Monday, September 28, 2015


1st Lesson: Psalm 77 2nd Lesson: Mark 9: 38-41, NT page Sermon Title: Anonymous The title of this sermon in your bulletin is “Anonymous,” but I have a hard time coming up with sermon titles. I used to not ever give my sermon’s titles, but then a member of the church I was serving told me that if I didn’t put down a title than everyone would think that I had just written the sermon the night before. I was thinking, “What makes you think I didn’t just write the sermon the night before.” Well, I have been better about writing sermons ahead of time, but the sermon titles are hard because I have to have the sermon title for the bulletin by Thursday morning but I’m still making changes to my sermon until Thursday afternoon at least. I don’t know about my sermon title today, but last Thursday morning I was still captured by this God in Psalm 77 whose “footsteps were unseen” and I didn’t know how else to explain it then to say that sometimes our God is anonymous. Now that’s not always good. The psalmist doesn’t like it and you can feel the psalmist’s emotions here. You can feel the author’s longing for God’s presence. I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; And you know what she’s reaching for. I say “she,” maybe it’s “he,” but regardless, you know what the author of this psalm is reaching for because you’ve reached for God too. There’s a famous preacher named George Buttrick. He was the Professor of Homiletics at Vanderbilt Divinity School up the road, and in a sermon titled “God and Laughter” he claimed that “we can neither prove God nor escape him.” I find that statement easy to agree with. On the one hand proving that God exists, while we’ve all spent considerable time and mental power trying to do it, remains about as fruitful an activity as arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg. Even the ones who saw God face to face did not come back with much proof beyond their personal conviction. Think of Moses – he saw a burning bush in the wilderness, which on the one hand is convincing – a bush that burned without being consumed - but how can you be so sure a burning bush signifies the presence of God? Mary told Joseph that an angle of the Lord came to her and made her pregnant with baby Jesus. Joseph couldn’t accept it, not until he had a dream of his own – and based on these examples I tell you that the Bible is not only a book full of faithful Abraham’s who believed without seeing, it is also a book of doubting Thomas’ who could neither prove God nor escape him. So the psalmist’s words represent so many: I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; And what does the psalmist’s hand stretch for? What does that hand eventually grasp? The psalmist holds onto the idea that even when God was so profoundly present, so obviously at work in the parting of the Red Sea that saved the Israelites and destroyed Pharaoh’s army – even then there was a question for “your footprints were unseen.” That’s faith for you. They call it a leap of faith for a reason. It’s not proof that can do it, not facts or research. It takes a leap from doubt to get to faith because you can’t always be absolutely sure that it was God and neither can you be absolutely sure that it wasn’t. My friend Andrew Hickman told me a story that works that way. You might say he excelled socially and not academically the first time he went to college, so after a short break he went back with a new attitude and was doing really well, except for this one class – calculous. It’s not that he didn’t try – he did try, but it came so slow that he had a hard time in the beginning of the semester, and not long before the final exam it was looking as though he would not be able to pull his grade up. If you’ve been in this situation before than you can imagine what Andrew might have been feeling. But the professor went to give a guest lecture at another college out of town. He had all the grades in the back of his car – and this was at the time when a teacher’s grades were all on paper and not in a computer – so when a tornado came through and took the class’s grades and test scores with it, there was nothing the professor could do other than tell the class that everyone would be treated as though they had a 100% up until this point. “If you receive a 0 on the final exam you will finish the semester with a 75%,” he said. “Now did God do that?” we ask. “Yet your footprints were unseen,” says the psalmist, just as we believe that the unexplainable has an explanation. “Yet your footprints were unseen,” we say because we believe, but surely the theological questions are not now all put to rest for believing that the Lord is at work in a tornado is not without problems all its own. When that larger than life pastor, Jerry Fallwell told the nation that hurricane Katrina was God’s way of sending judgement to the city of New Orleans no Christian I knew stood with him in agreement. As a matter of fact, when he died I wrote an article for the paper lamenting the fact that without him around “I’d no longer have an example of how not to be a pastor,” but should I have been so bold? We struggle to speak about the ways of our God, and while we, as a church we have a way of determining these things it is a challenge to speak on God’s behalf. The Presbyterian Church has always been characterized by her dedication to democracy, believing that when God speaks the community will affirm the Lord’s voice, assuming that God doesn’t just speak to one person, but to a majority. Therefore, when a man or woman