Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Through the valley

Psalm 23 (KJV) Sermon Transitions are difficult, even the easy ones, so as we face decisions that signal the end of one thing and the beginning of another, our society has invented things that I believe are designed to help us put off the inevitable. That’s how I feel about the to-go box. Restaurant portions are sometimes pretty big, so what often happens when we go out to eat as a family is that the waiter or waitress will come to our table as we’re getting ready to leave to ask if we’d like a to-go box to take home our left-overs. Now I don’t like to be wasteful, but I’m not a big fan of taking home left-overs from a restaurant, mostly because more than once we’ve come home from the restaurant at the end of a hot summer day, filed out of the car and into the house to brush teeth, read stories, sleep a restful sleep, only to file back into the car and be met by the smell of grilled fish that’s been baking in the car overnight because the to-go box never made it into the house. But then, even if the to-go box makes it into the house it’s not always eaten, not touched even, until I get curious a few weeks later. I’ll open that box of pizza which now looks more like a science fair experiment than anything I might eat for lunch. Essentially, what I hear when the waitress asks if we’d like to take the rest of our meal home with us is, “would you like me to throw the rest of that away now, or would you rather take it home so that you can throw it away yourself sometime in the future?” I feel the same way about my sister’s storage unit. She’s moving, not into a permanent place, but in with a friend until she finds a permanent apartment to live in, so right now all she needs are her most essential possessions – the rest can be put in a storage unit until she finds a new place to live – or that’s what she’s telling herself anyway. The truth is, and if you knew my sister as well as I do you’d understand – what’s going to happen is she’s going to move all that stuff into a storage unit, but after a month or so she’s going to realize that 3 quarters of that stuff she doesn’t really need – that in fact she doesn’t need four sets of luggage and three rotary phones and a box of records without a record player - so if I were a betting man I’d put money on her paying rent on that storage unit for the next year or so, never moving any of it even after she finds a new apartment – I would bet that it will go untouched completely until she gets fed up with paying that rent on the storage unit and drags all her stuff out and into a dumpster. What I hear when she tells me that she’s renting a storage unit is – I don’t feel like throwing this stuff away right now, so I’m going to pay someone to keep it for me because I’d rather throw it away in a year or so. But I shouldn’t complain. I’m not any different. I have my own coping mechanisms too. When faced with a question – waste the food you paid for without eating while families right here in Maury County go without – it can be much more comfortable to tell yourself that for lunch tomorrow you’ll be eating those left-overs even if past experience tells you that those left-overs will probably go uneaten. We tell ourselves things – little lies that aren't completely untrue. Just as we take home doggie bags and rent storage units, when making some of those most permanent decisions, the really big changes, sometimes it’s easier to tell ourselves that it’s only temporary so that we don’t have to face the hard facts right away. It can be good to ease into things – even small things – because reality can be just a little too real to face right away. I believe that’s why couples don’t say they’re getting divorced at first – at first they’re just separated, then they’ll see how it goes, and they say that because in the beginning, even though everyone knows where things are headed, it’s easier to ease into that drastic change rather than jump right down into it. So in the same way Grandpa’s not going to a nursing home, in fact we’re not even going to sell his house yet – he’s just going to try out that retirement community for a little while… it’s temporary. When friends move away they promise they’ll visit – and maybe they will – but the truth no one is ready to face just yet is that some decisions are permanent, some changes really do change us and really do require that we say goodbye to what was. That’s why we stand at the grave, and we dress it up, call the funeral anything but a funeral because funeral just sounds a little too depressing. We go to the graveyard but call it a memorial garden. Dress up the tombstone with flowers and pictures, make it a pretty place – anything to take the edge off the thing that it really is – a death. We are afraid – so rather than face these things head-on our society has invented things that make the change more palatable, but unfortunately, what our society has done is merely delayed the inevitable. And where society can’t help, our religion does not offer us a way out – there is no way around the Valley of the Shadow of Death. No – but Christianity does supply for us a savior who will lead you through it. Who will walk beside you as you face it. I heard a story once