Monday, December 28, 2015

What she treasured in her heart

Scripture Lesson: Luke 2: 41-52, NT page 59 Sermon Title: What she treasured in her heart It has been said that the first person enlisted in every war, regardless of nation or era, is God. We all, especially in times of great need, call on God to support our cause, and in a war, with desperation there are individuals and nations who not only call on God, but enlist God in supporting their cause. This tendency makes the words of Abraham Lincoln regarding the Civil War especially noteworthy: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” Many are not as wise as Lincoln, but assume that God just goes along with them to support them in whatever effort they so choose. Surely, God loves those whom I love, they say. Surely, the Lord also hates those who I hate, only pays attention to the sins that I pay attention to and ignores those sins that I deny. This kind of person deals with Scripture in the same way, reading the Bible not to be challenged but to be congratulated. Their Bible is short and focuses on those passages that justify their way of life, validates their self-righteousness, while ignoring those passages that call them to question what they already believe. You know the kind of people that I’m talking about. The great irony of the slaveholder in the south is not that he held men and women against their will, abused them and forced them to work without pay, but that the slaveholder committed such an atrocity while going to church every Sunday, while reading from Scripture each day, while pledging support to Missionary efforts in Africa and claiming, both outwardly and inwardly, that he was a dedicated Christian. The same is true of Nazi’s in Germany. They did not think of their cause as evil, but rooted in their interpretation of the Gospel of John, they sought to exterminate an entire race of people fueled by their warped reading of Scripture which blamed Christ’s crucifixion on the Jews. The one who murders the doctor providing abortions is the same. As is the member of the KKK. It is his faith and his reading of Scripture that fuels his evil, and Christ - well, in the same way, he and all those who are like him, they assume that Christ is right there with them, as though the Lord Almighty were something that they could slip into their pocket and take along for the ride to justify their cause, not realizing that they've been traveling in one direction for some time while having left Jesus behind back in Jerusalem. We read in our Second Scripture Lesson: "Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey." A day's journey feels like a very long time to go without realizing that your child is gone. But I won’t be too judgmental; just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean that I won't. The premise of the Home Alone movie can seem pretty ridiculous, that a pair of responsible parents would make it half way to Paris before realizing that they left their 8-year-old son back at the house, but I’m telling you, now that I know how crazy life can get with two kids I’m not so judgmental. Dad goes one way in one car and Mom goes the other way in another car. Life moves fast. You think it won’t ever happen, but you hear those nightmare stories of the family going to a funeral and little Billy got left behind to spend the afternoon at the funeral home all by himself – it can happen. If it happened to Mary and Joseph, it can happen to you too. And the greater point of this story is not that his parents left him behind assuming he was with the other children or with an aunt or uncle whom they were traveling with, but that his parents assumed he would be going along with them. They assumed that he would be following their travel agenda. That he would just go along with them on their way – after all, they are the adults here, but Christ is so clearly exercising a mind and a will all his own, so he is not following close behind the rest of the group but decided to stay awhile back at the Temple. The Lord, you see, he’ll decide on his own. He is the incarnate son of the God of Moses. And you remember what happened when Moses asked the Lord in the burning bush, “who will I tell them has sent me?” and the Lord said, you tell them, “I am” has sent you. “I am who I am,” is the name of the Lord, and this is a very different name from, “I am whoever you want me to be.” God is not whoever we want him to be. God, the Great “I am,” will be whoever he decides to be so Mary had to learn early that God would also go where he wanted to go. And the truth of God’s independence takes on a new meaning when God is a 12-year-old boy. I don’t imagine that when Joseph and Mary looked around the caravan and noticed that he was missing that they understood. Instead I imagine that when Joseph and Mary finally found him, they were that mix of relief and anger that all parents feel after they find the child they lost sight of and then finally find again. You can see Mary running to him with tears in her eyes when she finally spots him. She rushes to him and wraps her arms around his neck in a hug, but it’s the kind of hug that gradually tightens into a strangle. “I thought I’d lost you!” she says, but then, “Do you know how scared we were? I’m going to ring your neck!” Jesus is independent, and with that independence comes all kinds of fear, all kinds of danger. When it comes to Mary and Joseph’s frustration with Jesus’ independence most parents can relate. Already I've noticed myself not really wanting to let our daughters become their own people or make their own choices, because I want them to either stay little or to like all the same things that I like and enjoy doing all the same things that I enjoy. At bedtime they pick their own bedtime stories, and I try not to manipulate their decision – but those Bernstein Bear books are so long. And Pinkalicious is so boring. So sometimes I’ll pretend that I just can’t find them on the bookshelf. I don’t have the power to change what they like and don’t like but I do have the power to hide some of those books under the bed. When they’re little it’s easy. They’ll mostly wear what you want them to. They’ll go where you take them, but more and more they make decisions on their own, more and more they are their own people with their own wills, and this is how it’s supposed to be. Our first pediatrician told us that as soon as the umbilical cord is cut it’s a parent’s job to help her children be functioning and independent – but that’s hard, especially when the child starts doing things his parent doesn't like – if he starts to grow up and becomes his own man before his parents are ready to let him go. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. "When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Surely his parents must have known that this child would be no typical 12-year-old after his immaculate conception and everything else the angels told them, but none of that has kept any of us from making the same assumptions. Still, far too many Christians believe they are the ones who get to set Christ’s agenda. So the preacher gives a long and boring sermon whether the congregation likes it or not. And when some of them start to fall asleep he just talks louder and gets angrier, as though the problem were the congregation’s resistance to the message and not the one proclaiming the message. He just keeps on not realizing that he left Christ behind back in Jerusalem. The same is true of the teacher. She doesn’t know it but she started sounding to the children the way the adults sound in the Peanuts movies (wha wha wha). She has the choice of changing her tune, reaching their level, incorporating some new methods, but instead she just keeps on going with the same old stuff, moving in this other direction getting farther and farther from the source of joy and fulfillment. This is the human condition! We don’t want to be the ones who have to change, but we can’t control Jesus – so if you want a part of him it’s going to have to be you who turns around. He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" We should have known, but so often, We imagine that he rides with our caravan – after all, we’re his disciples. He supports our causes – after all, we’re his people. He votes with us – after all, we’re the Christians in this race. And maybe that’s sometimes true, but we must never be so bold as to assume that we set Christ’s agenda, for Christ, even as a 12-year-old boy had a mind of his own: He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" They were surprised to find him there, some place he went on his own, without their permission. But this is the case – he goes where he will – and if you want to know him, don’t ask him to ride along with you on your way. Do everything in your power to instead follow where he leads. Rather than assume that he’ll rubber stamp our bad habits, we must be bold to listen when he calls us to change. We ask him to preserve our way of life while ignoring his call to a completely new way of life. And we hope he is with us where we are, not realizing we may have left him behind. If you’ve realized this to be the case, don’t keep going. Turn around – for he’s waiting for you back at the temple. Don’t hold resentment tighter. Forgive! Don’t hate more deeply. Love. Don’t suffer anymore. Repent. Our call is to take him and to treasure him in our hearts, for it is there that he changes us and shapes us, not according to our agenda, but to his. So hear his teaching. Treasure it in your heart. And follow where he leads, for his is the way of life. Amen.

