Sunday, August 30, 2015

In a mirror

Scripture Lessons: John 2: 13-18 and James 1: 17-27, NT page 229 Sermon title: In a Mirror My Mom has always been a counselor. She was an actual school counselor for several years, but in reality, long before she earned her degree making it official, I always knew that she was a counselor because from the time I was a child on, I remember people who could not stop talking to her. There was the man who came to replace our driveway for example. On the first day he worked at our house he drove up in this great big truck, unloaded his jackhammer, and went to work. Each day after, his image crystalized in my mind for now that his tools were unloaded at our house he could drive up on his Harley Davidson Motorcycle. It was several days of this guy doing the manliest work possible. He broke up our driveway, then loaded the broken chunks of cement in the back of his truck, but when the work was over, our new driveway as hard and solid as this man appeared to be, he kept calling the house to talk with my mother, who had helped this man unpack the hardships of his childhood and now he would crack over the phone as though he were our old driveway, crying to my mother who knew how to listen and couldn’t help but hold the bucket as the tears fell. It was the same with the man who put a roof on our back deck. He was going through a divorce and called the house for free counseling for months after it seemed. There were neighbors too, who would come by to talk to Mom in the front yard. I was too young to listen, so Mom would send me inside where I’d be eating as much ice cream as I wanted because I knew that she was going to be distracted for a while. She is just one of those people who can handle emotions. So she knew how to listen to me when I came home from school and told her there was nothing wrong. She’d poke and prod until the sadness or the anger came spilling out. I got so used to her profound listening skills that I assumed she was just a normal person and that it would be appropriate to open up about my deepest sadness or frustration to anyone, which was not always good for my reputation. I was not raised in a stoic family – so I had to learn that not everyone can handle human emotions, neither mine nor their own. You’ve probably seen it enough to know that what I’m saying is true. A lady is crying in the grocery store and people treat her the same way they’d treat a dropped gallon of milk spilled all over the floor – telling the other shoppers, “You might avoid the cereal aisle. There’s a broken woman right in front of the Fruit Loops whose emotions are getting all over the place.” Or at the bank it happens too. A man who’s done everything he can to present himself with dignity. It’s an old suit, an old white shirt – but it’s pressed. He holds his hat in one hand, a stack of bills in the other, and when his request for a loan is denied something inside him just breaks, right there. The loan officer is kind, but just not trained for this kind of situation, so she stands behind him and pats him on the shoulder once or twice. It’s an admirable effort but it does little to assure this man and only convinces him of what he knew already – that he’s all alone and there’s nothing left to be done. Emotions. Most people fear them, and they don’t just fear other people’s emotions, most people are more scared even of their own. So scared are we that we take those emotions, and without even looking at them put them in an old mayonnaise jar and turn that lid as tightly as we can. Then we bury the jar, lay a cement driveway over it, and we think we’re doing just fine until the cracks appear. Chinks in the armor. And a good listener, a disarming listener, will sit there with you as you uncover what’s hidden under years of denial and can help you face what’s there. It’s usually one of those painful emotions: shame, fear, old sadness from long ago, or, if you’re as polite as I try to be – it’s probably anger. Despite the fact that I was raised by a counselor, there is nothing I am less comfortable with than anger – both yours and my own, and so it is still taking me some work to get to the understanding that anger can be good – that it tells us when something is not right and needs to be fixed – that Jesus, while in so many instances is out petting sheep and smiling at children, is also known to have stormed the Temple in Jerusalem, driving all the money changers out, pouring the coins of the money changers on the ground and overturning their tables. And when he said, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” I am confident that he sounded less like Mister Rogers and more like Mister T. Anger. It’s not bad – but I fear it, because when it bubbles up inside of me, when I give in to it, so often I don’t recognize myself anymore. “Be doers of the word,” the author of our second scripture lesson wrote, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget who they are. This image of one who forgets what he looks like after walking away from his reflection comes at the end of a wider teaching on the dangers of anger. Verse 19: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Verse 21: “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness” – let the Lord do for your spirit what the gardener does for her garden – pulling up those weeds of “spoiled virtue” and “cancerous evil” so that the implanted word that has the power to save your soul can grow and flourish. Here in the book of James is a warning – that those who “do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts” make a mockery of their faith for what they claim to believe has nothing to do with how they actually live – and anger will drive you to such hypocrisy, for if anger is like a horse than it is a horse who will run wild without a bridle, a stallion who will stampede through friendships, break relationships, harm children, and humiliate the speaker if it is not controlled. Is that to say that anger is bad – hardly – for the Lord himself was angry. There is no other way to describe his reaction to the money changers at the Temple who so defiled his father’s house, but remember this: his disciples watched and remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” In other words, his anger was rooted in his faith. It streamed directly from his best impulse, to worship the Lord in justice and truth. His anger was the sure sign that he was consumed, not with hate or rage, but with righteous indignation – zeal for the house of his father. But what about your anger? What about my anger? A husband and a wife argue in the kitchen. Tempers flare. The fires that have been smoldering rage now that the children are in bed. All the pent up resentment pours out all at once as he calls her names and she throws a glass, but a small voice extinguishes the fire like a bucket of cold water. “Why are you talking that way Daddy,” the little girl asks. “I was sleeping, but I kept hearing scary voices so I woke up. I didn’t know that the voices were yours.” “If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget who they are.” So when you act out of anger – are you proud? Have you given voice to your best impulse or have you given in to your worst? Do you recognize yourself, or are you like the Presidential candidate who promised campaign reform, but after his opponent launches his attack adds, resorts to slander, and as he watches his add for the first time, what follows a tirade of filth and slander is his very own voice saying, “I approve this message.” When you come face to face with your anger, what do you see? Consider the members of the crowd when they saw Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With” for the very first time. Four deputy US marshals escorting six-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white public school in New Orleans on November 14, 1960. On the wall behind her is a racial slur, the letter’s KKK, and a smashed tomato that almost ruined her brand new white dress. Her tennis shoes are white too, her socks folded down, and in her hand is a ruler which reminds me of the Prophet Amos’ plumb line. “The Lord was standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” For anger will pull the worst out of them, and the mirror shows not a Christian but a monster. Anger can make our righteousness a mockery, for our anger can give voice to all our worst impulses and before long we will be like that crowd, turned into animals by the presence of a six-year-old girl walking to her first day of school. We reread the email we wrote yesterday and feel the same way – a mirror is held up and we see ourselves without recognition. Anger isn’t bad – but it must be bridled – for while our emotions cannot be ignored, cannot be buried down deep and covered up, our Lord calls us to self-control, that we be “not hearers who forget but doers who act and who are blessed in their doing.” The hymn we will soon sing gets it right: “We are not free when we’re confined To every wish that sweeps the mind, But free when freely we accept The sacred bounds that must be kept.” Bind your anger with self-control. Give it voice in so much as it leads you to express the truth that is within you. But if you are consumed by rage, it may turn you into a monster you will not recognize – one that you claim not to be. So instead, let your actions be so pure, that when you look into the mirror you see the image of the one who created you. Let your anger lead you to righteousness and not hate – for there is plenty out there to be angry about but what does your anger say about what’s in here? Amen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Able to Stand

Scripture: Ephesians 6: 10-20, NT page 195 Last Sunday had our friend David Lock thinking back to August 15th, 1945, the day Japan’s surrender was announced, ending World War II. He was in the air already, flying over the Pacific Ocean, and he was called back because all at once the war was over, but by the time he made it back to the base the celebration had already started – and to keep the troops from getting out of control, Mr. Lock and several others were confined to the base, not allowed to go into San Francisco because the party there was already too big. Think about that – it was 70 years ago, the enemy surrendered, the war was over – but today, with the wars we are fighting, declaring victory is more complex. In June of 1971 President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” Today, more than 40 years later, it is certainly clear that we haven’t won, but what’s not so clear is who the enemy is and where is the battle field. On September 20th, 2001 President Bush declared a war on terror. Troops were soon after sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s always been clear that the war on terror would be fought everywhere. Airport security guards were hired to protect us, not from some foreign army, but from the people who would sit down next to us on an airplane. There is such a difference between World War II and the wars our nation fights today. Today we have to ask - who is the enemy? Where will the war be fought? How will victory be declared? “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” That’s the way the author of our Second Scripture Lesson described it. The Apostle Paul is said to have written this letter to the church in Ephesus, a city in what is now Turkey but was then a major port in the Roman Empire – a place where Christians knew that their beliefs were different from that of their neighbors, that their children would go into the homes of their friends and would be exposed to ideas that were new and different and that, in some instances, were in opposition to the truth of the Gospel. Father’s would go off to work knowing that they were different from the ones working on either side of them. They’d walk home avoiding the subject of religion maybe, for even there in the midst of a group they were all alone, they