Monday, January 26, 2015

Mending the nets

Mark 1: 14-20, NT page 35 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James, son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Sermon I realized this week that it was nearly four years ago today that a commission from the Middle Tennessee Presbytery installed me to serve this church as pastor. Four years ago. It seems like I just got here, but I looked it up – this month starts our fifth year in Columbia and it was in early February of 2011 that James Fleming, who chaired the committee that interviewed me, delivered the part of the installation service called the charge to the pastor. This part of the service is about giving a strong directive, it was a chance for James to tell me to remember something or do something, and he charged me to always listen for God’s quiet whisper. If I could keep my focus on hearing that whisper, everything else, all the other voices and directions I might be pulled in would seem to be nothing more than the noise of street clutter blown by the wind. This week I’ve realized once again how right James was. We all must listen, and if we can the voice of God will grant us clarity and direction, but it’s harder than I thought it would be to discern between the voices that I hear – to hear the voice of God over the street clutter – because it’s not always clear which voice is the whisper of God and which voice is trash blowing in the wind. The TV is on and the game is almost over, but your daughter is trying to tell you something. The phone is ringing, but you’re in the middle of a conversation that you can’t get away from. Or it’s quiet in the house, but your tendency is to fill that quiet up with music to drown your worries out. It takes an ear tuned to grace to hear his voice – because there is Christ’s voice and there are distractions – and telling the difference between the two things is one of the greatest challenges a person faces. There is a silent whisper on the one hand, and noisy street clutter on the other. Which one do you hear? Which one do you respond to? Which one makes you nervous? These voices create a crossroads in a way, because one holds the Keys to the Kingdom, and the other only seems to, but which is which? Scripture leads us to believe that the disciples could tell the difference. You can see James the son of Zebedee and his brother John in their boats mending the nets. He called them and when he did they followed – but there were other voices. Their father Zebedee was in the boat with them, and their father, much like my father, surely knew a distraction when he saw it. In middle school I’d be in my room, staring at my homework. “How’s it coming?” he’d always ask. “It’s pretty though Dad,” I’d respond. Then he’d turn off the radio and say, “Now you’ll focus, without the distraction.” But the thing is, to me, the music was the thing worth listening to – the homework was the distraction. To my father it was the other way around, and that’s how it is with most fathers. The distraction is the thing that takes you away from your work. Sports are a distraction if your grades start to slip. A girlfriend is a distraction – spend too much time with your friends and they are a distraction too, but that’s the thing about fathers. Parents, teachers, school administrators – ask any of them and they’ll tell you that the point of school is education, all the other stuff is noisy street clutter. But ask a student and you’ll get another answer and another set of priorities. Zebedee wanted good strong nets. Don’t watch the gulls in the air or the young ladies walking on the beach – you’ll lose your focus and the net will suffer. It’s like the pancakes in the frying pan – turn your head to get yourself another cup a copy and they burn. Don’t lose focus on the thing that matters – but is it always so easy to tell what matters? To Zebedee that hole in the net was like a hole in his pocket – if it wasn’t mended than the coins would just tumble out. Since they were young he taught his boys to mind those nets. The fish they captured not only put food on the table, the sales from those fish paid for the boats they would inherit, paid the taxes they had to pay. The fish that slipped through the holes in those nets – that was money taken from Zebedee’s own pocket, and if he was anything like the father that I’m becoming, he sometimes had a better grasp of the fish that slipped through the net than the sons who were slipping away. Each day ended with the same litany of regrets: if only the nets had been stronger. If only I had worked harder. If only my boys were not so distracted. It’s been said that the rearview mirror on your car is a good tool for putting the past in perspective. You need to know it, be familiar with it, glance at it from time to time, but you can’t drive if it outgrows its place and there are too many people who let regrets about the past blind them to the future. The rearview mirror is a small thing; it’s the windshield that you need to pay attention to. Watch where you are going. Don’t spend so much time ringing your hands about where you’ve been or haven’t been – what you’ve done or haven’t done. And while there’s a voice telling you that you’ll never escape the past, that past glories should be relived again and again, past failures need to be regretted again and again, there is another voice telling you to look ahead at what’s coming. On the one hand is the father who wants a net that fish won’t slip through, but there are sons who are not so worried about the one that got away as the opportunity that stares them in the face. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” “Good luck making a living doing that,” Zebedee must have said, because in his ears the louder voice was the voice calling him to take care of his family, to build a life of stability and respectability – but could it be that this voice is the street clutter? The voice that calls you to put your head down and work. The voice that tells you just to get through today. The voice that helps you put up with it, keep quiet, don’t make a fuss – it’s this voice that shouts down the one telling us to speak and finally be heard – to dream and demand – one of these voices is street clutter while the other is not, but which voice will you listen to? TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5 Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, 10 And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. 15 I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. You’ve heard Robert Frost before, and I hope you heard him well enough to pass 9th Grade English Literature, but did you hear him well enough that you can tell the difference between the voice of God and the sound of street clutter? An editorial that the Wall Street Journal has published every Christmas Eve since 1949 warns us of the time when “darkness would settle again over the lands and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no more light at all in the darkness.” Listen, and look up. Look up from a desk piled high, a smart phone busy with pictures and drama, look up from the bills and the worries, the sickness and the death. Look up from your nets and whatever else takes up your day – and see the one who calls you to a life far greater. Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Come and see

John 1: 43-51, NT page 92 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Sermon Getting to know people can be a dangerous business, as human beings can be judgmental. Maybe it’s some more than others, but you all probably have a single issue, an observable trait or bad habit, and when you see it in another person just that one thing can send a brother or sister down the ladder of your estimation. Politics is one thing that can do it, dental hygiene is another. People notice these things and they make judgments about your personal character based on who you voted for or the state of your teeth. The kind of car you drive might say a lot about who you are and what you care about too, and I’m always thinking about what kind of assumptions people make about me based on the contents of our grocery cart. It’s not fair but it’s true. You go in Kroger and maybe it’s even before you get home to unload your groceries and already you’re reporting to someone that so and so had ice cream in her shopping cart – but I wished her good luck on her diet anyway – and I was standing there minding my own business, but can you believe who’s children were running down the store aisles like wild heathens, and do you know what she looks like without make-up? You have to be careful, because you’re being watched. You have to be careful about what you wear, how you talk, what you buy, because most people are trying to figure out who you are and to figure you out sometimes they’re judging you by just one little thing. Henry Ford was like that. According to legend it didn’t matter how well the interview went if, when you sat down to eat you salted the food on your plate before tasting it. If you did he’d give up on you based on that one little thing alone. Job interviews are hard. You can be smart, test well, dress appropriately, but if your handshake communicates cold dead fish rather than firm and confident don’t be surprised if you never get a call back. It’s just one small thing, but there are plenty who spend considerable time attempting to overcome the stigma attached to one small thing. A friend of mine went to school in New York State. His roommate asked him where he was from and after Will said Tennessee the new roommate asked him if he owned a pair of shoes. The North looks down their nose at the South a little bit. But the South’s not innocent. Atlanta looks down on Nashville. Nashville looks down on Columbia, and you don’t have to listen too closely to realize that there are plenty in Columbia who look down their nose on Mt. Pleasant. I imagine that Mt. Pleasant looks down on someone too, I just don’t know who that is. I go to the Mt. Pleasant Grill every once in a while. It’s a very nice place to eat. I’ve seen the breath taking stained glass windows in the Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian Church as well, but phosphate mining dried up they say, and the former Phosphate Capital of the World is working to re-invent itself, though it’s hard to overcome assumptions about a place once these assumption have had time to really settle in. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people at the time of Jesus. It wasn’t much of anything at the time and it had been that way for as long as anyone could remember. Not once is the place mentioned in the Bible up until this encounter. Stigma was attached to it, and while Jesus didn’t seem to mind there are plenty of others who are not so firmly rooted. For them, while it sounds innocent enough, the simple question: “Where are you from?” can inspire a little anxiety. They get rid of their accents, don’t talk much about the folks back home. There’s a little Mexican Grocery Store on Carmack next to Shoney’s and if you go in there asking where everybody came from they might think you work for the Immigration. We judge people by one thing or another, but history has a way of making fools out of the ones who place too much importance on just one aspect of a person. Tomorrow is a day established in honor of a man who walked towards the day when all men would be judged not by the color of their skin by the strength of their character, and as he walked towards such a time there were plenty who stood at the gate of justice on horseback, with clubs wrapped in barbwire in their hands, ready to stop a group of people, ready to unleash violence upon them because of just one observable trait. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Surely not the world responds. So, while “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him… the world did not know him.” However, fortunately for Nathanael, Philip responds to his question by saying, “Come and see.” That’s the missing piece for a lot of us and a lot of others too. Plenty assume they already know everything they need to know. Any new information matters little compared to the one small thing – and while the foundations of prejudice shake, while many freely admit that history will call the preconceived notions that still divide our world foolish, so many who are not here this morning stay at home because of one small aspect of the Church – one small thing that stands in the way of their relationship with Jesus. Too many are left imagining that he’s just as judgmental as some of his followers are. That inviting him into their home ensures that he’ll look through their medicine cabinet while they’re not looking and will come out with a stern look on his face, but when Nathanael went to find out for himself he encountered a savior who knew Nathanael had been sleeping under the fig tree, and he called him, “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Can anything good come out of Nazareth? It’s a question that we all ask in one way or another, but I want you to know that he’s seen me sleeping under the fig tree too, and he’s seen more than that even. For any who would judge based on one frailty or one weakness, look at me and take your pick, but I tell you, this Jesus who saw me sleeping under the fig tree has told me that if I’m to be judged by one thing and one thing only than that one thing will be his grace. It’s all over the place. Christians are judgmental, hypocrites, self-righteous, but what right have we to be when we claim to follow one who loves us despite our faults, who claims us despite our failure, who embraces us despite our sin? Hear the world asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Tell them, “yes, so much good that he saw me sleeping under the fig tree, he has searched me and known me, and still he knocks at my door.”

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A voice

Mark 1: 4-11, NT pages 34-35 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens town apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Sermon Words matter. There’s a story in the Bible about 10 lepers. It’s in the Gospel of Luke, and they saw Jesus, yelled to him for help, with a word he healed them, but one of them, only one of them, bent down to Jesus’ feet and said, “thank you”. Two words. Parents teach their children to say the same two words, and sometimes, maybe too often, I fail, but most of the time I do say thank you because I know how it feels to do something nice for someone, but then to never hear those words. You do too I’m sure. Words make a difference. When they are said something new is created and when they aren’t there’s an emptiness. Some notes do go unwritten and some words go unsaid. In there place remains a nothingness that can hurt. There are plenty of people in this word waiting on an apology, and that silence does damage. Plenty of employees wonder when someone is going to notice the work they’ve been doing and the hours they’ve been spending, but everyone seems happy to just keep letting them do all that extra without a word of appreciation, so resentment builds up simply because of unsaid words. Then there are children, sons and daughters, some stand at the grave of their father still waiting to hear some word of love or acceptance. The grave is silent however, the words go unspoken, and the tears prove that the essence of a human, the soul and spirit, it’s not made up of neutrons or matter but words. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light.”” A story that science tells is often taken more seriously than the creation account told in the book of Genesis. Science tells a story about a big bang and an ever expanding universe, survival of the fittest, natural selection – but all people are wise not to underestimate the creating power of words, because there is an emptiness that only words can fill. When it comes to filling emptiness people will use all kinds of things. If you’re still trying to get rid of your Christmas tree, Tony Sowell, over at Oaks and Nichols Funeral Home uses them to fills up the ditches and sink holes on his farm. Bob Duncan told me once that his brother has a canyon behind his place that he keeps pushing scrap metal down into – but there are other ditches, emotional canyons, that can only be filled with words. You can try to fill it with other things: Feeling good does something for the hungry heart, but being distracted and being satisfied are two different things. Pats on the back can prop you up and keep you going, but the hunger for them only grows. There is a void that only words, particular words, can fill. And Jesus heard those words exactly. It was just as he was coming up out of the water, when a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now these aren’t magic words. As a matter of fact, they’re not even that uncommon, but you have to let these words in and that’s the trick, because we all have a way of brushing these words off. It’s easy to explain them away, to say that these words aren’t for us, but the Gospel of Mark is unique in not giving us a reason to do so. The Gospel of Mark fails to mention the virgin birth, there are no visits from angels, shepherds, or kings. Here in the gospel of Mark Jesus hears the same words that were said at your baptism, and by beginning his account of Christ’s life right here as he does, there’s no reason for you to believe that the words this voice spoke from heaven aren’t your words too, but we’ll dismiss them. There are other reasons that we can all give to brush such good words away. The 17th Century poet George Herbert, in his third poem titled Love, wrote: “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.” That seems to be the natural reaction. Our public library is featuring Valentine’s Day books now in the children’s section and the theme is almost the same – a little girl sends a valentine card to a little boy, then on the playground or somewhere she sneaks up behind him and plants a kiss on his cheek. 