the people who go before us – but if you don’t know their stories you walk alone. In divorce there are those who feel as though they are all alone, and then there are those who have heard the stories of brothers and sisters who have walked that road before and can testify that joy will be found again. In tragedy, there are those who weep all by themselves, but then there are those who are held close by friends and their stories of grief – a great crowd of witnesses who can share in sadness because they know it first-hand. In times of heartbreak there are daughters and sons who feel a pain that seems as though it will never go away, and thank God for those mothers and fathers who can tell their own stories of love lost, assuring their children that broken hearts will mend and true love will be found. But pity the one who faces a broken heart alone, who walks that road believing that they walk it by themselves. There are those who believe that divorce is the end, that tragedy cannot be endured, that broken hearts cannot be mended – because no one is there to tell them the stories. There are those who believe that the Christian faith is under attack today, that not being able to display a Christmas Tree at the courthouse is the end of the world – but let that one hear the story – that “women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy.” You see – being here matters, because the church has the stories that you need to hear. Bringing your children to Sunday School matters, because they need some stories that will see them through this life and you and I both know that as good as Sesame Street and the Disney channel are, they won’t get stories of real and lasting value on cable TV. They’ll need stories to help them endure hardship, so let them hear about the ones who “wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground.” And they’ll need to hear that hardship can be endured, so let them hear about the faithful of scripture who, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Today at First Presbyterian Church, this is what we call Genesis Sunday, and for the sake of stories that you need to hear I pray that you will take advantage of today to renew your commitment to this church, participating in her programs, studying scripture with your brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to hear the stories of the faithful in the Bible, but also to hear the stories of the faithful who you are sitting next to. We will all face trials, but you do not face them alone. And the story that matters more than all the others is the one told in this morning’s anthem that was sung so beautifully by Beth Patton – “Dark midnight was my cry, dark midnight was my cry, give me Jesus. Oh when I come to die, oh, when I come to die, oh, when I come to die, give me Jesus.” For when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you walk a well-worn path. You follow in the footsteps of all the faithful who walked right through adversity, toil, and trial, and walked on into glory. You follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” So by faith in him, follow him on to glory. Amen.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1: 2-14, page 614 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. Sermon According to the author of Ecclesiastes, our second scripture lesson for this morning, “there is nothing new under the sun”, and while this statement is generally true, there are exceptions I believe, as when I was a child pita chips did not exist and today they do. I was in Kroger last week to pick up a handful of items and I wandered into the section of the new Kroger store with all the fancy cheeses, and there was a big display for Stacy’s Pita Chips. Now pita bread, I remember eating pita bread as a child, and I would wonder for hours on end how it was that the bread magically developed with such a convenient pocket. Pita bread is almost like a bread bubble gone flat, so when you slice a piece into two both become a shell that you can fill up with whatever you want. I remember having pita bread sandwiches as a child and stuffing the pocket with cheese and lettuce or whatever else. But now Stacy has figured out a way to turn the pita bread, that I’m sure human civilization has known for thousands of years, into delicious chips that can be dipped as a snack or appetizer, and her advertising people even developed a catchy slogan to make sure that you hurry over to Kroger today to pick up a bag: “Like is short. Use the good bowl.” Pour out the bag of pita chips onto a plate and pour out some kind of dip - into – not the chipped bowl you use every day, but the good bowl – the one you use only on special occasions – why, because life is short and you don’t need to let another day pass without experiencing Stacy’s pita chips. This advertising slogan really affected me. This slogan, in addition to Stacy’s pita chips, also got me thinking about all the good bowls that I am not using, that I have been saving for some kind of special occasion. Sara and I have been married now for nearly 11 years and there are still wedding gifts, not bowls, but platters and serving utensils, still in their box, waiting for a special occasion. And now I have a reason to pull them out – as today I’m going to ask Sara to bring home a bag of Stacy’s pita chips, which we’ll pour out onto one of those platters, spoon out some kind of dip with our never before used silver serving utensils, because after all, “life is short,” and it's time we “used the good bowl.” Or, maybe not today, but I hope we do use that stuff soon. We’ve moved three times since our wedding day, and each time I pack or unpack those unused wedding presents I think about how we should have used them at least once. But we’re still waiting for the right occasion, or the right yard sale, though it’s not as though we can keep waiting forever. The occasion we’ve been waiting for may not get here. That’s the reality, so while it is possible