Sunday, December 21, 2014

How can this be?

Luke 1: 26-38, NT pages 56-57 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month of her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Sermon Here it is, Christmas time again. This has been my favorite season of the year for so long, because with Christmas time comes cookies, Christmas carols, egg nog flavored just about anything, getting together with friends and family, Christmas cards, and presents. It’s terribly exciting, but something that I learned to do a long time ago to ensure that I’ll enjoy Christmas, is to not get too caught up in it. I’ve learned to manage my expectations. That started when I was a child, writing to Santa Clause for this particular kind of train set. The train set was all that I could think about in the weeks leading up to December 25th. I had cut out a picture of it from the toy catalog. I’d pull the picture out of my pocket to look at it from time to time, and I was so full of anticipation on Christmas Eve that I couldn’t sleep. When morning finally came I remember running down the stairs, ignoring a pile of gifts, pushing them all aside, looking for this one particular train set that wasn’t there. When I realized that it really wasn’t there, nothing that was there mattered, and it seemed like, all at once, Christmas was ruined. Maybe you can tell a similar story, and so you’ve tried to help future generations by limiting their wish list even as they circle every single toy in the Toys Are Us catalogue. They look up from its pages just long enough for you to say, “Now remember kids, Santa can’t bring you everything in there,” but a part of them wishes for everything any way, just as a part of me still does. I try to manage my expectations, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. Every year I watch the movie White Christmas, and I’ve listened to Al Gore enough to doubt that a white Christmas going to happen, but I’ll watch for snowflakes any way, and will most likely end up disappointed. Which is typical. Most of the time, Christmas is so built up in my imagination that I’m at least a little disappointed, and maybe that’s how it is for you too. You get excited about your daughter’s Holiday assembly at elementary school. She’s been walking around singing the words to the song for weeks, but this event ends up being kind of like Space Mountain at Disney World because to sign in at the school you have to stand in line for an hour, and your kid sings for about 30 seconds. This is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but do you know how many people have heart attacks during Christmas? Have you seen the panic in their eyes as they push an empty cart through Walmart? I bet there’s a part of you that can understand why your mother in-law started leaving the tree down in the basement, why your uncle started going to Florida for the month of December. I bet there’s a part of you who can relate to Mary, who when addressed by an angel telling her that a miracle is about to happen, can’t help but reply by saying, “How can this be?” Which isn’t nearly as skeptical as what the Priest Zechariah asks. It’s his story that is told right before Mary’s in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. When the angle came to him in the Temple, telling him that his wife Elizabeth who had been barren for so long would conceive and have a son in her old age, he doubted the angel’s claim. It’s just like a priest to act holy in front of the congregation but to harbor doubts when he comes face to face with a real angel, so as punishment the angel Gabriel made him mute, unable to speak until the day when John the Baptist was named and Zechariah could see for himself. Mary is different though. While Zechariah says, “How will I know that this is so?” – prove it to me angle because I’ve been disappointed enough times in this life to know that not every little boy gets a train set from Santa Clause – Mary on the other hand asks, “How can this be?’ For generations Christians have been trying to answer her question. How can it be that Mary, this young, unwed woman, would become pregnant with the son of God? We give up on miracles. That’s why when I heard about the woman in the nursing home who requested, “I’ll be home for Christmas” to a group a carolers it made me sad. How will you get there? Will your children even come to visit you? Or will you be there all alone eating a meal that came out of the microwave humming to yourself the tune turned bitter by reality? “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and nearly every other Christmas Carol is packed so full of hope that the Ebenezer Scrooges who lives in my heart is ready for the Christmas music to stop, but the angel said to Mary: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” she simply asked, “How can this be?” She didn’t close the door, saying it can’t happen, it won’t, and I’m too old for believing such childish things – instead she simply asked the question, “How?” A question that leaves room for something miraculous. We are so convinced we know what is impossible however. Just the other day I was walking back to the church from Downtown. A lady yelled out to me from her car, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying, so I ran out there to her while traffic was stopped. When I got close enough I understood that she was saying, “Honey, you need a ride?” I didn’t know what to say, but it was an old Honda Civic – a man was driving, she was there in the other front seat, I looked in the back and there were literally 6 people back there. “There’s nowhere to sit,” I said. She looked me up and down, then smiled up at me so that I could see where she was missing teeth, “Honey, you look so good in that pink shirt, you’ll just sit here in my lap.” And there I had thought there wasn’t any room. Don’t be so sure you know what is possible and what isn’t. Some think they know already that there aren’t any jobs out there, so they’ve already given up applying, ensuring their fate. Convinced that love will never find them, others have given up looking. And sure that failure is their destiny other can’t gather enough energy to even try. Mary on the other hand – not concurred by the power of sin and death – opens the door of hope enough to ask “How can this be?” and soon enough it will. Christ our Lord will be born to you – the greatest sign that the God who created you is still at work in ways that will defy your experience and your expectations if you have faith enough to leave open the door of possibility. Do not give up on hope - for nothing will be impossible with God. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

One whom you do not know

John 1: 6-8 and 19-28, NT pages 91-92 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. Sermon I have a new suit. There’s a chance that you’ve seen it already on Facebook or when I was marching in the Christmas Parade last Monday, but I don’t have it on today because while Jim Ross told me that he’d pay me $100 to wear it to church Marcy told me she pay me $200 if I didn’t. It’s that kind of suit. Bright red pants and jacket, decorated with reindeer, Christmas trees, snowmen, and holly leaves. There’s even a matching tie, and after I wore it to the Youth Christmas Party last Sunday, Dawn Taylor posted a picture of it to Facebook and all kinds of people wanted to know where I got it. More than one person from Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the church I last served, wrote a comment too, which was exciting, only they didn’t say anything about the suit. Not having seen me in more than four years all they wanted to know was what happened to all my hair. Sometimes no matter what you put out there, no matter how flashy and ridiculous, it won’t attract as much attention as what is missing. Even a Christmas suit can’t make up for a receding hair line. A new car can’t make up for a youth come to an end. And no matter how beautiful the dress, how covered up in furs, all some people will talk about is the absence of a wedding ring on her finger, because sometimes we’re defined not by what we have, but by what we’ve lost. We’re not just identified according to what we do but also by what we abstain from. Sometimes we are defined, not by who we are – but by who we are not. Take step children, for example. They are sometimes more than willing to tell the man married to their mother, who he is not by proclaiming, “You are not my father.” Frustrated people everywhere yell, “You’re not the boss of me,” and when they do it’s meant to hurt a little bit, but don’t forget how much freedom comes from knowing and accepting, not just who you are, but also who you are not. John the Baptist was absolutely clear. “I am not the Messiah,” he said to the priest and Levites from Jerusalem who were sent by the Pharisees. No doubt there were many who wanted him to be, there may have even been a part of him willing to pretend and reap the benefits of being the person the crowds wanted him to be. However, he was secure in his role as the voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who proclaimed: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ He was secure enough to avoid the trap of being someone other than the person God created him to be, even if that meant coming to terms with his limitations. Maybe you know that following his example is not as easy as it sounds, so there’s an important lesson here for you and for me, maybe especially during this time of year. My sister on the other hand, excelled sometimes. Every year growing up we’d go to my grandparent’s house for Christmas. My grandmother wanted to buy us all something special to eat from Costco, the only thing is that she never asked us what we wanted, she just went from memory, and according to my father, if she couldn’t remember she’d just make something up. At breakfast she’d announce to my little sister, “Elizabeth, I bought you those poppy-seed muffins that you like so much,” and since it was from Costco there were at least 50 of them. Our grandmother would go to heat one up in the microwave for her, then put some butter on it, because she thought that was delicious, but my sister, ever determined to be known on her own terms, would stop her in her tacks by saying, “I don’t like those muffins Nanny.” “But I thought you loved them, so I bought them just for you,” our grandmother would respond, and it’s at this point where I’d try to communicate with my sister using telepathy – “just take a muffin Elizabeth”, I’d say to her in my mind without speaking at all – “Just take a muffin, it’s not worth it!” But my sister would go even further, “I never liked those muffins Nanny. The seeds get stuck in my teeth.” I can hardly imagine doing such a thing. For me, it is hard to be honest about who I am not, especially around those members of my family who want me to be, not the person that I am, but the person they’re expecting me to be. Doing so is so hard in fact, that my grandmother went to her grave believing that I loved the red shirts she bought me every year for Christmas. A few of them are in my closet right now. I’m used to having them there, because I’d pull one out to wear it whenever she came over, but now they just hang there reminding me of not having enough courage to be myself. That’s a hard thing to do. Especially if you’re used to practicing, straining even to be someone else. When I was 12 or 13 I hated the sound of my voice and how it hadn’t changed, so I’d just pretend that it had, talk in as deep a voice as I could muster. We were on our way to Florida for Thanksgiving. We stopped for lunch. I ordered: “I’d like a chicken melt plate,” and the Waffle House waitress commented to my mother, what a strong, deep voice her son had. “Strained voice, more like it,” my mother responded. Doesn’t it sound liberating – to stop straining. To relax and be the people that we are instead of the people we think we’re supposed to be. That’s what John did. He knew who he was and he knew even better who he wasn’t, but if you’re anything like me, accepting yourself as you are and as you aren’t is easier said than done. Perfection is the goal – creating the perfect Christmas where everyone gets what they want to eat, everyone gets along, and snow covers the ground, airbrushing away every flaw. Sinless, flawless, ageless and beautiful – that’s what we want and who we think we’re meant to be, but let me tell you the truth, the truth that John knew – if you could be the family pictured on your Christmas Card 365 days of the year, then what reason would you have for the Savior to come? “I baptize with water,” John told the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, but “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” And we don’t know him, who he is and what he came to do, we don’t understand Christmas so long as we buy this lie that perfection is the goal and that until we’ve attained it we are disappointments. We don’t know him if we think we were supposed to strain for salvation ourselves, for he came not to give you a reason to decorate a tree and fight over some toy in Walmart – he came to bring comfort to you – all of you who work for perfection without ever getting it. He came to make the desert like the Garden of Eden. He came to bring gladness to the ones who can’t seem to find a reason to get out of bed. In him and who he is, “everlasting joy shall be upon [your] head”… you “shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall fall away.” Not because you’ve finally done it. Not because you’ve been enough or you’ve done enough. Simply because you’ve finally seen yourself for who you are not. And once you know who you are not you finally can understand who he is, this Savior who is coming soon. Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness

Mark 1: 1-8, NT page 34 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Sermon Someone backed into our car while it was parked behind my parent’s house. We didn’t hear it happen so no one rushed outside to see, and whoever was driving the car that hit ours just drove off without leaving a note or making an effort to put things right. And that was frustrating. That frustration was all that I could focus on for a little while, especially as I stood out in the rain talking to the insurance lady who was processing our claim. She was perfectly nice, cheery even two days before Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to be thankful for a kindness when the voice inside your head that’s primed for frustration has some injustice to focus on. “How could someone be so selfish as to hit another person’s car, and then just drive off,” the voice asked. “It was probably somebody talking on their cell phone who didn’t even notice what was happening. Or someone listening to their music too loud. Or someone trying to write a text message not watching the road.” “Just what is the world coming to,” the voice in my head asked next, as the dent in my driver’s side door became a reason to air all of my grievances and my grievances became all that I could focus on. Sara came outside to check on me after a while. She said, “No one was hurt, the car still runs, and we have an insurance policy to cover the whole thing,” her voice rescuing me from the voice in my head. It’s amazing what just one voice can do. A voice cried out in the wilderness, and when people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem heard it, they went out to John, and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. This voice must have been something like my wife’s voice, calling their attention away from distraction and frustration, refocusing the minds of women and men to gratitude and thanksgiving. It must have been a voice like the voice of a child to a mother’s ears. No matter how loud the television, no matter how focused her mind is on listening to a conversation rooms away, that small voice of a child penetrates the noise and “Mommy, I need you,” is all that she can hear. The voice of John the Baptist – like a glimmer of truth in a culture of smoke and mirrors – like the taste of authenticity when all around you are fake smiles and false promises – like a whisper or a shout – like a warning and a hope – but it is always one voice among others so your ears must be trained to listen. That’s easier said than done in a culture as noisy as ours. There may be in all of us, something that recognizes the truth when it speaks, no matter how softly, but that’s not to say that the truth can’t be drowned out. It can. One or two voices can drown out the other ones, so every Sunday many church members listen to our church service on their radio. They’ll call me and say that the choir sounds so much better in the sanctuary than on the radio, and that’s because I stand closer to the microphone than the choir does so unfortunately for everyone out there listening on WKRM my voice drowns the choir out. It’s so hard to train your ear to listen to the right voice among so many others. Our culture is noisy. It’s flooded by sounds and claims, many are the lies and few are the truths, and we are all drifting in the midst of them, left to discern the fact from the fiction on our own. With conviction John the Baptist preached from his pulpit in the wilderness, but know that the Pharisee in the Temple preached with just as much conviction, and with far more polish, poise, and all the trappings of authority. There’s a Christmas special on PBS for kids. The point of the thing is that getting toys isn’t what Christmas is all about, but how will a child ever grasp that message when the exact opposite is proclaimed on every other channel. There are competing truth claims all around us. It’s as true today just as it was then, and when so many people heard the voice of John the Baptist they knew who to listen to. They journeyed out there to hear him by the hundreds, by the thousands, but would you have been among them? Can you recognize the truth when you hear it? Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can’t. Like a needle stuck on one grove of a record album, there’s a voice in my head that repeats over and over again. It is silent while I sleep but it will pick right up again when I wake up if I let it. And it’s there to convince me that my frailty is what counts. That my mistakes are what defines me. That my failures are obvious and severe, and nothing that’s gone wrong can be made right again. That voice is right there in my head; it’s always there, but I need not always listen, for a voice cries out from the wilderness. Soft as it may be, sometimes nothing more than a whisper but there always none the less. The voice of a man sent from God proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins – yes you can be made clean. All that is wrong will be made right again. A Messiah is coming to you. Can you hear it? There’s a shout that rises from Ferguson, Missouri. It’s as loud as any other, it has everyone’s attention, it boldly proclaims that racism defines our justice system, and that white and black are no closer now than they were 50 years ago. I hear that voice, but there’s a whisper too, for just days before the verdict was read two churches worshiped here in this place, one white and one black, singing the same songs, eating from the same table, worshiping the same God, learning what it means to live as brothers and sisters. But nothing is getting any better a chorus of voices proclaim. In fact, it’s all getting worse, and that is the voice that I hear day in and day out. The city government is foolish, the school board ineffective, no one hears and no one cares says the voice, and the more you let this voice in the more you’ll believe it and the more the evil one will have you in his grasp. He wants you to give up. Hope is what he fears more than anything else, for as long as there is hope there is life, and where there is life death does not have the final say. He whispered in my ear as I stood outside the body shop to drop my car off for repairs. A man with a rental car was there with me, ready to drive me back to Hertz to fill out some paper work and send me on my way. His shoes were white and scuffed, his jeans a little dirty, and I asked him how he liked his work as he helped me take our car seats out of one car and put them into the other. He said, “I’m a glutton for punishment I guess.” He wanted to know what I do for a living as we stood there waiting for an estimate from the body shop, and whenever someone asks me what I do there’s a voice in my head telling me not to answer with the truth because funny things happen to people when they realize they’re talking to a preacher. I told him anyway, and this man, his name was Jake, didn’t say anything for a long time after I told him. When we got into the rental car to drive to the Hertz office he told me that his neighbors were Presbyterian. “Where do they go,” I asked him, he couldn’t remember the name. Then I really ignored the voice in my head, the one that told me to keep things professional, to never speak of religion if you’re not sure who you are talking to, and I asked him where he goes to church. A little embarrassed, he said that he didn’t. That he was raised Lutheran, always went to Vacation Bible School as a kid, but grew disappointed with the version of religion he was offered when he started to study for himself. That there was more to it than he had been told. “Have you read the Talmud,” he asked me. “The Talmud?” I said. “Yea, I really like it, and I have every volume of Strong’s Bible Commentary. And then there’s my favorite, what’s his name? The historian?” He couldn’t remember. “Josephus,” I guessed. “No, it’s Philo,” he remembered. “Philo?” I said. Then I asked, “Now who exactly are you?” The voice cries out in the wilderness, but you must listen to hear it. You must silence many voices, especially some in your head, for this voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ He is coming, and he comes because he has not given up on you or on this world. Comfort, comfort, you my people. The Savior of the world draws near. Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