For a child has been born to us

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 9: 2-7 and Luke 2: 1-14, NT page 58 Sermon Title: For a child has been born for us This is a high stakes kind of night. Christmas Eve is a big deal. I stand up here and I know that this is a high stakes sermon. I’ve been spending time thinking about what I would say, how I’d look. I went to the barber shop on Tuesday and my barber was surprised to see me back again so soon as I’d had a haircut just two weeks prior, but then he says, “Oh yeah, it’s your boss’s birthday this week. I guess you have to look your best.” “And not only that,” I said, “there’s going to be people here on Christmas Eve that I haven’t seen since Easter, so I really want to look sharp.” You have a lot on your mind too, right? Christmas Eve is high stakes for all of you too. I know it is. They’ll be big meals to make, and you want them to be perfect, not like that turkey that Clark Griswold cuts into in Christmas Vacation. And you’ve decorated the house, but you don’t want your decorations to be like his lights that don’t turn on. Plus, you’re hosting family and friends hoping and praying that Cousin Eddie doesn’t show up in the driveway. You want Christmas to be perfect and I bet that most of you have been working hard to get as close to perfect as you can get. There’s a lot at stake tonight. A lot of traditions. A lot of expectations. A lot of hopes. Really it’s been that way all week. On Monday night we went caroling. About 30 of us met here in the church. Several of the church’s deacons, several choir members. We broke up into 3 groups so that we could spread out and make it to several households. I was in the group that went out to the Bridge. There are five members of our church who now live at this retirement community, and I was expecting the five of them to listen to us sing, but the thing I wasn’t expecting was that every resident of the Bridge was waiting for us when we showed up to sing at 6:15. And there were just seven of us – Greg Martin, Frank and Gloria Dale, Cindy Baxter, me and our two daughters, the seven of us were standing up there in front of all the residents at the Bridge who had just finished their dinner. Right before we started singing one of those church members who lives out there pulled me aside and said, “You know, some of the groups who have come out here caroling have not been very good at all.” This is high stakes stuff. High stakes. Christmas is high stakes, and Christmas Eve – we’ll, this is as high stakes as it gets. You hope no child is disappointed. You hope your turkey isn’t dry. You hope Cousin Eddie waits a couple days to empty the septic system on the RV. There’s all this pressure, and I think that’s thanks to the world that we live in. For the past two months the commercials have done us in. Go to Kroger for the food. Go to Lowe’s for an inflatable Santa Clause. Go to Walmart and ruin your day. There’s a lot to buy and a lot to do, and the stakes are high and it’s all up to you. You’re the one who has to bake the perfect turkey. You’re the one who has to enhance everyone’s Christmas cheer with the right decorations. You’re the one who has to be sure that Granny gets the right kind of night gown. This is a high stakes season and it’s all up to you, right? No. Not right. Maybe according to the world, but not according to the Bible. The big news around here lately has to do with the decorations on local McDonald’s windows. Here in Maury County the owners of the local McDonald’s have made a point of making their December decorations rooted in the true meaning of the season, so their window decorations are obviously Christian. Santa Clause is there, Frosty the snowman is there, but the main focus is on Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. This blatant focus on Jesus has surprised some people and has been celebrated by others who worry that as a society we are forgetting what Christmas is really all about, and I agree with that. We’ve gone too far but we’ve gone too far not just because we started saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” we’ve gone too far because we starting thinking that the success or failure of Christmas rests with us. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to remember how to wish for something and how to believe in miracles. Stop worrying about whatever’s in the oven for just a minute. Stop thinking about what’s been bought and what might be forgotten. Stop thinking about what’s left for you to do before tomorrow morning and just listen to this: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” “To you,” the angel said. Not, “By you,” or “Because of you,” the angel said that the child was born “to you.” A present. The center and reason for the whole thing. A child who was born “to you.” And the gift of this child is set before the backdrop of a census, a decree that went out from Emperor Augustus “that all the world should be registered.” If it weren’t for the census you know that Joseph and Mary never would have traveled from the town of Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem, but what’s so interesting is that they had to go at all. I mean, what kind of a person has to validate himself by counting how many people he has power over? That’s what a census is for. It’s the kind of data that we use to create our legacies. He wanted the historians to be thinking: Don’t you remember how the population boomed under Emperor Augustus? Don’t you remember how we flourished under his leadership? While he was our Emperor the turkeys were never dry, the presents were always wrapped, and the Cousin Eddie’s were finally domesticated like the barbarians of Gaul. Now that’s the part of Christmas that’s been stolen from us. We stopped acting like Shepherds who have received something and started acting like Emperors with something to prove. You can call it X-Mas all you want and it won’t ruffle my feathers. Wish me Happy Holidays and serve me my coffee in a red cup all you want, it won’t hurt my feelings, because the part of Christmas that I want back is the part about laying down my heavy burden. Everybody wants this to be the Christmas that goes down in history: Do you remember the party that she had? Do you remember the time she got me the perfect gift? Do you remember how he had a Lexus in the driveway? Do you remember what I had to do to get that bicycle put together? I – I – I. Me – me – me. But Christmas is not up to me. Christmas is not up to you. It’s up to God. “To you, a child has been born.” “To you a son is given.” And in him is the promise that your legacy has not so much to do with how well you’ve done or how good people think you are, for you are defined not by the gifts that you give but by this one great gift that you have received. To you. To you – a savior is born. To you – the gift of salvation has come. To you – forgiveness. To you – redemption. To you – joy. For a child has been born to you and Holy is his name. On those who lived in a land of deep darkness – a light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; And he is named – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Story Behind the Song

Scripture Lessons: Micah 5: 2-5a and Luke 1: 39-45 Sermon Title: The Story Behind the Song I was having lunch with a couple members of our church this week. The three of us were talking about a new mission of our church – a mission structured by our own Robin Watson and the Housing Coalition of South Central Tennessee. Part of this organization’s mission, the part that our church has been getting involved in, has to do with renovating existing houses owned by elderly members of our community who have trouble doing the work themselves or paying someone else to do it. So far, thanks to Robin, Jackie Lawson, James Marshall, and several others, our church has been involved in improving three houses, and to raise some money for a few more, Robin suggested a fund raiser, where you can select your least favorite hymn from our hymnal, and for $100 you can ensure that it will not be sung again for a full year. I don’t worry whether or not this campaign will be successful, judging from some of your opinions of my hymn choices, I worry that this campaign might be too successful. And if we were to start the campaign during Advent, we could probably fund renovations for half the houses in the city. I know that you don’t love all the hymns we sing during this season of Advent especially, but remember, there’s more to a song than whether or not you like the tune. There’s even more to a song than the words, because sometimes it’s the story behind the song that makes the hymn worth singing. Sometimes it’s the circumstance that caused the writer to write. The hardship that inspired the poet to put his feelings to paper. Sometimes that’s what makes the hymn valuable and worthy of inclusion in the worship service. That’s the case with many of these hymns we sing during Advent, and it’s most obviously true one of the most popular hymns for Christian worship – Amazing Grace. You know the song. It’s been sung by everyone from Elvis Pressley to President Barak Obama who sang it himself during the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was shot in Charleston, South Carolina. This song is embraced by white and black. It’s been a tool for racial reconciliation. But did you know that it was written by a slave trader? The details are foggy and the story is probably much more legend than fact, but the story behind the song only adds to its strength, and the details generally agreed upon are that “by 1745, [John] Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. [And] at that time he wrote the autobiographical Amazing Grace.” Now knowing that Amazing Grace is autobiragraphical brings strength to the words – because the blind man who now sees is a living, breathing man. The wretch who’s been saved – you now know in what way he was a wretch and you know who it is that saved him. The lost one who’s been found – he’s no different from you. He’s no different from me. Knowing the story behind the song gives the words some new strength, and that’s the case with all kinds of music. Behind so many Taylor Swifts songs is the memory of a breakup. You know that the force behind Aretha Franklin’s voice when she demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T – all that passion comes from her true desire for equality, dignity, respect – in a society of segregation and discrimination. The songs that we sing this time of year are the same in that many of them, all of them surely, have a story behind the song. If you picked up one of the Advent Devotionals provided by the Christian Education Committee, the one titled, Hark the Glad Sound, that gives a daily reading along with a familiar hymn, then you may already know that William Dix who wrote, What Child Is This? was a manager for an insurance company, and in 1865 he asked the same question of Joseph and Mary that he asked himself when he held his newborn children – “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” That’s the same question that every father and mother ask – who is this little miracle that’s just been handed to us? I remember all too well the night our oldest daughter was born. The nurse brought her into our hospital room, handed her to us, and then turned to leave. “Wait a minute!” we said, “are you just going to leave her with us?” The responsibility. The honor and the burden of being entrusted with a newborn child – that’s big enough, but can you imagine being entrusted with the Son of God? “This, this is Christ the king, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing; Haste, haste to bring him laud, The babe, the son of Mary!” There’s a story behind the Song, and the story for today stands behind a song that you know but that we didn’t read. You may have noticed that our 2nd Scripture Lesson ends in a strange place. The part that we read is not nearly so familiar as the part that we did not read. While our reading from the Gospel of Luke ended with verse 45, it’s verses 46 to 55 that you know so well. These verses make the very first Christmas Carol ever sung – the song that Mary sings – the Magnificat it’s called, and you know most of it because it’s ancient and it’s beautiful, and with this song she says what we all want to say if only we had the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; For the Mighty One has done great things for me, And holy is his name.” You know the song and it is powerful, just the words alone are powerful. It is even more powerful when set to music. But did you ever notice that Mary doesn’t sing in the presence of the angel Gabriel. She doesn’t sing this song after hearing that she would be the mother of the child who would assume the throne of his ancestor David. The story behind the song is that Mary sings in Elizabeth’s house. Maybe you know already why that’s the case, because it would have been the same with you. The phone rings with the news you wanted to hear. You smile, you’re excited because you got the job you wanted, but you don’t sing for joy until you tell your mother. Or your heart breaks, but you don’t cry – you don’t really cry until you find your way home through a fog of disappointment to that safe easy chair in your grandmother’s living room. She pours the tea and the speaks the words, “Honey, what happened?” That’s when you finally feel, not when it happens, but when you are in a place where you can put your guard down, be yourself, know that you can put your pretentions and your armor away. Elizabeth was her relative, and scared as she must have been, pregnant Mary set out and “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Do you know how good it must have felt to hear those words? It must have felt as good as sitting on her mother’s lap. Safe and warm. It must have felt as good as resting her head on her father’s strong shoulder. Reassuring. Steady. Present. It’s hard when these people are gone, because flesh and blood does us so much good. Both my grandmothers are gone now. One was a painter, and as a child my favorite food were these yeast rolls that she’d bake in her kitchen. In my mind’s eye I can see her there and I know that it’s yeast rolls that she’s baking because she has toilet paper stuck up her nose – the flour would dry her nostrils out so she’d protect herself by using the toilet paper – and she made me those rolls as often as I’d ask, and she’d listen whenever I had something to say. My other grandmother – she made dressing. It was serious dressing, with turkey parts and a boiled egg, and bay leaves. She wasn’t the warm, sit on my lap kind of grandmother – she was the wear pantie hose to the beach with her swim suit kind of grandmother – but I don’t know if there is anyone who was ever more proud of me than she was, and maybe that’s the thing I’ve missed so much since she died. It hit me at Thanksgiving because there on the stove was her dressing made by my mother who learned the recipe, and there in the oven were the rolls baked by my father who mastered the art of my other grandmother’s yeast rolls, and I was crouching down in the kitchen to watch them bake through the oven window fighting back tears because the flesh and blood of these grandmother’s that gave me so much comfort is gone. Now I know they’re with me, but there’s something about human touch. There’s something about how Elizabeth’s physical body, the smell of her home and the taste of her cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth the person that helped Mary to sing. In that house, she went from a scared young pregnant girl – to “My soul magnifies the Lord!” She left behind the fear and shame of being unmarried – and instead proclaimed, “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.” There is something about Elizabeth’s house. Just like there’s something about a mother’s lap, a father’s shoulder, a grandmother’s cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth, flesh and blood. That’s part of the story behind the song, but there’s more to it than just that, because Mary’s song isn’t about Elizabeth, it’s about Jesus. What it is about Jesus exactly that Mary knows and is trying to tell us makes me think of one of those old preacher stories that get told again and again. Maybe you’ve heard it – a little girl calls out in the night for her daddy. He rushes into her room and she tells him that she’s afraid. “Well don’t worry honey. You’re going to be fine, now let me go back to sleep,” her father says. “But daddy,” pleads the daughter, “won’t you stay here with me?” You can imagine his face now – and so you know that it was more self-serving than faithful when he said, “You don’t need me to stay with you. Don’t you know that Jesus is always with you to protect you?” “But daddy,” the little girl says, “I need someone here with some skin.” With some skin. With a lap for children to sit in. With a shoulder for the hurting to cry on. With a hand to hold and a voice to speak and footsteps to follow in. That’s the rest of the story behind this song of Mary’s. The Lord is coming – and he’s coming in flesh and blood. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Their shame into praise