feels the call to preach, the call must be affirmed by her home church, then by her home presbytery, by a whole series of examinations and interviews. You might say that we are not so unlike the Disciple John, who in our second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark, wants to know who these people think they are casting out demons in the name of Jesus Christ and who gave them permission. I can see where John is coming from. If someone walked into this church and volunteered to teach Sunday School we’d all want to check out his credentials, we’d want to hear about his background, especially before we let him loose on a classroom of young children. These days we have to be careful about who does what and when – because we’ve witnessed the danger of unlicensed funeral home directors, unlicensed nutritionists, unlicensed teachers. We have to be careful – but we also have to admit that sometimes we’ve been too careful. John wanted to stop them saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us.” I wish people would remember that, especially when it comes to matters of the Gospel, because sometimes we are too judgmental and often we are too timid. Sometimes when you ask a Presbyterian to pray you can see the panic in his eyes. I’ve been better about it lately, but I used to be really bad about forgetting to go to the People’s Table when it was our church’s week to serve the meal. Whoever was in charge of preparing all that food for hungry folks in our community would call me on a Monday or Tuesday and ask if I could make it over to the People’s Table to say the prayer of Friday, and I’d agree, but because the meal is on a Friday and I take Friday’s off, sometimes I’d be cutting the grass and would lose track of time and would forget all about it. Now I wasn’t there to see it, but apparently, sometimes when the good volunteers from our church looked around when it was time to bless the food and saw that I had once again forgotten to attend a terror would spread among the group, and I can understand why. If you’re not used to praying in front of people it’s intimidating, but here’s what I want you to know – if God can use me – don’t you know God can use you? We get worried. We want to do things correctly, be approved, do it all right, and we all know that the Disciple John is there watching, just waiting to tell you that you’ve been casting out demons all wrong. That’s true. And he was there the first time I ever preached a sermon. I was a Senior in college and the faculty member assigned to the pre-ministerial group took me over to the old folks’ home where I preached for the first time, and when it was over, as he drove me back to my dorm room looking for some affirmation I asked him how he thought I did, but the only good thing he could come up with was that I had talked for exactly the right amount of time – “Joe, you talked for 12 minutes, and that was just right.” It’s hard, but Pope Francis is famous now for saying that he would rather have a church that makes mistakes than a sick church, which is nothing if not a call to all of you to be bold enough to try. There is no question that it is difficult to say how it is that the Lord is at work among us. We sit down with our friends who have doubts and don’t know what to say – but if you don’t tell that story – our God’s deeds of power will be anonymous. You must not be so concerned with getting it right that you fail to try. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The fate of a tree

Text: Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 11: 18-21, OT page 713 Somethings are puzzling, if you stop and think about them. Take sweet tea for example. What you do with sweet tea is heat up the water – but then once you’ve made it hot you add your tea bags, only to add ice and make it cold. You pour in sugar to make it sweet, but then you squeeze in a lemon to make it sour. It’s puzzling when you think about it. Almost as puzzling as what you see when you go to the hospital. You walk up and notice the folks out by the fountain, oxygen tubes stuck up their nose to help out their lungs, cigarette in their hands to ease the addiction. And it’s the strangest thing in the world to imagine a heart patient listening to his doctor, hearing her say that he’s going to have to cut back on salt and cholesterol and fat only to leave the hospital and pull into the McDonalds that’s right across the street. There they are – right across the street from the institution that does the most to promote our community’s physical health are McDonald’s, Burger King, and Dunkin Donuts – the three institutions that are doing our bodies the most harm. It’s ironic is what it is – but all around us are such ironies. All around us are mixed messages. So often, being human is grasping two ideas simultaneously, even when those two ideas are in opposition to each other. Life can be like sweet tea – which you want to be sweet but then you also use a lemon to make it sour. You doctor your heart but then you fill your body with food that does your body harm. Just as on the one hand we read Psalm 1 and hear that if we are obedient – if we do not follow the advice of the wicked nor take the path that sinners tread, if we delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night, then we will be like trees planted by streams of water, which yield fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. That is Scripture, but right there on the other hand is the prophet Jeremiah, who despite his obedience is like a tree soon to be cut off from the