were different, they were set apart – but it wasn’t just not fitting in that they were afraid of – they were afraid of being defiled by a culture that they knew was evil. And what could they do about it? Who was their enemy? Where would the battle against him be fought? How would victory be declared? It wasn’t so different from the situation that we all find ourselves in today, for we all know that there is a dark side to our culture that we want so badly to protect our children and ourselves from, but how? It was a significant summer that I spent at the Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta, Georgia, and if ever there was a time where I was forced to see the underside of our country that was it. There lived the victims of drug abuse, and it was one thing for these women to be clean and drug free within those walls, for the day they were released the devil was right there waiting for them on the outside. Now how do you fight an enemy without any one face? Who lurks in the shadow of every alley way, who hides until you are at your weakest? Such an enemy cannot be defeated using any weapon, cannot be hunted down and faced on the battlefield – no, to prepare for this war you must put on the whole armor of God. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” You have to be ready to make it in this world – there is no place of complete safety for the enemy is everywhere and the battle ground is encroaching on every human heart. The doctrine of violence creeps into all our homes. All around us they serve the god of wealth. Everywhere they are possessed by a selfishness that brings unhappiness and destruction. Women are treated as objects, men are tempted in every direction, and how can you get away from it? Where can you go? And when will it all be over? Protection comes when the line between right and wrong becomes clearer, because you have put the belt of truth around your waist. When righteousness guards your heart from your worst impulses. When you have put on those shoes that enable you to stand firm enough to speak the truth that is hard to say. When the shield of faith saves you from despair, when the helmet of salvation guides your thoughts, and the sword of the Spirit – the very word of God – slays your fear, your doubt, and your temptation. But too often we go out into the world unarmed and unready. And going out into the world without wearing the Armor of God is like walking up on the stage at a dance recital without ever having practiced. Everyone is watching, everyone is waiting, but if your parents never equipped you for this moment – never had the courage to talk about the realities of life, never sent you to Sunday School, never told you those stories from Scripture that bring the light to our path, then you will crumble. I was driving up 65 to Vanderbilt Hospital last week. There on the side of the interstate was a coyote, just sniffing the air, thinking about crossing those ten lanes of traffic. You know what he reminded me of? Me on my first day of middle school. I weighed 70 pounds, nearly as much as my backpack, and there before me was a different world. A world of pressures I had never known, full of things I had never seen, where I would be offered things I previously had no idea even existed – it was a full 10 lanes of danger – now how would I make it through? There was no one enemy to defeat. There was no battleground to avoid. And it was not a war that my parents could win for me – and that was good, because middle school was training for the rest of my life. The survival skills I developed there of slowly but surely learning who I was and what I stood for have served me ever since. In our world today, not so unlike Ephesus, you have to know who you are because if you go out into our world and your identity comes from the crowd, their affirmation is what makes or breaks you, than how can you help but go along with everything they suggest that you do? If you can only feel good about yourself if you are in a relationship, than your whole identity is held hostage by someone else who you have no real control over. And if your sense of self-worth is caught up somehow in the amount of money that you have in your bank account than you have far too much invested in something that can be taken away. Only God can tell you who you are, and without this sense of identity our culture will take you captive. Arm yourself for battle then – arm yourself for battle against a foe who stars in every movie, who offers a sales pitch during every commercial, who lurks in every hallway and is disguised as your friend. Only the one who is dressed in the mighty armor of God will have victory on that day. For if you are protected in heart, soul, and mind – than there is a security that they cannot break through. There is a strength within you that they know not of. You will persevere no matter what trials await. For our God is a mighty fortress. A bulwark never failing. Behind Solomon’s Walls are safety, provision, and peace at last. There is shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home. Our Lord is the sure foundation – and if you are to endure the fight that awaits – on this foundations you must stand. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Turn in Here

