Monday, June 30, 2014

There were two prophets

Jeremiah 28: 1-11, OT pages 730-731 In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jaconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way. Sermon There were two mechanics we took that old car to when the break light came on. We were both in graduate school, and in-between classes I took that car to the other side of town to a mechanic we heard was cheap. He asked me what was the problem, and I told him that the break light was on and I wanted it off. He told me that all the breaks needed to be replaced, but I could probably get by with just having the back ones done. I told him that we had a deal. After all, the first guy we went to, the neighborhood mechanic, he insisted that we have the front and the rear brakes done, which of course, would cost twice as much, so I told him that I’d have to take the car to be worked on somewhere else. He handed me the keys, wished me good luck, I walked out of his shop, and as I did the last thing I heard was him singing, “If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.” And just as there were two mechanics there are also two prophets in our second Scripture lesson. One of them, the first, his name was Hananiah, and having seen the despair of his people, having watched tears roll down their cheeks, he wants to give them something to believe in. People need hope in times of occupation. And King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken much, controlled much, and as an illustration of Babylon’s oppression the Prophet Jeremiah wears a wooden yoke around his neck – now isn’t that depressing? So Hananiah stands before the crowd at the Temple to rekindle their faith – to give them something to believe in. After all – did God not free the people from slavery in Egypt? If our liberating God is alive and well then surely our God will save us now. The message sounds good and it’s what the people want to hear, and saying it should show that old pessimistic Jeremiah, the prophet who keeps saying that if you think things are bad now, beware because things are about to get even worse. After Hananiah speaks his uplifting word, Jeremiah - he doesn’t disagree. Instead he hopes that Hananiah is right saying: “Amen! May the Lord do so… but listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people… As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah doesn’t say anything in response to Jeremiah’s statement, but as a sign of his faith in the power of God and in the truth of his prophetic declaration, Hananiah takes the yoke that Jeremiah wore around his neck as a sign of Babylon’s oppression and he broke it before all the people. At this the prophet Jeremiah went his way, and while the crowd cheered and Hananiah bowed, I can imagine Jeremiah singing to himself as he left the Temple, “If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me.” The people listen to Hananiah, and Jeremiah’s wooden yoke, now broken on the floor of the Temple, will soon enough be replaced by an even heavier burden of oppression – for so often we forsake the truth spoken out of love in favor of the one who tells us what we want to hear. The truth. It won’t always get the applause or the public approval ratings. But ignoring the hard and inconvenient truth is as dangerous as driving through Atlanta with only your rear brakes fully functional. So there were two mechanics and there were two prophets, just as there were two voices that spoke out before we invaded Iraq, and there were two paths for Christians to follow in Nazi Germany. The Presbyterian Church is a confessing church, meaning that we affirm many ways that Christians have articulated their beliefs in the last 2,000 years. The Barman Declaration that we will use in place of the Apostles’ Creed today is one such articulation of belief. In 1934, after a year of life in Hitler’s Germany where so many Christians saw no conflict between their faith in Christ and the ideals of Hitler’s National Socialism, there was a small group of pastors who gathered along with the great theologian Karl Barth to articulate an appeal for Christians to stand firm against the easy path of accommodation. In this strong declaration that rejects so many false doctrines and easy solutions are the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” There were two mechanics, two prophets, two paths to take in Nazi Germany, and there are two voices in our world today. One is loud, it’s incessant. It preaches a gospel of easy solutions and false hope. In times of war it speaks from a soap box of vengeance and fear. And if it speaks out of love – know that it only loves you enough to tell you what you want to hear, so listen instead to the voice who loves you enough to tell you the truth. This voice can seem to be only a whisper, but like Jeremiah the prophet who leaves the Temple only to suffer with the people through their captivity, the voice of truth is with you always. And isn’t it about time that you started listening. Amen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Buyer's Remorse