about this kind of a savior. It’s about a man who was walking down the street, minding his own business when the ground opened up beneath him and he slid right down into a hole too deep to climb out of. He could still see the street way up above him and he noticed a doctor walking by. He yelled up to that doctor – “Hey, I’m stuck down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The doctor, she looked down on him and told him that she sure was sorry he had fallen down into the hole, and threw down a prescription that might help him out. Now despite the prescription the man was still stuck down in the hole so he called up again for help as a pastor walked by. “Hey pastor, I’m stuck down in this hole. Can you help get me out?” The pastor looked down on him from the street and said a prayer with him but then kept walking and the man was still stuck down in the hole. A few minutes later a stranger walked by. “Hey buddy, I’m stuck down in this hole. Can you help me out?” the man yelled. The stranger looked down and then jumped down into the hole with the man. The man thanked him, but said, “Now we’re both stuck.” The stranger responded, “Yes, but now I’m in it with you. And I’ve been down in this hole before so I learned the way out.” “I am the good shepherd,” he said in the Gospel of John, and “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Indeed our Lord took on our human frame. Rather than look down from heaven sending messengers and laws, our Lord was born of Mary, trained as a carpenter, was baptized by John in the Jordan, healed and preached among the people only to be arrested, tried, crucified and buried. Our God incarnate in the Lord Jesus Christ has walked the road of human life and now he will lead you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as one who has been through it before and knows the way out. It’s hard to put into words just what this means, but I know there are some who would help you deal with the realities of life by pretending that things aren’t really as bad as they seem. They’ll help you deal with the pain by dulling your senses to it, but some day you’ll wake up in the same place you fell asleep, so do not be deceived. There is no way to sleep through the journey we all must go on. And the only true comfort comes in remembering that even in the deepest sadness, the most difficult changes, you are not alone. The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore I will fear no evil, no hardship, no challenge or suffering, for thou art with me, having gone through it before so that you might lead me home. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2015

You are witnesses to these things

Luke 24: 36b-48, NT page 91 Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms much be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Sermon Our second scripture lesson ends with the declaration, “You are witnesses of these things,” and this is a strong statement for Jesus to make to his disciples, because what we have witnessed shapes who we are, how we think, and the way that we view the world around us. Tony Sowell, the man who runs Oakes and Nichols Funeral Home, has witnessed a lot. He’s been around Columbia long enough to witness more than his fair share of Mule Days, so about two weeks ago Tony commented on the sculpture on the other side of our block facing the library. “Those big tree trunks you have up over there are pretty neat,” he says, “but there’s no way they’ll make it through Mule Day.” Trusting Tony and his experience, I fully expected for some team of mules to be hitched up to one of those substantial tree trunks, ordered by their owner to pull until our temporary art exhibit were toppled onto the street – after all, I’ve witnessed a few Mule Days myself, so not much is out of the question. I’ve caught a little grief for those sculptures. Maybe you have too. A friend, the pastor at Grace Nazarene Church over towards Hatcher Lane knows enough about our denomination to expect our theology to tolerate far more than his, but when he saw those trees he thought we were really starting to push the limit. He stopped me in the street to say, “I knew you Presbyterians were pretty liberal, but now you’ve gone so far as to erect Stonehenge on your property. Have you become druids now?” Of course there’s another way to look at our temporary art exhibit. Sometimes all we can see is what we expect to see. We learn to base our expectation on what we’ve witnessed in the past, so while I’ve stood on the sidewalk, witnessing the city dig up High Street until every inch foot has had to be patched over, waited in traffic at the intersection of Trotwood and James Campbell while the city changed that major intersection for what seemed like far too long, today we are witnesses to what good our city can do especially when smart and talented people get involved through the Maury County Arts Council. A portion of our property scared with the ruins of the Randall Hotel is now one of our community’s greatest artistic assets – and we are all witnesses. In a world where we witness so much that’s bad, I am very thankful to be a witness to something so good, for in order to believe, to have hope, to look out on our world with joyful expectation, we must first