land of the living. Remember that. Remember that both of these passages of Scripture are true even though their claims are nearly opposite. Certainly it is true that obedience to the Law will put you on the right path – and that playing by the rules will pay off. Life is not so different from Kindergarten, where the teacher rewards those good boys and girls who were quiet during class and who refrained from putting glue in their classmate’s hair with a popcorn party or something like that. There can be no doubt that good behavior offers its own rewards and that those who live lives of kindness, honesty, and gentleness will be rewarded for their efforts. But it’s also true that bad things happen to good people – and that bad things happen especially to those good people who are compelled to speak the truth that no one really wants to hear. The prophet Jeremiah – what a burden he bears – and who laid this heavy burden upon him? It was the Lord. “It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew,” Jeremiah says to the Lord. He brings his complaint directly to God saying, “You showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” Do you know what that is like? A little Muslim boy named Mohammed, the new kid at school, he brings a homemade clock to his teacher – the teacher looked at the clock with its wires, it’s digital numbers counting down to who knows what – the teacher’s fear and the fear of the school administers boiled over when they remembered his name and his faith and next thing you know this skinny little boy with coke bottle glasses is in a room by himself being interrogated by police officers – and who was there to stand with him? Who was there to risk being condemned alongside him? To do so would make you like a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” Certainly Psalm 1 gets it right – you have to play by the rules – but Jeremiah is true as well, because sometimes standing up for what is right will get you crucified. What we have here in the 11th chapter of Jeremiah is a prelude to Christ’s death on the Cross – a foretaste of that day when the Son of God who walked the earth, as innocent as a gentle lamb, as pure as a flake of snow, but who spoke the truth to people who didn’t want to hear it and so he was like a tree “cut off from the land of the living.” The message may seem confusing. On the one hand Scripture tells us to be good Christians and we must be good Christians – but don’t think that being good will keep you out of trouble, because sometimes it’s being good that will get you in it. So Christianity is a little more complicated than we would like it to be, which might be true about most things. We go to the dentist, who tells us to floss and brush and stay away from sugary soft drinks, and some of those who do will be like trees planted by streams of water, but others, because of genetics or who knows what will never get a pat on the back from the dental hygienist because we can’t control everything by our good behavior. The same is true of the cancer patient. You’ve seen it happen – that the one who smoked his whole life lives to be 150 and the one who never touched a cigarette dies of lung cancer at 55. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that some just have the right constitution to never put on a pound, but the one who diets obsessively can’t lose any weight. They’ll try to explain it. No one wants you to stop trying. But if you spend some time thinking about it – it’s enough to drive you to eat a pound of bacon twice a day. Why – O Lord, would you make the innocent suffer? Why – O Lord, do you let the guilty go free? Why – O Lord, do you allow them to devise schemes against us? Why do you stand idle while they say, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered”? Unfortunately for us, Scripture does not provide any one perfect answer, but it is clear on this point – Scripture provides no room for the kind of self-righteousness so prevalent in our church and in our world. The great liberation theologian, Robert McAfee Brown calls us to be careful when we try to live by the rules, for in step one of our obedience we may come to the conclusion that “those who obey the laws are good, and God rewards them. Those who disobey the laws are bad, and God punishes them.” This is a logical conclusion, and so often it leads to a second step in logic: that if “there is a man who is prosperous, he must be obeying the law…if there is a man who is in trouble, he must be disobeying the law.” (Robert McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955) 248) The Bible criticizes this way of thinking sharply – though many who make such conclusions call themselves Christians – but we cannot comprehend the Cross if we go around thinking that obedience to God leads to earthly comfort, for on the Cross he was crucified though innocent, obedient to the Law, and always speaking the truth. Maybe that’s the dangerous part. Honesty is dangerous. I suppose that’s why I am prone to dishonesty. When the waitress comes by to check on my meal – I could be eating cat hair with spaghetti sauce and I’d tell her it was delicious. Honesty is dangerous. Children don’t like to go out with their grandmother once she reaches a certain age because she has just gotten too honest. “Looks like you’ve put on some weight,” she’ll say. “Are you going to wear that?” she’ll ask. “Why don’t you come visit me more often,” she wants to know. And what can you tell her? O – You could be honest too – but you won’t because you know how dangerous honesty can be, and