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.