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 12: 2-6 and Zephaniah 3: 14-20, OT page 877 Sermon Title: Their shame into praise I love Christmas cards. I bet that you love Christmas cards too, and I hope that you receive a lot of them because they’re so nice to get. The thing that I love the most about Christmas cards is seeing how my friends, who I remember from high school or college, well I knew them before they ever dreamed of becoming the respectable people who now grace the front of their Christmas cards. It’s so good to see them. The kids grow each year. Dad’s hairline recedes more each year. And Mom’s getting better and better at maintaining that smile while saying, “sit still” to her children through gritted teeth. These cards bring with them more than Christmas cheer, don’t they? I was a part of a conversation just last Wednesday. One of us was about to get those Christmas cards out, another already had, and the third said, “Well, I’m thinking that this year we’ll send out a Happy New Year’s Card.” People are serious about Christmas Cards. You feel good if you get them out early, you feel guilty if you don’t get them out in time, and we were shamed because we got our first one a full month ago. These friends of ours – they so have it together that they sent out a Happy Thanksgiving Card – and if that doesn’t make you ashamed about not getting your Christmas Card out by Christmas I don’t know what will. So on the ball as to get out a Thanksgiving Card. Puts us all to shame, doesn’t it? And with it came an announcement that dad got a promotion. Oldest son is six, but has learned to read, and youngest son is four but is going off to medical school in the Spring. I remember one Christmas; my grandfather was reading one of those Christmas letters that are usually really nice to receive. You get an update on what all has been going on, who’s been to camp and who’s playing the piano, all that stuff, but my grandfather was so offended that he said what I think is a word he just made up. He read the sentence about where all this family had been on vacation, and he said, “Well, this is so full of braggadocio I don’t want to read another word.” I’m not sure that “braggadocio is a word,” but you know what he means. This year we already sent him a Christmas Card, but we’ll be keeping a vacation report to ourselves. Of course the point of the Christmas letter, just like the point of the Christmas card – it’s just to say, “Merry Christmas” and let me tell you how we’ve been doing. You are receiving one because you are loved, but sometimes, sometimes these things, they inspire a little bit of envy. So the wife puts down the Christmas Letter and says to her husband, “Would you look at that; the Johnson’s have been to Paris?” and he knows exactly what she’s trying to say. In the same way the husband puts down the Christmas Card from the out of town friends and says to his wife, “Would you look at Sally. Doesn’t she look great? I wonder if she’s been working out or something?” That sounds like an innocent question, but his wife looks into his eyes and wonders what this picture – meant to say nothing more than “Merry Christmas” has inspired in her husband’s mind. Christmas Cards. We put our best foot forward for these things. If it’s a family picture that’s going out to all our friends and family we want to look our very best, like a family who has it all together and is doing just fine. And sometimes we are – I suppose that’s what we call normal. That’s what we hope for each Christmas. A tree, presents under it, a nice dinner where everyone is thankful and happy – but the truth is that sometimes Cousin Eddie shows up with his Rottweiler who chokes on a bone under the dining room table. The truth is that sometimes not everyone who you want to be around the dining room table is there, and sometimes there’s someone there who you wish wasn’t. The truth is – sometimes that smile on everyone’s face is covering up any matter of brokenness. What’s normal at Christmas? I suppose we project our Christmas hopes and aspirations on our Christmas cards, but the reality – the reality is different. I ran by a man on Friday morning. He was sitting in his car with the window rolled down. I could smell his cologne from 10 feet away, and it made me wonder, what smell is he trying to cover up? You look at a woman with too much make-up, sunglasses too dark. A smile too bright. A laugh too loud. An attitude too cheery – because we are all using whatever is available to keep the world from seeing the hurt that’s really there. I love the Christmas Cards – they say, “Merry,” “Bright,” “Joy,” and “Happy,” but what so many of us are ready to say is that “I am a broken man in need of a savior.” Maybe that’s you, maybe it’s not – and if it’s not than thanks be to God for you are not as normal as you are miraculous to have the peace that so many are longing for. 2 parents and a dog. 2.5 children and a wife – don’t you be fooled into thinking that such a thing is normal, for such a family is nothing less than a miracle. Have you ever seen Christmas at a nursing home? Or at a prison. Have you ever seen Christmas at a prison? We see these pictures, and not just on the Christmas Cards, we get this image in our minds of a turkey and tree and lights and love but don’t you think for a minute that the perfect Christmas you have in your mind is a normal Christmas, because Christmas for a whole lot of people in this world will be very different. Last Sunday a man walked up to our church. You might have seen him. He was carrying a big sack, a green duffle bag with straps and inside that bag was his every possession. His clothes, his bed, an old Folgers can with dry grass and leaves that he used to start the fire that would keep him warm at night. It turns out that he’s the kind of person who rides trains from one place to the next, and he was heading south to the Gulf Coast. Where will he be on Christmas? To take seriously our second Scripture Lesson is to take seriously the promise that regardless of where he is on Christmas Day, with the promise of the Christ child comes the promise that God will bring him home. In verse 20 we read: “At that time, I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” This word from the obscure book of Zephaniah speaks to the man who wanders from place to place. The man who has left something and hopes to find something else. The man who told me “that ridding the train is a good way for a man to lose himself, but it is also a good way to get found.” The promise of Christmas according to the book of Zephaniah is a promise that he will be one who gets found. Now that’s a different idea than a lot of what floats around this time of year. According to Zephaniah this isn’t the season for sugar plumbs and elves and toys for good girls and boys. According to Zephaniah, The child who will receive nothing on Christmas morning The child who will hear her parents say that Santa Clause just couldn’t make it to the house this year. The child who was sure that this year would be different but it wasn’t – can you hear in this prophecy the promise that one day she will sing for joy? We want to put our best foot forward in times like these. We want to be OK already, but that’s not Christmas you see. Christmas isn’t about getting all the perfect presents underneath the tree and worrying that someone might be disappointed – Christmas is about the promise that in all this time that you’ve spent trying to prove that you’re not a disaster, God has been working “to remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.” This time of year – it’s about a gift that we’re too often afraid to admit that we need. That’s what I know this church wants for every child in this entire county. Every year I see that pile of presents for the children who might go without. A full 80 children in this community will have a gift on Christmas morning thanks be to God, thanks be to you. And to top it all, there’s a mother at the county jail. Last Tuesday, thanks to one of you who made it happen, she signed her name to some little gift tags. On Christmas morning she won’t be there by the tree, but her children will open up presents from their mother because one of you was bold enough to buy those presents on her behalf – one of you was faithful enough to this promise in the book of Zephaniah that a piece of it will be true on Christmas. Our focus this time of year – it can’t be on ourselves and it can’t be on the presents. Our focus must be on the God who, like a warrior will bring victory. Who will rejoice over you with gladness, Who will renew you in his love – and not just you – for Christmas is the time when imperfect, broken, hurting people rejoice knowing that the savior is born. “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; Let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A refiner's fire