100% of the time the little boy runs away. Little boys are funny about love. It was when I was in second grade that my teacher asked our class to go home and ask our parents about what is essential for life. I went home, my parents and I decided on water. “Water is essential for life,” I reported to my class, and was proud to find that this was a good and acceptable answer. “Yes, water is essential for life,” our teacher responded. Then a girl in the class answered oxygen, which was also a good answer. Then another said food; also essential for life. A boy in the row behind me reported that love was essential for life. I couldn’t get my head around that, so I went home and asked my Mom. She agreed with the boy and told me that no one could live without love which didn’t make any sense to me at the time, so I went to my father and he told me that the boy’s parents must be hippies. Experience has taught me that both my parents were right. All people long to be loved, and all people, maybe men especially, are uncomfortable coming to terms with that or accepting the love that God pours out freely, so the poem from George Herbert continues: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back… But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack… Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning If I lacked anything.” The poet answers: I lack what would make me worthy. There’s the real challenge. Surely I’m not worthy of love – so I should have to pay for it, work for it, aspire to one day deserve it – but what if it’s just like the Gospel of Mark says it is – all you do is come up from the water and receive it. Words. They have to be said, but they also have to be heard. Maybe these words were never said to you. It’s hard to move on from that, because in the space that only these words can fill is a void that nothing else can ever fill. If your earthly father never said them, or never said them enough, than hear them said to you by your Heavenly Father. If you’ve struggled to believe them, because love showed up and then walked away, know that the God who came to earth to say them through his life isn’t going anywhere, least of all away from you. He came to earth, and when he came up out of the water he heard these words, he let them in, and for the rest of his life he poured these words out – saying to his disciples – take and eat – this is my body broken for you – drink – here is my love poured out for you to take in. The evil one will tell you that they’re just words, the world is full of them – and they are words – but they’re the kind of words that can satisfy the hungry heart, so hear them: “You are mind, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” May these words free you to stop working so hard to deserve them, because you can’t. May these words free you to be yourself, for until you can you’ll never be satisfied. May these words create in you eternal life. Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

By another road

Matthew 2: 1-12, NT page 2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; For from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own county by another road. Sermon The Bibles that we read from each Sunday are a particular translation, new by comparison to the King James Version for example, which was written in 1611. Our New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. Its language is more modern, the pronoun use reflects political correctness at times, but more interestingly, between 1611 and 1989, several archeological finds, such as the uncovering of the Dead Sea Scrolls, changed the way the Bible is translated. If you look up Joseph and the coat given to him by his father Jacob, you might notice that in our New Revised Standard Version, Joseph doesn’t have a coat of many colors, but a coat with long sleeves. That’s because most ancient scrolls say that Joseph didn’t have a coat of many colors, and the idea that he did is probably based on a mistranslation in the King James Bible. The King James Bible is the basis of all kinds of traditions, not all of which are based in ancient Scripture, so today, as this passage from the second chapter of Matthew is read, I cannot help but imagine three wise men bringing the baby Jesus gifts because that is what tradition has taught us, but if you read carefully, the wise men are never numbered in the New Revised Standard Version, only their gifts are. Bible Scholars of the 21st Century debate about where they came from, how many of them there were, and, whether or not they were all even men, which I have to agree with. There must have been women among them, considering how they stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions. Our Gospel lesson reads: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened.” We can be stubborn, and now I’m not just talking about men, I’m talking about all of us, and sometimes, even worse than being stubborn and resistant to change, we can even be frightened of change, fearing what we stand to lose if what’s new and different takes hold. Considering our Gospel Lesson for this morning there are two examples for us to follow in this world of ours that has forever been changed by the birth of the Messiah. On the one hand are the wise, who sought him out, found him, gave him precious gifts, and then went home by another road; but on the other hand is King Herod, who knew of his birth, sought him out by inquiring of the chief priests, and after coming to terms with the truth of the Messiah’s birth, he kept going down the same road he had been on with even more determination not to change his ways. The Messiah was born and he knew it as we do, but the reality of his birth made him afraid. The King of the Jews, the one the ancient prophecies spoke of and whom generations had awaited; if he was Messiah than Herod was not and if the true Messiah was born in Bethlehem of Judea than Herod’s chapter in the history of Israel was soon to be over. Then on the other hand, the wise sought him out, found him, gave him precious gifts, and journeyed down a different road. If you are here this morning, I bet that you’ve seen him just as they did. Maybe you saw him in an act of kindness - the wad of $100 bills stuffed into a Salvation Army Bucket, or the sled, stolen from a little girl, but then replaced by the kindness of strangers. Or maybe you saw him in the embodiment of joy - the sparkle in his eye or the smile on her face. Or in some experience of the holy - the voices of our church choir or the light from candles in the sanctuary shining brightly in the darkness – I’m sure that you’ve seen the Messiah as you’ve celebrated his birth, but now what? Some, even after acknowledging his birth, will be like Herod, reacting against the agents of change, resistant to it, so it’s not just the change that hurts, it’s the damage done by those who are inflexible to what is new. We can be a lot like the cows in the field, who go back and forth every day from the water to the food following the same well-worn path. It’s gotten them from what’s most essential for so long it’s easy to ignore how big the field actually is, how many other paths there could be. But rather than upset what’s become a well-oiled grove, we keep using that same old road even when it stops making sense to do so. The world changes – we change – but the path we travel on doesn’t always. That’s why your mother still tries to hold it together even though she can’t. It’s not just that her memory is slipping, that she can’t do as much as she used to, but every time your brother comes to visit he treats her like nothing is different. He ignores the stack of unpaid bills and the expired milk in the refrigerator. He won’t face the new reality, which means she won’t either, and how much damage will be done before they’re willing to travel down a different road? It’s not just dementia that hurts people – it’s the unwillingness to do anything about it, and debt is the same. You look debt and the eye and it’s like death – not nearly so dangerous if you acknowledge it and then do something about it, but woe unto you who continue walking down the same road that got you where you are. Now is the season of New Year’s Resolutions, and we all make them, both the wise as well as the King Herod’s of our world – but the only ones who will achieve their goal of making this year different from the last one are those who will be like the Wise Men of long ago – who, after giving the Christ Child gifts, “they left for their own county by another road.” Of course it’s hard to do – every Saturday morning I wake up to finish my sermon for Sunday, and every Saturday morning as Sara makes breakfast she tells me, “I don’t understand why they even gave you an office if you’re going to do all your work here at home.” Habits are hard to break, and I’ve been traveling down this road that brings me to Saturday with an unfinished sermon for the entire time I’ve been a preacher, but Sara told me yesterday that her New Year’s Resolution is to be married to a man who isn’t working on Saturday morning, so I can start journeying down a new road or she’ll be looking for a new husband. It’s hard to change, but his birth changes everything, though some will do their very best to keep things the same. Rather than go down another road, rather than give up his crown and acknowledge the true king of Israel, Herod “killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” determined that the Messiah’s birth would not alter his place in the world. Herod knew then – that his birth changes things, especially your place in the world. That to give him gifts as the New Born King means confessing that you do not wear the crown. To call him the Messiah, to seek salvation in him, requires admitting that salvation will not be found elsewhere, especially through your own righteousness or actions. And most of all – to sing that he has the whole world in his hands, means resting in the reality that you do not have to hold the whole world together with your two hands. It comes down to control. That’s what Herod wanted to maintain and that’s what you have to be ready to give up. Having seen him, will you give up the road that you’ve been walking down to take another road? Will you follow where he leads, though going where he leads means going someplace new? Will you rest in the security of his powerful love, and receive the gift of peace that the true Messiah can provide – a gift that no matter how hard you try you cannot provide for yourself? I know that there is too much of me that is like Herod. When I come to terms with the limit of my ability I work harder and hold on tighter, but to truly follow him and acknowledge the kingdom of this Messiah born in Bethlehem of Judea, is to follow where he leads, even if that means traveling by another road. Amen.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons

Luke 2: 22-40, NT page 59 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A light for revelation to the Gentiles And for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. Sermon I sometimes underestimate, or, as my wife Sara would say, I often underestimate. I might tell her that I’ll be gone running errands for 15 minutes, but 15 minutes turns into 30, then 45. When I say that I’ll be a little late, late generally means about an hour, but the worst case of underestimating was when she was pregnant with Lily, and I started renovating the downstairs bathroom. I told her that she’d need to use the one upstairs for four or five days, which she didn’t appreciate, pregnant as she was, but it was a solid four months before the downstairs bathroom was operational again. I tend to downplay how difficult things are going to be, and maybe that’s to protect myself. Had I known that the bathroom was going to be a four month project I might never have started, and assuming that other people think the same way I do, to encourage others along I might be guilty of underestimating for them as well. When the time is right for a new class of church officers, some will call me to ask about the commitment required before they give their answer, which is a mistake, because without hesitation I tell them that “it won’t be too bad,” and “it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.” The last part is true, it will be rewarding, but like all rewarding experiences, serving as a church officer is rewarding because it is challenging, often stressful, and the reality is that church officers are elected, not to go to a monthly meeting where nothing really happens, but to keep the church from falling apart which can be a big undertaking. I shouldn’t underestimate as much as I do, and it’s when parents ask me about the sacrament of baptism that I am afraid I underestimate to the highest degree. “What do we have to do?” young mothers and fathers will ask. I’ll walk them through where they’ll need to stand, give them a chance to gain some clarity about the significance of Christian baptism, and I’ll tell them not to worry, it will be wonderful. But what I should tell every mother if I weren’t such a notorious underestimate-er, is that, “You’ll need a full stick of antiperspirant for each arm pit because everyone in the church will enjoy this moment much more than you will.” I should tell each mother, “You’ll try to keep your daughter quiet and calm while the congregation is watching, but you won’t be holding her, so it will be about as relaxing as coming to terms with your lack of control ever is.” Mary and Joseph went to the temple with Jesus, and that occasion turned out to be a much more dramatic event than they were prepared for as well. The law told these parents what they should anticipate for the ritual that would designate their son as holy before the Lord – a more wealthy family would have offered a lamb to be sacrificed at the temple but Mary and Joseph could only afford the minimum, so they purchased “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” but what would it really cost them? They realized the real cost when the prophet Simeon, this man, righteous and devout, who had dedicated his life to waiting for the fulfillment of a prophecy that declared a Messiah would come to restore the fortunes of Israel. When he saw the baby Jesus, led by the Spirit, he went to his mother Mary and said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Being a parent costs something. You have some idea of the cost while the child grows, is born, and keeps you up all night – but could you have imagined that the child might pierce your soul? That he would grow and develop, only to become a man you don’t always recognize? That as you held him in your arms, you would have to come to terms with having little control over who he would become? That keeping him in your lap wasn’t an option, and letting him go was the only way to let him live, though letting him go meant watching him be rejected and even seeing him look into the face of death? Young Mary knew it. She knew it when Simeon spoke to her in the temple. Christmas prepares us for a gift, but it takes the words of Simeon and the prophet Anna to come to terms with who this man truly is and what your relationship with him will cost you. The reality of Christ is that this child at the temple, so innocent and young, will grow to return to that temple to topple the tables of the money changers, oppose the religious leaders who were so respected in that place, calling them white washed tombs – clean on the outside but dead in the heart. If we confine him to the manger where he coos and babbles we have underestimated the Lord of Lords who speaks a truth that unsettles the self-righteous, challenges the pious, and pulls the powerful down from their thrones. Simeon and Anna knew this about him, but do you? He won’t be confined to the manger, for he came not to be the perfect complement to your arrangement of holly and ivy, but to speak words that make you question the life you’ve been living. Simeon told his mother that he was destined “for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Are you ready for that? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – following him may cost you more than you realized. Mary and Joseph were prepared to give “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” not knowing that for them he was prepared to give his very life. He will not save you from every trial, but though you may walk through the valley of the shadow of death – he will be with you – willing to give far more than a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons out of love for you. Amen.

Living in the fields

Luke 2: 1-14, NT page 58 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Sermon Our girls have already opened one present. This time of year kids are so full of pent up excitement that if you don’t release the pressure a little bit they’ll explode – and that’s why one little aspiring nurse or doctor already received a stethoscope and tiny scrubs and the other a little teacher’s kit complete with a pointer and a bell. I’m only a little disappointed that neither of them wanted a pretend preacher kit with a mini pulpit and robe, but there’s consolation, because the scrubs and stethoscope fill me with the hope that Cece will make so much money as a doctor she’ll be able to take care of us in our old age, maybe her sister the teacher will need some help as well. As you can see, I have to stop myself from mistaking passing interest with long term vocational plans. Just like a father who imagines a daughter’s interest at three will be the same when she’s 18, who knows how many pianos here in Maury County were purchased for a son after his first piano lesson but have been gathering dust ever since. It’s easy to get confused between what is temporary and what is permanent, what is passing fancy and what is long term commitment. We get all mixed up – and it happens easily enough to all of us in one way or another. Some people will have every trace of Christmas out of the house by lunch tomorrow – but someone in your neighborhood will still have lights in the maple tree out front this August, because in one way or another we all get messed up and something that is supposed to be temporary winds up being permanent. Delay college for a year, get a job you hate because you have to do something – it’s temporary anyway so it doesn’t really matter – only 5 years later you’re still doing the same thing. Your girlfriend tells you that “we need to take a break” which sounds temporary enough, but you know as well as I do that it’s not. Then you tell your spouse that you’ll need to work late for the next couple weeks, just to get caught up at the office, so you leave the house at 6:00 and are finally home at 8:00. Your children miss you, but it’s only temporary, or that’s what you’re telling yourself anyway. In the same way, you tell yourself that you’re going to clean off the dining room table. No one goes shopping for a new dining room table and says to the saleslady, “Don’t you think this would make a nice desk?” but one day you have a stack of bills and you put them down there because you’ll get to them later. After a while you can’t see the surface. The treadmill covered in clothes or the coffee table that looks more like an office, or worse, does anyone here have free time that’s starting to look more and more like a day at the office? You’re not complaining. Without a job the bills wouldn’t get paid, the house would go into foreclosure, but how many people do you know who used to have a job that they did when they were at the office but now it’s snuck in to everything else so that you wonder if maybe they’ve mistaken their job for their life. No one sets out to do that, and I’m sure if I asked any of you what your number one priority in life was you’d tell me that God comes first and second is family – but if I were to confiscate your smart phone or find out how you’ve been spending your time over the last week I’d find that plenty of you and me included suffer from a case of jumbled priorities. It happens. Some people eat to live, others live to eat. You’re supposed to live in your house and just drive your car, but don’t you know someone who looks like they live in their car? If you’ve ever ridden somewhere with me than you have. And those Shepherds in our Gospel lesson for this evening, they were living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night, but is a field anywhere for a person to live? They’re not the only ones – this Scripture lesson from Luke is full of temporary housing just as our world is. Everyone is on the move, traveling away from home to be counted for the first registration. The Emperor needed to know just how many people he controlled in his empire, so he gave out a decree as though his word were law and everyone uprooted themselves, Mary and Joseph included. Then there’s Jesus. His new mother “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Our Lord was born in a no place because the inn was full, and it wasn’t his home and he knew it, but not all of us are so fortunate. You know Cousin Eddie from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. He pulls into Clark Griswold’s driveway – “Clark, that there is an RV,” he says. “More like a tenement on wheels,” replies Clark, and the tragedy here is, that not only has the VA replaced the metal plate in Cousin Eddie’s head with a plastic one, but the RV has become his family’s home. What is temporary and what is permanent – sometimes it gets mixed up so it’s important to be mindful of what you settle in to, because like the shepherds we live out in the fields, but the fields are not our home. A man came into the church office week before last. He told us that his son managed to cram four years of college into six years. The harder thing is the one who managed to let a disagreement that could have been resolved fester until it felt like it had always been there and always would be. Then there’s Uncle Daniel who’s had too much to drink again, which is just as much a normal part of Christmas Eve as stockings hung on the mantel. Be careful about the kind of dysfunction that you tolerate. The resentment that becomes natural, the superficial chit chat that you settle for - these fields that you’ve been living in, were never meant to be your home. So “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” They went to him, and there he was, pointing them just as he points you, away from what is temporary, what is passing, what you need to let go and move on from, and towards what is eternal. To all of you who live in the fields, shepherding flocks by night, gather around the manger now for a glimpse of your King. Amen.