to get comfortable in the false assumption that tomorrow is guaranteed, while you and I may just go on waiting for the right moment to use the nice bowl, we must remember that there is no way of knowing when our time will run out. That is part of what I believe Jesus was trying to illustrate in our first scripture lesson. Our first scripture lesson tells the story of a rich man and his land that produced abundantly. The man thought to himself, “‘what should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” That sounds like a good plan – take advantage of today so that you can benefit tomorrow. Work hard now in preparation for the years to come. Tighten that belt, stiffen that lip, and tomorrow – tomorrow you can relax. “But God said to the man, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” Life is short, so use the nice bowl, because tomorrow may never come. There’s a lesson in this parable for the one who works eighty hours a week, all for the day in some uncertain future when his dues are finally paid and he can slow down a little bit – hear this parable and be mindful of the truth that you may not make it that far. There’s a lesson too for the one who gives up everything, who puts everything else on the backburner for the good of her family. She loves them of course, and as for those things that she dreams of doing – exercise, shopping, going on dates with her husband, getting back to school, they’ll be time for that once the kids are in school she says, then I’ll get back to being myself. But hear this parable and know that today is all the time that anyone can count on. We postpone things however. We postpone using the nice bowl in favor of just the right occasion. We save the fancy mustard for the right party, then pull it out from the pantry only to find that the expiration date has already passed. We look forward to the day when there will be time for a vacation, a fishing trip, a night out to dinner, not realizing that tonight is just as good a night as any and tonight may be all that we have. What are we waiting for? As though we had all the time in the world, people put all their chips on tomorrow. But don’t put off really living, don’t wrap up life in tissue paper and put it away in the china cabinet so that your children can pull it out for the estate sale. You do not have all the time in the world, so do not put off enjoying something, do not put off joy or happiness for who knows what might happen between today and tomorrow. That was the lesson that the rich man could have benefited from, and Jesus tells this story to a brother who asks, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” as though the two brothers were fighting it out over who would get what. And this is how we are we humans – wanting fairness when it comes to property and goods – and as we seek out fairness we raise our voices to each other, we appeal to courts of law, and inadvertently we throw away relationships with our brothers in the reckless pursuit of inheritance as though such things as wealth and property were anything more than vanity. “Vanity of vanities,” says the teacher, “all is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” Certainly by fighting over inheritance many gain nothing in the mind of the author of Ecclesiastes, though they say things that can never be taken back and they forfeit relationships that seem as though they can never be healed. And for what – what do they gain? Money in a bank account, property, or goods – surely these things are vanity when they are compared to the relationship harmed with a brother. However, money, property, goods – these things are not deemed vanity by the world – no – these things are prized, valued, sought after tooth and nail, and labored in pursuit of. On the other hand stand the words of Jeremiah Milbank, who helped President Hoover develop the Boys and Girls Club guided by the principle that “wealth not used to serve others is wealth wasted.” This past Thursday I was able to attend a lunch celebrating the Boys and Girls Club of Maury County when six of our church were honored as members of the Jeremiah Milbank society for their outstanding contributions to the Boys and Girls Club. Surely their contributions could have gone to investments, leisure activities, vacations, surely the grain from their productive fields could have been stored in new and larger barns, but instead they gave it away to girls and boys in our community who can benefit from it right now. Right now – that is all that there really is – so what will you do with right now? To put all your effort into labor, surely that is vanity. This afternoon you can cut your lawn, mine certainly needs it, but the grass will grow back again just as the wind “blows to the south, then goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.” Just as “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.” Be motivated knowing that the earth will still be here tomorrow but you may not, so what will you do with today? Surely you must consider the future, but do not assume that joy can be postponed, do not pass up the chance to make a difference to someone, and do not put off the chance for reconciliation for Jesus was trying to tell that young man that the inheritance will still be there tomorrow but you may not again have the chance to see your brother. So how will you treat him? Spend your last moments fighting over goods? Bitter over a deal? Be careful chasing vanity – for it doesn’t matter how much stuff you have, nearly so much as it matters how much you give away. “O the beautiful treasure laid up for the wise, How precious the value, how glorious the prize. Far brighter than diamonds on prince’s brow, And richer than royalty can bestow. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth can corrupt, where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal.” Follow the example of Christ. The one who gave away everything, even his very life, for your sake and mine. Amen.