Sunday, December 18, 2016


Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 7: 10-16, Matthew 1: 18-25, NT page 1 Sermon Title: Emmanuel Preached on December 18, 2016 I had to make some changes to my sermon this morning. Just in the last hour or so I was adjusting it, and I had to – at the early service I put three people to sleep. Now one? One is OK, but three is over my limit. You know, I get to go preach at some of the African-American Churches in town. St. Paul’s up the street and Bethel AME kind of by the cemetery and there I know when the sermon is good because I can hear it. Based on what the congregation shouts out to me I know that the sermon is good and that no one is falling asleep. According to an old Fred Craddock story – they’ll let you know if the sermon is bad too. You know that the sermon is bad if the choir starts singing. Dr. Craddock was a guest preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – that’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and after the service he says to his host preacher, “I didn’t know the choir was going to sing during my sermon,” and the host preacher says, “We thought you needed a little help.” This morning at the early service I needed a little a help. Presbyterians don’t shout out if the sermon is good but they do fall asleep if the sermon is bad and 1 is OK but 3 is too many so I changed my sermon. And now maybe some of you are saying – it’s up to the person listening to pay attention, and sometimes that’s true. I had my annual review last month. Each of the Elders reviewed my performance in several different areas. One of those areas was communication, and one elder gave me a 2 out of 3 I think, but left the caveat – “I’m not sure how Joe could ever be completely successful in communicating with us, because so much of the time we just don’t listen.” That’s true – I don’t know how many times I’ve announced that the Christmas Eve service will be at 5:00 but still – I guarantee you, that I will be asked that question from now until next Saturday every time I run into a member of this church in Kroger or anywhere else. But communication – it’s not just that sometimes congregations don’t listen and sometimes preachers are too boring to listen to – it’s that there is a chasm here – a divide. I’m up here in this pulpit and week after week I’m wondering to myself – “How can I help the congregation see how good this Good News is? How can I preach so that the congregation hears?” My job is to take the world of Scripture and to make it accessible, but week after week I struggle because preaching hinges on communication and communication is hard. There’s a divide that must be bridged. And we use words sometimes to bridge the divide – so you can hear and relate to me and so I can hear and relate to you, but that’s a challenge. I’m up here and some of you are way in the back. It’s a difficult gap to bridge. But there are so many difficult gaps to bridge – think about the gap between Washington D.C. and Columbia, Tennessee. General assumption says that those career politicians don’t know us and can’t relate, and how will they ever? Or here’s a bigger one – think about God way up in heaven and us all way down here on earth. Do you know how small we must be from God’s view? Like ants scurrying around the earth – but then we hear this word – Emmanuel – by this name we know that God has bridged the divide for Emmanuel doesn’t mean God way up there. Emmanuel means God with us. I think it’s something like this: In the movie I wrote about this week in an Advent Devotional, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” There’s a Nazi officer is promoted to the office of commandant of a concentration camp in the countryside. He and his family live in a house nearby. The commandant’s son, Bruno, can see the barbed wire fence of the camp from his bedroom window. From there he can also see what he thinks are farmers who are working inside the fence wearing what he assumes are “striped pajamas.” As the family’s home is remote, there are no Arian friends for Bruno to play with. Lonely then, despite his father’s prohibition, Bruno curiously explores what he calls “the farm” and meets a young boy his age wearing those striped pajamas. The two boys become friends. At the end of the movie, Bruno so values his friend that he puts on striped pajamas himself and digs under the barbed wire fence to help his friend find his father. Now there’s a substantial divide – a fence with a free German on one side and an imprisoned Jew on the other, and yet Bruno puts on the clothes of his friend, digs under the fence, becomes on his friend’s kind and the fence is gone. What has God done? The choir just sang: See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below; Lo, within a manger lies He who built the starry skies; Here I am struggling to preach, and with my words, to bridge the gap between you and me – to say something that you can relate to – to say something clearly that has meaning and substance, and yet here I am, a servant of God the who built the starry skies and comes to lie in a manger that the gap between us and him would be no longer. That’s what Emmanuel means – that’s why we sing for him to come – because God understands us – sees us – yet our world is full of division. We can’t understand each other, we struggle to be understood and to understand. There are divisions of culture – there are divisions of race – there are divisions of husbands and wives – liberals and conservatives – Christians and Muslims – we’re all failing to understand each other and how will the distance ever be bridged? Think of Joseph and Mary now – the account from the first chapter of Matthew that we just read begins with Mary’s miraculous pregnancy that Joseph, at first, isn’t sure is so miraculous. He is a kind man, and so he plans to have her dismissed quietly, but when you think about husbands and wives you should wonder how it is that one moment a wedding is being planned and the next moment the punishment for adultery is considered. We are understood one moment – loved one moment – but how often do we come home from work or school – walk in the door and fail to see the person waiting for us? I got to see A Christmas Carol last Sunday. It was at the college – produced and directed by Kate Foreman who so many of you know. The story is all too familiar it’s the one with Ebenezer Scrooge, and by way of the Ghost of Christmas Past we learn that Scrooge’s great ability to ignore the suffering of others – that of the poor and his co-worker Bob Cratchet especially – had its root in this one great moment when he chose his work again and again and the woman he loved finally walked away. She was invisible to him. He ended up in one of those situations where he didn’t really hear her, and as the years went by Dickens describes what he turned into: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Who then was his neighbor? No one now, for time had blinded him to the needs of others – time had even blinded him to the need for love that he himself had. But fortunately for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Joseph in Matthew – a dream came upon them and they changed course. Scrooge could see his neighbor as himself and he saved both himself and Tiny Tim from imminent death. Joseph knew that what Mary had told him was the truth for her claim was verified through the voice of an angel, and before he got to dismissing her quietly as he had planned, he took her as his wife. But what about us? How will we ever hear each other. How will we see each other clearly? How can we recover our sight to see the humanity in the other? How can we see our brother and become friends? How will we ever see that our neighbor really is us, just as we are our neighbor? See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below; See the tender Lamb appears, promised from eternal years; Hail, thou ever blessed morn; Hail, redemption’s happy dawn; Sing through all Jerusalem, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Lo, within a manger lies He who built the starry skies; He who, throned in heights sublime, sits amid the cherubim: Sacred infant, all divine, what a tender love was thine, thus to come from highest bliss own to such a world as this: Teach, O teach us, Holy Child, by thy face so meek and mild, Teach us to resemble thee, in thy sweet humility. In listening – in striving to understand – in valuing the people around us, we are continuing the work that our God began. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

And Mary said

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Luke 1: 46-55, NT page 57 Sermon title: “And Mary said” Preached on 12/11/16 Years ago, I was a camp counselor, and this camp was a church camp, a lot like our NaCoMe over in Centerville, and every week of camp there’d be a preacher who would lead the evening worship service for all the young campers. One week the preacher had a lot to say. He was focused on the Lord’s crucifixion. “Did you know children,” he says, that the Roman soldiers whipped our Lord. They whipped and whipped him within an inch of his life, but it wasn’t the whip that killed him.” “And then, they put this awful crown of thorns on his head so that blood dripped down his face. But children, it wasn’t the crown of thorns that killed him either, because then children, they took these old rusty nails – and they took these big rusty nails and they nailed him through the arm and to this wooden cross, but it wasn’t the rusty nails that killed him children. Do you know what finally killed him children?” And I could hear it. From the back of the group, a boy of 8 or 9 spoke up: “Was it tetanus that killed him?” I love that story. The preacher is trying to make one point, a young boy speaks up to make another, and in that moment one sermon may be ruined but a better sermon takes its place. Isn’t it amazing, that some time when everything goes wrong – it goes exactly right. Some of our favorite Christmas movies know that. Think about Home Alone – everything goes wrong. What could be worse than forgetting your child at home when flying to Europe or wherever they were going. He’s no older than the little boy in my story and he’s left all alone – at Christmas. But why does little McCauley Culkin learn his lesson and value his family? Because they forgot him and left him at home all by himself. Now that wasn’t a well-executed family trip, but something so good came out of it. Think about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No one hopes to have their tree stolen by a broken-hearted man covered in green fur, but when the Who’s down in Whoville find that everything is gone on Christmas morning – they sing. And then there’s our favorite, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold works and works and works to enhance everyone’s Christmas cheer, but nothing goes right – the turkey is dry, one lady wraps up her cat as a present, Snot the dog gags under the table, and Cousin Eddie empties the you know what in the storm drain – for despite all our hard work it appears as though all we’re going to get some years is a subscription to Jelly of the Month. But look to Mary. Do you think she planned to be an unwed teenage mother on Christmas? The subject of whisper and rumor – a stress on her poor mother and a shame on her father – did anything go according to how she envisioned it? No. But still she sings, because Christmas isn’t about her plans. This is about God’s – and rather than sing a sad lamentation Mary rejoices for she knows that sometimes God makes a mockery of our best laid plans to give a gift that’s even better. That’s why some remember best the Christmas when they received the least. That’s why we love most the Christmas card where the kids are looking everywhere but at the camera and mom is about to lose it and dad can’t stop laughing. And that’s why Mary sings how God will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, because Christmas isn’t about throwing the perfect party or cooking the perfect dish or giving the perfect gift – it’s about a Perfect God coming to dwell with an imperfect people and the proud are too busy working towards perfection to see it. Sometimes, when everything went wrong – that’s when it came out exactly right and Mary can see it. But can you? We tell our kids to be good, which is good. We work hard to get a nice picture for our Christmas card, and that’s important. Then we clean the house because guests are coming, and there’s food to cook and presents to wrap, and there’s just a lot of work to do because this time of year needs to be perfect. Right? If only we could be. That first story about the preacher at summer camp reminds me of myself now. Last June I was up there with you at NaCoMe and I was preaching about how we must be mindful of how God is at work in the interruptions – when right then someone’s car alarm went off interrupting my sermon. A friend asked me if I had planned it that way, but the truth is I was so frustrated that I proved my own point – sometimes we are so dedicated to how things are supposed to go that we fail to see God at work right there in front of us. Christmas is about a gift that we receive, not one that we bought or made or planned for – so don’t work so hard this time of year for Christmas is about celebrating what God has done, is doing, and will do. He has shown strength in his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, And lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Watch and listen, for God is at work. Be strong and do not fear, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

One more powerful than I

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Matthew 3: 1-12 Sermon Title: One more powerful than I Preached on December 4, 2016 There’s a great video on our church’s Facebook page. I referred to it in an Advent Devotional that was emailed to you last Friday as a part of the Christian Education Committee’s Advent Calendar. The video is of a group of little kids telling the Christmas story in their own words and one of my favorite parts of this video is their account of the Three Kings who came bearing gifts. According to these kids the Three Kings brought the baby Jesus a stuffed hippo, diapers, wipes, milk, shoes, and Frankenstein. I assume that Frankenstein is supposed to be frankincense, but it might be that bringing a toy Frankenstein, a box of diapers, and some milk just makes more sense to little kids. Sometimes when kids tell the story as they remember it, it’s easy to see the parts that they really get and the parts that they’re still a little confused about, so in hearing the kids in this video tell the Christmas story it was easy for me to see that there are some elements to our celebration of Jesus birth that need a little clarifying. Why did the Three Kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh? For the answer to that question you’ll have to go read the advent devotional we sent out last Friday, but there are so many other “why” questions to answer: Why do we give gifts at Christmas? Why do we put stockings on the mantel? Why does grandma HAVE to make her macaroni and cheese? Why are there chunks in the gravy? Why do we have a Christmas tree? That last one is my favorite. We bought our Christmas Tree from the Satterwhite’s last weekend and it is a little strange if you stop to think about it. I don’t remember ever asking my parents why we brought a live tree into the house at Christmas, but since I was young in those days before a parent could search the internet for an answer on his phone I can imagine that my father would have told me that we put up a Christmas tree “because we always have” or because “I said so that’s why,” and I wouldn’t blame him had that been my father’s answer because now I know that the question of “why” when you don’t have a clue can be so frustrating you just want the questions to stop. But kids want to know, especially when it’s strange. Can you imagine what it would be like if you weren’t expecting it – one day your dad drags into the living room a pine tree. If you had never seen it before, and your mom had always made you wipe your feet or take off your shoes before coming into the house – if she’d checked your pockets at the door for frogs and spiders – or worse yet, if your mom made you take off your mud covered blue jeans before coming into her freshly vacuumed living room then you’d probably wonder why she wasn’t yelling at your father who is suddenly dragging into the house a whole tree. But plenty of things happen – year after year - without question. Why do Presbyterians clap at plays and concerts but never at church? In the Lord’s Prayer, why do Methodists say “trespasses” but Presbyterians say “debts”? (Because we’re right, that’s why.) I could tell you the answer to both these questions, but there are about a million that I’ve been asked here lately that I have no idea about: Why, when we go out to eat, do we always eat Mexican? Why do some people smoke cigarettes? Why doesn’t Melvin have a home? Why do only light skinned people go to church with us? I don’t know – and – unfortunately, even Google can’t answer those questions, so that should make me wonder if maybe some of these things could change. John the Baptist was all about change – and his message was so profound, so attractive, that even though he was preaching out in a desert away from the city people streamed out to him. They couldn’t help it and here was his message in a nutshell – “Repent.” Another way to say it, maybe the way John would have said it if he were with us here today – “turn around, change course, think about what you’re doing and do something different.” His word hit people right between the eyes knocking them out of their ruts – you don’t have to be the way you are – you can change – you can repent – your old self can be washed away and you can be made new and now is the time to do it. Now that’s a profound message for some people, especially people who have given up the discipline of asking why. My sister in-law has a bumper sticker: “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?” John the Baptist would say, “I’m glad you’re finally asking yourself that question, and if you want to make a change now is the time.” We ask a lot of questions like that: Why am I stuck in this rut? Why am I always so angry? Why am I tiered, why am I hurting, why don’t things get better for me? The profound nature of John’s message is this: you can change right now; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” When the people of Jerusalem and Judea heard this good news, they went out to him and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But – then the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up. “Why didn’t they like John,” you might ask. I believe it’s because they are like the parents who don’t like children who ask too many questions and hate worst of all the question “why.” If you would have asked any one of them why we put up Christmas trees they all would have told you, “Because our ancestor Abraham told us to, that’s why.” If you would have asked them why we must rest on the Sabbath, they would have told you the same. Why we observe the Laws, even the ones that are a burden to observe, they would have told you that “it’s because we’ve always done it this way, that’s why,” and here’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism – traditions are good, but to keep on doing the same thing without asking the question “why” – that’s dangerous, for following ruts for too long may lead to places we’d be better off not to go. My grandmother always had Christmas at her house – always. And, she always put up two trees, a fake green one in the formal living room and a fake silver one in the room with the pool table. We’d be shooting pool in there and you had to maneuver around the fake silver tree – and if my dad was losing he’d blame the tree. “Why does she have to put the tree in here anyway!” My grandfather would respond, “George, I stopped asking my wife to explain herself a long time ago.” She’d make macaroni and cheese for me. Creamed corn for my sister. Dressing for my mother. A ham for my grandfather. In addition to that we’d have potato salad, turkey, fruit salad, cranberry sauce – and every year she’d say that cooking all that was getting to be too much but we wouldn’t hear of it because having all that food was tradition, so she’d come home from working at the hospital in the maternity ward on Christmas morning and she’d cook and cook and cook. Why? I don’t know. And it took a long time before anyone asked that question. Don’t we go on letting people do things that aren’t good for them just because they always have? Don’t we go on doing things that aren’t good for us just because we always have? Had someone asked why we were all sitting back while my grandmother cooked after working all night at the hospital maybe then something would have changed, but we don’t always ask “why.” Some traditions we follow, even though we forgot why we do, but more importantly, some patterns we follow without question, even though people are hurt by them. Like records stuck in a groove we just go around and round, year after year, with the same traditions or the same bad habits, the same negative thoughts, a litany of regrets or hurtful patterns that we ride like a merry-go-round having forgotten that we can get off. So, hear John’s word again – “Repent!” and start the process of change that this word calls for by asking the question “why.” Why do our kids recognize the McDonald’s sign before they even learn to read? Because we rush from meeting to meeting and appointment to appointment and think that we can’t do anything but pick up something from the drive-through for dinner, but we can. We can change – repent. We make fun of the guy who was the high school quarterback and never got over it. At the 25-year reunion, he’s still in his jersey because he’s still the high school quarterback all these years later, but it’s amazing what we all have gotten so used to. Something as stressful as an hour commute becomes normal. Coming home frustrated and starting an argument with our spouse becomes routine. We give up on being happy because being unhappy is what we’ve had for so long. But the Kingdom of God draws near. Now is the time to repent. We don’t have to give up on being better. We don’t have to settle into mediocre. The Prophet Isaiah promised a day when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” but so many of us forgot to dream that big – we just hoped to get through Thanksgiving dinner without it breaking out into World War III. And speaking of dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for equality and we made it so far but did you hear what someone put on the door of the West End United Methodist Church? Did you hear what they’ve been saying to conservative journalist David French and his daughter? It’s so easy to get frustrated by political correctness, but some of this stuff just has to end. As a society, we can be better. Repent. Repent. Sin is real, but so is forgiveness, and you can still choose a different life from the one that you have – that’s the message of John the Baptist – so before you end up trapped in a pattern stop and ask “why.” It’s good to ask “why” – and when you do, if you don’t come up with a good answer to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing – then repent. But now let me get back to the Christmas Tree question. If you Google, “Why do Christians have Christmas Trees” you’ll come across all kinds of articles about pagan rituals celebrating the hope of Spring in the middle of winter, but you might also come across this wonderful legend that tells the story of how on the day of Christ’s birth all the trees of the earth celebrated with a flash of spring. The evergreens of the north shook off the snow from their branches and put forth shoots of new growth because something different had entered the world and his call to new life was heard even by the trees. Now, I hope you’ll ask yourself as I’ve asked myself, “If a tree can shake off the snow from its branches, why can’t I get this chip off my shoulder?” “If a tree can put forth shoots of new growth in the middle of winter, why can’t I change the way I talk to my wife and kids?” If a tree can be made new, why can’t I? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” preached John the Baptist quoting the prophet Isaiah, for “one who is more powerful than I is coming.” “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” He brings new life into the world, and to prepare for him, we need to get busy letting go of the ways of death we’ve grown so used to. Repent – repent – repent. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

In the light of the Lord

Scripture Lessons: Romans 13: 11-14 and Isaiah 2: 1-5, OT pages 631-632 Sermon Title: In the light of the Lord Preached on 11/27/16 Today is the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t grow up thinking much about Advent. We didn’t go to a church where we paid too much attention to it, or else we didn’t go to church regularly enough to pick up on it, but Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation not unlike Lent, the season leading up to Easter. Our church takes Advent seriously, and there are many things that you can do to celebrate this time of preparation. The Christian Education Committee provided Advent Devotionals with Scripture Lessons and prayers for each day of this season. Thanks to a great idea of Dawn Taylor, the Christian Education Committee also put together a special Advent Calendar, each day of Advent offering its own spiritual discipline – a charge to pray for someone or to do a good deed. These in addition to the liturgy of lighting the Advent Candle, Susie Baxter putting up the Chrismon Tree, Bitty Crozier and Martha Jones decorating the sanctuary – we do all this to make sure you know a baby will be born and we must get ready. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is all about preparation. Someone is coming. Someone is coming who will change everything and in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, to prepare for the coming savior means preparing to be taught: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all nations shall steam to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways.” Isaiah is clear – they go to the mountain to be taught. Twice in this Second Scripture Lesson for the First Sunday in Advent the Prophet tells us that the Savior who is coming has something to teach us. We read there in verse 3, “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction.” Now, if Advent is about preparation then how should we prepare for a coming savior who has a Word to give us, who has a lesson for us to learn? How should we prepare for the coming of a teaching savior? For I wonder, how teachable am I? I remember it like it was yesterday. I was in 7th grade pre-Algebra. I was never much of a math student. My father who has his masters in mathematics failed to pass on to me any of those genes and in the words of my childhood friend Mickey Buchanan, “Math got really hard when they mixed in the alphabet.” Algebra was hard, so I expected the worksheet our teacher handed out to us as we entered class one morning to be difficult, so I sat down and diligently began working like all my classmates did. I went from problem to problem all the way to the end and thought I had done alright, but then the teacher wrote the answers on the board and I got every single question wrong. That was a new low, and the teacher seemed to be able to read my face and the faces of my classmates. She asked, “did anyone answer these questions correctly?” Only one girl raised her hand, so the teacher said, “As for the rest of you, go back and read the directions,” and there, right at the top of the page it clearly stated, “add 10 to your answers.” “Never start an assignment without reading the directions first,” she told us, but how often do I still go through life unteachable because I don’t read the directions, I don’t heed advice, I don’t ask questions – at least not until I’ve tried and failed on my own, then tried and failed on my own again. Is that part of the human condition, I wonder. Paul seemed to think that it was. In our First Scripture Lesson from the book of Romans the Apostle Paul calls us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which we all treat as a good suggestion, but as for most people – they’re going to keep on with the works of darkness until they hit rock bottom. In the words of that great preacher William Sloan Coffin, “We put our best foot forward, but it’s the other one that needs the attention,” for we are full of good intentions but we still have a foot stuck in “I’ll do it my way.” We have intentions to be better and to do better but so often we stay put in ignorance until we have no other option. The coming savior brings us eternal life, but we won’t receive it unless we’re ready to listen. You know that great quote from biochemist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’” but to fit this thought into our Christian framework might mean to change it to something like, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” It’s not just human ignorance verses human knowledge, but what is human knowledge even? John Calvin, the man who in 1559 wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion and laid the theological framework of the Presbyterian Church, begins his two-volume work by clearly stating that anything we humans know that is worth knowing is a gift from God – and – that our ignorance should lead us directly to Him. Listen to this: “For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself… The miserable ruin, into which the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility… Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Now understanding that takes some work. That Calvin knows some things, but what every seminary student must do is pick up his book and start studying, and not all do. “Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God.” Or, to put it another way, each of us must stare into the face of a worksheet where we have answered every question incorrectly if we are ever to start reading the instructions at the top of the page. Each of us must hit rock bottom before we’ll give up on the works of darkness that drag us down. Each of us suffer in our own ignorance or our own wisdom – we must go on believing that we know it all until we are struck down by our own arrogance – and then, and then we are compelled to “look upward.” That’s why the Israelites had to wander in the desert – so they would learn to trust not in their own strength. That’s why we read in the Proverbs – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” That’s why, Jacob had to be defeated by God as they wrestled on the bank of the Jabook – to learn we must first surrender – because in Christianity those who want to gain life must first lose it; and to be wise, to be taught; in order to learn we must stop thinking that we already know. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but our world doesn’t The world tells us that if someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to just answer the question you wish they would have asked. The world tells us that it’s not the one with the right answer, it’s the one who talks over everybody else. The world tells us that might makes right, but it doesn’t. Might makes war and war means death and the Prophet promises a future where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; where “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” And how? How will this be? Because “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” My question for you on this First Sunday of Advent is: “Are you teachable?” For the Lord has wisdom to offer. The Lord who is coming has enlightenment, a new way to live, and to prepare for his birth we first must humble ourselves enough so that we can be taught. I first started learning what it means to be a preacher as a guest at a small church outside Jacksonville, Florida. I finished the sermon and was standing at the door. A man came up to me and said, “So you’re a seminary student are you.” “Yes, sir I am. In my third year,” I said. He responded: “Well they should have taught you something better than that by now.” How many times have I felt that same feeling looking out on a congregation of blank looks? It makes me wonder if failure is my destiny or if boring congregations is just my calling. It’s not. But to move, that best foot forward must be followed by the foot that is stuck in arrogance. That best foot forward has to be followed by a humble heart ready to listen to something new. That best foot forward must be free of the temptation to do it my way or the highway for my way and the highway both lead to death. Life is so full of changes, and the way we’ve always done it won’t always work. Thanksgiving looks different after someone we love is gone. Life keeps on changing and we all must keep learning and trying and following the one who leads to new life, because only he can lead us to those places we’ve never been before. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us be ready to listen, let us be ready give up on arrogance, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

In him and through him

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 23: 1-6 and Colossians 1: 11-20, NT page 200 Sermon Title: In him and through him Preached on November 20, 2016 There is traffic in Columbia, TN. People have places to go, and they need to get there quickly and they’re usually running late. A couple weeks ago, I saw a man brushing his teeth while sitting in traffic. That’s strange isn’t it. But people do strange things while they’re sitting in traffic. Some people honk their horn, most people get irritated because they have places to go and things to do, but here’s the thing that I’m thankful for: people in Columbia still stop for funeral processions. Sometimes it’s hard to stop. People have places to go, and they need to get there quickly, and they’re usually running late and it seems like getting there is a matter of life and death, but then we see the lights of the sheriff or the police officer, then the hearse and our priorities shift. Suddenly, the meeting isn’t so important. Everything stops as we show our respect to the wife, the mother, the husband, the son, who is looking straight into the eyes of the real matter of life and death. Stopping for a funeral procession can be a moment where no matter how important we think the meeting or the errands or the appointment is, when we stop we see clearly again. The priorities shift. And the meeting that we were rushing to gets back to its proper place in the grand scheme of things, because you’ll have the chance to be on time again tomorrow, but for someone there will not be a tomorrow, at least not on this side of mortality. Coming to church should do the same thing. Six days of being busy. Six days of thinking about ourselves and what we must do and what we need and who all needs us, and then the clock strikes 10:30 and we stop. We stop to look up from whatever it was that seemed so important to focus on the giver and redeemer of life. Six days of focus on the world and this one hour to focus on the one who created it and the one who will take us from this world into the next. It’s in a moment like this that we see clearly. The priorities shift back to where they should be – with God right here and everything else below, but here’s the problem, while everyone in Columbia still stops for funeral processions, not everyone stops at 10:30. Not everyone stops to see the world clearly through the lens of hope that our Lord provides, so they go on looking through the lens of fear and anxiety. Not everyone stops so that their priorities settle back into the order they should, so they go on chasing after momentary contentment, they go on defining themselves by physical beauty or wealth or popularity. They go on dedicating themselves completely to their jobs, they go on rushing through life and wondering why they feel so empty. We were studying the book of Proverbs last Thursday and one in the group lifted up Proverbs 16: 25 – “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.” Not everyone stops to think about the way that seems to be right. Few stop to question the rat race because everyone else is doing it. Not everyone stops so that their priorities shift back to the order they should with God at the top, then family, then community; maybe most people think it’s normal to keep yourself right there at the top, so I’m thankful to Diane Messick who reminded us of a moment on the show Mama’s Family when a young man proclaimed: “I get to know God just fine from the comfort of my bed on Sunday morning. I don’t need the church to get through life.” Mama responded: “Well, you don’t need a parachute to jump out of an airplane either.” Today is an important day, and I’m glad that you’re here so that together we can stop, let our priorities shift back into the order that they should always have, and remember that we have been waiting for so long to hear who our president is going to be that we may have forgotten that we already have a King. Today is Christ the King Sunday, so this hour in the great scheme of things has great significance, for here comes from Scripture the reminder that among all the failed shepherds who have promised us the world while leading us nowhere, the Creator God raised up for us a righteous branch, the firstborn of all creation, and in him all things in heaven and on earth were created and in him all things hold together. Today is the day for us to pull over to the side of this busy life full of anxiety and false hope to recognize that we have a savior, and in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins – but the world doesn’t stop you see, so some just keep on driving, and they are like those who drive by the funeral procession unable to recognize that something important is happening. You see, he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but while some bow before him, others just keep on driving. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, but while some marvel at him, there are others who don’t have time to stop. And he has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, but some of us just keep on driving as though nothing new has happened. But to be rescued – that’s worth stopping the car, for to be rescued by him means something, it declares something about who you are and who I am. According to the author of Colossians, the Lord “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” What this would have meant in ancient times is that he has captured us, invaded our territory and taken us to a different place as though we were his captives. To be transferred into a different kingdom is something like what happened to the nation of Israel when Babylon invaded and took so many of the people to live in exile, but here it is Christ who has invaded the world, concurred it, and has taken us as his captives into a new kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven – and here we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Here we are not subject to the powers of sin and death. Here all things visible: thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers – they are subject to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but too often we still bow before them. Sometimes we look to them for legitimacy. We celebrate the great movements for equal rights. We recognize the significance of the moment when an African-American became President of the United States of America because that meant something, but we must be careful about what it meant, for some hoped also that the glass ceiling would shatter and Hilary Clinton would become president sending a message to little girls everywhere that they can do anything that boys can do. When that didn’t happen, I was sad for my daughters, until Cece told me that when she grows up she is going to be a panda bear. I was sad until I found the words to a song that Lily wrote and left on the piano so she could compose the music to go with these words: “I can be anything when I grow up, like a teacher or a police officer. I will be great at it when I grow up.” Some have to see to believe – but truly, who can define what my children or your children will be? Who gets to decide who they are? Only the one who created them. Only the one who redeemed them. Only the one who concurred this earth and claims them as his own. Of course, not everyone values as Jesus values. There are many false shepherds in this world but not be deceived even for an instant. Stop. Pull over and let the truth wash over you. Let the messages of the world fall away and hear the truth – you matter because our savior has said you do. Forget what the false shepherds have said - You matter because the King, not only said you were worth dying for, he died so that you would know your worth in his eyes. “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” so don’t let them fool you for an instant – you matter because the King said so, and woe to the shepherds who say otherwise. Woe to those who would scatter the sheep of God’s pasture, for our Lord will attend to them for their evil doings, but you will be gathered back to the fold. You shall not fear any longer or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Beware the you are not led astray

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Luke 21: 5-19, NT page 85 Sermon Title: Beware that you are not led astray Preached on 11/13/16 “Beware that you are not led astray” is the title I gave to this sermon, and I chose that phrase Jesus uses in our Second Scripture Lesson for the title because I believe that we often are led astray even though he tells us not to be. We, as a people, are led astray all the time. Often people are dishonest with us about the cost or the time required. There were people downtown, Christians I assume, standing beside a sign, handing out pamphlets, and saying to the men and women who walk by, “Sir, can I have just a minute of your time?” If you had somewhere to be you were wise to have kept walking. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says, because Christianity is going to take up more than just a minute of your time. In fact, the cost is high for what is required is your life – so we sing “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee,” but that’s a hard sell. We don’t like things that are hard – we want things to be easy, and that’s why the computerized receptionist says that “someone will be with you shortly” in the hopes that you won’t give up, but “beware that you are not led astray” for many things in this life take time, and if you are expecting immediate results, if you are expecting the easy way, then when things get hard those who offered us less than full disclosure did us a true disservice. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says, because some things are hard. Some things take time. Marriage for one. Sara and I had been married for just a few months. We were living in a one bedroom apartment without air conditioning in Atlanta. Every morning I woke up at 6:00 AM so that I could get to work cutting grass by 7:00. Sara would wake up about the time I was leaving and would drive from Atlanta to Alpharetta in 45 minutes to an hour of bumper to bumper traffic. We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have enough time. We’d come home from work tiered. The traffic was so stressful that Sara developed an ulcer, and when I heard a man say that the first year of marriage is the hardest I was so relieved I couldn’t stand it. Of course, I look back on those days now longingly. Times were simple and we were happy. There was joy in our little apartment and there was love, but all those who expect marriage to be easy will wind up disappointed so “Beware that you are not led astray,” for some things are meant to be hard. Raising children is hard. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun, but if you go into parenthood thinking that life will be about the same as it has always been than be warned now for a child is like a wrecking ball – sweeping aside things like sleeping late so that looking forward to Day Light Savings Time is a luxury never to be looked forward to again. A child does the same thing to the idea of a spotless living room – if you imagine that you’ll be able to keep your living room spotless with a toddler in the house than you have been led astray because children change everything, and those who aren’t prepared for a radical shift of priorities and lifestyle will be sorely disappointed. You know what else is hard that people think is going to be easy? Democracy. Democracy is hard, but we treat it like it’s easy. Half of us voted last week. Literally half of this country voted, the other half couldn’t make it, and what’s more is that out of the half of us who went to vote are so many people who go to vote and that’s it. We cast our vote and then we go home believing that we’ve satisfied our duty to our country and then sit back to watch and criticize and judge the people who have been elected. To any who believe that democracy is easy I say, “beware that you are not led astray,” for Scripture calls us to pray for our leaders and that is going to be hard for some, but anyone who said democracy was going to be easy was leading us astray. In the introduction to his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas tells the story of the summer of 1787, when inside Independence Hall over the course of about one hundred days “some of the most brilliant men of that or any other era created what would become the Constitution of a new country.” “We the people,” this document began, but “what is required of us – of each one of us who are “we the people,” is something that we have mostly forgotten Metaxas claims. He tells the story, one I had never heard before, recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, who was, at the age of 34, one of the youngest men at the convention. McHenry wrote that as Benjamin Franklin emerged from Independence Hall once the Constitution had been finished a young woman named Mrs. Powell shouted out to him, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin, a man who was rarely short on words shouted back to her, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” I hope that no one did, but if you’ve been told that democracy is easy, that it is normal or typical or that you are entitled to it, you have been led astray, for democracy is a system of government that requires you to fight if we are to keep it. Now finally, there’s Christianity. And I hope no one ever told you that Christianity would be easy, but some people do, some people smooth out the edges and water down the commitment. Just four easy payments of 29.95 they say, but truly, nothing that is worth having comes easy and our Lord Jesus Christ is no Tupperware salesmen and what he’s hawking is not something that can be used once and then stowed away in a drawer – our Lord is offering us the bread of life, the living water so that we will never go thirsty, but “Beware that you are not led astray” because this is going to be hard. The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and “The time is near!” When you hear of wars and insurrection, do not be terrified. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues. Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. They will arrest you and persecute you. They will hand you over and you will be brought before kings and governors – and “Beware that you are not led astray” because you can never say that Jesus told us that Christianity was going to be easy. And when life gets hard – that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It felt good to write that down last Friday morning. It feels good to say it to you now so I’ll say it again: “When life gets hard – that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.” I think it feels good to me to say that and to hear that because I always assume that I could have done something to prevent hardship. I have a list of regrets so long that it’s amazing. Every morning my liturgy to start the day is this long list of I should haves and I wish I would have – if only I had been better or smarter or stronger or kinder than life would be easy, which is how I assume it should be. When I was in 9th grade I got hit in the face by Jason Muhmaw – and he’s not a major figure in my life. I just barely knew the guy but I think about him about once a week and how I wish I would have done something besides the nothing that I did. Regrets. I have a few. And they go through my mind again and again. I’m still living out my mistakes and imagining a different future where things would turn out better because life is not easy and so often I assume that’s because I have done something wrong. What could I have done? What could I have said? What could I have not said? If only I could do it all again – I already have my speeches planned so just as soon as someone invents a time machine I’ll go back to fix things, but Jesus tells us, “make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” That’s what he tells us, only, what then am I to do with the speech that I’ve prepared? I hope you can tell this is a political sermon I’m preaching today. Right now, the Democrats are mulling over past decisions to figure out what went wrong and preparing speeches to make sure that things go differently next time, but Jesus commands something more faithful than regret. First he reminds us that life is hard and is full of tragedy, but our response to such tragedy cannot always be formulating better words or better actions, for we are not in charge here. We are powerful enough to change the channel, but the whole world does not rest in our hands. We are powerful enough to change the baby’s diaper, but from us does not come the breath of life. And we may have a part to play in this great cosmic drama called human history – but it is God who moves the earth to change summer to fall and fall to winter. It is God who melts hearts made of stone. It is God who gives life and makes a way out of no way at all. So, stop preparing your defense in advance, for if you go to your friends with a speech in your hands you can’t hear what your friend has to say. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to rest in the assurance that Jesus never said this would be easy, in fact he told us all that it would be hard for where he leads is to the cross. Make up your mind not to prepare your words or your actions in advance, for our Lord is at work today – and rather than preparing speeches or regretting actions now is the time to put our trust in him and what he has promised he would do. Hear again these words from the Prophet Isaiah: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Stand at my watchpost

Scripture Lessons: Luke 19: 1-10 and Habakkuk 1: 1-4 and 2: 1-4, OT pages 871-872 Sermon Title: Stand at my watchpost Preached on October 30, 2016 This is a sermon about views, and I wish everyone could see the view from my office window. My office window looks out on our church parking lot, so from my desk, as I face my computer, I can see the library and just the tops of the dream forest sculptures, also known by some as Presbyterian Stonehenge, but the thing that I wish everyone could see at least once is a day in the life of Melvin Taylor. Melvin sits in our parking lot. He’s out there this morning as he always is unless it’s too cold, and the reason that I wish you could look out my window is that watching Melvin for a day changes how you see the world. Last Friday morning Renea unloaded his groceries from Piggly Wiggly. After lunch Bill brought over hot dogs and hamburgers. On Sunday’s Frank brings him lunch from Captain D’s. Last Monday three people stopped that I saw – the Bugout man stopped just to talk a while, two guys in overalls in a yellow truck brought him a two liter of coke, and Renea brought him a meatloaf sandwich. On Tuesday James brought him his coffee and his pills. On Wednesday morning, I unloaded his order from Walmart, and on Wednesday evening Bill brought him a plate from our fellowship meal. Then on Thursday, if you could see out of my window, you might have seen Marcy challenging him to stand with his walker or a man drop off a coat or a woman hand him a blanket. Last Christmas a man brought by gift wrapped up in paper – it was a DVD player, and on his birthday, our parking lot was full of people with cake and ice cream and balloons. You see, I got to watch as Joan helped him with his checks, as Judy brought him water to bathe, as Joe Graham stopped to talk about the weather and the Bible and the news. I see cars honk and Melvin waves. Little kids wish him “Good morning” and the lady who walks around the block every day – if he’s not out by the time she walks by she knocks on his door to make sure he’s alright. I get to see all that because that’s the view from my office, which is different from the view from my living room where I look out on the world through the evening news. What is the view like from where you are? Our 2nd Scripture Lesson begins with the prophet’s lament: Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So, the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” Of course, I’ve seen that, and I know you have too. Murder, theft, and corruption. Drugs, guns, and violence against women and children. Racism, war, anger, disrespect. And it’s all right out there, and maybe you like the prophet are asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” But then the prophet goes to his watchpost. He stationed himself on the rampart. “I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint,” and when the prophet goes up to the watchpost to take in the view, he sees not only the suffering of the innocent and the injustice of the world but that “the righteous live by their faith.” That’s what I get to see. And I get to see it every day. A box of tissues is on my desk as the righteous brush away tears to testify to the mighty power of God. And did you hear that we have a pig? Because a member of the Presbyterian Church in Lynnville gave to God what he had and the preacher there called me and I called Will Satterwhite and now we have a pig. Or did you know that we prayed for healing as a church and the healing came – or that an unemployed woman was ready to give up looking until we prayed for a job and the very next interview – they gave her a job on the spot. Did you know that on my phone is a voice mail from a woman named Tracy who called to say that she got to move in to a new house with her son, and that as she thanked our church for the assistance that we gave she just barely got the words out through her tears, “We now have a place that we can call home.” Some people pray for faith enough that they can believe – but if you could just see what I get to see from the view of my office you would know. And it’s not that I don’t see the suffering, because I do. I see that too, but from my office window I see that in the sea of suffering and injustice and death and broken hearts the righteous are still living by faith. And that kind of perspective changes things, for the same world looks so different depending on your view. It’s something like the difference between how your mother saw you and how your grandmother saw you – the you is the same, but the view is so different. Danny Rosenblitz lived next door to me when I was very young and I was always jealous because he lived on the second floor with his parents but his grandparents lived on the first floor, so whenever he got in trouble with his mother all he had to do was run downstairs. Zacchaeus is kind of like that too. Only he had to climb up. In our First Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Luke we heard that great story of the tax collector Zacchaeus. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, so he climbed up that sycamore tree to see him. He adjusted his view – but what’s so important in this story is not just that Zacchaeus saw Jesus from up there – once he got up there Jesus saw him. And its Jesus’ view that really changes things you know, because he doesn’t see the way the world sees – and he doesn’t see us the way the world sees us. A tax collector was what the world saw – but what did Jesus see? His host for dinner. The world looked at him and saw someone who was lost and who should be forgotten, but the Lord looked on him up in that tree and saw a man who might have lost his way but all he needed was for the Father to call him back home. Now this place – this church – this faith of ours, it has a lot to do with shaping our view of the world. It has a lot do with shaping our view of life and death. But more than that, this place, this church, this faith of ours proclaims that while the world may look on us and see one thing, our Lord sees from his view something different. So, Zacchaeus, he climbs up that tree just like the prophet Habakkuk climbed up to his watchpost, and from his view he got a good look and lo and behold, here comes hope incarnate walking up the road. And Hope looks up at him and he says, “Hey there, I need you. I need you to feed me dinner tonight, but then I need you to show the world that even tax collectors can change.” Not only does Jesus see Zacchaeus, Jesus invites him to be a part of the change that he brings into the world. He invites us to fight the shadow with him. To sing a song of praise to God in a world of broken promises and half dead dreams. Jesus came into the world and he’s not just faithfulness in a sea of disappointment – he invites you and I to be a part of it. A part of the difference. A part of the change. A part of the hope. And I want you to know that I want in, because I want to be a part of what our Lord is doing. I want to be a part of the work that our church is doing and has been doing for over 200 years. And I want you to be a part of it as well. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

If I only had

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 3: 1-9 and Luke 18: 9-14, NT page 81 Sermon title: If I only had Preached on October 23, 2016 Last Thursday the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee held a meeting at the Donelson Presbyterian Church in Nashville. Jeff Smith, Carolyn Fisher, and I were in attendance representing our congregation, along with representatives from most other Presbyterian Churches in Middle Tennessee, and as is often the case at these meetings – a retiring pastor was recognized. Dr. John Crawford served several Presbyterian churches throughout his career and as members of those churches as well as his colleagues stood to mention his various accomplishments, a former Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church Nashville rose to share Dr. Crawford’s role in one of that church’s most legendary events. Several years ago, he told us, the staff of First Presbyterian Church were meeting in a board room overlooking the church’s vast tree lined property on Franklin Road. Dr. Crawford was leading the meeting, but he was interrupted by a member of the church who told them that one of those “natural people” was outside on the front lawn. The staff all stood and went to the widow to see what this church member was talking about, and they quickly realized that “natural” didn’t adequately describe this woman, for once they spotted her this “natural person’ was in truth a nude sunbather. Well, the sunbather stood and moved her blanket to a different place on the church front lawn and the staff shuffled over to the next window to get a better look. The woman moved again, and the church staff moved also not able to believe what was right before their eyes and having no idea what to do. Upon realizing that parents would soon be arriving to pick up their children from the church’s preschool, Dr. Crawford found a rain coat, went out to the woman and very compassionately helped her cover up and find a ride home – and the point I want to make with this story is that rarely do people make themselves so comfortable at a church. The church is a place to be put together, is it not? We come here wanting to look and be our best, for here we stand before our God to sing our praise and give our respect. Rev. and Mrs. Blythe, a couple who regularly visit our church now that Rev. Blythe has retired from his ministry in the Assembly of God tradition, have complimented us for our reverence in worship, and I take pride in that. I value the respect that we pay this room that we call “sanctuary” and the respect that we pay our Lord Jesus who we are bold to call King of Kings, but we must not become so dignified that we stop being honest about who we are. So, on the one hand I think of that “natural person” who paid a visit to First Presbyterian Church up in Nashville and on the other I think of Adam and Eve. Our first Scripture Lesson came from the book of Genesis, and you know this story well. Adam and Eve have broken the one law that God told them not to break. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” God said. But the serpent spoke to Eve, Eve spoke to Adam, and after eating the forbidden fruit – after eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze and Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. They were hiding there when the Lord called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” Where are you? Isn’t it an awful thing to hide from God? And the problem with hiding is that hiding prevents relationship and the more you hide the less relationship you have because the more you hide the less you can be known. We enter this sanctuary and we show reverence, we dress well to show respect, but there is a thin line between showing reverence, dressing well, minding manners to show our respect and doing these things to pretend that we are people who we are not. Adam and Eve don’t want to face God – they don’t want to get in trouble – they don’t want to be punished – they don’t want to disappoint God, so they hide themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden and what they don’t realize – what people who hide never realize – is that more damage is done with the hiding than the confession. I was 10 or 11, building a campfire in the backyard with my neighborhood friends, something my mother had explicitly told me not to do but that I was doing anyway – so when I heard her car pull into the driveway I smothered the fire, scattered the evidence and ran out to the driveway with a nice big fake smile on my face, “Hello Mom!” I say. “What are you up to this afternoon Joe Evans?” she asked me, “You weren’t building a fire back there were you?” I told her that I was just hanging out with my friends in the backyard, and “no, no fire Mom. You told me not to do that,” I say despite the smell of smell of smoke on my clothes and the mark of ashes on my hands. My Mom had a friend in the car that afternoon who looked at her as soon as I turned and walked away to say, “he’s lying through his teeth Cathy.” And it was later that evening, when I finally confessed to the truth, that my mom told me how she was disappointed that I had disobeyed her but that I would be grounded for 3 weeks because I had lied. How can you build a relationship, a relationship based on trust, if you hide the truth? If you stop being who you are and start hiding your true self under a mask of you want to be. And people hide like this all the time. Adam and Eve literally hid among the trees of the garden but there are so many others who hide the truth – the truth of who they are - right in plain sight. In our Second Scripture lesson, there were two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The funny thing about this parable is that Jesus makes this man out to be the bad example, though every preacher I know, myself included, believes that this is how he should be. Growing up at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, Georgia I came to know and admire the preacher there. His name is Dr. James O. Speed and I became convinced that his character was so solid, his ethic so pristine that should he walk over to a river or any body of water and do his arms like this the waters would part and he would be able to walk through on dry land. The Pharisee here presents himself as one who is not like other people. Some people don’t fast at all; upstanding people fast on the Sabbath – but this man – this man fasts twice a week. Some people don’t give anything to the church. Some people give a portion. But this man – this man tithes his full 10%. So, he doesn’t just go to the temple to pray – he stands in the temple for he is not ashamed – it appears he has done what he is supposed to do. On the other hand, was a tax collector, and standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and this is how he prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Now which would my mother have preferred? Which does Jesus say that God prefers? “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Now think about that for a minute. There are several things that make it hard to be a preacher. Trying to understand why Jesus says what he says is just one of them. Buying beer at the grocery store is another. You see, I relate to this Pharisee so much, because when you feel the pressure to be good, to be holy, to be set apart, someone who is an example – you’re tempted to hide the parts of yourself that you’re ashamed of and to take pride in not being like other people. Did you catch what the Pharisee prayed? Not only did the Pharisee make sure that God knew what he had been doing, the Pharisee also let God know who he was not like. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” And I know what this is. I told you before that last Thursday I was at a Presbytery meeting with Jeff Smith and Carolyn Fisher. You should have seen us. There we were – looking good. Jeff Smith – church treasurer. Carolyn Fisher – elder and former moderator of the Presbytery. And did you know that there are churches who didn’t even send any representatives? But there I was with these two great commissioners. And we were hearing about these other churches – one who had lost $600,000 because the bookkeeper had been stealing from the church for the past 10 years. Another who had lost her pastor due to his impropriety. And as we heard about these things I just prayed to myself, “God, I thank you that my church is not like other churches.” Do you see what can happen? Do you see what can happen if our prayer is more a resume than a confession? Do you see what can happen when we are so busy hiding the broken parts of ourselves that we take pride in the brokenness of others? That’s why I get so tired of politics and why I’m so glad that the last presidential debate is over. It seems like all we hear from Mr. Trump is a report on how bad Mrs. Clinton is and all we hear from Mrs. Clinton is how bad Mr. Trump is and the Pharisee was doing the same thing in his prayer – Lord I thank you that I am not as bad as this guy huddled over there in the corner. I thank you that I am not as bad as this tax collector. Sometimes we compete this way, not realizing that our attempts to look like we have it all together are ruining our relationships – and not just our relationship with God, but our relationships with each other. Do you know how hard it is to be friends with someone who is always trying to hold it all together? Do you know how hard it is to be honest with someone, to be vulnerable to someone who is incapable of sharing with you their own failings and shortcomings? It’s like being invited into someone’s house who has plastic on the furniture. Do you know what I’m talking about? You’re invited over for tea and you get to sit down on the sofa and you hear plastic crinkling and if it’s hot, you feel your leg start to stick to the plastic and you must peel your skin off it to move your leg. How much would I rather sit down in a living room with a few stains on the furniture than a living room that must be kept pristine because the owner of that living room is too interested in the appearance of perfection. Adam and Eve chose to hide rather than confess. I chose to lie to my mother rather than admit to my disobedience. The Pharisee could only mention the things that he was doing right, too afraid to confess the things he was doing wrong and he had to put other people down to lift himself up. On the other hand, was a tax collector, and standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and this is how he prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Can you see it? Can you see why he was the one who went down to his home justified? For one thing, he stopped hiding, but for another, while the Pharisee was focused on the people around him and was busy taking pride in himself by comparison to his neighbor – the tax collector was just focused on his relationship with God. Now this matters. This sermon is titled, “If I only had” at the prompting of our church secretary, Renea Foster, who got the line from a Dr. Phil episode this week – and in this episode Dr. Phil was interviewing people who had been through a near death experience and they were talking about what they learned and what lessons they had to offer. No one on the show said – If I only had been more disingenuous in my relationships. No one said – If I only had been less open with my feelings. No one said – If I only had a more beautiful living room. And no one said – I only had done a better job of hiding who I really am. We come into this place – this sanctuary – like Adan and Eve coming out from hiding. We must come into this place to sing – not so concerned with being heard by the people around us that we whisper the words, but singing to God who loves to hear our voice. We are reverent and tidy and we look so upstanding – so we must be careful - for if we can’t be ourselves here, if we can’t be honest here – than how will we ever learn about grace? Now I do hate it a little bit that in today’s Second Scripture Lesson Jesus is telling us not to be like the one who tithes his 10% to the church right in the middle of Stewardship Season, but I want to tell you this – Jesus says that because he is warning all of us that we cannot trust in ourselves. Verse 9 read, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” and if you are using that card to prove that you are righteous – if you are using that card to check off all the boxes so that you know you are doing OK – if you are using that card to justify yourself before God and your neighbor than you have no need for the card nor do you really know about grace. But on the other hand – if you are using that card because this is the place where you can be you and still find love and acceptance – if you know you need forgiveness and you want to thank the God who has provided it – if you are using this card because you know you need a savior and you know that you have one and you just want to thank him because he loves you with a love that you can barely understand – then use this card to say “Thank you” and leave this place justified. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Do not lose heart

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 31: 27-34 and Luke 18: 1-8, NT page 81 Sermon Title: Do not lose heart Preached on October 16, 2016 Last Sunday night – you might have missed the last question asked during the presidential debate. It’s understandable if you changed the channel long before then – but if you managed to weather the storm then you got to hear the most interesting question of the night, the very last one posed by a man name Karl Becker: “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” Mrs. Clinton answered first. She said, “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald,” but as nice as it always is to hear someone talk about your kids, at the time I felt like this was kind of a non-answer, so my hat’s off to Mr. Trump who jumped right in there and said, “I will say this about Hillary: She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.” Now that was a real compliment I thought, and it put a nice bow on an incredibly strange presidential debate, and it also gave me a lot to think about – because like Mr. Trump I agree that Mrs. Clinton is a fighter and that being a fighter is a good thing, being a fighter is a virtue, but so is acceptance and one of the great challenges in life is balancing the two: fighting for change and accepting what cannot be changed. So we pray the Serenity Prayer written by that great saint of the Church, Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Isn’t that the trick – the wisdom to know the difference? Too often that’s the part I’m lacking and I so often excel at the acceptance part. I once I had a mentor, she was my supervisor during the summer I spent at the women’s prison as a chaplain in training – she looked me in the eye one day and she said, “Joe, you’re really nice. I’ve seen you be nice to just about everybody, but you need to learn that there’s a difference between being nice and being kind.” Up until this point I kind of thought that being nice was the same as being Christian, but Jesus wasn’t always nice. When he saw the Temple turned into a marketplace, he didn’t nicely ask that the money changers evacuate the premises – he toppled their tables and went after them with a whip. When the woman caught in adultery was right on the edge of being stoned, he didn’t accept this behavior – he kneeled by the woman and challenged the crowd saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. He looked at Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus didn’t always accept people as they were nor did he always accept society as it was – for so often he was using his words and his love to work for something different so he tells his disciples this parable. “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” For a while he refused – and of course he did. He neither feared God nor had respect for people and you can imagine that he was one of those judges who thrives in the bureaucracy, taking responsibility for nothing, deaf to anyone’s complaints. Maybe he would have done well at the DMV, but in this case he was a judge and how difficult it is to gain justice from a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. How frustrating to realize that the judge – the authority you depend on to stand up for what is right cares more about getting to the golf course than standing up to defend the widow and the orphan. Given the situation, the attitude of the judge, some would have prayed that Serenity prayer and emphasized the first part: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” but the widow, this widow was a fighter and so she just followed him out to the golf course. He’d go home for a 5 o’clock cocktail and guess who just happened to stop by. The phone would ring at his house and you can see him – he asked his wife to pick it up and he said, “if it’s that widow, tell her I’m busy.” A person can ignore someone that way for a while and eventually – most people take the hint and pray for the power to accept the world as it is, but this widow kept praying the second part of the prayer: “God grant me the courage to change the things I can” and went on saying to that judge, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ “For a while he refused; but later – later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The parable ends with this harsh question – “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And what is faith? What does Jesus mean here by faith? