Sunday, November 29, 2015

The days are surely coming

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 25: 1-10 and Jeremiah 33: 14-16, OT page 738 The turkey is the centerpiece of the meal on Thanksgiving Day, and the Thanksgiving turkey my mother cooked last Thursday deserved all the attention that it got. Early in the day the bird went into the oven, and as we cooked side dishes in the kitchen we were accompanied by the delicious aroma of a turkey baking. When the pop-up turkey timer popped we had a finished bird with crisp skin and juicy flesh, which has not been the case every year – especially that time Uncle Al volunteered to cook and forgot to take out the bag of giblets before putting it in the oven. But this year the turkey was a revelation – deserving of all the attention that she it when placed in the center of the serving line – deserving of all the time spent preparing and cooking her, and maybe, just maybe, deserving of a nomination to replace the bald eagle as our national bird. That’s actually what Benjamin Franklin thought. Writing from France in January of 1784, Franklin wrote to his daughter and gave his opinion regarding the choice for the eagle at the center of our nation’s great seal, which today graces everything from our currency to the president’s lectern. The eagle, he said, “is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.” On the other hand is the turkey, “who” according to Franklin, “is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Franklin’s opinion on this matter has been discussed at length for the last two centuries, but the idea is mostly a punch-line these days. That’s probably because it’s hard to imagine a turkey, with his tail fanned out, his red snood hanging low over his beak, and those wattles under his neck flapping in the wind pictured on the lectern while a serious faced president attempts to address the nation. As far as symbols go – the bald eagle was the more dignified choice. The wingspan of a bald eagle stretches up to 8 feet making her a very large bird, topping the food chain, and flying up to an altitude of 10,000 feet. They mate for life, live up to 30 years, and can fly as fast as 65 miles per hour. When people talk about bald eagles they use words like breathtaking, majestic, and noble – words not often used when describing turkeys – who are often described as noisy, annoying, and delicious. No one wants their nation represented by an animal described as delicious, which proves a significant point – symbols matter. All countries are represented by symbols. Russia is the bear. Israel is the menorah surrounded by olive branches. And Jesus, the hope that he embodies, is often symbolized as a “righteous branch to spring up for David.” Now – a righteous branch that springs up from a tree stump is a significant symbol. It’s different in significant ways from so many of the symbols that represent Jesus and his birthday this Christmas season. Think of the Christmas Tree. I love the Christmas tree as much as I love the thanksgiving turkey. In fact – yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year, the day when we go as a family out to the Satterwhite farm to pick out our Christmas tree. After some negotiation, a little compromise, and barely a debate, we settled on one tree. Not always an easy task, and now this beautiful tree, cut fresh from its roots, stands prominently in our living room. We’ve decorated it, lights and all, but as much as I love it, it can’t last forever. In a month or so, when I haul it out of the living room I’ll leave a trail of dried out pine needles. The only thing to do with this symbol of Christmas is to toss it over the fence, leave it on the curb, or give it to Toney Sowell who runs Oakes and Nichols Funeral home – because he likes to use old Christmas trees to fill gullies that the rain has washed out around his farm. When you think about that – the lifespan of a Christmas tree – then really a Christmas tree represents the way our culture marks Christmas just fine. You prepare for weeks, maybe months, but for all the hard work those presents get opened in about 30 seconds and then its over. It’s all leading up to this grand celebration that comes, then goes – and what do we have left on the afternoon of December 25th but a trashcan full of wrapping paper? We celebrate Christmas by anticipating – but once it’s over what do we have besides a dried out tree to be dragged to the curb. To truly embody the kind of hope that we should celebrate during Christmas – maybe we need something different. Maybe we need the words of Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…” Now to understand this righteous branch that springs up for David we first have to know that David represents Israel, and in the context of this symbol – David or Israel, is a tree stump that’s left behind after Jerusalem was destroyed – cut down like a tree by the Babylonian army who invaded in the year 587 BCE. The invasion was so massive, so complete, that the Temple was destroyed, the king deposed, and so many of the survivors shipped off to live in exile. Israel was a tree – a great tree rooted in a place, among a people, nurtured by God – only to be floored by the ax of Babylon. That’s the story in the book of Jeremiah. It’s not so different from the house once full of life now emptied of its contents, sold to the highest bidder, because divorce split the family in two. It’s like that desk now empty – all the contents placed in a cardboard box because the economy slowed and brought cutbacks and layoffs and early retirements. In the same way Babylon invaded Jerusalem, the siege is said to have lasted for 30 months, and when the armies finally left – what remained? Only a stump. As the fires burned themselves out. As the smoke lifted and the dust settled, there was only this stump left behind, and even the faithful lamented for the once great nation now destroyed – now toppled like a tree. All that was left was a stump. Her branches consumed by fire and her trunk split and shipped off to build the houses of another people in some far off land. Only a stump was left. What could this stump symbolize? What did it embody besides a cruel reminder of what once was? The prophet Jeremiah looked upon this stump and saw more than a reminder of what used to be. As the smoke lifted and the dust settled this great prophet saw a shoot spring forth. Now there’s a symbol of hope. It’s not so unlike the Phoenix who rose from the ashes of Atlanta. While Sherman wanted her destroyed, reduced to dust to be swept away by the wind – the city rose again to become the traffic nightmare that it is today. Joking aside – if you want a symbol of hope – a symbol to represent our Jesus – go not to the tree that’s been cut down, go to the stump that was left only to rise again. Because that’s what we are – that’s what life gives us from time to time. Everything that was supposed to happen never did, and everything that wasn’t supposed to happen kept on happening until everything we worked for is gone and the life we’ve been building looks like an old worthless stump in the ground. When that’s the case – when that’s what life looks like to you – keep looking at that stump and just wait – for our God is in the business of bringing hope back to the hopeless. Think about Joseph. One day he was his father’s chosen son, but the next day he was sold into slavery by his own brothers, framed and imprisoned in a dark Egyptian cell – but from this cell the shadow lifted and Joseph rose in such power and esteem that when those brothers went to Egypt in search of food Joseph was there to extend a hand of salvation, exclaiming, “though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Then there is Moses. Born as nothing more than the desperate hope of a slave woman. From her he drifted down the river, swept by the current into the hands of a princess and from there he rose to lead his people into freedom. You see – hope – it is this fragile thing. Like a young man in a prison cell, a baby in a basket, a new shoot on an ancient stump – and yet it will grow. That’s Jesus then. A new branch growing out from an old stump. A new baby growing inside an unmarried virgin. A hope that grows from nothing at all – but rises to rule the world. This is Christmas. Not the dried out tree drug to the curb. Not the trash can filled with crumpled paper. The righteous branch that springs up for David. And he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” So, as Christmas approaches, go buy a tree (the Satterwhites have plenty and Laura might even sell you a bag of cookies) but when it’s all over, once winter is passed and spring comes again, go out to the yard, find that Bradford per you cut down last fall and left for dead. That’s hope. That’s Christmas. New shoots rising from an old stump. That’s our Lord – persistent life even in the midst of what appears to be death. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Are you a king?