because you’re already accustomed to keeping your real opinions to yourself. Are you disappointed in your politicians – of course you are. Are you mad at your husband – yes, but why bring it up now? Do you think she’s drinking too much? That he shouldn’t be talking to her like that? Do you think that something is wrong and do you wonder why no one is doing anything about it? Well sure you do – but you also know what happens to people who speak the truth. But you know what I say – not that I always do it – but you know what I say – I’d rather be cut off from the land of the living – no longer remembered – than have to look at myself in the mirror and wonder who I’ve become. For even when I walk through the shades of death – his presence is my stay. One word of his supporting breath – drives all my fears away. His hand, in sight of all my foes, does still my table spread; My cup with blessings over flows, his oil anoints my head. It is a strange world we live in. You may never feel completely at home here, so like a pilgrim search for something better. Like an alien whose homeland is so far away, seek the truth in this life and despite all your trouble, challenge, and hardship – in the Lord you will be “no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home.” Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Taming the Tongue

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 50: 4-9 and James 3: 1-12, NT page 230 Sermon Title: Taming the Tongue As you know, on Tuesday morning Chris Handy died. Her funeral will be this Saturday afternoon, her visitation will be at 1:00, and what I’m sure will happen at the visitation especially, is what happens at so many visitations – there will be tears, but there will also be laughter. That’s because we’ll be doing what we are supposed to do, what most people hope will happen on the day of their funerals – we’ll be telling stories about a woman who made us smile and who made us laugh and you can’t celebrate the life of a woman like that with only tears. I’ve been around death enough to know that laughter is almost always right there beside it, which on the one hand seems so strange, but on the other hand seems absolutely perfect because at the time of death we are compelled to tell the stories and you can’t have stories without laughter. That was the case with the death of my grandmother. When my grandmother died my grandfather asked me to speak at the funeral and everyone in the family pitched in to help me. Soon the challenge became choosing a story that would be moderately appropriate to tell in church. Someone wanted me to tell about how she would always wear hose. With every outfit – certainly with a skit, but my grandmother always wore hose so she wore them with sweat pants and even once my mother claims that she wore hose with her swimming suit when they went to the beach. There are so many stories – and when we tell them it’s as though the dead are right beside us. We’ve been here in Columbia for nearly five years now and I have heard so many stories about Hoose Crozier and Dr. George Mayfield that I feel like I know them even though they died before we got here. I feel like I have heard at least one Wanda Turner story every day since the day of her death – so many that when I think of her I don’t see so much the frail frame in the hospital bed that I saw so often near the end, but the firecracker, full of life and full of truth who told me over and over again that I might become a decent preacher if only I didn’t talk so fast. I miss her. I miss all of them – but they are not so far when we tell the stories. There is power in our words. And this power is not unknown to Christian thought. There is a theologian at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis named Damayanthi Niles who said that stories are the baskets that we use to carry our relationships. It’s as though our words weave the cloth that holds us together, and these words are so strong that even at the grave we can laugh for we know that there is a power stronger than death, that love will always bind us, and that with our stories – as though they were magic spells - we know that the words of William Faulkner are true: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” Some will say that they’re just words. Just stories, but they are powerful – and like all other power laid at the feet of humankind, you have seen it used for good, but also for evil. So the whole William Faulkner quote goes like this: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. The burden of our past hangs heavy in the present.” The burden of the past is with us too, right there with the stories that make us laugh. The words we spoke years ago linger because our mouths are like feather pillows – once they rip open the words are swept by the wind and there is no hope of collecting all of them ever again – the words we whispered might be heard by far more people than we ever wanted. And as these words spread, they gather steam and take on power to ruin reputations. The word slander is related to murder, in that slander is using words to murder a reputation and destroy someone’s standing in a community, and so “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies,” says the book of James, “Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” Here the metaphor is clear – just as the bit, only a few inches long, can control a whole horse and just as the rudder can control a giant ship, so the tongue, 8 muscles and 4 inches, boasts of great exploits. And just what are these great exploits – the author of James doesn’t have to tell because we already know. In 1615 Galileo wrote to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” He wrote that phrase in a beautiful letter in which he quoted Scripture and Saint Augustine, but the letter also got him in a lot of trouble because the Church knew that his words were the beginning of some great exploits and indeed they were. The same is true of Lenin’s words – in 1917 he wrote that “Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners,” and that idea so succinctly articulated spread, giving credence to verse 5 of our second scripture lesson: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” Words do that – whether good words or bad words, those who speak have to be careful about what they say, so our second scripture lesson begins this way: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Think about that teachers – the power that you actually wield is almost as great as the power that parents think you wield. A student need merely report to her parents that she learned about Islam today in school and in no time the school board is calling an emergency meeting. Parents get concerned, and the concern, while too often rooted in fear that politicians are ready to take advantage of, is certainly understandable because every one of you remembers something that your teacher taught you no matter how many years ago it was. That’s the case with me. In my second year of college I rollerbladed into class one day as a joke. It was the day of the test, and I rolled up the aisle, sat down in my desk, took the test and rolled right back out again. A few days later my professor returned the test. He had marked it with a D and a note asking me to come to his office that afternoon, preferably wearing shoes and not rollerblades. I sat down in the chair opposite his desk and he asked me, “When Joe, are you going to start taking yourself and the gifts God has given you seriously?” Now those words from my teacher mark a change in course for my life, and maybe the change didn’t come all at once, but certainly those words were the beginning of recognizing that college had more to offer me than a good time, that maybe I possessed potential to rise above my office as the class clown, and so I began to study harder, to consider my appearance, and to take myself seriously. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The words of a teacher have power – teachers are influential – and we don’t have to wonder whether or not James is right when he says that teachers will be judged with greater strictness because we already know that it’s true and we know that what’s true for teachers applies to preachers as well. In the great preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor’s commentary on this passage from the book of James she wrote: “Preachers wise enough to know that they preach chiefly to themselves will spend some time praying this passage before attempting to interpret it to their congregations.” This passage from James offers a hard word for preachers. And I wish that it only offered a hard word for preachers who aren’t me, but unfortunately that can’t be the case. I’m proud that a couple of my best sermons have been published, but I could easily compile a book of sermons that I wish now had never seen the light of day – (and I bet my friend James Fleming would help me compile it). I’m not proud of everything that I’ve said. The hard truth is that I have to be mindful of what I say. And not only that, I have to be mindful of what I say all the time, not only when I’m behind this pulpit, for no spring can “pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water,” no fig tree can “yield olives, or a grapevine figs” for nature doesn’t work that way. The preacher cannot tell the truth one day, a lie the next, and expect the congregation to know the difference. The preacher cannot abuse with his words one day and expect words from the same source to bring comfort the next. Or, to use the words of James chapter 3 verse 10: “With [the tongue] we bless the lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God… My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.” We cannot pray with our words in this sanctuary only to leave and disrespect our waitress at Cracker Barrel over Sunday lunch. You cannot think for a moment that this makes any sense or that God can tell which instance represents the real you. You cannot pray for your sister in one moment, then whisper about her the next. Your empathy won’t truly heal a wound if your concern is passing and only lasts until you have a chance to call a friend to tell him how you really feel. Now I wish I were always the example here. I wish I were perfect and I’m not, none of us can be. If we could be than there would be no need for the grace that our Lord Jesus Christ provides, but we don’t honor such grace if we don’t work each moment to be better. So I’m in the pulpit today ready to say something here – let me be an example, not as one who has always embodied an ideal but as one who longs to be a spring of fresh water. I want my words to give life and healing and peace. So I’m calling on you to join me as I pledge to take seriously the power that my words have. Join me as I pledge to use my words to tell the kind of stories that bring honor to all. Join me as I do my best to use my words to strengthen my relationships and not to tear them asunder. Let your life inspire the kind of stories that will fill this place with smiles and laughter whenever you are remembered. Amen.