We are the work of your hand

Isaiah 64: 1-9, OT pages 649-650 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, So that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, You came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. Sermon Wine was served at Thanksgiving this year, which is a little radical. When we gathered around the Thanksgiving table with my wife Sara’s family, the adult places at the table came complete with a wine glass. That is starting to feel normal enough, though it is something that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were alive. In fact, while Aunt Ester was alive, all alcohol was forbidden, and every Thanksgiving dinner at her house, a group of dissenters would assemble with sweet tea in their glasses – we’d huddle together on the deck or front yard, just out of ear shot from the matriarch – and together we’d dream about the day when prohibition would end on that corner of Knoxville, Tennessee. It did. The first Thanksgiving after her funeral, Thanksgiving was hosted by another member of the family who was excited to take up the torch, and Aunt Janie was not a teetotaler, so not all, but many members of the extended family quietly sipped from wine glasses at that first Thanksgiving without Aunt Ester, whispering to one another, “This never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around”. The second year, wine was served more openly, then by the third year everyone was just about comfortable; but by the fourth year – the invitation to this big Thanksgiving dinner for the whole extended family never came. The host family needed a year off, and Aunt Janie asked that families celebrate their own thanksgiving, a meal for all the cousins at her house was just too much. We all understood. And we gave thanks in smaller numbers, around dining room tables in Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, and Spartanburg, all looking forward to getting back together the next year. But another year passed. Then another without the invitation, and now we don’t even look for it, so this Thanksgiving we had wine, but no extended family. Now that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around. According to the Prophet Isaiah, the Exile would not have happened if God were still around either. In our second Scripture lesson for this morning the prophet writes: “Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah wrote these words sometime after Babylon invaded Israel, destroying the city, the Temple, and taking so many of her citizens as captives to live in Babylon as exiles. None of this would have happened, none of this destruction or heartbreak would have happened had the Lord been there, says the Prophet. And while it’s not the Lord’s fault that it happened: “you were angry because we sinned,” the Prophet says, but it was “because you hid yourself that we transgressed.” We are all like kids who come home from school to an empty house. The computer is locked, but we figured out the password, and the liquor cabinet is too, but we’ve had enough time to find the key. Now, no one is there to stop us from taking the first sip. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” because you are the glue that holds us together and if you are gone than things fall apart. “You hid yourself, we transgressed,” because temptation is too much if you are not there to save us from ourselves. “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” We have done all this – created a world of materialism where we all rush through giving thanks to get to spending more money than we have. We work and we work, and no one is there to tell us when to stop, so tension rises in our homes. There is no rest, even on the Sabbath, because you are not here to speak over the loud voice of our culture that never stops telling us to produce and spend. We are entertained, but seldom happy. Our bellies are full without ever being satisfied. We keep going at a fools pace, but where are we headed? “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Deliver us Lord, from the hand of our iniquity. Come, Lord Jesus, we cry. And he will come. We anticipate his birth during this season of Advent, preparing for his arrival as a precious mother’s child. But do not forget that this baby comes to bring change. He is the incarnate Father, “We are the clay, and he is our potter.” He comes, not merely to give us an excuse to exchange gifts, but to make all things new. He comes, the way a baby once did to the apartment door of a woman I met in prison. I was a chaplain for the summer, and she was a convicted drug dealer, and she told me her stories. One morning, it was just a year or so before she was arrested and ended up in prison, a woman came to her door. She was one of the regulars, desperate for exactly the product that this drug dealer sold. It was raining that morning, and this customer only had eyes for one thing, but that morning she was pushing a stroller. The drug dealer had a kind heart, so after she sold the woman what she wanted, she demanded that the baby be left in the apartment where he could get warm and dry. Now that she had what she wanted, his mother agreed, leaving the baby and the stroller with the drug dealer to go get high somewhere in the rain. The drug dealer lay the baby down on her bed. Took the wet clothes off his body, and he barely responded as she took off his diaper, full, obviously not having been changed for some time. She sent her partner down to the corner store for clean diapers, dry clothes, and formula. While she was gone she bathed the baby in her sink. When she returned she dressed the baby again, and as she fed him he began to come back, to respond, even smile, but holding him in her arms this drug dealer came to understand something about the drugs that she sold, something that she had never understood before. “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” But to save you from your iniquities, to bring you back from exile, to redeem you and make you new, to reshape you and make you worthy once more, the Potter is sending a child. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

When the Son of Man comes

Matthew 25: 31-46, NT page 29 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Sermon “Thanks be to God” is what we always say after Scripture is read here in worship, but sometimes it’s hard to be thankful for what’s been read. Now, for the third Sunday in a row, we’re reading from one of the most disturbing chapters in the New Testament, Matthew chapter 25, where Jesus offers not encouragement really, not so much hope or love, and certainly not grace so much as judgment and stern warning. It’s a hard word that Jesus has for us today. “Keep your lamp trimmed and burning,” we read two weeks ago, and if you don’t you’ll risk being locked out from the wedding banquet. Then last Sunday when we read the second parable in this chapter, the parable of the talents, we were warned not to be like the one slave who was more concerned with conserving his talent than using it for the Glory of God. Therefore he buries it in a field without ever putting it to use, and so is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A common theme that runs through both of these parables and now third from the 25th chapter of Matthew is the need to be ready, for we know neither the day nor the hour when Christ will return, and when Christ does return some will enter into the joy prepared by the master and others will enter into punishment. Be ready then, Jesus says, though some of us will take this warning more seriously than others. There was an old preacher who began each day by writing a to-do list. There he’d list his chores: mend the fence, pay the power bill, change the oil. Day after day the list would change according to the direction of his wife, but every day the last item on his list was the same: get ready. The day of Christ’s coming will be like a thief in the night. We know neither the day nor the hour, though it’s easy to fall into the illusion that there’s plenty of time, going to sleep every night as though the next day were inevitable. There’s a prayer, morbid as it is, that takes Jesus’ warning as seriously as that old preacher: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Death comes as a surprise. Like the coming of Son of Man, we know neither the day nor the hour, so get ready Jesus urges here in the 25th chapter of Matthew, and this last portion of the chapter tells us how. In this last parable of the chapter, the separation of the sheep and the goats, we hear that there will be no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven without a recommendation from the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the least of these. That makes heaven different from Middle School, where what you work for is an association with the most popular. Who you are seen with matters, and being seen with someone who is low on the social hierarchy can be so detrimental to your social standing that the parent whose hand you once never wanted to let go of, becomes such a liability that you don’t even want to be seen getting out of her car. People notice who you walk down the hall with and who you sit next to in the cafeteria. And parents know this, they understand the importance of it. We think about the school, not just in terms of education but in terms of socialization – thinking of who our children’s friends will be. Wanting them to be around children from nice, Christian, families. Hoping that they’ll be in the right kind of place to marry the right kind of person when the time comes. It’s relationships that matter. Who you know shapes who you will become and what you’ll have access to. So you value your friendship with the owner of the restaurant. Not only is she a good person, but she can also get you a table, even on the busiest Saturday night. You value your friendship with the doctor, because he knows things that you don’t, can give you advice that others can’t, and late at night it’s his word that can assure you that relief will come in the morning. It’s not what you know, but who you know, and throughout history some have thought that knowing the preacher is something like knowing the ticket taker at the movies – if you know the guy all you have to do is slip him five bucks and you can go right in, but the point of the parable is that the palm you need grease for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is the one that comes to you begging for something to eat. The hand extended with dirt under the nails and no shoes on his feet. The voice that’s dry and raspy, lips cracked – “sir, if only I had some water to drink.” The stranger who walks into town with a name that no one recognizes from a place that no one has ever heard of. Somehow they got through the fence that was built along the border. They walk the streets in search for work, not much hope for hospitality, and you know what they want from you but think about what they came here to offer you before you fight to send them back where they came from. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The hand that holds the keys to the Kingdom is the one that stretches out for you from the hospital bed. Afraid and alone, weak from disease. The hand that reaches through the bars of the jail cell, longing to touch what is flesh and blood rather than what surrounds them, unforgiving block and cold steel. They reach out and we are all tempted to back away, but the king will answer those who stepped forward and responded to their need, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ We all know how it’s done, I suppose. To be thought well of it’s important to be seen in the right groups, with the right kind of people. The saying goes that the one who lies down with the dogs will get up with fleas, but hear the words of Christ from this parable in Matthew chapter 25 – if you look into the face of the least of these, you look into the face of Lord. USA Today reported last week that Pope Francis plans to build showers for the homeless under the sweeping white colonnade of St. Peter's Square. So many pilgrims journey to St. Peter’s Square to see the face of Christ’s representative, to hear the voice of the one who speaks with authority and leads the Roman Catholic Church. To hear that voice they look up to a balcony high above the plaza, but hear the instruction from this parable in Matthew: it is how we act towards the ones who shower under that sweeping white colonnade that matters to our Lord. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Christ is not nearly as distant as we had imagined. He reaches out to you from back alleys, he peaks out from under the bridges, and while we all are certain that our wellbeing depends on insulating ourselves from poverty, illness, and crime, be careful not to fence out the King of Kings. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Buried Treasure