Scripture Lesson: John 18: 33-38a, NT page 113 There’s a wonderful story I once heard about a wise old Rabbi giving a sermon based on the story of Adam and Eve. Genesis chapter 3 tells of the first sin and its punishment, the story of the serpent who tempted the man and the woman to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After they ate this forbidden fruit their eyes were opened. Opened to what we readers wonder – was it the knowledge of the world as it is, the knowledge of judging between right and wrong, or the kind of knowledge that allows us to choose obedience or disobedience – it’s not terribly clear which it is from the Biblical account, but soon after their eyes were opened “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” To hide is a dangerous business, but people do it often. A child runs and hides under his bed after breaking a bowl in the kitchen. A teenager lies and conceals the truth, hiding a part of himself from his parents. A grown woman lives in the shadow of denial, neither admitting to herself nor to anyone else that there is a brokenness within her that is not yet healed, though the empty wine bottles hidden away in the crawl space tell that story for her – yes to hide is a dangerous business, but people do it often, and as the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” which is a funny question for the Lord to ask the old Rabbi noted. “But you see,” he said, “the Lord God knew. He always knew where Adam was. But did Adam know? He was not lost to the Lord, but was Adam lost to himself?” In what is considered by some to be one of the most important philosophical works of the last quarter of a century, The Sources of the Self it’s called, Dr. Charles Taylor claims that we are always in search of ourselves, always wrestling with the question of identity. “Who am I?” we ask, “but this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us,” according to Dr. Taylor, “is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us.” What was of crucial importance to Adam and Eve – we’ll the story of Genesis tells us that this shifted under the shade of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – for while in the beginning all that mattered to the first man and the first woman was enjoying God’s creation within the limits God ordained, when tempted by the serpent it was disobeying God that was of crucial importance, and when this shift occurred Adam and Eve were lost, not to God, but to themselves. As the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” “But you see,” the old Rabbi said, “the Lord God knew. He always knew where Adam was. But did Adam know? He was not lost to the Lord, but was Adam lost to himself?” Benefitting again from the perspective of Dr. Taylor, “To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand,” or to say it using the words of that great Presbyterian Preacher Dr. Peter Marshall, “if we don’t stand for something, we shall fall for anything” – and as Adam and Eve abandoned the ethic of God’s law, disobeying God’s only command, they fell so far as to lose themselves – an event which unleashed a plague on humanity that we are still fighting against some millennia later. We are still asking, “Who am I?” I believe that Dr. Taylor is correct – I know myself based on my commitments – so I know myself as a committed husband, a father, a son, a pastor, a Christian, an American – but in all of these areas, my identity is constantly threatened by the frailty of my human frame and the whisper of a serpent. Who am I? That’s no easy question to answer. It’s not set in stone or fixed in history. Identity is more like a ship pushed by the wind of experience – and to maintain a sense of who we are we must stand firm, holding close the commitments that matter most. For some people this is easier than others I’m sure. The country music legend Johnny Cash sings a song about a boy named Sue who had to fight every day of his life for his identity “Some gal would giggle and I’d get red And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head, I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.” The same must have been true for a woman remembered by the 1880 census of our own Maury County. Bob Duncan called me over just last week to show me that there, among all the citizens of our great county, was a 35-year-old widow woman – last name Mcville, first name – Parrollee. Now a boy named Sue and a girl named Parrollee learn the same lesson – you want people to really know who you are, you have to learn to stand up for yourself, for the world asks us day and night, “Who are you?” and we answer through our commitments, our promises, the stands we are willing to take. That’s why I worry about the outcome of this Syrian refugee debate in Washington. I know that I am not as wise as any of our politicians when it comes to foreign affairs or the very real threat of terrorism, so I would never be so bold as to criticize what I know so little about, but I worry because I know that even with the red, white, and blue still flying, even with the national anthem still sung, we must still fight for our identity in an age of new challenges and new fears. Welcoming the huddled masses at our doorstep is not an act of charity, not an option only for the foolishly kind and the na├»ve bleeding hearts. To welcome those who long for freedom is the very definition of who we are as a country. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me, I life my lamp beside the golden door.” These are the words engraved on our Statue of Liberty, embodying one of the ideals that we hold close. Closing the door, while it may be wise, while it may be prudent, while it may even be the right thing to do in this time of unprecedented terrorism and rampant immigration – still, closing the door must not be done flippantly for in doing so we may risk losing sight of who we are. In 1630, on board the ship Arbella, in rout to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop preached one of the most frequently quoted sermons in American history, one that has set the tone for our nation well into the 21st century. In this sermon titled, “A Model for Christian Charity,” Winthrop famously declared that, “There is a time when a Christian must sell and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles’ times. There is a time also when Christians must give beyond their ability… Lastly, when there is no other means whereby our Christian brother may be relieved in his distress, we must help him beyond our ability rather than tempt God in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means… For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story in a by-word through the world.” As the Lord God walked through the garden he called out to the man, “Where are you?” And he still asks us now, “Where are you?” Certainly for me, as may be true for us all, there are times, seasons even, when we are unrecognizable to ourselves – when we have lived in such a way as just to survive – we’ve lived without direction or clear priority. But our Lord is different isn’t he. He stood trial before Pilate, the governor – the man who held our Lord’s fate in his hands. In our Second Scripture Lesson – an event that ironically occurs just after Peter denied Jesus three times – as our Lord stood trial he refused to deny the truth of his identity. “Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilate asked him, and all Jesus needed to do was say “no,” but instead Jesus answered with another question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Here we know that Pilate is not so unlike us. His ability to stand or bow depends on the swaying waves of public opinion. Jesus knows that he is not speaking for himself but on behalf of those religious elites who want to see the Lord crucified. “So you are a king,” Pilate retorts – now ready to move towards some finality – but Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” The truth was sitting there in front of him, was he not? And the question could have been better phrased had Pilate asked him, “Who is truth?” The Lord embodied the truth in his every breath. He lived it in his every action. He was truth and love and hope – and when we live as he did we are so truly his disciples. When fear is no longer our God. When we stand up for what we know is right rather than let the world walk right over us. When we step out from our hiding places, as broken and ashamed as we might be – then we honor him as our Lord and King when we are bold enough to let our truth live in our actions. But – being true to who you are is a challenge. Listening to your heart, honoring your convictions - it takes courage – so do not forget who stands beside you. It is Jesus Christ, the faithful witness. The first born of the dead. The ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hannah's Song

Scripture: 1 Samuel 1: 4-20 and 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, OT pages 245-246 Relay races can be fun for little kids, and one I remember taking part in one as a little 7-year-old Cub Scout that involved shoes. We were in the Fellowship Hall of Morningside Presbyterian Church, the same church I was baptized in, and we lined up on one side of the room in two teams. One at a time a member of each team was to run to the other side of the room, take off a shoe, leave it there in a pile, then run back and to end of the line so that the next participant could do the same. Then, when it was your turn the second time, you were supposed to run to the pile of shoes, find yours, put it on and race back. The first team whose team members had completed the whole thing and had both shoes on their feet would win. I don’t know why seven-year-old boys care about winning this kind of thing, but they do – as though their life depended on it – and I remember how fast I ran to one side of the room where I took off my shoe, then back to the end of the line until it was my turn to go again. When it came my turn the second time I raced to the other side of the room, dug through that pile of shoes, but I couldn’t find it. I kept searching, and I could hear my teammates telling me to hurry, louder and louder as the other team’s participants where running to the shoe pile, finding their shoe and running back. Each second was feeling to me like a hundred years but I couldn’t find that shoe anywhere! Well, pretty soon the other team’s shoe pile had dwindled down to nothing at all, I was still searching through that big pile trying to find my shoe, and when the scout master announced that the other team had won I was fighting back tears because it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a seven-year-old cry. The scout master saw the tears in my eyes, called me over, sat down and lifted me into her lap, then pulled my shoe out from her pocket. I remember this event, because this was one of the most confusing experiences I have ever experienced. What did it mean? My first reaction – that she meant to embarrass me, that she meant to hurt me – but when I left the scout master’s lap my Mom quickly scooped me up in her arms and told me something funny – that people only pick on the ones who they like. Could that be true? Maybe – but certainly it’s true that life is confusing and we are always trying to answer the complicated question of – what does this mean? Knowing that – can you imagine Hannah’s fear as she left her son at the Temple? You leave a boy at the Temple and how is he supposed to feel but hurt and abandoned. Even though he was hardly abandoned it’s hard, if not impossible, to convince him otherwise, for not knowing the whole story that’s exactly what it looks like. The whole story is just as we read it