Sermon Text: 1st Kings 3: 3-14 and Proverbs 9: 1-6, OT pages 591-592 Sermon Title: Turn in Here Drawing from a 2013 poll asking 1,000 adults about their reading habits came a report that about 28 percent of adults in the United States have not read a book in the last year. That’s concerning in a way, but not only had 28 percent not read a book, 25 percent read between 1 and 5 books. 15 percent read between 6 and 10. 20 percent read between 11 and 50 books in the last year. And 8 percent read more than 50 – and 50 sounds like a lot, but the point I want to first make this morning is that reading even 1 book is dangerous because books are full of unsettling ideas. Take the Bible for example. Now I know that there are plenty of good church going people who believe that the Bible is safe to read – so safe in fact that there’s one in every hotel room, one in most every house, this church is full of them, but so many of the ideas presented in the Bible are nothing if not disruptive, unsettling, offensive, and radical. If you like your life just the way that it is than you shouldn’t ever read it. If you think our community is exactly as it should be than you should just let the Bible gather dust on a bookshelf somewhere in your home. And if you think that political discourse in this country is satisfactory, that 21st century politicians have it all together, if you think that the polished, well heeled, smooth talking Presidential Candidates are doing everything just right, than I hope you didn’t hear a word our 1st Scripture Lesson this morning. I’m going to read part of it again: “At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” If you took Solomon out and put Hilary Clinton in, do you know what she would say if she heard a voice say, “Ask what I should give you”? She’d say, “I’ve served as Secretary of State, Senator from New York, First Lady of Arkansas, I’ve been a practicing lawyer and law professor, activist, and volunteer. I spoke before the United Nations and was instrumental in starting to restore America’s standing in the world as a leader in the Obama administration – I thank you for offering, but to lead this country I already have everything that I need.” You can imagine that. And just think, if someone week before last at the Republican Debate asked Donald Trump if he needed anything – maybe a new hair piece, but that’s it. Our entire political machine is built around this illusion of self-sufficiency. Show strength. Keep it together – to lead means to never apologize and to never ask for help. But when the Lord asked Solomon what he needed Solomon said, “Give your servant an understanding mind, because without wisdom I won’t be able to do it.” That’s what leaders do according to the example in Scripture, so if you don’t want an alternative to the model you see already in Washington you’re better off not to pick up the Good Book. If you’re happy with what’s out there don’t even bother with it, and if you are glad to not even bother with it and don’t have any qualms in going along with the crowd you really need to stay away from the Bible because the Bible does not think highly of crowds and those who go along with them. In the Gospel of Mark “the crowd” is one of the main characters. This crowd is there to hear him teach. He feeds them the loaves and fishes. He has compassion on them saying that they are like sheep without a shepherd and he is that shepherd to them. He is the Good Shepherd that they greet as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey over a road paved with palm branches and cloaks, but the minute the Good Shepherd leaves their sight the Pharisees step in. Then the crowd that loved him and followed him are there to chant “Crucify Him” as he is tried and convicted. Plenty of good Bible scholars have made the case that this couldn’t be the same crowd – surely the crowd that greeted him on Palm Sunday is a different group from the one who called for his death, but such an idea misunderstands the nature of a crowd. The crowd is dangerous. Whenever I’m around a big group of people my own mind stops working properly. We got suckered in to going to one of those pyramid scheme promotional meetings – it wasn’t Amway but it was something like that. The guy told me that he’d buy us dinner if we went, and I guess you could say he had my number because I will do almost anything if you take me out to dinner. We went and ate, and when we got to the meeting I was telling Sara how stupid I thought this whole thing was – how magnetizing our water sounded like the biggest joke I’d ever heard, but I want to confess to you that it was a blessing neither of us brought a check book with us, because by the end of the presentation I was convinced that if another drop of un-magnetized water hit my lips I wouldn’t make it. Being in a crowd of people – that’s a dangerous place to be. If you’re buying a new car – you’re in the show room, the sales people are being so nice to you, it smells so good in there, and they’re all encouraging you to sign on the dotted line. Or if you live in Atlanta as we once did, it doesn’t really occur to you that driving 30 minutes to work is an unnecessary waste of time because everyone else is doing it too, but I read a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ellen Goodman this week that spoke to the insanity of accepting traffic as a normal way of life. She wrote: “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” You sit there in that car – and you look around – see how miserable everyone else looks in their cars, listening to whatever they’re listening to, and it doesn’t necessarily have to occur to you to wonder if this is really the way that it has to be, but Wisdom will get in your head if you ask her to, and like a sign before the off ramp of the interstate I could hear her saying, “You that are simple, turn in here! Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” What will happen if you start to think, if you stop accepting everything around you as the way that it has to be is you’ll begin to wonder if there might be a better life than the one that you have. And wisdom can help you get there, but first you have to ask for it, you have to want it, you have to have the desire for something else. And if you have no desire like that, don’t pick up a book, certainly don’t pick up the Bible, because it is full of ideas that will make you dissatisfied with what you have right now and will make you thirst for something better. A world where politicians act like real people. A world where families thrive and money doesn’t matter so much. A world where people aren’t cutting each other’s throats to get ahead. According to Scripture there is a voice calling us to something better, something more joyful, not just life, but abundant life – not just a puddle but an ever flowing stream – not just some crumbs, but a seat at the table. Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals. She has mixed her wine. She has set her table. She has sent out her servant girls. And she calls – she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here! To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” – for the way that you are going, the way of the crowd, the way of the unexamined life – do you know where it leads? We live in this world where some pursue wealth recklessly – others don’t have it but wish that they did and pretend that they do. Some are just walking through life wishing for something different but the thing is – you first have to veer off the road that you are on. We get so busy with work and soccer practice – there’s no time to stop and think – and the TV’s always on in the background enabling us to just go on down this road a little while longer without worrying about where it leads. No one means to become the couple who sits in silence. No one sets out to become the bitter old man with nothing good to say. No one intends to become the mother who gives up on her child, but are you heading that way? If you are than know that wisdom is calling – turn off that road she says, because she knows what is at the end of it. There’s a better way, she says, there’s a feast in fact, but first you must stop being swept by the crowd and caught in habit to listen and think. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. And it was Howard Thurman, one of the great minds of the Civil Rights Movement, who said: “What the world needs is people who have come alive.” Come alive and look at your life – be aware of the road that you are on, and should it lead to death and despair than listen to woman wisdom who calls you to turn. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Test Your Hypothesis

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 19: 4-8 Sermon Title: Test Your Hypothesis “A hypothesis,” according to my high school biology teacher, “is an educated guess that should be either proven or disproven by an experiment.” To better integrate this lesson she announced that there would be a science fair, and that each student would form a hypothesis, utilize the scientific method to test it, and would then report his findings in a presentation, which sounded easy enough at the time, so I waited three weeks and didn’t start testing my hypothesis until a couple days before my assignment was due. My hypothesis was that exposing plant life to crude oil would be bad for the plant, but after only three days of watering one set of violets with water and the other set of violets with motor oil, interestingly enough there was no visible difference in plant growth or health. And that seemed really bad to me because one set of those plants needed to be dead, so I pulled off all the leaves to prove my hypothesis. Now that’s bad science and we know it. Coming to the truth takes time, but time is something we don’t always have – we need the answer now, so our second Scripture Lesson gives the account of Elijah alone in a cave convinced that he is a failure. Coming to this kind of conclusion should be predicated with discernment, tempered by time. If his hypothesis is that he’s failed than his hypothesis should be put to the test, but as you can see – he’s no longer wondering if he has failed he goes so far as to cry out to God saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He is convinced already and it’s better to be convinced of a truth than to be convinced of an incorrect assumption, but it won’t take you long if you’re watching for it before you’ll see someone hold tightly to an untested hypotheses as though it were a fact. I guarantee that after watching television for 30 minutes you’ll see at least one person speak with baseless authority in favor of some untested hypothesis, forgetting how dangerous doing so can be. I was watching a survival show last week. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. These two people, a man and a woman, were in the jungle and they could only have one object of their choosing – everything else they had to come up with out of the jungle. They had no food, no clothes, no water, and while the woman started a fire with the matches she had with her the man went looking for something to eat. He chose to bring fishing line with him into the jungle, and now that I’ve seen this show I know that if you can only choose one thing to bring with you into a jungle that one thing should not be fishing line. They were hungry, so this man went off looking for food and he found a snake and killed it. The thing had black, red, white, and yellow stripes and you know that black, red, white, and yellow stripes are the tell-tale sign of what is probably a coral snake, a snake whose venom is a potent neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles, causing respiratory failure within hours. The man very confidently quoted a rhyme to the woman – red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black venom lack, which was supposed to illustrate the fact that he was bringing back, not a venomous coral snake, but a non-venomous snake that had a similar color pattern. So there they were – half-starved – and the thing that had the potential to save them looked so very much like the thing that had the potential to kill them. In such a situation, you must find a way to test your hypothesis, but these people didn’t have the time. They survived, but a good scientist will test that hypothesis, because assumptions need to be questioned. Theories put to the test or at the very least, before you despair, reaching the conclusion that you have failed, give it some time. After sleeping, eating and drinking, then sleeping again, Elijah can finally began to see the truth, and this is important because sometimes