Scripture Lessons: Malachi 3: 1-4 and Luke 1: 68-79 Sermon Title: A refiner’s fire The annual Christmas parade is tomorrow evening, and West 7th Street, which is truly an ideal street for a parade, will be ready. In fact, you could probably make the case that West 7th Street has been ready for the Christmas parade since before Thanksgiving. The wreathes have been up on the lamp posts, the store fronts downtown have been decorated. Columbia is ready – we are prepared for the grand Marshall of the Christmas parade to arrive. I had hoped to be named the grand marshal myself, but I lost out to Santa Clause. Now even if I’m a little jealous, as we drink that hot chocolate provide by the Fellowship Committee on the front steps of our church I’ll be prepared to cheer as he rides by on that great antique firetruck. To prepare for Santa Clause our city cleans the street and calls on the marching band. Our own Millie Landers rehearses her young dancers to somehow dance as one while also processing down the street. This whole display that welcomes Santa Clause into Columbia requires so much preparation – we need to be ready – we want our city to look her best whenever an out of town guest comes to visit. The children know this too, especially when that visiting guest is Santa. On Monday night not only will they be in attendance to watch the parade, but the children will probably have already prepared their lists, and in some way or another, prepared their reputation knowing that the old song has some truth: “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry You’d better not pout; I’m telling you why” because Santa Clause is coming to town. When it comes to the city of Columbia and the Christmas parade, we prepare the way adults prepare – we prepare by putting our best foot forward as though Santa were like any other out of town guest. The house must be cleaned and decorated. But when it comes to children – they prepare a different way. They prepare with a time of purification, you might call it. This time of year they are mindful of their behavior knowing that good children will receive gifts and bad children coal. For them, Santa Clause coming to town is an event that must be prepared for – but you prepare by preparing your life and not your house. That almost sounds like the prophet Malachi. Bible scholars know little about the author of this book, little about the historical events that prompted this prophet to write, but what is clear is that Malachi knows that someone is coming to town and knows that with his coming preparation is necessary – but it is not the kind of preparation that we see on the eve of our Christmas parade – you don’t prepare for his coming by sweeping the streets and putting up lights – you prepare for his coming by purifying your heart, mind, and soul – for the one who is coming is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” According to Suzanne Richard, professor of Old Testament at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, a fuller – or one who used fuller’s soap – was the ancient world’s version of a dry cleaner. Clothes soaking in lye were stomped as you might imagine a group of people would stomp on grapes to make wine. The clothes were then spread out on the ground to be bleached by the sun in what was called a fuller’s field, which was always outside the city or town. It’s significant what people put outside a city or town – the dump, the cemetery, the jail, and the fuller who no doubt used the kind of lye that would clean those clothes according to his customer’s specifications so he probably used a pretty serious cleaning agent. If the one who is coming is like “fuller’s soap” then don’t imagine one of those “Dove Soap” commercials where the soap is so gentle as not to irritate the skin – the sales pitch for fuller’s soap would be that it is so abrasive that it will bleach that skin right off. The book of Malachi is about a coming messenger whose sole purpose is to say, “He is coming. The Lord is coming. So get ready. Be prepared, for he will be like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap to all who are defiled and impure.” If you ask me, the fuller’s soap is disturbing enough with its imagery of harsh cleaning agents, feet stomping, and being left to dry out in the sun, but have you ever seen a refiner’s fire? I had the opportunity to tour one of the two aluminum recycling plants in Mount Pleasant. It’s an incredible place, amazing really. You have to put on these safety glasses, a helmet, and a protective coat before you go in and once you do – the tour begins with a look at the finished product. The finished product from the process is called an ingot. The ingot is a great big slab of refined aluminum, but to make an ingot you have to start with used or unrefined aluminum, so the next part of the tour is looking at these big piles of car parts, stacks of old computers, bicycles, soft drink cans, and old wire. This part of the plant is so full of junk that the trucks and bulldozers have special tubeless tires that won’t puncture when running over scrap metal. All of this junk is placed in a furnace and the furnace building is one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. It’s one of those places where it feels like your eyes are sweating. It’s so hot in there you can almost see the heat, but you can go up in the control room and watch as the junk is melted until the impurities – the paint from the drink can, the plastic casing on the wire - all those impurities are burnt off to create something new and pure. I think of that when I read, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Now here’s something interesting. The Bible uses silver and I’ve been telling you about aluminum, and these two metals are two of the most reflective of all the metals. When aluminum is heated and purified something called a “lighting sheet” is created so that the metal has a mirror like quality. Apparently that’s also true for silver, that when it’s heated the silver smith knows that his metal is pure because he can see his reflection in it. Think about that then. The metal is refined when it reflects the maker’s image. We were created in God’s image, but easily enough we gathered impurities the way a white sweater gathers stains, the way metal is painted and wrapped and treated. The human condition is one of starting out pure in the Garden of Eden, but because our creator instilled in us a capacity to choose for ourselves, so our decisions, our circumstance, and our world has corrupted and defiled what was once pure. Refining is what we need, and you know it as well as I do. It doesn’t sound like a wonderful process, but when you look out on the world can you really think for a moment that everything is as it should be? Just this week the shooting in San Bernardino is the one that got the attention. The two suspects wounded 17, killed 14 before they died themselves in a gunfight with police, but what’s worse, back in October the Washington Post reported, “So far in 2015, we’ve had 274 days and 294 mass shootings.” 274 days and 294 mass shootings. It’s so hard to believe I double checked this statistic twice. Something is wrong. And some blame the guns. Some blame our health care system, saying the care we provide the mentally ill is inadequate. Others blame the politicians, assuming that what we need are better laws. While others blame parents, thinking that if children were just loved than they wouldn’t turn into monsters. Reading from our Scripture lessons this morning, there is no guidance with it comes to who we might blame or how we might make all this right. The message for today is that one is coming who will. And he will not tolerate the kind of denial that distracts us from the real issues. He will not tolerate the half-hearted apology or the lie that masquerades as truth. No – and “who can endure on the day of his coming” is one question, but “will we endure if he doesn’t” is another. A new day is dawning, and Scripture is clear that getting to that new day is as painful as being washed with fuller’s soap, being refined in the fire, it’s like a mother giving birth to a new child. Indeed, there is weeping before the shouts of joy. There is confession before forgiveness and purification before redemption. John the Baptist, born of Zechariah the Priest, told us to get ready for it. Therefore, we have in our Second Scripture Lesson the promise of what is to come: The dawn from on high will break upon us, To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace. We have yet to learn the ways of peace. But he is coming, and he will teach us. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The days are surely coming

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 25: 1-10 and Jeremiah 33: 14-16, OT page 738 The turkey is the centerpiece of the meal on Thanksgiving Day, and the Thanksgiving turkey my mother cooked last Thursday deserved all the attention that it got. Early in the day the bird went into the oven, and as we cooked side dishes in the kitchen we were accompanied by the delicious aroma of a turkey baking. When the pop-up turkey timer popped we had a finished bird with crisp skin and juicy flesh, which has not been the case every year – especially that time Uncle Al volunteered to cook and forgot to take out the bag of giblets before putting it in the oven. But this year the turkey was a revelation – deserving of all the attention that she it when placed in the center of the serving line – deserving of all the time spent preparing and cooking her, and maybe, just maybe, deserving of a nomination to replace the bald eagle as our national bird. That’s actually what Benjamin Franklin thought. Writing from France in January of 1784, Franklin wrote to his daughter and gave his opinion regarding the choice for the eagle at the center of our nation’s great seal, which today graces everything from our currency to the president’s lectern. The eagle, he said, “is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.” On the other hand is the turkey, “who” according to Franklin, “is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Franklin’s opinion on this matter has been discussed at length for the last two centuries, but the idea is mostly a punch-line these days. That’s probably because it’s hard to imagine a turkey, with his tail fanned out, his red snood hanging low over his beak, and those wattles under his neck flapping in the wind pictured on the lectern while a serious faced president attempts to address the nation. As far as symbols go – the bald eagle was the more dignified choice. The wingspan of a bald eagle stretches up to 8 feet making her a very large bird, topping the food chain, and flying up to an altitude of 10,000 feet. They mate for life, live up to 30 years, and can fly as fast as 65 miles per hour. When people talk about bald eagles they use words like breathtaking, majestic, and noble – words not often used when describing turkeys – who are often described as noisy, annoying, and delicious. No one wants their nation represented by an animal described as delicious, which proves a significant point – symbols matter. All countries are represented by symbols. Russia is the bear. Israel is the menorah surrounded by olive branches. And Jesus, the hope that he embodies, is often symbolized as a “righteous branch to spring up for David.” Now – a righteous branch that springs up from a tree stump is a significant symbol. It’s different in significant ways from so many of the symbols that represent Jesus and his birthday this Christmas season. Think of the Christmas Tree. I love the Christmas tree as much as I love the thanksgiving turkey. In fact – yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year, the day when we go as a family out to the Satterwhite farm to pick out our Christmas tree. After some negotiation, a little compromise, and barely a debate, we settled on one tree. Not always an easy task, and now this beautiful tree, cut fresh from its roots, stands prominently in our living room. We’ve decorated it, lights and all, but as much as I love it, it can’t last forever. In a month or so, when I haul it out of the living room I’ll leave a trail of dried out pine needles. The only thing to do with this symbol of Christmas is to toss it over the fence, leave it on the curb, or give it to Toney Sowell who runs Oakes and Nichols Funeral home – because he likes to use old Christmas trees to fill gullies that the rain has washed out around his farm. When you think about that – the lifespan of a Christmas tree – then really a Christmas tree represents the way our culture marks Christmas just fine. You prepare for weeks, maybe months, but for all the hard work those presents get opened in about 30 seconds and then its over. It’s all leading up to this grand celebration that comes, then goes – and what do we have left on the afternoon of December 25th but a trashcan full of wrapping paper? We celebrate Christmas by anticipating – but once it’s over what do we have besides a dried out tree to be dragged to the curb. To truly embody the kind of hope that we should celebrate during Christmas – maybe we need something different. Maybe we need the words of Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…” Now to understand this righteous branch that springs up for David we first have to know that David represents Israel, and in the context of this symbol – David or Israel, is a tree stump that’s left behind after Jerusalem was destroyed – cut down like a tree by the Babylonian army who invaded in the year 587 BCE. The invasion was so massive, so complete, that the Temple was destroyed, the king deposed, and so many of the survivors shipped off to live in exile. Israel was a tree – a great tree rooted in a place, among a people, nurtured by God – only to be floored by the ax of Babylon. That’s the story in the book of Jeremiah. It’s not so different from the house once full of life now emptied of its contents, sold to the highest bidder, because divorce split the family in two. It’s like that desk now empty – all the contents placed in a cardboard box because the economy slowed and brought cutbacks and layoffs and early retirements. In the same way Babylon invaded Jerusalem, the siege is said to have lasted for 30 months, and when the armies finally left – what remained? Only a stump. As the fires burned themselves out. As the smoke lifted and the dust settled, there was only this stump left behind, and even the faithful lamented for the once great nation now destroyed – now toppled like a tree. All that was left was a stump. Her branches consumed by fire and her trunk split and shipped off to build the houses of another people in some far off land. Only a stump was left. What could this stump symbolize? What did it embody besides a cruel reminder of what once was? The prophet Jeremiah looked upon this stump and saw more than a reminder of what used to be. As the smoke lifted and the dust settled this great prophet saw a shoot spring forth. Now there’s a symbol of hope. It’s not so unlike the Phoenix who rose from the ashes of Atlanta. While Sherman wanted her destroyed, reduced to dust to be swept away by the wind – the city rose again to become the traffic nightmare that it is today. Joking aside – if you want a symbol of hope – a symbol to represent our Jesus – go not to the tree that’s been cut down, go to the stump that was left only to rise again. Because that’s what we are – that’s what life gives us from time to time. Everything that was supposed to happen never did, and everything that wasn’t supposed to happen kept on happening until everything we worked for is gone and the life we’ve been building looks like an old worthless stump in the ground. When that’s the case – when that’s what life looks like to you – keep looking at that stump and just wait – for our God is in the business of bringing hope back to the hopeless. Think about Joseph. One day he was his father’s chosen son, but the next day he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, framed and imprisoned in a dark Egyptian cell – but from this cell the shadow lifted and Joseph rose in such power and esteem that when those brothers went to Egypt in search of food Joseph was there to extend a hand of salvation, exclaiming, “though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Then there is Moses. Born as nothing more than the desperate hope of a slave woman. From her he drifted down the river, swept by the current into the hands of a princess and from there he rose to lead his people into freedom. You see – hope – it is this fragile thing. Like a young man in a prison cell, a baby in a basket, a new shoot on an ancient stump – and yet it will grow. That’s Jesus then. A new branch growing out from an old stump. A new baby growing inside an unmarried virgin. A hope that grows from nothing at all – but rises to rule the world. This is Christmas. Not the dried out tree drug to the curb. Not the trash can filled with crumpled paper. The righteous branch that springs up for David. And he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” So, as Christmas approaches, go buy a tree (the Satterwhites have plenty and Laura might even sell you a bag of cookies) but when it’s all over, once winter is passed and spring comes again, go out to the yard, find that Bradford per you cut down last fall and left for dead. That’s hope. That’s Christmas. New shoots rising from an old stump. That’s our Lord – persistent life even in the midst of what appears to be death. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Are you a king?

Scripture Lesson: John 18: 33-38a, NT page 113 There’s a wonderful story I once heard about a wise old Rabbi giving a sermon based on the story of Adam and Eve. Genesis chapter 3 tells of the first sin and its punishment, the story of the serpent who tempted the man and the woman to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After they ate this forbidden fruit their eyes were opened. Opened to what we readers wonder – was it the knowledge of the world as it is, the knowledge of judging between right and wrong, or the kind of knowledge that allows us to choose obedience or disobedience – it’s not terribly clear which it is from the Biblical account, but soon after their eyes were opened “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.” To hide is a dangerous business, but people do it often. A child runs and hides under his bed after breaking a bowl in the kitchen. A teenager lies and conceals the truth, hiding a part of himself from his parents. A grown woman lives in the shadow of denial, neither admitting to herself nor to anyone else that there is a brokenness within her that is not yet healed, though the empty wine bottles hidden away in the crawl space tell that story for her – yes to hide is a dangerous business, but people do it often, and as the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” which is a funny question for the Lord to ask the old Rabbi noted. “But you see,” he said, “the Lord God knew. He always knew where Adam was. But did Adam know? He was not lost to the Lord, but was Adam lost to himself?” In what is considered by some to be one of the most important philosophical works of the last quarter of a century, The Sources of the Self it’s called, Dr. Charles Taylor claims that we are always in search of ourselves, always wrestling with the question of identity. “Who am I?” we ask, “but this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us,” according to Dr. Taylor, “is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us.” What was of crucial importance to Adam and Eve – we’ll the story of Genesis tells us that this shifted under the shade of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – for while in the beginning all that mattered to the first man and the first woman was enjoying God’s creation within the limits God ordained, when tempted by the serpent it was disobeying God that was of crucial importance, and when this shift occurred Adam and Eve were lost, not to God, but to themselves. As the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” “But you see,” the old Rabbi said, “the Lord God knew. He always knew where Adam was. But did Adam know? He was not lost to the Lord, but was Adam lost to himself?” Benefitting again from the perspective of Dr. Taylor, “To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand,” or to say it using the words of that great Presbyterian Preacher Dr. Peter Marshall, “if we don’t stand for something, we shall fall for anything” – and as Adam and Eve abandoned the ethic of God’s law, disobeying God’s only command, they fell so far as to lose themselves – an event which unleashed a plague on humanity that we are still fighting against some millennia later. We are still asking, “Who am I?” I believe that Dr. Taylor is correct – I know myself based on my commitments – so I know myself as a committed husband, a father, a son, a pastor, a Christian, an American – but in all of these areas, my identity is constantly threatened by the frailty of my human frame and the whisper of a serpent. Who am I? That’s no easy question to answer. It’s not set in stone or fixed in history. Identity is more like a ship pushed by the wind of experience – and to maintain a sense of who we are we must stand firm, holding close the commitments that matter most. For some people this is easier than others I’m sure. The country music legend Johnny Cash sings a song about a boy named Sue who had to fight every day of his life for his identity “Some gal would giggle and I’d get red And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head, I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.” The same must have been true for a woman remembered by the 1880 census of our own Maury County. Bob Duncan called me over just last week to show me that there, among all the citizens of our great county, was a 35-year-old widow woman – last name Mcville, first name – Parrollee. Now a boy named Sue and a girl named Parrollee learn the same lesson – you want people to really know who you are, you have to learn to stand up for yourself, for the world asks us day and night, “Who are you?” and we answer through our commitments, our promises, the stands we are willing to take. That’s why I worry about the outcome of this Syrian refugee debate in Washington. I know that I am not as wise as any of our politicians when it comes to foreign affairs or the very real threat of terrorism, so I would never be so bold as to criticize what I know so little about, but I worry because I know that even with the red, white, and blue still flying, even with the national anthem still sung, we must still fight for our identity in an age of new challenges and new fears. Welcoming the huddled masses at our doorstep is not an act of charity, not an option only for the foolishly kind and the na├»ve bleeding hearts. To welcome those who long for freedom is the very definition of who we are as a country. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me, I life my lamp beside the golden door.” These are the words engraved on our Statue of Liberty, embodying one of the ideals that we hold close. Closing the door, while it may be wise, while it may be prudent, while it may even be the right thing to do in this time of unprecedented terrorism and rampant immigration – still, closing the door must not be done flippantly for in doing so we may risk losing sight of who we are. In 1630, on board the ship Arbella, in rout to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop preached one of the most frequently quoted sermons in American history, one that has set the tone for our nation well into the 21st century. In this sermon titled, “A Model for Christian Charity,” Winthrop famously declared that, “There is a time when a Christian must sell and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles’ times. There is a time also when Christians must give beyond their ability… Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means… For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story in a by-word through the world.” As the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” And he still asks us now, “Where are you?” Certainly for me, as may be true for us all, there are times, seasons even, when we are unrecognizable to ourselves – when we have lived in such a way as just to survive – we’ve lived without direction or clear priority. But our Lord is different isn’t he. He stood trial before Pilate, the governor – the man who held our Lord’s fate in his hands. In our Second Scripture Lesson – an event that ironically occurs just after Peter denied Jesus three times – as our Lord stood trial he refused to deny the truth of his identity. “Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilate asked him, and all Jesus needed to do was say “no,” but instead Jesus answered with another question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Here we know that Pilate is not so unlike us. His ability to stand or bow depends on the swaying waves of public opinion. Jesus knows that he is not speaking for himself but on behalf of those religious elites who want to see the Lord crucified. “So you are a king,” Pilate retorts – now ready to move towards some finality – but Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” The truth was sitting there in front of him, was he not? And the question could have been better phrased had Pilate asked him, “Who is truth?” The Lord embodied the truth in his every breath. He lived it in his every action. He was truth and love and hope – and when we live as he did we are so truly his disciples. When fear is no longer our God. When we stand up for what we know is right rather than let the world walk right over us. When we step out from our hiding places, as broken and ashamed as we might be – then we honor him as our Lord and King when we are bold enough to let our truth live in our actions. But – being true to who you are is a challenge. Listening to your heart, honoring your convictions - it takes courage – so do not forget who stands beside you. It is Jesus Christ, the faithful witness. The first born of the dead. The ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hannah's Song

Scripture: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20 and 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, OT pages 245-246 Relay races can be fun for little kids, and one I remember taking part in one as a little 7-year-old Cub Scout that involved shoes. We were in the Fellowship Hall of Morningside Presbyterian Church, the same church I was baptized in, and we lined up on one side of the room in two teams. One at a time a member of each team was to run to the other side of the room, take off a shoe, leave it there in a pile, then run back and to end of the line so that the next participant could do the same. Then, when it was your turn the second time, you were supposed to run to the pile of shoes, find yours, put it on and race back. The first team whose team members had completed the whole thing and had both shoes on their feet would win. I don’t know why seven-year-old boys care about winning this kind of thing, but they do – as though their life depended on it – and I remember how fast I ran to one side of the room where I took off my shoe, then back to the end of the line until it was my turn to go again. When it came my turn the second time I raced to the other side of the room, dug through that pile of shoes, but I couldn’t find it. I kept searching, and I could hear my teammates telling me to hurry, louder and louder as the other team’s participants where running to the shoe pile, finding their shoe and running back. Each second was feeling to me like a hundred years but I couldn’t find that shoe anywhere! Well, pretty soon the other team’s shoe pile had dwindled down to nothing at all, I was still searching through that big pile trying to find my shoe, and when the scout master announced that the other team had won I was fighting back tears because it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a seven-year-old cry. The scout master saw the tears in my eyes, called me over, sat down and lifted me into her lap, then pulled my shoe out from her pocket. I remember this event, because this was one of the most confusing experiences I have ever experienced. What did it mean? My first reaction – that she meant to embarrass me, that she meant to hurt me – but when I left the scout master’s lap my Mom quickly scooped me up in her arms and told me something funny – that people only pick on the ones who they like. Could that be true? Maybe – but certainly it’s true that life is confusing and we are always trying to answer the complicated question of – what does this mean? Knowing that – can you imagine Hannah’s fear as she left her son at the Temple? You leave a boy at the Temple and how is he supposed to feel but hurt and abandoned. Even though he was hardly abandoned it’s hard, if not impossible, to convince him otherwise, for not knowing the whole story that’s exactly what it looks like. The whole story is just as we read it in our first scripture lesson – Hannah longed for a child but pregnancy, which seems so easy to everyone else it seems, remained out of her grasp, so she did what many of us do in times of extreme desperation – we make a deal with God. “Oh Lord of hosts,” she pleaded, “if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazerite until the day of his death.” Surprisingly – or un-surprisingly – the Lord honored his promise and that meant Hannah had to honor hers – which would be hard if not practically impossible. Think of her happy times with that child – the first time she felt the baby Samuel kick still in the womb, the first time she held him in her arms, the first time this mother Hannah heard baby Samuel coo or saw him smile – but all the while, in the back of her mind, shrouding all these good things surely was the promise that she had made. She knew that once he was weaned she would take him to the Temple and would return home without him, leaving him to wonder – what does this mean? She wouldn’t be there as he asked, “What did I do to deserve being left at the Temple?” Or, “how could a mother be so cruel as to turn and walk away from her own flesh and blood,” but both of these assumptions are based in misunderstanding and Hannah would not be there to help him understand. How lucky I was to have my mother there to help me to understand the little tragedy of a missing shoe down in a church’s fellowship hall and how tragic it is that Hannah walked away not knowing whether or not her son would hate her for the rest of his life. The mind of a young boy is fertile ground for misunderstanding – the mind of anyone is fertile ground for misunderstanding – so Hannah, knowing that she would not be there to wipe his tears and to re-interpret this event sings a song that she hopes will speak for her. She wanted to tell him what it meant, and by this song which makes up our second scripture lesson we know that she was not being selfish – she was being faithful. He had done nothing wrong – in fact, his mother knew that he would be about the work of setting the world right. And she hadn’t left him alone, for we are never alone; even when we feel the most abandoned our Lord is by our side if we only have the eyes to see. But we don’t always see as we struggle to understand and most of the time, my mother isn’t there to take us in her lap and to tell us that there might be another way to look at our situation – so the unwed teenage mother goes right along with the meaning that is provided for her – without knowing how else to think she looks at her pregnant belly and believes about it what people tell her she should. That this baby is not a blessing but a shame. That she doesn’t deserve their congratulations nor their respect. There’s only one unwed teenager mother that I can think of who was bold enough to find an alternate meaning – and she was in fact so bold as to say that, “generations will call me blessed.” Now of course, for the Virgin Mary, the situation was different. She was still pure and innocent I know, but the point that I want to make this morning is that Mary’s words like Hannah’s words – her song of praise that we’ll sing as a congregation in just a little bit – can push us towards a different understanding as we try to make sense our of our life. How easily Mary could have fallen into despair, but instead she was bold to see the hand of God at work. Rather than choosing to believe what the busy bodies at the riverside whispered, Mary heard the voice of Hannah. Bible scholars believe that Mary knew the song well, for if you read the two songs together – Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke and Hannah’s song from 1st Samuel, you can’t help but notice what’s similar. Both of these women, despite their hardship, sing for joy. They both firmly believe that the source of their joy is their God. Both make the theological claim that our God is about the work of putting things right, even if that means putting the world on its head by scattering the proud and lifting up the weak – bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly – filling up the hungry and sending the full to fend for themselves. And both women – Hannah who felt the shame of the barren wife who finally had a child only to abandon him at the Temple and Mary who felt the shame of the fertile virgin – they both saw their shame cast out by the power of fulfilled hope – and they both understood their lot in life, not according to what people were saying, but according to the word of their God. Now I believe it’s important to get that straight, because right now it’s the meaning of Christmas that is up for interpretation. You go into Starbuck’s and you get a red cup – what does this mean everyone is asking on the internet. Maybe you’re likely just to say, “well isn’t this a nice change of pace,” but if you listen to what they’re talking about on the internet you might hear from a pastor named Joshua Feuerstein who got all this started, posting a video where he accuses Starbucks of removing Christmas from their cups because, “they hate Jesus,” which, I suppose is one way to look at it – but do you really think Jesus never wanted to have anything to do with a cappuccino in the first place? We’re not even at Thanksgiving – but we are being forced into the Christmas season. There’s no way out of it, and since they’re no way out of it lets at least be bold enough to interpret the meaning of our savior’s birth, not according to what anyone out there is saying, but according to what is said right in the Bible. Mary – to understand – went to Hannah – and so I call you to Hannah’s song as well. This season has little to do with egg nog – and everything to do with hope. This time of year, while so consumed with spending – really has nothing to do with the kind of presents that you can buy with money and has everything to do with the kind of gifts that come from the hand of God. And while this time of year is so wrapped up in meaning – we talk about family and turkey and lights on the tree – what this time of year really has to do with is the woman who longed for a child and finally got one – and when she did she knew exactly who to thank. You see – when Hannah gave birth to Samuel – the prophet who would anoint Israel’s greatest king – and she knew exactly what it meant. As a people we are so wrapped up in meaning-making its important that we take Hannah’s example seriously. Whether it’s Christmas, pregnancy, infertility, cancer, or death – the world will tell us what to think and the voices of blame inside our head will too – but don’t forget how often we misunderstand as we struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives. We must be bold enough to think again guided by faith. “My heart exults in the Lord; My strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, Because I rejoice in my victory.” Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Power of a Promise

Scripture Lessons: Ruth 1: 15-18 and Matthew 1: 1-6 Sermon Title: The Power of a Promise A Sunday School teacher was leading her class into a sanctuary just like this one and she addressed her class saying, “Children, this is the sanctuary. It’s important to come into this place with reverence and dignity. It’s important to come into this place having prepared your heart for worship. And it’s important to be nice and quiet when you enter this room. Do you know why it’s important to be so quiet here?” A little boy near the back of the group raised his hand and said, “It’s important to be quiet in here because this is where the old men sleep.” Maybe that’s true, but in addition to dozing off, another thing that people do in sanctuaries like this one is make promises, and they don’t make little promises they make big promises – monumental promises really. Up here at the front, you’ve seen it – the man says to the woman, I take you, to be my wife, and I promise, before God and this congregation, to be your loving and faithful husband, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. These are bold words. And these words make up a promise so big and so bold that you can’t help but want to be here when it happens, so brides and mothers plan, grooms and fathers grumble right up until the big day when this sanctuary fills up with friends and family who have showered and groomed and dressed their very best on a Saturday just so they can witness two people make a promise that takes about two minutes to make but is so profoundly idealistic that only half the couples who make it are able to keep it. The statistics are powerful, but the statistics have hardly eliminated the longing of those who love each other to make such promises. Love compels us to it, so even while common sense would temper some passion, it cannot stop men and women from making such promises because promises are not based in logic. That makes promises different from investments which, while risky are still made by those who are armed with expert advice and common sense. That makes promises different from contracts, for while contracts are contingent on performance, those who bind themselves to each other as husband and wife are tethered so that when one falls the two fall together, when one is in pain the pain is shared, and there is no longer one without the other. And such promises are found in Scripture. If anything, the promises we find in our Bible are even more bold than those we make to each other in the wedding liturgy. Our first Scripture lesson is the great promise made by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. After Naomi’s son, Ruth’s husband, died along with his father and brother thereby severing the bond that would have held Ruth to her mother-in-law any longer, Ruth pledges herself to Naomi in a promise saying: Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, If even death parts me from you! “If even death parts me from you.” Such a promise makes the vows of a wedding seem almost easy, and so Ruth’s dedication to Naomi, pledging herself through life and beyond death foreshadows the love of God for humanity in Christ Jesus our Lord because his love for us was also a power fiercer than the grave. If even death parts me from you! And you know that such a promise made by Ruth points toward the kind of promise that Emanuel – God with us – has made to you and me. The promise is ancient. In Exodus, when Moses was afraid he heard the promise of God saying, “I will be with you.” And it’s there in Isaiah: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. But how are we to respond to such promises? As God promises to be with us, what are we to do in return? Well what would it be for the groom to say his vows and for the bride to remain silent? What would it be for the Elder in a baptism to call on the congregation to promise their faithfulness to a child and for that congregation to be speechless? “And behold, I am with you always, till the end of the age” – the Lord says to us, and in response we must promises ourselves to him – what else could we do? That’s one use of a pledge card. Just as our Lord has promised himself to us, so we must promise ourselves to him. It’s about much more than money, and it always has been. A pledge is a promise that you will commit yourself to the God who has already committed himself to you. Promises. Promises are not always honored by people because sometimes people are just a little too human. To make a promise and to keep a promise – this is a trait of the divine – keeping promises makes us something greater, and so Ruth who made her promise and kept it, she was not forgotten by history though her birthright as a Moabite was to live as second class in ancient Israel. Instead, by the strength of her promise, in the first chapter of Matthew we read that she became the great-grandmother of King David, she is a great name in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. But we shouldn’t be surprised. That’s the power of a promise. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What has passed away

Scripture Lesson: Revelation 21: 1-6 Sermon Title: What has passed away It’s a week like this one, when I really wonder what the world is coming to. This week – according to the World Health Organization, listed right up there at the top of the causes of cancer – is bacon. I say that jokingly, but seriously, sometimes when you read the paper you do face the temptation of wanting to just crawl down into a little hole. What is the world coming to? We look at political debates – and our politicians too often resemble siblings fighting in the back seat of a mini-van rather than role models to be rusted with our country. There’s more violence in the streets, instability among the nations, watching the news makes us witnesses to the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on women who are brutalized, trafficked, and still enslaved to this day. I talk with my grandfather who watches the news as often as he possibly can, and he is pretty sure that things are going to get worse. Now maybe you’re more optimistic, but my grandfather is not alone. Last Wednesday Night after a delicious meal of turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes I led a Bible Study and as a part of this Bible Study I played a few songs that are about as hopeless as Chicken Little who was sure that the sky was falling. The first was a country song called “Time Marches On.” It came out about 20 years ago, and this song tells the story of a nice little family – in the living room the little sister is in her crib, little brother is running around like a native American brave with feathers in his hair, mama is learning how to sow, daddy is relaxing listening to the radio as Hank Williams sings Kaw Liga and Dear John. But Time Marches On you see – so that pretty soon little sister is worried about her appearance and washing her face with clear complexion soap, little brother is dressing like a hippy, dad is nowhere around, mama’s depressed, and if that weren’t bad enough time keeps marching on until daddy’s dead, mama’s in the nursing home, and brother and sister are medicated just trying to hold it together. Now there’s no shortage of depressing country songs but this one takes the cake – and to think – I’ve listened to it so many times I know every word. You listen to a song like that and you can’t help but wonder – what is the world coming to? The song is about like the news – if you think it’s bad now just wait, it can still get worse – or better yet – I once heard a newsman report on the Middle East who said that we can all be sure of this much – it’s going to get worse before it gets worse – country music is pretty sure that’s the case, as is Harry Chapin who wrote “the cat’s in the cradle with the silver spoon,” a song that tells the story of a boy who grows up to be just like his daddy – an absentee father who only works and never has time to be a father. And then there’s even Bruce Springsteen, who is the coolest man to ever live in my opinion, but he also wrote what is a seriously depressing song if you listen to the words: “Glory Days,” convincing generations of rock and roll fans that those High School years are the best years of your life – so enjoy them, because it’s all downhill from there. Some would say that he’s right. Back when I was in high school the Braves were in the World Series, I was fit, had all my hair – now things have changed – what is the world coming to? Well, I’ll tell you what the world is coming to: See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; They will be his peoples, And God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, For the first things have passed away. Don’t let them fool you, the news or the culture. They’ll both tell you that they’re not pessimistic, they’re realistic, but they’re confused about the difference between what is real and what will just pass away. The news is confused. Popular music is confused. But the hymns get it right, and in the words of local poet Jeff Hardin, “the soul belongs to hymns”. Did you hear what we sang this morning? I know you’re so busy singing that you might not have a chance to let those words sink in, but listen to them for a second. In our first hymn we sang verses like this one: The flower of earthly splendor in time must surely die, Its fragile bloom surrender to you, the Lord most high; But hidden from all nature the eternal seed is sown- Though small in mortal stature, to heaven’s garden grown: For Christ, your gift from heaven, from death has set us free, And we through him are given the final victory. Then there was this: Then hear, O gracious savior, accept the love we bring, That we who know your favor may serve you as our King; And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, We’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still. What is the world coming to? It’s coming to splendor. It’s coming to freedom. It’s coming to victory, but you’re not going to hear too much of that watching the news or even listening to country music – to hear that you have to sing the hymns, you have to read the Scriptures, you have to see the Cross, and to quote Jeff Hardin again, by the testimony of the faithful, those “other truths we entertain turn to fictions.” It’s on a day like today that I realize what this place is, really. This church, it is like the Embassy of another land altogether. This place is the Embassy of the New Jerusalem, because here we know reality. We know what will fall away, and we know just what the world is coming to. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

He is calling you

Scripture: Mark 10: 46-52, NT page 47 Sermon title: He is calling you It’s always worth noticing the details of Scripture. If you think about how valuable paper has been in history you’ll realize that every single word counts, because not every word could fit. Maybe you’ve seen letters written during the Civil War where the words were so bunched together that it’s hard to even read what was written – but that’s how it had to be because paper was rare during that war and most wars, and paper was valuable in ancient Israel when the Gospel of Mark was first written down. There were no computers to store thousands of pages of documents. If you went on for too long you’d have to kill another goat and dry out its hide or go down to the river to beat reeds to make papyrus so you’d have another sheet to write on. Mark Twain is famous for saying, “I’d have written you a shorter letter, only I didn’t have enough time,” and we are used to reading books where you can just read the first sentence of each paragraph and follow the plot well enough because most people use too many words and there’s no shortage of paper so you can just fill those pages up, but not so with the Gospel of Mark. In Mark every single word counts. Notice then who is named. I promise it’s not a frivolous detail – in Mark there wasn’t enough room on the page for frivolous details – notice that no one from the town is named, not the mayor, not the doctors, not the priest, only this blind man on the side of the road. And he’s not just named, his full name is given – Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. I wonder if anyone in that town knew his name. They say that there’s nothing anyone would rather hear than the sound of their own name, but there are plenty of people in this world who rarely hear it. I once read about a group of surgical interns who were being trained by the chief surgeon of a great big hospital. They were gathered in the gallery, the room where the bypasses are done and the replacements replaced, and in walked a man with a mop bucket. He was surprised to see the group there and meekly apologized for interrupting and tried to excuse himself, taking the mop bucket with him but the chief surgeon called him over and introduced him to the group: “This is Tony. He was born in Lithuania, but immigrated here, learned English and has been working at this hospital for 20 years now. He has three children in college, and after every surgery he cleans this place, scrubs it from top to bottom. Without him this place would be full of bacteria that would jeopardize the health of our patients. I want you all to know him.” The interns gave perfunctory nods and followed the chief surgeon for the rest of their tour of the hospital, and at the end of the day the chief surgeon stopped and she asked them, “I only have one question. Which one of you can name the man who you met in the gallery who cleans the room after every surgery?” Not one of them could answer. I imagine that not one of them could answer because humans have been trained by the world to believe that some names are worth remembering and others can be forgotten. That you should remember the names of the people who can help you advance in the world, who can give you a hand up to the next level, so we remember the names of the boss’s husband, the principal, and the rising politician because maybe they can help us get what they have. And maybe Jesus would also train his disciples to remember some names and forget others based on the same principle, but the rich man who goes to Jesus saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” goes unnamed while the blind man by the side of the road is known forever as “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.” The teachings of Jesus based on his life on earth are so unlike the teachings of the world. The world has taught me the names a number of people I’ve never met nor will I ever meet – Kim Kardashian, Doctor Oz, President Obama. But then there are people who I interact with, if not every day at least once a week, but I have no idea what their name is – the man who delivers our mail, the woman who works the cash register at Fred’s, the lady who takes my dry-cleaning through the window. She notices how my children grow, she comments on my hair cut, she knows I like medium starch on my shirts but do I know her name? Is it not shameful – that I know more about the people I see on television but will never meet in person than some of the people I depend on for basic needs? The opposite is true in Mark. The rich man in verse 17 of chapter 10 is nameless but the blind man in verse 46 is known, and if we remember the names of the people who we think can help us while forgetting the names of those who we think can’t, Jesus is telling us something important about getting our foot in the door of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it is the man on the side of the road who possesses the wisdom that we need. That was true a couple years ago. Our Director of Christian Education, Susie Baxter, was leading her group of children up the stairs and to the front doors of this sanctuary. She was leading her Wednesday evening lesson, and so she told her group that there are things that you do when you’re preparing to enter a lot of places. When you get ready to go into school you make sure you have the right clothes on, your lunch packed, and your backpack ready. At the movies, you make sure you have your drink and your popcorn, and you have to have your ticket out to hand it to the person taking the tickets. “The same is true for church,” Miss Susie said as they stood just outside this sanctuary, “when you get ready to go into church it’s your heart that you have to get ready. You have to prepare your heart to worship God.” After that she took the kids, I guess there were 10 or 11, back down the stairs and past Melvin Taylor who was sitting there like he used to always do, by the side of the road on the corner of 7th and High. Melvin looked at Miss Susie, then at the line of children following behind her, “All those your kids?” he asked. “Yes they are,” Miss Susie responded. Now we can all imagine that this group of kids following around Ms. Susie all have different parents. We can see well enough that they come from different families, but sometimes the man on the side of the road sees with greater clarity than most of us do, sometimes it is from the man on the side of the road that we must listen and learn and finally begin to understand that they really are all Miss Susie’s kids. Likewise, Bartimaeus was blind to the world and the world was blind to him. He couldn’t work, so no one could ask him for help, no one could borrow money from him. He needed help getting from place to place, he had to sit by the roadside begging, never knowing whether someone had put a coin or a piece of broken glass in his bowl. Not only was he blind, he was helpless, and there’s nothing that this world despises more than a helpless man. No parent wanted their kids hanging around him. No one went to him with their questions. He couldn’t see, nothing he could give had any value in the eyes of the world, but Jesus gives us his name holding up the example of Bartimaeus, because those of us who think we are so different from him have everything to learn from his example. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he yelled out, and the crowd told him to be quiet, if he’s anything like our friends on the side of the road they had probably heard him yelling enough already, but he just yelled even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus, not nearly as offended says, “Call him here.” “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Now what is it about his faith that so impressed Jesus, what is it about this man that so impressed the author of the Gospel of Mark as to remember his name when so many other names have been forgotten? This man knows his need and he knows the one who can help, and we need his example, because our problem is that at the most, we believe we are simply nearsighted and not completely blind. We look to the church and we see an institution that can help us become better people. We can come here and learn good moral lessons of kindness and virtue, decency and respectability. Membership in a church is the central part of any upstanding citizen’s resume, so we come here out of duty and out of a desire to be better, surely we are not blind – we just need a little tune up every now and then. Some say that the church is full of hypocrites. People who pretend to be one way on Sunday and something else for the rest of the week, but I say the great hypocrisy of a church is that when we are afflicted with shame, when we don’t feel so upstanding, so decent and respectable, we are more likely to stay at home thinking that we don’t deserve to be here. We think this is a place where you may as well not show up if you can’t look put together – but I say, Jesus won’t be any good to you unless you’re ready to admit that you’re a mess. We think this is a place where you learn how to do better, be better – a place for nice families to pick up a few pointers on life and then get back to normal – but I say this is the place to call out to the one who can save you from the pit of failure. That we gather around the one who embraces the broken and rejects the self-righteous. Not everyone believes that about the church, so a man named Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal Priest, wrote a well-known article back in 1955 called, “What the Church can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous.” In this article he said: The first thing I think the Church needs to learn from AA is that nobody gets anywhere till he recognizes a clearly defined need. These people do not come to AA to get made a little better. They do not come because the best people are doing it. They come because they are desperate. They are not ladies and gentlemen looking for a religion, they are utterly desperate men and women in search of redemption. Without what AA gives, death stares them in the face. With what AA gives them, there is life and hope. There are not a dozen ways, there are not two ways, there is one way; and they find it, or perish. They have the need, and they are ready to tell somebody what it is if they see the least chance that it can be met. Is there anything as definite for you or me, who may happen not to be alcoholics? If there is, I am sure that it lies in the realm of our conscious withholding of the truth about ourselves from God and from one another, by pretending that we are already good Christians. Let me here quote a member of AA who has written a most amazing book: his name is Jerome Ellison, and the book is "Report to the Creator." In this (p. 210) he says, "The relief of being accepted can never be known by one who never thought himself unaccepted. I hear of 'good Christian men and women' belonging to 'fine old church families.' There were no good Christians in the first church, only sinners. Peter never let himself or his hearers forget his betrayal in the hour the cock crow. James, stung by the memory of his years of stubborn resistance, warned the church members: 'Confess your faults to one another.' That was before there were fine old church families. Today the last place where one can be candid about one's faults is in church. In a bar, yes, in a church, no. I know; I've tried both places. Now I’ve read this article numerous times, but it has only really struck home for me in light of the example of Bartimaeus. We are slow to remember his name because we don’t recognize how far his recommendation can get us. We think we pretty much are OK. We think we can pretty much see, and sure I’m not perfect but I’m doing alright. Well, the church isn’t for people who are doing alright – the church is for sinners – and redemption doesn’t come to those who think they are doing OK on their own, redemption comes to those who call out for it - so it is the blind man who understands. It is the blind man who knows him truly. It is the blind man who knows his need so clearly and calls out in helplessness and fear, “My teacher, let me see again.” “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And I say, if only we all had faith enough to confess our blindness we might finally see too. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Where were you?