in our first scripture lesson – Hannah longed for a child but pregnancy, which seems so easy to everyone else it seems, remained out of her grasp, so she did what many of us do in times of extreme desperation – we make a deal with God. “Oh Lord of hosts,” she pleaded, “if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazerite until the day of his death.” Surprisingly – or un-surprisingly – the Lord honored his promise and that meant Hannah had to honor hers – which would be hard if not practically impossible. Think of her happy times with that child – the first time she felt the baby Samuel kick still in the womb, the first time she held him in her arms, the first time this mother Hannah heard baby Samuel coo or saw him smile – but all the while, in the back of her mind, shrouding all these good things surely was the promise that she had made. She knew that once he was weaned she would take him to the Temple and would return home without him, leaving him to wonder – what does this mean? She wouldn’t be there as he asked, “What did I do to deserve being left at the Temple?” Or, “how could a mother be so cruel as to turn and walk away from her own flesh and blood,” but both of these assumptions are based in misunderstanding and Hannah would not be there to help him understand. How lucky I was to have my mother there to help me to understand the little tragedy of a missing shoe down in a church’s fellowship hall and how tragic it is that Hannah walked away not knowing whether or not her son would hate her for the rest of his life. The mind of a young boy is fertile ground for misunderstanding – the mind of anyone is fertile ground for misunderstanding – so Hannah, knowing that she would not be there to wipe his tears and to re-interpret this event sings a song that she hopes will speak for her. She wanted to tell him what it meant, and by this song which makes up our second scripture lesson we know that she was not being selfish – she was being faithful. He had done nothing wrong – in fact, his mother knew that he would be about the work of setting the world right. And she hadn’t left him alone, for we are never alone; even when we feel the most abandoned our Lord is by our side if we only have the eyes to see. But we don’t always see as we struggle to understand and most of the time, my mother isn’t there to take us in her lap and to tell us that there might be another way to look at our situation – so the unwed teenage mother goes right along with the meaning that is provided for her – without knowing how else to think she looks at her pregnant belly and believes about it what people tell her she should. That this baby is not a blessing but a shame. That she doesn’t deserve their congratulations nor their respect. There’s only one unwed teenager mother that I can think of who was bold enough to find an alternate meaning – and she was in fact so bold as to say that, “generations will call me blessed.” Now of course, for the Virgin Mary, the situation was different. She was still pure and innocent I know, but the point that I want to make this morning is that Mary’s words like Hannah’s words – her song of praise that we’ll sing as a congregation in just a little bit – can push us towards a different understanding as we try to make sense our of our life. How easily Mary could have fallen into despair, but instead she was bold to see the hand of God at work. Rather than choosing to believe what the busy bodies at the riverside whispered, Mary heard the voice of Hannah. Bible scholars believe that Mary knew the song well, for if you read the two songs together – Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke and Hannah’s song from 1st Samuel, you can’t help but notice what’s similar. Both of these women, despite their hardship, sing for joy. They both firmly believe that the source of their joy is their God. Both make the theological claim that our God is about the work of putting things right, even if that means putting the world on its head by scattering the proud and lifting up the weak – bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly – filling up the hungry and sending the full to fend for themselves. And both women – Hannah who felt the shame of the barren wife who finally had a child only to abandon him at the Temple and Mary who felt the shame of the fertile virgin – they both saw their shame cast out by the power of fulfilled hope – and they both understood their lot in life, not according to what people were saying, but according to the word of their God. Now I believe it’s important to get that straight, because right now it’s the meaning of Christmas that is up for interpretation. You go into Starbuck’s and you get a red cup – what does this mean everyone is asking on the internet. Maybe you’re likely just to say, “well isn’t this a nice change of pace,” but if you listen to what they’re talking about on the internet you might hear from a pastor named Joshua Feuerstein who got all this started, posting a video where he accuses Starbucks of removing Christmas from their cups because, “they hate Jesus,” which, I suppose is one way to look at it – but do you really think Jesus never wanted to have anything to do with a cappuccino in the first place? We’re not even at Thanksgiving – but we are being forced into the Christmas season. There’s no way out of it, and since they’re no way out of it lets at least be bold enough to interpret the meaning of our savior’s birth, not according to what anyone out there is saying, but according to what is said right in the Bible. Mary – to understand – went to Hannah – and so I call you to Hannah’s song as well. This season has little to do with egg nog – and everything to do with hope. This time of year, while so consumed with spending – really has nothing to do with the kind of presents that you can buy with money and has