success looks so much like failure that the two are unmistakable. The only way to determine which is which is to put your assumption to the test by listening to God’s answer. Our faith could stand to learn a thing or two from my biology teacher, because even faithful people love making assumptions. We think we ought to know and if we don’t we’ll just act like we do. But sometimes being faithful is nothing more than accepting the rest and nourishment that the Lord provides. I heard a story on Friday night that illustrates such an idea. All of your church officers are required to give a statement of faith. When they join the Session or Diaconate they are required to talk about what they believe and how they have seen God at work in their lives, and one new deacon, Bo Holloway, told the story of receiving a phone call from Tom Price, a member of the nominating committee, who asked if he would be willing to serve as a church officer. Bo thought about it for a minute and realized that yes, it probably was about time that he started to give something back to the church that had given so much to him, but after deeper reflection he came to wonder if maybe what was going on was not that the church needed him so much as that he needed the church. He needed the church to call him away from a way of life with a demanding job that was taking time from his family and robbing his health, and towards a new way of life with redefined priorities. The Angel of God saved Elijah’s life with such a simple miracle – “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Rest and nourishment saved him from despair, and if that sounds like too simple a solution to the problems that you face today, at the very least, put this hypothesis to the test. Amen.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Each of us was given grace

Ephesians 4: 1-16, NT pages 193-194 An incredible story made national news this week. The events were unfolding in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I don’t know exactly why it is that the people who decide what goes on national news decided to report on this story for so much of the week, but certainly it caught my attention to hear about a father who gave a false confession so that he would go to prison in place of his son. You heard about the story I’m sure. A lot of people were talking about it early in the week, before other stories took its place on the news cycle, and some people are really upset about it. The Assistant District Attorney of Milwaukee County described the false confession as “a complete manipulation of the system.” He said that, “You have basically a family that decided they were going to decide amongst themselves who should pay the price, instead of a judge or a jury or the system." Now he’s right about that. The guilty son went free while the father paid the price. The innocent took the punishment and the guilty was spared, which sounds a whole lot like the story of our salvation. The Chaplain of the Milwaukee County Corrections system could easily tell the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection using the words of the Assistant DA: “It’s a complete manipulation of the system. You have basically a God who decided that he was going to decide amongst himself who should pay the price, instead of a judge or a jury or the system.” I wonder if the Assistant DA would protest during such a sermon. Would he stand up in the church service and express his disapproval about the innocent Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world? Would he demand that humanity be put on the stand to pay the price for their crime? Maybe he would, or maybe he never thought about it. Regardless, this news story helped me to uncover something radical about our faith, for the truth is that our salvation is a complete manipulation of justice, and I wonder if God is saying about us what this Milwaukee father was thinking about his son: “I thought he would use this as an opportunity to better his life, go to school, get a job, but in fact, it had just the opposite effect,” The Apostle Paul says the same thing this way: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” but have you been saved only to return to the same life you led before? Specifically the life that Paul is calling the church to in this 2nd Scripture Lesson is one marked by humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – to put away the kinds of division that marked their life before their baptism into Christ. Maybe they heard the words of the baptismal liturgy that told them they were baptized, not by their own merit, but because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it’s one thing to hear words and it’s another thing altogether to live them. And that’s the case with all kinds of things. Consider the words of the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You can certainly make the case that Thomas Jefferson knew what these words meant, that John Adams and the rest of the Constitutional Congress knew these words were significant, but the true meaning of these words was not unlocked for nearly two hundred more years when finally the words “all men” actually included all men – and eventually not just “all men” but also all women. The same is true when it comes to the words of hymns in our hymnal. There’s one that I like – it’s not in our hymnal, but I bet you’ve heard it. It goes: Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within! Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin! We can sing these words – but what do they mean? What do they demand? Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. Now that one makes people cry. The words make people cry and I know that they do, because I get to stand up here where I can look out on all of you and I can tell which hymns you hate because about halfway through some of you make a point of closing that hymnal and returning it to its place on the rack. I can also tell which hymns make you cry because you’ll be singing one minute and then you’ll have to stop. You’ll try to say the words – you sort of start the words, but then you’ll just close your mouth and wipe your eyes, and Amazing Grace does it to some of you every single time. The hymn reminds us of the gift that we’ve received – a gift we can’t earn and don’t deserve but have been given nonetheless by the incarnate son of God who died on the cross to pay the price for our sin, and that is a truth that’s worth singing about, rejoicing in, but it is most definitely a manipulation of justice that demands some kind of response from us. The Assistant DA got it right. It is “a complete manipulation of the system. You have basically a [God who] decided he was going to decide amongst himself who should pay the price, instead of a judge or a jury or the system." We ought to cry at the thought of such mercy, rejoice in it, give thanks for it, but today I want to urge you to remember what such grace requires: Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood. But listen to this part: O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! “Each of us was given grace,” says the Apostle Paul, and the gift of this grace makes us debtors, it places on us an obligation. “Each of us was given grace, I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Gifts can be this way – maybe gifts are always this way – what a gift it is to be 15 or 16 and handed the keys to the car. Such a gift that you jump right in the driver’s seat, but if it happened to you the same way it happened to me, your father wouldn’t let you turn the ignition without a speech. He looked me in the eye and said something like, “This is a privilege, and with this privilege comes responsibility” – I don’t know that we’ve been taught to think of grace this way but our second scripture lesson seems a lot like a responsibility speech that comes with a great gift. “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” When it says, “He ascended,” what does that mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Paul’s point is this – while Christ descended to get down to your level, how could you be so bold as to think that you have ascended high above your neighbors? It’s like those words, “All men are created equal,” from the Declaration of Independence. It’s not enough to hear those words and for only a small demographic of society to apply it to themselves for if one class of society is to enjoy the benefits of equality than those same benefits must be offered to everyone – if not than the words, “All men are created equal” are empty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words appear on the Statue of Liberty not just pronouncing a lofty ideal that we should put up on a statue and then not do anything about – they call us to action. If I have been given equality than I am obligated to extend such a gift to you. If I have received shelter and refuge than I am obligated to work on behalf of the refugee who has neither. And if the Lord has given me grace, than how must I live? How am I to treat my neighbor? My actions or my lack of action can make even powerful words seem empty, and certainly my willingness to take such a gift as grace for myself without offering the same to my neighbor makes me a hypocrite. At other times the gifts of God have worked this way. Take for example our 1st Scripture Lesson, the manna in the wilderness. The Lord provided the people with bread from heaven in the wilderness, a fine flaky substance that covered the ground and which the people collected to eat. The Lord simply provided it, but with this gift the Lord also gave instructions – Moses said to the people, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But the people did not listen; some left part of it until morning and it bred worms and became foul. I wonder if you’ve ever seen grace do that to a person. They’ve received it – forgiveness and all – but when it comes to their neighbor, sometimes forgiveness is withheld, and you watch as this withheld forgiveness breeds worms and becomes foul within their heart. Like a room closed up, their soul longs for a cool breeze and sunlight, but in order to withhold that forgiveness the blinds must be pulled down, the door must stay locked, and you wonder if they are causing their enemy as much pain as they are causing themselves. A quote has been attributed to everyone from the Buddha to Carrie Fisher, “That holding onto resentment or anger is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” but still people do it. They still hold on tight to the grace that they have received without giving any of it to their neighbors, a lifestyle that fails to honor the gift they have been given. We must not forget the character of the one who has given us everything. If we affirm the truth of the Lord who was born into divinity but took on humanity, what do we do to these words if we walk through life with our nose pointed toward heaven, our eyes looking down towards some and not even seeing others, our lives focused on ascending the ladder of proper society – distancing ourselves from those who we deem below our status and rank? We render such words empty and we shall be rightly judged as hypocrites, unless we look out on our neighbor and see our brother. Unless we look on our enemy and see our sister. Unless we look on the guilty and see ourselves. Our salvation. It is “a complete manipulation of the system. You have basically a [God who] decided he was going to decide amongst himself who should pay the price, instead of a judge or a jury or the system." As you look on your neighbor with contempt, do not forget that you have been spared. As you look on the criminal and demand that he pay the price for his crime, do not forget that you have been forgiven. And as you wonder how it could be that some people could be so strange, confused, or misguided, remember that we are all part of one body and “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Amen.