Matthew 25: 14-30, NT pages 28-29 For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Sermon A sweet little girl ran into the living room this week to report that baby kangaroos stay in their mama’s pocket until they’re big. “Is that right?” her daddy said, impressed by this report, remembering not being too different at her age, excited to share and excited to learn, but remembering also that at some point or another, probably it was in middle school, he learned what most people do – that speaking up can be dangerous. I was in 9th grade, much more interested in being identified as the class clown than in learning anything, so I never paid attention when the teacher taught us how to conjugate our verbs, nor did I pay any attention during the vocabulary drills, so by the time of the test I knew only enough Spanish to order from the Taco Bell menu, and the word “burrito” didn’t even come up in the test once. After the test I could have gone to the teacher to ask for help. And if not her than I could have tapped my classmate on the shoulder to ask him for some assistance, but I didn’t, so of course in class while I could have raised my hand for clarification when I got lost, instead I chose to sit there, day after day, afraid of something but I’m not sure what. Why is it, that sometimes we are so afraid? In asking a question, what was it that I was so afraid of? Whatever it was, every day that I chose not to do anything brought me closer to the day when my parents would receive my report card in the mail, and while that day certainly had the potential for being cast into the outer-darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, I allowed that day to creep closer and closer falling into the illusion that I would do something about it before it finally got there, but I didn’t. There’s a commercial I saw on TV recently. A group of young people hear a strange noise, and as though they were appearing in a bad horror movie, they get scared, and one of them points to a shed filled with chain saws and says, “Let’s go hide in there.” But the difference between this group of people and the teenage version of me is that they at least did something. I just sat there, like a talent buried in a field. There were three slaves. One was given five talents by the master, another two, and the one the master expected the least out of was given the least amount, that’s why it was just one talent to the third. Exactly how the first two did it, Scripture doesn’t give the details, but the Gospel of Matthew does tell us that the slave with five talents went off “at once and traded with them, and made five more talents” while the slave with one talent “went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” Now why did he do that? I wonder if it was because not trying doesn’t seem like failing. Not trying even seems better than failing, though I can’t imagine a punishment worse than the one this slave gets. When the master returned the one who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ “But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” “You knew, did you?” You knew, how your class and your teacher would have reacted to your raised hand and question for clarity? You knew, did you, what she was going to say so you never even asked. You knew, did you, that this God that we gather here to worship has no time for sin and shortcoming so you hide such things away, preserve the life that you have, act as little as possible, because to live a life means making mistakes and this God of ours is like a harsh master, right? But while there is no slave in this parable who goes off and trades only to lose everything, or worse, who spends his talent on loose living only to find himself in such utter desolation that he eats from the pig’s trough to fill his belly – it’s the prodigal son who wasted his father’s money on loose living who returned home to the open arms of forgiveness. This life of yours, the talent that you’ve been given - it’s not yours to hold onto. It’s not yours to protect, and it is definitely not yours to do nothing with. Just as Joe Graham Jr. said after Bible Study last Wednesday, the sin is in not trying, though we always fear that the sin will be in failing. Do not bury the treasure that the Lord has given you – for the Lord who has been our dwelling place in all generations longs to prosper the work of your hands. Do not bury the treasure you have been given. When the master comes may he say to you, well done, good and trusted servant, enter into the joy of your master. Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Prepared to Wait