Scripture lessons: Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, and 35; Job 38: 1-11, 25-27, and 39-41, OT pages 484-485 Sermon title: Where were you? It’s frustrating to ask a direct question without getting a direct answer, so I apologize, that the same week of the debates between the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination where many significant statements were made but few direct answers were given, we also have this Scripture lesson from the 38th chapter of Job, where after Job asked a direct question to God – “Why Lord must the innocent suffer?” not even God seems willing to give a clear and direct answer in response. It’s frustrating. What Job wants is the truth, but God seems to be echoing those iconic words of Jack Nicholson when he stared in “A Few Good Men,” “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Our passage begins: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” This is not a gentle response, nor is it a direct answer, but anyone who asks questions has learned that sometimes you get an answer and sometimes you don’t. I remember well enough a day in Sunday School long ago, we were in 3rd or 4th grade and had just read the account in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child...” “Mr. Thomas,” I asked my teacher, “what exactly is circumcision?” “Well that’s a question you should probably ask your father,” he responded. Now that wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but sometimes an indirect answer is what’s most appropriate, and while it’s disappointing in the moment, there have been times when non-answers did more good than a direct answer could have. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, I was in the middle of my first year of college and having spent most of high school goofing off college posed more of a challenge for me than it did for many of my classmates. Knowing that I was discouraged and wondering whether or not I’d even make it, my grandmother started telling me about long nights in nursing school. She was about my age then, 18 or 19, away from home for the first time, asked to cram more information into her brain than seemed possible, especially during daylight hours, but lights had to be turned off in the dorm by 10:00 at night, the only lights that could stay on were the ones in the lady’s bathroom, so she would study there, sitting on those cold tiles reading on the night before a test, and after graduating she began a 50-year career in nursing. Now that’s perspective – the kind of perspective that only my grandmother could have provided, and every time I’d be tempted to complain about studying hard I’d imagine her there on that bathroom floor and she didn’t seem so far away nor did my lot seem so pitiful. She, my own flesh and blood, had made it through worse. The perspective of grandparents – they’ll tell you that they walked up hill to school, both ways, but nothing can help us see the sufferings of this present age clearly like the experience of those who made it through worse. And if the perspective of a grandparent is beneficial, imagine how helpful is the perspective of God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” the Lord asks Job. “Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” The Lord answers Job this way, and in one sense this stanza of God’s poetic non-answer makes Job and all his problems seem so very small – the death of his family, the destruction of his home, like a blip in a cosmic time-line - but this account of creation in the 38th chapter of Job is more than that, for in this testimony is the account of the God who laid the foundation of the earth, determined its measurements and stretched a line upon it. It is the story of how God has been in the business of building up beauty out of nothing since the beginning of time. The formless mass of that nothingness that existed before creation was the Lord’s building blocks, and when there was darkness, before there were even lights to turn out, the Lord laid the cornerstone and the morning stars were born to sing together. Just as my grandmother helped me to see that I could study, I could be successful in college, so the Lord is helping Job to see that you can make a life out of nothing – you can rebuild, “for I am with you and I have done that and much greater things before!” Now this isn’t a direct answer to Job’s question of suffering, but there is value in God’s perspective – there is always value in perspective. Back in 2013, researchers from Boston College analyzed data from a long-term study called the Longitudinal Study of Generations. The study gathered data from 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren, and concluded that “an emotionally close grandparent-adult grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations. The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health.” And you can already imagine why that is the case, that grandchildren benefit from the perspective their grandparents provide, because they teach you to appreciate the restrooms at every gas station on in the interstate when you travel with them. But you also value those restrooms because you hear about your young grandfather who as a boy tried to relieve himself out an old model A while it was still moving. The story goes that the windows were down back where his sisters were sitting, and unfortunately the wind was blowing the wrong way, and you hear this story and you remember one who has made it through hard times already – who passed through the rough waters of the Great Depression, World War II, unemployment, and still maintained his sense of humor. His perspective alone gives me strength to overcome obstacles that lie before me. He is one who has gone before, but my grandfather’s perspective is dwarfed by that of my God. Think of the stormy seas of life, and then consider the Lord, “who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” The Lord gives an account from the memory of one who is infinite and remembers the sea when she was little baby: “when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and not farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” Can you hear the Lord say, “The sea was like chaos, but I grabbed that great chaos up and changed her diaper – so even now, the chaos that you face, the victimization, the sadness, the despair and the heartache – just as I tamed the sea so I will bring order to your life once more.” Perspective. There’s some comfort in that, because when you are facing hardship for the first time it feels like the end of the world. In 5th grade my nose started bleeding right there in the middle of class. Some kid called me a booger picker, and the rumor spread. I went home that afternoon and made the bold announcement to my mother, “I know you like it here Mom, but we’re going to have to move. I can’t go back to that school ever again.” I can hear her now – “You think they’re mean now, just wait!” But I can hear her just as well saying, “I’ve made it through worse, and I’m here to tell you, this is going to be OK.” “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” There is such a great benefit to knowing the ones who have seen the desert put forth grass. One who has been a witness to such a miracle is the great CS Lewis, who among other books also wrote one about mourning the death of his wife. It’s called A Grief Observed. It begins with a description: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” And “There are moments,” he writes, “most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” The book is valuable, but it can’t tell you why. It can’t tell you why the Lord would create a world in which the innocent suffer. Why the Lord would create a world where the guilty go free. It can’t tell you why there is so much evil and pain and hatred. Why there would be men in God’s creation who would abuse their own mothers, parents who forsake their children, diseases that afflict our bodies and rend us with no thought in our minds beyond pain. You can look, but neither in the Bible nor anywhere else have I found a satisfying answer to the question of “Why there would be cancer?” Why death? And why grief would be so deep and so bottomless? In the book of Job is this: “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?” Is this poetry a direct answer to our questions? Hardly. But in this passage is perspective. The young lions were hungry – and God satisfied their appetites. The ravens cried aloud to God, and the Lord provided. Will He not do the same for you? Amen.