Jeremiah 20: 7-13, OT page 722 O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers. Sermon Sometimes it’s true that the less you know about something the better it seems. That was the case with our first house. It’s not like we hadn’t seen our first house before we bought it. In fact we had been inside each room at least four times before signing the paper work, and after the previous owners moved out, at our realtor’s suggestion we had the house professionally cleaned before moving any of our furniture and possessions in, but that first time we were in the house as owners, in that moment it all looked different. I remember noticing a cloth left by the baseboard. I assumed the cleaning ladies had left it there by mistake, so I picked it right up – only to uncover a decomposing rat. So we worked on the house for a few weeks before moving in. I tiled the kitchen, we painted the walls, had the floors refinished, but despite all that work I remember our first night in our first house because Sara cried, and I wanted to, but I figured someone had to not be crying so I put the walls up and tried to hold it together. Now that’s called buyer’s remorse, when you regret buying something the minute you own it, whereas you wanted it so bad you could taste it before you signed your name on the dotted line. And buyer’s remorse doesn’t only affect homeowners, a similar thing happens to most Christians. The church you’ve joined is just perfect, until you peel back a layer or two and see that this church has issues just like the last one, only they’re different issues. The pastor is just right, until he disappoints you. And Vacation Bible School – well it’s one thing if you’re down in Fellowship Hall helping those kids make butter or sandals or necklaces, but it’s something different all together if Ms. Susie asked you to play the part of Moses and it’s your job to tell a group of cute little boys and girls about how God sent the Angel of Death to kill the first born of every Egyptian family. So rather than see anyone enter into something without having a good idea of what they were really getting into, Paul tries to be upfront. He was thinking of those new families who had just joined the church, their new baby girl who needed to be baptized, and mindful of their smiles on that Sunday morning when their sweet little girl’s head would be sprinkled with water, their tears, how they would all have on their Sunday bests, he writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Consider Jesus for a moment. I’ve seen some paintings of him with the blue eyes and the blond hair, maybe a tear in his eye, maybe a child in his lap, or maybe he’s rescuing a sweet little lamb from a briar patch – and that’s all fine, but don’t you dare forget that this man was so honest with people that he told those Pharisees they were like white washed tombs, pretty on the outside but corpses on the inside, that he went to the Temple, not to sit quietly and reverently, but to topple the tables of the money changers who set up shop outside his father’s house, and then remember what he told that crowd of people who were ready to stone a woman caught in adultery, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” – do you think that’s what they wanted to hear? It’s not. He’s like that friend of yours who isn’t polite enough to know when he should lie. Jesus was so honest with everyone, so brutally honest, that they wanted to kill him, and so they did. And if you’ve been baptized into Christ you’ve been baptized into his death. If you’re here because you’re ready to follow him be sure you know where he leads, and that’s important to get clear about because there are plenty of Christians in this world who are convinced that being a Christian means for men to keep their hair cut short and keep tattoos off their arms, for women to have dainty little laughs at picnics and nice long skirts – but don’t forget who this Jesus really is. He was the one who stood up for truth while the polite people were holding together a corrupt society built on lies and deceit – he was the one who stood up and spoke, and if you are serious about following him be sure you know where he leads because people who speak truth in a society built on lies end up silenced. They crucified my Lord. And they want to do the same thing to Jeremiah. In the beginning the idea of doing what God asked seemed easy enough, but now that he’s in it he’s ready to get out. ““O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; for whenever I speak I must cry out, “Violence and destruction!”” He wouldn’t go along with the crowd by calling long working hours without adequate compensation good business – he kept calling it abuse. He stood in the marketplace where a few people were making a lot of money, and rather than stand by politely as it happened he stood with the poor and cried out about injustice. Then he went to the palace and watched the others kneel to kiss the king’s ring and cheer him on saying, “Long live the King!” They gathered around him and told him just what he wanted to hear, but Jeremiah was there and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He cried out, “Destruction is on the way. And it’s your ways and your doings that have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.” It can wear you out being that honest. The truth becomes a burden to bear, a weight around your neck, a voice inside your head, and for just a little relief you let it out – you say what you need to say because keeping it in is “something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.” The problem is once you speak out, then you hear the whispering. Can you believe he just said that? I wish someone would tape his mouth closed? Be sure not to invite him back next year. He made plenty of enemies, but you would think that his friends would stand by him, only Jeremiah cries out, “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.” He’s had enough. Only he can’t quit. He’s a prophet and there’s no way out. His eyes are opened to the truth and there’s no going back. He’s stuck, and maybe you know what that feels like, but in your moment of deepest frustration did