witness something more than what our eyes see in a typical week. To have our eyes on the world is to witness some of the same tragedies that the disciples witnessed. In the days before the Resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples they witnessed an instance of betrayal when Judas sold their savior for a bag of gold coins. Then they witnessed their savior’s unjust arrest, they watched as he was beaten, tried in a court without representation, jeered by the crowds, insulted and slandered as his life slipped away on a cross – high enough that his followers could witness it all. When your eyes see such things, when you know fully the evil that our world contains, it’s not hard to give up. I don’t know how the people who report the news don’t turn into complete basket cases, and maybe they are, as even the Today Show can report enough bad news to ruin my day if I watch for too long. Kenyans persecuted for their faith. Enough video footage of police officers shooting unarmed African American men to fear for your life when pulled over for a speeding ticket. ISIS rises, politicians blame, and we get to witness it all, so it makes perfect sense that while the disciples were filled with joy to see the risen Lord, still “they were disbelieving and still wondering.” That makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? Tragedy throws our reality into new perspective, so the soldiers who have gone off to witness untold violence in service to this country struggle even in the safety of their own homes. The nurses who witness the worst of childhood disease can’t stop worrying about their own children at the slightest sniffle. Witness a car accident and feel your hands shake holding the steering wheel; what happens before our eyes has its own power. Even the violence of movies creeps into our dreams, for what we witness shapes our mind. In the disciple’s disbelief and wonderment he asked them for something to eat, and after eating a piece of broiled fish “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Now if you have been looking for a reason to get your kids to Sunday School this is it. In a storm of sadness and doubt Christ reminded them of what they already knew, what had been passed down to them for generations, for the stories that we’ve learned come in handy when all around us is sadness and tragedy. I think about the child who faces the lion’s den of Middle School. When I first started Marietta Middle School I weighed 70 pounds. Went in the restroom for the first time and asked a friend why there weren’t any doors on the bathroom stalls. He told me that one of the 8th graders had ripped them all off in a fit of rage, “so watch your back,” he says. It’s in a time like that when you need to have the 23rd Psalm memorized. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” And it’s in a time like that when you need to know the story of Daniel, who spends the night among the lions but lived to see another day. Persevere says the scripture, and do not be afraid. When you witness the things that inspire fear – there is scripture to inspire courage – for we all stand at the water’s edge, the Pharaoh’s chariots close on our heels. The world is glad to tell you to give up and hang your head – but do not forget the Lord who makes a way out of no way – who leads the people through the sea as though it were dry land. Now maybe that’s sounds too optimistic. Too supernatural. I’m not trying to be Pollyanna. I don’t believe in fairy tales. I’m just telling you that while the pessimists will tell you that they’re just being realistic the optimist preaching to you is just seeing the world as a Christian and know that scripture tells the story of hardship yes, but also of the God who leads the people through hardship and suffering to new life. What should you do as you face the walls of poverty that keep some from the basic human rights that we all should enjoy? What should you do when the friends you care about turn their backs like a wall of rejection? What should you do when what you want is on the other side but you fear that the walls will forever keep you out? You should sing, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.” Scripture testifies to the God who will not let you go, so while there is plenty that you’ve already witnessed to inspire your despair – the truth of the Gospel is fulfilled in the words of Jesus when he says: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day” so when he stands among us now we should not be surprised. “You are witnesses of these things,” and faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed will move the mountains that stand in your way. Sure the Wellness Center is closing. Cancer assaults the ones we love. Death keeps knocking at the door – “but we have this treasure in clay jars,” so while “we are afflicted in every way – we are not crushed.” We may be perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but no forsaken. Struck down but not destroyed. For while we are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus – the life of Jesus may also be made visible in your body. Do not lose heart – for whatever affliction you are bearing now – it prepares you for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. Amen.