Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do you have to say for yourself?

Acts 2: 1-21, NT page 119 When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own language we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Sermon These words form the prophet Joel that Peter quotes describe the last days – those days that so many fear – a time of reckoning and judgement – days not so unlike last Thursday for last Thursday was report card day. In the school system that I grew up in report cards were mailed home, but here I’ve learned that all parents were given the chance to come by the school to pick their child’s report card up, before he had the chance to hide it and then claim that it must have gotten lost in the mail. All across Maury County I imagine that fathers and mothers were looking down their nose at their children, pointing to grades that should have been higher, saying those words that every child hates to hear, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Now maybe not every parent says those exact words. I imagine that I will simply because those were the words that my parents said to me, and I heard them more than once. My mother notices that the pie that was supposed to be for dinner that evening when guests were coming over has a slice cut out of it. My father finds a scratch on his car after he told me not to take it out of the driveway. My little brother goes into the kitchen crying with a knot on his head. All three scenarios inspired the same reaction out of my parents: “Joe! What do you have to say for yourself?” There are times in life when a response is required – where your silence allows another person’s interpretation of events to guarantee your condemnation. But how difficult it is to speak. How difficult it is to find the words – but how impossible it is for anyone to see the truth if you stay silent. And that’s the thing about so many events in life. They don’t really know what’s going on until they hear what you have to say. Today, in addition to being Pentecost, today is the day when our Confirmation Class, young people who were raised in this church, will stand before you to speak for themselves, to say what it is that they believe, and how true it is that we don’t really know them until we’ve heard them speak. One Sunday morning Elijah Hedrick and I were waiting to see if any of his other Confirmation classmates were going to show up. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving or something like that, so with the rest of his class out of town I suggested that Elijah go down to Fellowship Hall early and have a chance at the donuts before anyone else gets there. I assumed he didn’t have any interest in a private Confirmation tutoring session with his pastor, so I asked him: “What do you say Elijah, would you like to skip the lesson and go get a donut?” But Elijah said, “I think we better go ahead with the lesson. This is Confirmation. This is serious.” So you see, we can assume, be we don’t really know until we’ve heard him speak. I had a similar experience at a wedding. The wedding was held in a beautiful setting – the Botanical Gardens in Athens, Georgia. The wedding was for the daughter of two of my favorite members of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, but the mother of the groom was running late. The wedding was scheduled to start at 4:00, but she had just called her son to tell him that she wouldn’t be there until 5:30. The father of the bride, his name is George and he was my Clerk of Session. It was his job, as it is the job of our Clerk of Session, Mark Bridges, to keep meetings at the church moving quickly and effectively so George was used to things happening on time. When George got the news about the mother of the groom running an hour and a half late he looked like a man about to have a heart attack. I was worried his head was about to explode so I kept my distance from him, and that meant I was watching when he walked right up to his daughter, held her in his arms and said, “Don’t worry. This is going to be fine. All that matters is that you love him and he loves you. This wedding will happen at whatever time it needs to.” “What do you have to say for yourself?” the crowd was asking – but no one really knew until he spoke. The funeral is like that. The power of words is as clear at a funeral as it is anyplace else, probably more. Some people think that the preacher’s job is to say some nice words about the deceased, to make a joke or two to lighten the mood, but that’s not it. The preacher’s job is to speak, to testify to the truth – he must come to the grave armed for a battle waged by words – for death is there fighting to rule the day. Death has a sermon all his own you see. Death is the end, he says – the grave is a black hole that swallows up life into nothing – and death preaches this sermon from the darkness of the grave and when he is done he looks up to the preacher taunting, “What do you have to say for yourself?” It’s a fine question, and the faithful of every generation are asked it in one way or another – what do you have to say for yourself, for it seemed to them that either he was crazy or drunk – maybe both. That’s what the Apostle Peter was up against, and in answer to their questions this is what he said, “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ Today you will hear five young men and women speak for themselves as well. You will hear from Kyle – whose fiery red hair is no match for his fiery mind and his fiery spirit. You will hear from Hannah – whose grace as an athlete is complimented by her kindness and her smile. You will hear from Branham – who is brave enough to stare you in the eye and to hear what you have to say. You will hear from Farrar – who minces no words and who knows who she is in the eyes of God. And you will hear from Elijah – who takes his faith seriously. As a church we will ask them, “What do you have to say for yourself?” And as young men and women of faith, they will speak for themselves. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2015