everything to do with the kind of gifts that come from the hand of God. And while this time of year is so wrapped up in meaning – we talk about family and turkey and lights on the tree – what this time of year really has to do with is the woman who longed for a child and finally got one – and when she did she knew exactly who to thank. You see – when Hannah gave birth to Samuel – the prophet who would anoint Israel’s greatest king – and she knew exactly what it meant. As a people we are so wrapped up in meaning-making its important that we take Hannah’s example seriously. Whether it’s Christmas, pregnancy, infertility, cancer, or death – the world will tell us what to think and the voices of blame inside our head will too – but don’t forget how often we misunderstand as we struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives. We must be bold enough to think again guided by faith. “My heart exults in the Lord; My strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, Because I rejoice in my victory.” Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Power of a Promise

Scripture Lessons: Ruth 1: 15-18 and Matthew 1: 1-6 Sermon Title: The Power of a Promise A Sunday School teacher was leading her class into a sanctuary just like this one and she addressed her class saying, “Children, this is the sanctuary. It’s important to come into this place with reverence and dignity. It’s important to come into this place having prepared your heart for worship. And it’s important to be nice and quiet when you enter this room. Do you know why it’s important to be so quiet here?” A little boy near the back of the group raised his hand and said, “It’s important to be quiet in here because this is where the old men sleep.” Maybe that’s true, but in addition to dozing off, another thing that people do in sanctuaries like this one is make promises, and they don’t make little promises they make big promises – monumental promises really. Up here at the front, you’ve seen it – the man says to the woman, I take you, to be my wife, and I promise, before God and this congregation, to be your loving and faithful husband, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. These are bold words. And these words make up a promise so big and so bold that you can’t help but want to be here when it happens, so brides and mothers plan, grooms and fathers grumble right up until the big day when this sanctuary fills up with friends and family who have showered and groomed and dressed their very best on a Saturday just so they can witness two people make a promise that takes about two minutes to make but is so profoundly idealistic that only half the couples who make it are able to keep it. The statistics are powerful, but the statistics have hardly eliminated the longing of those who love each other to make such promises. Love compels us to it, so even while common sense would temper some passion, it cannot stop men and women from making such promises because promises are not based in logic. That makes promises different from investments which, while risky are still made by those who are armed with expert advice and common sense. That makes promises different from contracts, for while contracts are contingent on performance, those who bind themselves to each other as husband and wife are tethered so that when one falls the two fall together, when one is in pain the pain is shared, and there is no longer one without the other. And such promises are found in Scripture. If anything, the promises we find in our Bible are even more bold than those we make to each other in the wedding liturgy. Our first Scripture lesson is the great promise made by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi. After Naomi’s son, Ruth’s husband, died along with his father and brother thereby severing the bond that would have held Ruth to her mother-in-law any longer, Ruth pledges herself to Naomi in a promise saying: Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, If even death parts me from you! “If even death parts me from you.” Such a promise makes the vows of a wedding seem almost easy, and so Ruth’s dedication to Naomi, pledging herself through life and beyond death foreshadows the love of God for humanity in Christ Jesus our Lord because his love for us was also a power fiercer than the grave. If even death parts me from you! And you know that such a promise made by Ruth points toward the kind of promise that Emanuel – God with us – has made to you and me. The promise is ancient. In Exodus, when Moses was afraid he heard the promise of God saying, “I will be with you.” And it’s there in Isaiah: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. But how are we to respond to such promises? As God promises to be with us, what are we to do in return? Well what would it be for the groom to say his vows and for the bride to remain silent? What would it be for the Elder in a baptism to call on the congregation to promise their faithfulness to a child and for that congregation to be speechless? “And behold, I am with you always, till the end of the age” – the Lord says to us, and in response we must promises ourselves to him – what else could we do? That’s one use of a pledge card. Just as our Lord has promised himself to us, so we must promise ourselves to him. It’s about much more than money, and it always has been. A pledge is a promise that you will commit yourself to the God who has already committed himself to you. Promises. Promises are not always honored by people because sometimes people are just a little too human. To make a promise and to keep a promise – this is a trait of the divine – keeping promises makes us something greater, and so Ruth who made her promise and kept it, she was not forgotten by history though her birthright as a Moabite was to live as second class in ancient Israel. Instead, by the strength of her promise, in the first chapter of Matthew we read that she became the great-grandmother of King David, she is a great name in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. But we shouldn’t be surprised. That’s the power of a promise. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What has passed away