you give voice to your pain or did you try to hold it together? I remember that first night in our first house, and I do remember wanting to be the one who held it all together – so I put up those walls, I didn’t shed a tear, and I tried to go to sleep as though I knew everything was going to be alright and as though stoic indifference was a quality that every wife was looking for in her husband. It’s not. And it’s not a quality that God is looking for in Christians either. If only I had been brave enough to say that I wanted to go back to our apartment too. If only I had been bold enough to tell her that I was afraid. If only I had been faithful enough to let go and trust that God would hold us together, but I kept all that in and the point is that Jeremiah lets it out and I should have too. Because you will not be confident in every decision that you make. You will not be completely satisfied with your life, your job, your church, yourself, or your God 100% of the time. You will look back with regret, with remorse, on some decisions that you can’t take back – and when that happens you must trust God enough to cry out in truth, you must give voice to the fears of your heart, because you don’t have to be happy all the time but if you want to make it down this road that Christ is leading us on you do have to bear your soul as well as your cross. Don’t pretend that it’s fine if you’re sure that it’s not. And if you can’t see any way that it’s all going to turn out alright, then cry out to the only one who has the power to do something about it. “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.” Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Finally Brothers and Sisters

2nd Corinthians 13: 11-13, NT page 186 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you. Sermon Bonaroo is this weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, and I guess it means I’m getting older that I can understand why someone would sit through hours of back to back traffic to get somewhere if they just have to, and I can understand why someone would spend the night in a tent next right next to thousands of other people in tents – if they were on the run and having to stay in a refugee camp, and I can understand why someone walk through miles of mud if they were a prisoner of war or something, I just can’t understand why someone would do all that by choice, even paying money to do so. I feel the same way about marathons. The first marathon was run by Phidippides, who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC, to deliver word of the Greek victory over the Persians, and I can understand running just over 26 miles if the news really has to be delivered and there’s no other way to do it, I just can’t imagine why someone would run so far for no apparent reason, even paying money to do so. But that might be like wondering why anyone would pay $6.50 to watch a movie at Shadybrook Cinema when you can rent a movie from Redbox for less than half that and you get to watch it in the comfort of your own home. There is a difference in the experience of laughing and hearing other people around you laugh at the same time that makes watching a movie in a movie theater very different from watching a movie at home, just as hearing music covered in mud with a huge crowd of people also covered in mud is a desirable experience for some people, just as running over 26 miles with a crowd of strangers is worth training for – because there are some experiences that must be shared. So while you can take college courses, even graduate degree courses, on the internet from the comfort of your own home, Vacation Bible School is only available for those who are able to show up here at First Presbyterian Church tomorrow, and that’s because Vacation Bible School doesn’t just teach children about the Good News of Jesus Christ, here they will experience it firsthand. You can’t just tell them that they’re accepted, or loved, or forgiven – you have to model these things if they’re ever going to believe it. And I do believe these things, largely because I have experienced them. I don’t remember much of what they taught me at VBS when I was a child, I don’t remember many of the lessons, but I do remember exactly how I felt during that week – I felt at home in my church, for the first time I felt like that church was mine. I also felt loved by the ladies who fed me snacks, the ones who helped me do crafts, they weren’t teaching me because they had to, they were teaching me, spending time with me, out of love. And I felt like I belonged. We didn’t have cool head bands then like the children will get at our VBS this week, a color assigned to each group, but we were split up into groups and that group was where I was supposed to be and that’s where I belonged, and to feel like you belong is a big deal whether you’re 10 or 110. We all want to belong somewhere, so we divide into groups whether it’s VBS, high school, or the Maury County Jail, we divide up into groups and settle into our place – and if we’re lucky it’s the place where we’re supposed to be and where we feel accepted and loved. Next week there will be children attending VBS who have never darkened the doors of our church before, and if there’s any hope of this church not just being ours but theirs too, first genuine acceptance and love must be shown to them. That’s what they’re looking for – that’s what we’re all looking for – and if it weren’t so then there would be no reason to attend Bonaroo, everyone would be completely satisfied listening to music with their headphones all by themselves – there’d be no reason to block off roads in Boston for every runner would enjoy running long distances in her basement on the treadmill. Movie theaters would close, and so would churches, because we’d all get what we need from the technology available in our own homes. But it doesn’t work that way. We need each other. Research shows that cancer patients with a community to support them, either a family or a support group, heal faster than those patients who receive the exact same treatment but come home to an empty house and don’t receive the emotional support that they need. The same results are seen in those who fight drug and alcohol addiction. We need each other, so Paul, hearing of the conflict in the Church in Corinth, he doesn’t just write one letter to try and help them stay together, our second scripture lesson is the conclusion to his second. In this conclusion Paul’s concern is clear. It is important to him that the members of this church be reconciled to each other, for despite all the concerns he addresses: the divisions within the church, the immorality of one man who’s moved in with his father’s wife, the church members who can’t get along and so sue each other in civil court, and the false prophets who confuse believers and shadow the truth – despite all this Paul closes his letter, not by vindicating one side, not by defending his supporters, and not by encouraging anyone to leave the church to worship somewhere else, Paul closes his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth by telling them to “put things in order, agree with one another, and live in peace.” It’s not so hard to understand why he ends his letter this way. As attractive as something new can be, to move off to some place for a fresh start, to go somewhere else where no one has disappointed you and no one knows that you’ve ever disappointed anyone – the reality is that while relationships suffer, some even undergo such stress that they’re destroyed, there are ties that will not let us go, because even after disappointment, wrong doing, and hurt – some relationships are strengthened by the miracles of redemption, forgiveness, and grace, and it’s these relationships that keep us alive. I read about these things in the Bible all the time, but it’s not until I’ve received them that I know how valuable they are. We can talk about redemption all we want, but Christians have to do more than talk if anyone is going to believe. We can go on and on about forgiveness, but as long as it’s theoretical it’s empty and worthless. And grace – it sounds good – it’s nice to sing about it, but grace is more than a word, and I know because I have received it – but to be a Christian, to be a Church, means to give such grace away. So long as there has been a Church there have been those who called the Christians hypocrites. We have to do more than just talk; we have to show this world who Christ is by our actions, by our relationships. Then they will know we are Christians by our love. Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday of the year when we are called to consider this theological concept that our God is three – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father did not create the world all alone, but a wind swept over the waters, and God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… so God created all of humankind in” the image of God. Our image of God then is not of a solitary being, but our image of God is three – a relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we honor this relationship by staying connected to one another, not just when it’s easy, but always – during all the days of our lives. Every Trinity Sunday white marks the sanctuary, like the white wedding gown of every bride who has stood in that Narthex with her father or brother, who whispered in her ear, “You know, you don’t have to do this.” Some I’m sure wish they hadn’t, probably all of them have at one time or another, but they all walk down that aisle as one, then joined to their new husband they walk out of our sanctuary up that aisle as two become one. That’s the same aisle that they go up at the end as well. Most funeral processionals go up that aisle and out of the church one last time, the coffin draped often in the white pall reminiscent, of the bridal gown, but more so of the white dress that they all wore when they were baptized, reminding us of some pastor who walked them up that aisle and down the other, calling all of you to teach her who she is, because it’s easy for us all to forget if we don’t have people around to remind us. It takes a community to remind us that we can be made right even after making mistakes. It takes a community to remind us that forgiveness can be given. It takes a family of faith to convince us that grace is real. And that this is their church and here they belong. That’s what you’re after isn’t it. A place where the peace of God is made real by the peace offered by your neighbor’s hand. A place where the love of God is made real by a holy kiss. “Finally, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes “live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Amen.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Acts 2: 1-21, NT page 119 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Sermon Thanks to recent legislation, here in Maury County, cursive writing will once again be a mandatory part of every child’s public school education. Cursive was a part of my education, but as soon as I was allowed to abandon it I did. Since the 6th grade I’ve been out of practice and only just recently tried to pick it back up. You may have received a note from me written in cursive – and if my letters look like they were scrawled by a 5th grader, that’s because my handwriting is picking back up where it left off. People value cursive writing, but fewer and fewer people know how to do it, so the work of addressing things like wedding invitations is sometimes left to a professional calligrapher, whereas just two generations ago, a bride could have done it herself. Home cooking follows a similar trend. Sara and I only know enough about fried chicken to properly buy it. My mother knows how to bread it, but growing up I remember the finished product was always either raw on the inside or burnt on the outside. My grandmother fried her own perfectly, but bought the birds cut up and packaged from the grocery store, so it was her mother, my great-grandmother, who knew how to start with a live chicken and finish with Sunday dinner. That’s a big, sweeping, cultural change where knowledge has been lost. Something that everyone used to do is now work reserved for the professional, and that’s the case in some areas of our life. However, in other areas you can see how the exact opposite is occurring: the Apostle Paul relied on a scribe to write Romans, Galatians, 1st Corinthians and his other letters, these letters were saved and over hundreds of years and because of who knows how many individuals, were compiled, printed, and published, whereas today you can self-publish your own book and have it delivered to your doorstep if you know your way around a computer. Then there’s web-MD, where you can successfully diagnose yourself with a whole array of diseases even if you probably don’t have any of them. There’s Realtracs, where you can do a lot of the leg work you might normally pay a realtor to do, you can receive on-line legal advice through a website called Legal-zoom, and just a couple weeks ago a bride’s older brother told me right before a wedding that he found a church on the internet who would ordain him to the ministry for just $25 so that he could perform his sister’s wedding, then decided he’d let me do the honors instead. To be ordained in our denomination requires four years of college, three years of seminary, and more examinations than I care to remember, but things are changing. But, for clergy things didn’t change with the dawn of the internet – for clergy like me everything changed at Pentecost. Pentecost is the moment when God “poured out the Spirit upon all flesh,” not upon the specially educated clergy, not just on those who were born into the priestly families, but every son and daughter, young and old, “Even upon my slaves” the Lord God says, “both men and women. In those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” In our reading from Acts, after the room full of people proclaim the gospel to the city of Jerusalem packed with travelers from the four corners of the Roman Empire, Peter is the one who explains it, but it was that whole room of people who were preaching. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” Now I have a degree – Master of Divinity they call it – but what does it truly take to proclaim the Gospel? What does it truly take to make the mighty works of our mighty God known throughout all the earth? Will it take more specialists? With more education? A few more saints with a stronger moral fiber? No. Making God known throughout all the earth will not require any of these things. What the Gospel requires is you, and you, and you – it will take this whole room just as it took that whole room of believers back in Jerusalem – and then it was a room not of PhD’s but illiterate fisherman, widows, tax collectors, and housewives. A room not of saints – unless you count Peter who denied Christ three times or Thomas who doubted. It was a room of disciples who were not ready so much as they were willing – and that is all that is required of you – a willingness to let the Spirit use you. And this is nothing new. When I consider the great moments of faith formation in my life – those people who God used to preach the Good News to me, I don’t think most of preachers but of a homeless man on a subway, a Waffle House waitress, and a Hispanic kid we met at Woodland Park. I think of a lady named Mary Arapian, who was a member of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, a church I served as an intern – and when I called her to ask if I might bring a barbeque lunch to her house for us to share she told me she was so happy she was, “sitting in a puddle,” whatever that means. I don’t remember a single sermon that I preached that summer as an intern, but I remember how special her saying that made me feel, and that’s reality. I pray I’ll be here to preach a thousand sermons from this pulpit, but all my words will be dwarfed by the sermon that your life will preach if you are willing to be used by the Spirit as that room full of believers were at Pentecost. The Gospel is yours. It is yours to take and it is yours to preach, if you are ready and willing to be used by the Spirit. Tell his story. Feed the sick. And be the friend of sinners. Remember that Christianity is not a religion for special people with special gifts and special capabilities – our faith is not reserved for the high and mighty, the high-brow, or high minded. Make it known throughout all the earth that “Everyone, everyone, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension Sunday