As far as Bethany

Luke 24: 44-53, NT page 91 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 must 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. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Sermon Graduating high school is a big deal, so I am thankful that here at First Presbyterian Church we have the long tradition of recognizing those young men and women who have or will be completing high school. I remember graduating high school myself. How proud my parents were, and how proud my family was as I went off to begin college. I was the oldest grandchild, so when it was time for orientation at Presbyterian College everyone wanted to go – my parents, my brother and sister, and my grandmother and grandfather. And that was nice, but a little embarrassing, as none of the other new students at Presbyterian College were accompanied by more than one or both of their parents, while it looked like I was hosting a family reunion. After the experience of being so well supported at freshman orientation, a few weeks later when it was time for me to move into my dorm room I insisted that most of the family stay at home, and to my relief it was just my mom to help me move in. As I think about that I day I remember how strange it is that you get ready to get off on your own – you just about can’t wait to get out of the house to gain a little independence - but on the day my mom drove me to college, met my faculty advisor, and helped me move in, I remember vividly the moment when she said, “If I stay here any longer I’m going to start crying and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stop so I’m leaving.” That’s what she said as all the freshmen and their parents were having lunch on a lawn under these beautiful old oak trees and one minute she was there right next to me, but in an instant she had hugged my neck, kissed my check, forced out a goodbye, and walked to her car. It was one of those moments when I knew that something had just ended. Now the end of something isn’t so bad if you’re happy about what’s coming next. The bride cries in the Narthex hugging her father, but she smiles as she walks down the asile to the groom. The husband and wife enjoy their last night in the childfree house, maybe they know enough about life with kids to lament the last morning when they get to sleep in – but it is with tears in their eyes that they hold a newborn for the first time – yes their married life without children has ended but in the same breath they become mothers and fathers – and that’s not so bad as those moments when you know that something has just ended but you don’t know what is coming next. I wonder if that’s what the disciples were feeling. Jesus had walked with them, he taught them, opened their minds, heard their questions, and gave them purpose. There are people who provide these things and some us fall into the illusion that they will always be there to do just what they’ve done. Even though he warned them that he would be leaving - what must it have been like to stare up into the clouds as he passed from their sight? I bet that you know. There’s that very strange feeling of being set adrift as your source of stability, the anchor that holds you fast in storms of uncertainty is suddenly on her way to the car to drive off for home leaving you at college. That very strange feeling – of knowing what has been but not what comes next. He ascended into heaven defying the rules of nature and certainly defying the disciples desire to keep him by their side, because without him surely they felt lost and alone. Not many people want to believe that such a feeling, in one way or another, is a part of the journey of human existence – that we are in this constant cycle of stability then change, union then separation, saying hello then goodbye – and just as it is true with human existence so it can be true for faith. Some of us come here for some sanctuary from all life’s many changes. I’ve come to the conclusion that capital campaigns and building renovations are so stressful in the life of the church not because of the financial cost but because of the spiritual cost – in a world that changes so often what a comfort a 100 year old building can be. Whenever I want to see this congregation get upset all I have to do is pick 3 unfamiliar hymns – all of a sudden my life is in jeopardy, and I’ll say that you need to learn a few more hymns outside of the 10 that you like – and you’ll say that it just doesn’t feel like church if you’re fighting through one of those weird ones that come from Korea. I know what you mean. We have hand shaped pews that have supported saints for generations, an organ that proclaims tradition, strength and stability – here we are connected to something that has lasted through the tests of time, so in the midst of the storm of life’s many changes you can come here and be reminded of your roots. That’s why the disciples go to the Temple I believe. He led them only as far as Bethany, and there’s no point in wishing he could have led them farther. The comfort comes, the true comfort, comes not from the memory or the regret, but the hope that soon something new will take shape. “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” We are prone to focus on what’s missing. It’s normal