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.