Genesis 3: 1-9 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” Sermon On the night of my high school graduation it rained and the ceremony was moved to the gym rather than the big outdoor football stadium, and parents and graduates-to-be waited in line while the high school’s staff moved all the wet speakers, microphones, and other equipment from one place to the other. Because of the water the microphone kept going in and out, and I remember when it was my turn to walk across the stage, though rather than hearing my name read there was silence. I was ready to walk from the edge of the stage to the middle where my High School Principle stood holding my diploma, but I needed to hear my name called out first, that was my cue – but the microphone had gone out. I stood there for a few seconds, and then, rather than hope the microphone would start to work again I yelled it out myself “Joseph Belton Evans,” and walked across the stage to receive my diploma. That’s what it felt like was necessary to do if I was going to be noticed, and in that moment that’s exactly what I wanted – to be noticed, to be seen and known. But that’s not always the case. Adam and Eve were in the garden. “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”” There are times when I want to be noticed and there are times when I don’t, and usually when I want one it’s the other that I get. I’ve been to Kroger a million times, dressed and shaven, ready and willing to run into anyone, hoping even to see and to be seen, but try to run in and out of the Kroger avoiding anyone’s notice in a wet bathing or sweat pants – that’s the time when every member of First Presbyterian Church will be grocery shopping. “Where are you?” God asks, but Adam and Eve don’t want to be found. The prophet Elijah wants the same thing. He would have loved for God to have been there when Jezebel was hunting him down, but now that he’s made it to this cave he doesn’t want to be bothered. Particularly I imagine he doesn’t want to be bothered by God who seems to only show up when you want to be alone. He lays down in a cave after a journey of forty days and forty nights when a voice said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Elijah goes out to see, and God was not in any of the places God had ever been before. Elijah knew to look for God in the wind, but God was not in the wind. He knew to look for God in the earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. Silence – is that where God is? You can look for God there, but sometimes looking for God in the silence is like staring into the sky as the disciples were. There the disciples stood. Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” and you can’t blame them as they kept on staring up into heaven even after they could no longer see him. Surely they had a million questions after seeing something like that. As he rose into the clouds they probably wanted to know if the same thing was going to happen to them one day. “What is it like to fly like that Jesus,” I can imagine one of them asking if he ever had the chance. And most pressing, most importantly, “Are you ever coming back?” If you’re hiding in the bushes not wanting to be found God will walk right up – call you by name – if you don’t want to be found you can expect to be found whether you want to be found or not. If you want to be left alone you can bet that God will follow you as God did right to Elijah’s cave. But if you have questions, if you need guidance, if you are ready to be found – you may find yourself looking for God but seeing only clouds. That may have been the case for three women I met last Thursday. They were arrested for some crime or another, held in our county jail, which is one of those places where I imagine that you wake up every morning asking yourself, “How did I get here and when will I get out?” You’re given a bed to lie in, but you don’t sleep soundly – it was around two years ago I think when the beds were found to be infested with spiders as though these ladies needed anything else to keep them up at night. They also get some food to eat that costs tax payers about 80 cents a meal, a jump suit to wear, and four cinder block walls to stare at. You can lose yourself in a place like that, it’s easy to give up on yourself, I don’t imagine anyone enjoys looking themselves in the mirror there and seeing the woman in a jail jumpsuit looking back, and worse, a place like that can feel like somewhere God would never go. “Where is God,” the inmate might ask, but when you are the most desperate to see God’s face sometimes God seems to be the farthest away. You search the clouds for something, but see only clouds. “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Isn’t that a strange thing – that two strangers, angels maybe, came walked up to those disciples staring up into heaven but the disciples didn’t even notice? When we feel lost, when God seems far away and gone, are we blind to the angels right beside us? Last Thursday a group of ladies from our church who had been tutoring them and preparing them for their High School Equivalency Exam were also right there beside them when they took the test at Columbia State. Jesus ascends into heaven, but not without sending angels to be at your side. Every year we come to this place, and once we’re all here it’s no wonder why. It’s so good to be in a place where cell phones don’t work, making it easier to be here with each other, valuing what it is to be a part of a community of faith. We can be angels to each other of course, reminding each other that when God seems the most far away you must be bold in expecting God to show up again at any moment. Our God goes before us, God is beside us, and even within us, and “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, he will come again.” Be there to remind each other of this truth. Amen.