to mourn what’s ended and gone, especially while what’s only just beginning is still taking shape. I don’t know how many times I went home that first semester of college. A new period began soon enough when I never wanted to go home, but that first semester my parents worried that I wasn’t embracing the college experience and that I should try not to come home quite so often. So also there was a time when I knew exactly who Jesus was. I worshiped and followed him with as much certainty as any self-righteous Pharisee, but all at once questions crept in and I was no longer so sure about what I believed and who I knew Jesus to be. The Apostles’ Creed was hard to say – there was not enough verifiable proof to back up it’s many claims – and so it seemed as though I were losing Jesus or Jesus were losing me, and during this time of being set adrift I couldn’t tell if anything new was beginning – I only knew to lament what had just ended. But I tell you – as I stood silent during the Apostles’ Creed, unable to say what I believe, a congregation said those words for me. As I questioned what would happen next, I heard promises of a God who brought the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land – though they walked through the desert, not in one place nor the other. There are high school graduates here today who will to go off to school soon, and when they do I charge them to find for themselves a church and to go, even when their parents aren’t there to make them. Young adulthood is the time to choose what is right for yourself, so I charge all you high school seniors today to find a community of faith who will hold you fast during a time of transition, who will testify to the truth, that while our faith has ups and downs, cliffs and valleys, any temporary sense of being left alone and set adrift is but the beginning of something new. Sometimes plans must change. Sometimes expectations fall away into disappointment, but in their place, in the place of all that we lose, coms something new. As Bob Duncan our liturgist for the day walked down from the Chancel he stopped to ask me how our 1st lesson from Acts jived with his mother’s many admonitions against gambling – but this passage form Acts has little to do with casting lots so much as it has to do with the crucial lesson that while Jesus was gone the disciples did not give up. They kept going. CS Lewis has taught us that one of Satan’s greatest tools is convincing us that periods of uncertainty and doubt are not temporary but permanent – and once we are convinced that our temporary fears or anxieties are permanent the evil one has us right where he wants us. Remember the disciples then – for they knew that while he could only take them so far as Bethany, while he left them staring up into the clouds consumed by his absence – they were not consumed by their present circumstance. They knew, as the Apostle Paul knew, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the joy that will be revealed in us.” Rejoice as they did – for he will come again. Amen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cinco de Mayo

1st John 5: 1-6, NT page 241 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. Sermon This is a week full of holidays. Today is Mother’s Day and I hope you remembered, but there are two lesser known holidays this week as well – the fourth of May is a holiday to some people as is the 5th. The fourth of May is celebrated by enthusiasts of the Star Wars movies – a series of movies that has been around for years where the good guys don’t say “goodbye” or “see you later” but “May the force be with you” so on May 4th all the big Star Wars fans went around saying, “May the 4th be with you.” I’m not defending the practice, I’m just making note of it. So there’s Mother’s Day this week, May the 4th and while May the 4th is celebrated mostly by Star Wars enthusiasts May the 5th is celebrated mostly by margarita enthusiasts, a majority of whom I have a feeling have no idea what Cinco de Mayo even means. The Mexican restaurants were packed on Tuesday, the 5th of May, which I believe most people assume is the day of Mexican Independence, something like our 4th of July, but interestingly it is not. Cinco de Mayo celebrates not Mexican independence from Spain, the Spaniards had already been kicked out – and Mexican independence is celebrated on September 16th. Cinco de Mayo celebrates when Mexican Independence was defended for on May 5th, 1862, the French sent a massive army attempting to take over. Now most people misunderstand the 5th of May, but no one has even heard of September 16th – so why would we celebrate the one so much more than the other – doesn’t it seem like declaring independence is more significant than defending it – that’s like making a bigger deal out of the battle of 1812 than the 4th of July – but let us take a lesson here from our neighbors to the south because gaining freedom is not so much more important than defending it. The Apostle Paul says it well in his letter to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” but we do. Sometimes we focus so much on gaining freedom that we forget to defend it. So also we focus so much on losing weight – but don’t forget that losing it is only the beginning and keeping it off is another battle altogether. You think about weddings – now a wedding is just one hour in the life of a marriage but we don’t treat it that way. In fact, Lacy Coleman who served this church for over 40 years as the church custodian – he was once working non-stop over the course of a week for a Saturday wedding: moving tables, putting up flowers, cleaning pews, and in this storm of wedding preparation he