Matthew 25: 1-13, NT page 28 Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Sermon My mother once heard a comedian talk about what you should do if you’ve placed your order at McDonald’s and the cash registers malfunction. “It doesn’t matter how hungry you are,” this comedian said. “If the power goes out and the kids behind the counter have to make change for themselves without the help of a computer – turn around and get out of there as fast as you can.” She told me about this bit when I was in middle school with easy access to a calculator. I think it was an attempt to encourage me to never forget how to add and subtract and make other calculations on my own. She was thinking about those times when the battery would die or the power would go out – those times of unexpected technical failure, but those were times that I was not nearly as concerned about as I was with finishing my homework as quickly as possible so I could watch TV. And too often I’m still that same middle school-er. Two weeks ago Frank Dale climbed into our church van, joining Elijah Hedrick, Kyle Hanners, Jillian Baxter, her friend Bonnie, and me carrying a paper map of the state of Tennessee. “This, young people, is a map,” he said. “You may have never seen one before, but this is something that will give you direction without electricity or cell phone coverage.” I shoved the map into the glove compartment because I was sure that we wouldn’t need it, but four hours later on our way to Harlan, Kentucky my phone that was giving us turn by turn instructions stopped working because the cell phone signal was too spotty driving through the mountains. Then I had a use for Frank’s map, and I was thankful he was wise and not foolish. There were 10 bridesmaids, 5 foolish and 5 wise, and you would never have been able to tell the difference between a foolish bridesmaid and a wise bridesmaid had the wedding started on time. Both the foolish and the wise had oil enough for the wedding, they both functioned perfectly under normal circumstances. In the same way that you can’t tell the difference between the one who can make change in his head and the one who can’t when the special cash registers are working the way they’re supposed to – in the same way that we would have gotten to Harlan, Kentucky just fine without a map had the cell phone coverage been what it is on this side of those mountains – you never would have been able to tell the wise from the foolish had the bridegroom showed up on time but he didn’t. And that is the point that Jesus is making in this parable from the Gospel of Matthew – some are wise and some are foolish and the difference between the two is that the wise are ready for everything to not work out as expected. The reality is, if you depend on a calculator to add and subtract, 99 percent of the time you’ll be just fine, but that one percent of the time you’ll be in trouble. The reality is, if we had depended on my cell phone for directions, then on 99 percent of trips we would have made it to our destination and back without any issue, but had we depended on my cell phone that last trip we might still be driving around the Appalachians. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this parable. He’s asking: Will you have oil in your lamp on that one night – not the typical night when you read a book for five minutes and fall asleep quickly in the security of a safe home with your family. Jesus is asking – if the student who sits next to you in Spanish Class gets diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma will you have any idea what to do? Jesus isn’t worried about the day when the sun is shining and the birds are singing their song and your neighbors wave to you as you climb into your car on the way to church – Jesus wants to know if you have enough oil in your lamp to make it even when the guy next store won’t talk to you because the leaves from your big oak tree fall in his swimming pool. He already knows that if everything goes according to plan you’ll be just fine, that if things keep going the way that they’re going, if tomorrow is just like today, if your health holds up, your job keeps paying you, he knows that you’ll be there if the creek doesn’t rise, but let me tell you something that’s certain – the creek will rise, the tragedy will happen, and despite all that some will make it and some will not because some will have enough oil in their lamp to make it through – but what about you? Do you have enough oil in your lamp to make it through the whole night? Today is a special Sunday for our church. (In the late service our congregation’s children will lead the worship service. They’ll hand out bulletins, they’ll pass the offering plates, read scripture, say prayers, confess their sins, and will remind us of forgiveness – and it’s true that they’ll have their whole lives to do this kind of thing if they want to, but this church teaches these children today because no one knows the time nor the hour – no one can predict the day or the night when they’ll need the kind of oil that some have and some don’t, the kind that a parent can’t pour out into her son’s lamp no matter how much she wants to. There are some valleys that we all have to walk through. Some dark valleys that nobody else can walk for you, some dark nights that soccer practice and piano and hours of homework just can’t prepare you for. There are nights in this life that you’ll toss and turn through, when you’ll question and worry and cry, and the only way you’ll make it through is if you know who to turn to, if you know who to trust in, if you know how to pray. Those wise bridesmaids knew that he was coming, like a thief in the night, and their faith in him was like a flask of oil that kept their lamp burning even during that dark night when what was not supposed to happen did. Do you have enough oil to keep that lamp burning? In a world where everyone is pulled in too many directions, where there’s so much to prepare for a not enough time to prepare – I’m calling you to fill up that flask of oil. To learn how to pray now, because there’s no way of knowing when you’ll really need those prayers to be heard. To worship our God in a Spirit of grace and truth today, because there will come a night when your soul calls out for something but you won’t know where to turn unless you’ve been filled up by peace that surpasses all understanding once before. To learn how to sing, to learn where to turn for answers, to learn how to be made new and how to pick back up after you’ve fallen, to learn who to reach out for when the world shakes under your feet. There is no way of knowing when you’ll need the oil that a church can nurture in you, but know that you will need it, and when you do, will you have enough? The bridegroom is coming – don’t you worry about that, but make sure that you’ve made his acquaintance before that day so he will call you by name and invite you into the banquet. The bridegroom is coming, but when he does, will your lamp be timed and burning? Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Revelation 7: 9-17, NT page 249-250 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Sermon In high school I took shop as often as I could, and by the time I was in level four shop, the class started to deal more with architecture and design than making bird houses or tool boxes. I have nothing to say against making bird houses or tool boxes, but by our fourth year our teacher thought we had mastered such concepts, so one day he challenged us to build and design a five foot tall cardboard structure strong enough to support 1,000 pounds of cinderblocks on its roof. This was a really exciting project to be a part of. It inspired our class to work hard, and our teacher who before watched us drag into class seconds before the bell rang was now hearing us request that he open up the class room an hour before school even started so that we could come in early and work on our project. The project concluded with most of our structures crushed under the load, but two of our structures were strong enough to support the weight of 1,000 pounds, and after congratulating these two classmates we were all excited to hear what we’d work on next. Our teacher Mr. Heninen, announced that we’d been invited to participate in a bridge building competition. The bridges would be made of balsa wood, couldn’t be more than 16 inches long and 8 inches high, and we’d bring our best designs to the Atlanta science museum for the competition. We had been invited. It’s wonderful to be invited. But some invitations are more exciting than others. Maybe you judge the value of an invitation based on who else is invited. Not knowing who else was invited we all assumed that this was going to be a pretty elite competition, but after weeks of preparation we walked into a room full of 1st and 2nd graders at the Atlanta science museum, as we were apparently the only high school class who had accepted the invitation. And what’s worse, we still didn’t win. Sometimes the invitation leads you to imagine one thing, while the reality is something else entirely. That was the case with this elder in our second Scripture lesson. “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” he says to John, the author of Revelation, as though he walked into heaven expecting it to be an exclusive black tie event – but then this great multitude that no one could count shows up and has him wondering whether they’d just let anyone in here. “Who are these,” who are these people? I didn’t expect to see them here, he says, as though he expected that the rules that define our society, drawing the line between who is in and who is out, who would be invited and who wouldn’t be, would have bearing on the Kingdom of Heaven. I think the polite way of saying it is, “Well, I didn’t expect to see you here.” And the way a friend will say it if he’s giving you a hard time, “They’ll let anyone in here won’t they.” Unfortunately the reality here on earth is so often neither polite nor funny. Invitations come, and when they do be thankful and enjoy it, because when the invitation doesn’t come you have to wonder why. The line between who is in and who is out is sometimes clearly defined. That’s the case with certain train tracks or certain roads. Ponce de Leon Avenue will take you out of Atlanta, and if you mispronounce it everyone will know that you don’t belong, kind of like saying Mau-ry County, but Ponce de Leon draws an even more pronounced line of demarcation, for the same street to your right has a different name to your left just to make sure that everyone knows whose side is whose. There is an inside and an outside in all human society it seems, so in Columbia, Tennessee there is an east side. VK Ryan and Sons is one of the funeral homes on the east side. It’s not the only one but it’s the only one I’ve ever gotten to know. It was for Lacey Coleman’s funeral. Mr. Coleman was not technically a member here, most of you would say that he was more like family. For 40 years he served as our church sexton. That’s why, when he died last December, VK Ryan and Sons was the funeral home, we were the church, and I was the preacher. Never having been here before the funeral home wanted to get the lay of the land, so Mr. Ryan called Tony Sowell at Oaks and Nichols Funeral Home to ask for advice. Tony went through the details with Mr. Ryan, even walked him over here so that he could get a feel for our church, and then he said, “Now they do things a little different over here on this side of town. The main difference between Joe Evans and any preacher on the east side is that you’ll think he’s just getting started, but don’t sit down because before you know it he’s finished.” You can see the lines so clearly when it comes to the funeral, even more profoundly when you get to the graveyard and one group of people is buried on one side, the other on the other side – but don’t be surprised that while the lines can be drawn sharply here on earth they are nothing in heaven. “Then one of the elders, referring to that great multitude so vast that no one could count, addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” All at once it made sense to this elder – all at once he realized that the lines drawn so plainly had faded to nothing for the only thing that mattered was being washed in the blood of the Lamb – and maybe we all know that this is how it will be. That in heaven there will be no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female, maybe we know that this is how it will be when we get there, but each and every Sunday we pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and that it seems is something else altogether. It’s one thing to pray for something on Sunday morning, but who are you inviting to come at sit with you at lunch on Monday? It’s wonderful to imagine a time when it doesn’t matter who you know so long as you know the Lord Jesus Christ, but are you willing to forgo the struggle towards influence and power to be seen with the disenfranchised and powerless? And I love to look forward to a time when forgiveness is truly given, when sins are washed away and forgotten; a time when we all kneel as equals before the Lamb who was slain for our redemption, but if you are willing to pray that all things would be on earth as they are in heaven, than the day to give up self-righteousness is today, the time for hiding away imperfection in shame and embarrassment is past, for we all kneel as sinners before the throne. Maybe now invitations are given to some and not others, and maybe sometimes you wonder if yours got lost in the mail or if something else is going on, but “let the humble hear and be glad,” for “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” “Look at him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.” Every Sunday I put on this robe and more often than not I feel like I’m playing dress-up. If my friends from high school shop class saw me behind this pulpit they’d never believe it, but I received an invitation – and I accepted it knowing that the Lord takes what is weak and makes it strong. “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” While you are here, they may judge you all day long. It may be that they search for reasons to gossip and whisper behind your back. Then when they see you in heaven they may be so bold as to point towards you saying, “Who is that, robed in white, and what is she doing here?” They’ll figure it out before too long, because in heaven there is no room for boasting or judging. But even today let your prayer be: “on earth as it is in heaven,” for even now you are invited to see your brothers and sisters and even yourself as redeemed and forgiven. Even now you are invited to open your eyes to the truth that “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne,” and in the end, nothing besides this truth matters. May it be so today – on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Unmarked Graves

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12, OT pages 191-192 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah, as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain – that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Bethpeor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Sermon The little choir who sang last Sunday, they were rehearsing on Wednesday night, getting ready to sing in front of all of you, and their director, Ms. Marcy, asked if they’d like to wear the nice white robes like the big choir wears. “Yes, Ms. Marcy,” they said. “And can we decorate them?” Molly Potts asked. Now that’s a good question, and it’s fun to imagine what those robes would look like if we let those 5, 6, and 7 year olds decorate those white robes – there’s a part of me that would like to see them covered with Hello Kitty stickers and puff paint ballet slippers – and there’s a part of me that would like to see the adult choir singing in robes decorated with Hello Kitty stickers and puff paint ballet slippers even more. They might look less like a church choir however, and this is one of those difficult things about a church. This is your church, those kids sing in their choir, and it’s your right to act like that’s your pew that you’re sitting in, but you can’t go decorating the choir robes, even in a world where everyone wants to leave their mark, even if it’s only on a bathroom stall – “Joe was here”. On the other hand, Moses “was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Bethpeor, but no one knows his burial place to this day”. In a way that seems like a tragedy. Everyone deserves a marker and an unmarked grave is one of those terribly sad things. I grew up close to the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, the site of a great battle of the Civil War, and my friends and I would walk the trails to the grave of the Unknown Soldier. In those days we didn’t worry about his mother who didn’t know where to lay flowers, who spent her days wondering where they had laid his body to rest, we just scared each other imagining his ghost that surely still haunted those fields wanting someone to know his name, but no one knows who it is that is buried there to this day. We all want to be known and remembered. We don’t want to have to introduce ourselves again and again, and so we look for some organization, a group of people, a church even, some place where people are anxious to get to know us, where people care enough to ask us who we are and where we’re from, and who don’t get too upset if we sit in their pew, but being a part of a group can be a difficult thing – so many pastors end up making that uncomfortable phone call: “We sure have missed you,” which is followed by, “Well, I didn’t think anyone had noticed that I wasn’t there.” How awful it is – awful as an unmarked grave is awful, because everyone has a name and a story but not everyone is given the change to tell it and it was almost that way with Moses. Moses felt fine simply shepherding his flock out there in the land beyond the wilderness. He ran from Egypt after growing up in the palace of Pharaoh and he established himself, made a home for himself, started a family and everything was just fine, he had all that he though he needed as many do. In those days after leaving Egypt I’m sure he was like many of us. He wanted life to be simple. No more dressing up to impress people as they had to do among the high ranking officials. No more rushing from one meeting to another. Here he was out in this land beyond the wilderness where no one could touch him and he could focus on other things like watching football. Spend the little time that you have where you’re not at work or at school or at soccer practice doing what you want to do, but the Lord called Moses out of a burning bush. “Moses, Moses,” the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me…So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Many years before they laid his body to rest, the Lord called him to use his voice, and the Lord’s call to Moses might not be so different from the Lord’s call to you. “No one knows his burial place to this day,” but we still know Moses, because even though he didn’t want to use his voice, even though he would have been just fine not being noticed, even though he was perfectly happy with how things were out there by himself in the land beyond the wilderness, we still know Moses because even though he didn’t want to use his voice he did and so must you. The world is happy for you to stay at home, but the Lord calls you back to his people. Now that can be hard for many reasons. It’s the case in every group from the perspective of the new person that everyone already knows each other. Often groups seem already established, so the temptation is to stand back rather than to step forward, but you have to try. It wasn’t any different with Moses. He didn’t’ want to speak and he was right to be afraid because as soon as he started talking people started getting upset. The Lord told him to go back to Egypt and even though he didn’t want to he did, and as soon he opened his mouth his worst fears were realized. They didn’t like what he had to say, and soon enough Moses turned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did you ever send me.” And it didn’t get any better. As soon as they really got on their way, free from Pharaoh’s oppression, across the sea and headed towards the Promised Land, that’s when Moses really began to wonder, “O Lord, why did you ever send me?” because they got mad at him and he got mad right back at them. He wanted to leave them to fend for themselves and they would have been glad for him to do just that. It’s not any different from the church. You finally step out and get to know some people which takes courage, then after getting to know some people maybe you start to express some opinions and you suggest that the choir decorate their robes with Hello Kitty stickers. It’s a challenging thing, a congregation. It takes commitment for it to work. There’s a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Boltz-Weber who knows that well enough. Her church is growing by leaps and bounds, but every time someone new joins that church she warns them saying, “Now sooner or later you’re going to be disappointed by me or by this church, and the temptation for you will be to walk away, but don’t you do it, because if you’ll do you may miss the chance to see God at work for where the church falters, Christ steps in.” It wasn’t Moses who kept the Israelites going, and it’s not any one of us who keeps this church going either, but could any of us keep going without this church? The last Sunday of each month I’ve been driving to Central Presbyterian Church in Culleoka to preach just after the early service. I rush over and then rush back, and last month I was in such a hurry to get back here for the late service that I backed right into a tree. This is something that I’m proud to do. The church is small, about a dozen people are there, and this morning the piano player didn’t show up and they asked me if I knew how to play, but I’m proud to go there because the world would be glad for them to just stay home, but when we are isolated we are afraid. That’s why the Lord calls us together, even though it takes work. An incredible thing about Moses is that he dies, right here at the edge of the Promised Land, only getting to see with his eyes what the Lord promised to his people. But he did not die unhappy nor did he die unremembered even though no one knows his burial place to this day, for no one who lives their life committing themselves to a people, no matter how imperfect, no one who lives committing their life to God, labors in vain. No, he didn’t set his foot in the land flowing with milk and honey, and I haven’t either, but the more I commit my life to the Lord the more of it I see. I caught a glimpse of it just yesterday morning as a matter of fact. After a long drive that had so many twists and turns it felt like we were wandering through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land, with a few members of our youth group we woke up in Harlan, Kentucky where it is already cold in the morning. We got to the armory early, a line of people had already formed at the door though it was still dark, and we put out the hats stitched by the fingers of this congregation, and there they sat in a big pile among so many clothes, blankets, shoes, and school supplies. Before the doors opened I knew just where they were, they were so colorful they stood out in the grayness of that big room, they were as plain to see as a choir robe decorated by Molly Potts, but within an hour there was no sign of them, and to this day I can’t tell you exactly where they went, but I saw them go. They left that table where they were so easily accounted for, but as young mothers placed them on the heads of their small children, soon enough for me they were only a memory. Soon enough, Moses’ burial place was only a memory too. “No one knows his burial place to this day.” but today we all remember Moses, because Moses risked his voice and gave himself over to a people, and while that people frustrated him, while that people even broke his heart, he committed himself and led them towards the Promise Land. For his time, he led his people forward, and for this time, you are called to move this church towards the goal. I’m calling you to use your voice, to use your gifts, to take that pledge card and fill it out so that together we might continue the journey that the Lord has set us to. Certainly the easier thing, the safer thing, is to hold back. Sometimes we are even tempted to walk away, but as Moses looked over into the Promised Land and breathed his last breath he knew that his life had counted for something. His name is not etched on a rock somewhere, but is his name not etched on the heart of his people? Commit yourself to this church, and may our names be etched on each other’s hearts. Commit yourself to this church, and together let us walk to the Promised Land. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Settling for Scraps