Scripture Lesson: Revelation 21: 1-6 Sermon Title: What has passed away It’s a week like this one, when I really wonder what the world is coming to. This week – according to the World Health Organization, listed right up there at the top of the causes of cancer – is bacon. I say that jokingly, but seriously, sometimes when you read the paper you do face the temptation of wanting to just crawl down into a little hole. What is the world coming to? We look at political debates – and our politicians too often resemble siblings fighting in the back seat of a mini-van rather than role models to be rusted with our country. There’s more violence in the streets, instability among the nations, watching the news makes us witnesses to the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on women who are brutalized, trafficked, and still enslaved to this day. I talk with my grandfather who watches the news as often as he possibly can, and he is pretty sure that things are going to get worse. Now maybe you’re more optimistic, but my grandfather is not alone. Last Wednesday Night after a delicious meal of turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes I led a Bible Study and as a part of this Bible Study I played a few songs that are about as hopeless as Chicken Little who was sure that the sky was falling. The first was a country song called “Time Marches On.” It came out about 20 years ago, and this song tells the story of a nice little family – in the living room the little sister is in her crib, little brother is running around like a native American brave with feathers in his hair, mama is learning how to sow, daddy is relaxing listening to the radio as Hank Williams sings Kaw Liga and Dear John. But Time Marches On you see – so that pretty soon little sister is worried about her appearance and washing her face with clear complexion soap, little brother is dressing like a hippy, dad is nowhere around, mama’s depressed, and if that weren’t bad enough time keeps marching on until daddy’s dead, mama’s in the nursing home, and brother and sister are medicated just trying to hold it together. Now there’s no shortage of depressing country songs but this one takes the cake – and to think – I’ve listened to it so many times I know every word. You listen to a song like that and you can’t help but wonder – what is the world coming to? The song is about like the news – if you think it’s bad now just wait, it can still get worse – or better yet – I once heard a newsman report on the Middle East who said that we can all be sure of this much – it’s going to get worse before it gets worse – country music is pretty sure that’s the case, as is Harry Chapin who wrote “the cat’s in the cradle with the silver spoon,” a song that tells the story of a boy who grows up to be just like his daddy – an absentee father who only works and never has time to be a father. And then there’s even Bruce Springsteen, who is the coolest man to ever live in my opinion, but he also wrote what is a seriously depressing song if you listen to the words: “Glory Days,” convincing generations of rock and roll fans that those High School years are the best years of your life – so enjoy them, because it’s all downhill from there. Some would say that he’s right. Back when I was in high school the Braves were in the World Series, I was fit, had all my hair – now things have changed – what is the world coming to? Well, I’ll tell you what the world is coming to: See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; They will be his peoples, And God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, For the first things have passed away. Don’t let them fool you, the news or the culture. They’ll both tell you that they’re not pessimistic, they’re realistic, but they’re confused about the difference between what is real and what will just pass away. The news is confused. Popular music is confused. But the hymns get it right, and in the words of local poet Jeff Hardin, “the soul belongs to hymns”. Did you hear what we sang this morning? I know you’re so busy singing that you might not have a chance to let those words sink in, but listen to them for a second. In our first hymn we sang verses like this one: The flower of earthly splendor in time must surely die, Its fragile bloom surrender to you, the Lord most high; But hidden from all nature the eternal seed is sown- Though small in mortal stature, to heaven’s garden grown: For Christ, your gift from heaven, from death has set us free, And we through him are given the final victory. Then there was this: Then hear, O gracious savior, accept the love we bring, That we who know your favor may serve you as our King; And whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, We’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still. What is the world coming to? It’s coming to splendor. It’s coming to freedom. It’s coming to victory, but you’re not going to hear too much of that watching the news or even listening to country music – to hear that you have to sing the hymns, you have to read the Scriptures, you have to see the Cross, and to quote Jeff Hardin again, by the testimony of the faithful, those “other truths we entertain turn to fictions.” It’s on a day like today that I realize what this place is, really. This church, it is like the Embassy of another land altogether. This place is the Embassy of the New Jerusalem, because here we know reality. We know what will fall away, and we know just what the world is coming to. Thanks be to God. Amen.