whispered to someone working beside him, “I just hope the marriage lasts half as long as this wedding.” And here’s the parallel to the life of every Christian, maybe especially every Presbyterian – have we focused so much energy on the gift of God’s salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ that we’re losing the battle of living a life worthy of our calling? Do we honor the Cross if we lean so heavily on grace as to believe no obligation has been placed upon us? Have we forsaken our inheritance as the children of God if we do not love our God by obeying the Commandments? Our second scripture lesson could hardly be clearer: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” The passage reminds me of an experience I had in college. Sara and I both graduated from a Presbyterian College in South Carolina. It was a good place to go to school – the professors were challenging, but the classes were small enough that we received plenty of individual attention when we had trouble – and the school was in this small town, which meant that there was enough to do on the weekends, not too much but enough, enough trouble you could get into if you wanted to get into trouble - big parties on Friday and Saturday night. That made sense to most of the students – after all, this was college – but some of the students and faculty members didn’t understand how a Presbyterian College could tolerate such behavior, so one faculty member, she was raised in a different religious tradition and was just getting used to Presbyterians, she says to me one afternoon: “Well now I get it.” “What do you get,” I asked. “Now that I understand Predestination it finally makes sense how there can be all these parties at a Christian college – you Presbyterians think that God has predestined you for heaven so now you can do whatever you want.” We should be more careful, because gaining freedom is not so much more important than defending it. Rejoice, for you have been given salvation, but do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. And know that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, but the love of God is this – “that we obey his commandments.” I believe it’s something like a mother’s love. You don’t earn a mother’s love – or if you do than I am sorry – because the way I’ve witnessed a mother’s love I’ve learned that a mother’s love has to do with something much more beautiful than earning. I’ve witnessed a mother who loved her children before she could know them. Before she could see them. A mother who loved her children before they could make her proud or disappoint her or do anything at all – I’ve witnessed the love of a mother that was simply a gift given that could only be accepted and not earned. Now that’s what we Presbyterians believe about salvation, and so we baptize these babies, we celebrate their redemption from sin before they can so much as speak – and why some wonder – but how else could it be? Can anyone earn something so wonderful as salvation? Is anyone so good that they deserve it? Than it must be a gift, and if so, than the question becomes: how can we honor such a gift? How can we say “thank you”? How can we return the love that we have received? “The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” not because doing so will make God love us anymore – but because we must trust those who love us for they lead us towards a way of life that will bring fulfillment and joy. So “his commandments are not burdensome,” no – you want to know burdensome, try sin! If you have been struggling under the yoke of honesty, if you’ve been tempted to conceal the truth or withhold it all-together, then know that nothing will weigh so heavy on your mind than a lie. What could be so heavy a burden as hate? The commandments written down by Moses are intended for you – not as a means to earn anything but as guidance for how to live a joy filled life. “Do not steal,” the commandments say, because the one who gave the commandment knows the weight of guilt theft brings. “Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” and here is a commandment that is more defiled than any other. We defile it because we don’t believe that our salvation is contingent on our obedience to it, and indeed it is not – what is at stake is the condition of your heart. No – God will not strike you down for going into the office on a Sunday; God will not need to for the 80 hour week brings with it its own punishment. “His commandments are not burdensome,” no they are not, especially compared to the weight of sin, so still the words of the Gospel of Matthew that mark our front steps ring true: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The Lord calls you to obedience. The Lord calls you to a new way of life. The Lord calls you to listen and follow, not because his love is at stake, but because your joy is. Consider the mothers who weep in the court room as their child is convicted. See their tears as a testament to their love, for the opposite of love is not disappointment, anger, or shame – the opposite of love is indifference. Now, just as it is true of your mother, so it is true for God – “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” – for our God loves us too much to want us to stay the way we are. There is no room for our self-righteousness given the grace we have received. Our condescension dishonors the God who came down from heaven to dwell among us. And what is our faith if we claim to put our trust in God while ignoring his commandments? His commandments are not burdensome – for whatever is born of God conquers the world. Go out into the world then, and let your life proclaim the victory. Amen.