Exodus 33: 12-23, OT page 80 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” The Lord said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And Moses said to the Lord, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” the Lord said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Sermon Every once in a while when we were kids, maybe once a month or so, my Mom had dinner with her book club, and when that happened my Father was in charge of feeding us supper. I don’t know what that meant in your family, but for my sister, brother, and me, our Father cooking supper meant that he’d drive us to the local grocery store, lead us to the sardines, and then he’d say, “Pick out whatever you want!” Nothing could have been so wonderful, that’s how we felt about it, until things changed, the chief change being that we heard about a place called Chucky Cheese – which is the kind of place that has ski-ball, video games, a ball pit, soft-drinks, and pizza – all of which cast a harsh light on the sardine section of our local Ingle’s Grocery Store. I imagine that this is the way things are supposed to progress – we go from a place of satisfaction with simple things, moving on to something better – and while I’d today compare Chucky Cheese pizza to cardboard topped with ketchup and cheese, that’s only because I’ve moved on ever farther from the sardine section. Life is a journey – and we move from one phase of the journey to the next – progressing on from one thing to the other, and we could think of the Exodus this way. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt but Moses led them by the hand like a flock out from the sardine section and towards the glory of the Promised Land. The only problem is that they made their home in Egypt, they were slaves there, and slaves can grow used to slavery. Therefore, when the Lord sent Moses to invite them to freedom, to go and experience something even better, they wanted Moses to leave them alone. Moses went to Pharaoh calling him to let the people go – to free them from oppression, and we think of Pharaoh’s hardened heart as the greatest obstacle that stands between Israel and her freedom – but in reality – there is a greater obstacle still. Back in Exodus chapter 32 which we read just last week - “The Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people.” This statement reminds me of an age old theological question – the irresistible force paradox it’s called: “Can God create a stone so heavy that not even God is strong enough to lift it?” – the reality that Scripture presents is that our God can do many things, move mountains, topple empires, create the universe in all its glory, but our God is continually defied by the stubbornness of the human heart. Can God create something that God cannot move or change? The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people,’” because even after being set free from Pharaoh’s oppression, still the people are slow to accept freedom, being so quick to fall back into idolatry and disobedience. The people are stiff-necked. They are obstinate, stubborn. Rather than give thanks for manna in the wilderness, the people complained. Rather than trust that the Lord would quench their thirst by providing fresh water to drink, the people doubted. Rather than worship the Lord, they built for themselves a Golden Calf. And rather than live by God’s Commandments, they are disobedient, so the Lord is done, for the Lord wanted nothing but to bring these people freedom, happiness, joy – wanting nothing so much as that their joy would be complete, however they are too stiff necked to do their part. The great Christian author, CS Lewis, wrote that we are all like children making mud pies in a dark back alley, only an invitation has come that we hesitate to accept – an invitation to go and experience the ocean. All that the child must do is accept the invitation, get up from the ally way and go – but so often the child stays right there, like a dog grown used to the scraps that fall from the table, too afraid to ask for anything more, and maybe we do so because that’s how the world has taught us to be. To stay in our place, accept our lot, be happy with what we have, and don’t ask for anything more. Get used to giving things up. Don’t try too hard for anything. Don’t put up a fight – just be a nice, polite, Christian who doesn’t cause a fuss and doesn’t ask for too much. The problem is that the heroes of the Bible who are lifted up as the great examples of what it means to be faithful are not demure, nor are they passive, nearly so much as the faithful are the ones who demand more out of life and more out of God. “Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”” The disciples didn’t want to reward a woman for such a request. They didn’t want to entertain the demands of a Canaanite woman who couldn’t even ask politely, but instead just came right out and started shouting. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” and no one should shout, especially not in polite company. “Lord, help me,” she couldn’t stop saying, so finally Jesus said to her in a moment of human frustration, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!” And her daughter was healed instantly, because it is human to be stiff necked and stubborn, to accept the prejudices of a sin sick society without question, on the other hand, it is divine to listen and to change. The Lord’s response to you is not definitive this Scripture lesson tells us, as though just because the door that you knocked on was not answered the first time you knocked – you must keep knocking because our God is still listening. Sometimes it the case that we should give up and be thankful for what we have – but other times that longing in your heart – it’s not telling you to change your expectations or to wait until the blessing falls in your lap – that longing in your heart is telling you that there are some things worth asking for – even if you have to ask for them again and again and again. I know that it’s true, because the other thing that I’ve learned since those days of eating sardines for dinner – is that my father would have taken us to Chucky Cheese; because when fathers are left alone with their children for the night they are afraid and they are desperate, and they will go to extreme lengths to make their children happy. My father would have taken us to Chucky Cheese in a second – had we only been bold enough to ask – and the glory of God is revealed to Moses, not because he was a polite little boy who waited his turn and took whatever good things came his way – Moses saw the glory of the Lord from the cleft in the rock because he was bold enough to ask. We learned it somewhere or another. Maybe it was from the ones who would rather deal with sheep than men and women, but the Lord did not create you so that you might settle for whatever scraps fall from the table. “Know your place,” they said to that Canaanite woman, and do you know that the Israelites in Egypt knew theirs too. “Know your place,” the world says, and don’t go looking for blessings, don’t go dreaming big dreams, learn to expect little and need less and pray measly little prayers that if they ask for anything it’s apologetically and meekly – “Lord, if it is your will, if you would see this request worthy of your time, because certainly I don’t want to be one of those people who demands too much out of life – my mother trained me to be happy the scraps from the table.” “Know your place,” the world says – and settle for the scraps, but what if the place the Lord intended you to occupy isn’t the place that the world has assigned to you? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” If you’re anything like me, you know when not to look a gift horse in the mouth. The blessings that you have now you don’t want to go taking for granted, and so you hold on as tightly as you can. But what if the Lord intends to increase your joy and to make it complete? What if the Lord intends for you more, should you only have the courage to ask? Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Golden Calf

Exodus 32: 1-14, OT pages 78-79 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I have commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring to his people. Sermon Fall has come again, and every fall, during my four years of High School, brought with it the Homecoming Dance. That was probably the case for you too. The Homecoming Dance would come along, it was held in the high school gym, and a well-meaning committee would decorate the gym and try to make it look less like a gym than it really was. There’d be streamers, and some kind of tarp on the floor so your shoes didn’t leave marks, the lights would be low and music would be playing but the basketball goals were still there and I remember once that some creative person stuck a fern in each of the basketball hoops to dress it up a little bit. A lot of work goes into a high school dance, and I put a lot of work into getting a date to the high school dance. One year I knew for sure of one young lady who would say yes, which gave me an inappropriate amount of confidence, so what I did was I asked three other young ladies first, knowing that if those three said no I had someone to fall back on. Well, all three of those first young ladies did say no – they had already been asked, but I wasn’t disappointed, I just went to the one I had in mind from the beginning, told myself I was glad it had worked out this way because she was the one I liked the most anyway, only to find that she had been asked the day before. And often this is the way that it goes. That’s why you must be careful taking someone or something for granted, because sometimes you’ll turn your back assuming that she’ll just be there waiting on you, only you’ll turn back around and she’ll be gone. The people had grown tired of waiting for Moses, and assuming that he’d be back sooner or later, or maybe imagining that they could afford to explore their options a little bit, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Now a note of clarification. You may have figured this out already, but someone much smarter than me had to point it out, not noticing it on my own. The people say that they are replacing Moses with this Golden Calf – it’s him that they are tired of waiting on, not realizing that he wasn’t the one who got them out of Egypt, he’s just the servant of the Lord and not the Lord himself, but it’s God who ends up being hurt by all of this, and that’s where this lesson from Scripture really reminds me of the date that I could have had if only I wouldn’t have taken her for granted. When the people turn to this calf and make offerings to it and kneel down before it, “the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”” Now have you ever imagined that such a thing were possible? That after all of our wandering around, getting distracted, finding ourselves and our way, that during all that time when we were exploring our options God might have been exploring his options as well? “Now let me alone,” God said to Moses, “So that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” You have to be careful taking someone or something for granted, because sometimes you’ll turn your back assuming that she’ll just be there waiting on you, only you’ll turn back around and she’ll be gone. When I was 5 and 6 years old I spent so many days at my grandmother’s house. She was my father’s mother, a painter who I loved, and growing up I thought it was so interesting how she loved Capri Sun juice boxes, because she always had them in her refrigerator, not realizing then that I was the only reason she had them. In the years before her death she struggled to recover from a stroke, learning how to walk again, struggling to remember what she was going to say, and when I was 12 she died, and I remember the funeral was hours away, the family plot in a place we never went to, but I made a promise then that I would go back when I turned 16 – that when I could drive myself I’d drive and put flowers on her grave, only when I finally went, I couldn’t remember how to get there. We just assume that waiting a little while is no big deal, and so I tell our daughters “just a minute” all day long, only they won’t accept that as a reasonable response because they know now what I’ve forgotten – that some things will pass you by if you don’t do something right now – some relationships will pass you by if you put them off. You can’t wait until the weekend to spend time with your children. You can’t wait until your anniversary to celebrate your marriage. You can’t keep putting off the phone call to him because he won’t always be there to answer. You can’t just sit there watching TV assuming that he’ll come around sooner or later, that they’ll be time to talk once this show is over, because once the show is over he may well be gone. “Just a minute” – that’s what we say to our children, our spouses, our parents, our church, and our God. Just a minute – I’m working on a Golden Calf right now and if this doesn’t work out for me I know you’ll still be there, but don’t you be so sure, because your relationship with God, like any other, depends partially on you. There are places on this earth where I’ve felt God’s presence, and I know well enough to value a place like that because not every place is, so I’ve been meaning to get back to this camp I grew up going to. It’s on a lake, and not only did I go there as I kid I was also a camp counselor there, and it’s a place where my call to ministry was affirmed, one of those places where I gained some direction for my life. I’ve been meaning to get back to that camp for years now, only just last week I learned that the presbytery who has funded it for years had to sell it to make ends meet. Every building has been torn down, and this is a lesson to me and to you and to every person who cares about a place like this one – do not neglect this place – because the temptation is always there to sleep in, sit back, and wait for next year before you really pull out your check book and make a pledge, but remember that if you’re melting down your ear rings to make a Golden Calf this church is sitting in the back seat, and is that where your church should be? It’s not that God is going anywhere. God threatened to walk away but Moses talked God right out of it, and more than anything else, the faith that this church stands on offers this guarantee that no matter how frustrated God gets with us God will not walk away, but what about you? Look to the Cross and know that our Lord faced rejection and would sooner face rejection now than walk away from you – but still – here it is Stewardship Season once again, and as you calculate the amount you’ll pledge there’s so much to think about, so many directions that you’re already pulled, sometimes away from God and towards things that are not. Where will that money to God fit in? After the mortgage, credit card payments, vacation fund, cable TV? If there’s any gold left over from the Golden Calf, then God can have the left overs. That’s how humans think. It reminds me of a new minister who was trying to enter our Presbytery. Before a new minister can serve a church here in Middle Tennessee he or she must be examined on the floor of the Presbytery in front of every other minister and so many elders. Some of the questions are hard to answer, but at some point or another every new minister will be asked as this one was, “Son, do you love Jesus?” The new pastor was nervous, but with confidence he said, “Yes I do, but not nearly as much as he loves me.” There’s a lot to balance when it comes to your time and your treasure, but I tell you that you must make God your first priority, because you are always his. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

All these words

Exodus 20: 1-20, OT page 66 Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Sermon Most of these words I imagine that you’ve heard many times before. The 10 Commandments are as familiar as any other passage of Scripture. These words are not only here in Exodus chapter 20, but reoccur in Deuteronomy chapter 5, then you can see them outside or inside of courthouses all over this country, and religious groups will put up a fight should anyone threaten to move them. If you drive out near Zion School there are a yard signs with the 10 Commandments printed on them, and if you are anything like me, you’ve heard about these commandments for your whole life, but something that I’ve only recently noticed is how the people reacted the first time they heard them: “they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”” God appeared to them with thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking – all of which are terrifying, but there are few things as terrifying as the voice of one who names the wrong that you embody. I had some blood work done for cholesterol. There were needles involved, which I don’t care for very much, but infinitely worse is the voice of a doctor affirming your fear; it’s in the case of your blood test results when you’d prefer a computer print-out that is impossible to discern rather than a color coded one that clearly defines your level of fitness by putting you right into the red. Do not let God speak to us – because God is too much like my little sister’s speech pathologist. She was six and had what we all thought was the cutest lisp that anyone ever heard. She wasn’t Elizabeth, but Elizabuth, and we all loved hearing her say it until the evaluation came home and all of a sudden what we called cute was a problem that needed to be corrected. There are so many things in life that I’d rather just leave in the gray, leave undefined, never really look at or address – my cholesterol, my body mass index, or my sin – but God spoke all these words and opened my eyes to what is broken. “I am the Lord your God,” we hear, which means that if the Lord is God than you are not and neither am I. There can be no more idols – no more ideologies or philosophies that govern my life – no goals that become more important to me than living in the righteousness defined by my Lord and God. The Lord’s name is not to be used flippantly, but with respect – not for manipulation but honored and set apart. The Sabbath day is to be a day of rest, for if our God could create all that there is – the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky in six days than what makes you think that you need to work on the seventh. Honor your father and your mother, for family, even with all its imperfections, is still flesh and blood. You shall not murder, nor commit adultery, nor shall you steal or accuse your neighbor falsely. With eyes tuned to what you don’t have in covetousness you’ll have no time left to be thankful, so yes – the television piping in commercials, the magazine adds, and the longing in your heart when you see something that you really want – the word isn’t wishful thinking or window shopping, it is coveting and it’s time to give it up. It’s time to name it – that’s what God is doing here – saying that it’s time to name the wrong, because all that is wrong will continue if it remains unaddressed and unnamed. But I for one will resist hearing such defining words as long as I possibly can. I can relate to the ones who cry, begging for God to stop with the words, because once the sin is named I fear it will name me. If you’re anything like me, than in such a circumstance of being in the wrong, knowing somewhere within you but not wanting the wrong named, then you’ll call on the friend who brings with him sympathy and understanding, rather than the friend who provides honesty and advice. Years ago, the day after a baptism went all wrong I had breakfast with my friend George. I told him that the mother had asked me to do the baptism, but that as I was the Associate Pastor, the Senior Pastor I worked with thought it would be better if she did the honors. I submitted to her request, but I never told the mother and no one else did either, so she tried to hand the baby to me at the baptismal font and her face dropped when the Senior Pastor stepped in. She should have been smiling, but her face went from an expression of disappointment to an expression of severe anger, all while her baby was being baptized, and when I recounted all of this to George I wanted sympathy. But instead, he looked at me squarely and said, “Well Joe, you messed up, and I mean you really messed up. But it’s OK, because you’re going to do better next time.” As soon as it has a name shame gets involved doesn’t it, but until it has a name, until you hear words like those, you can’t do anything about it and the sin persists. But worse than that, until your sin has a name, until the words are spoken and your sin stands boldly right defined right in front of you so you can’t deny it anymore, until you see yourself clearly in the wrong, it’s not so easy to see your Savior standing right there over it either. Paul said it as well as it can possibly be said, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based in faith.” When I hear the law, and more so, when I hear my violation of it named, I know so clearly my need and I know so clearly that there is no righteousness of my own – if there is any righteousness within me it comes from Christ. Too many of you will still cry to hear your sin named. You will still hide behind the good that you’ve done when confronted with the bad. But so long as you go on ignoring the sin that is in you, you will fail to see the righteousness that is in him. Too often we think that grace is a God who looks the other way; that forgetting is just as good if not a little bit better than forgiveness. But the more you know your need for a savior, the more the savior of our world will be yours. Amen.