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.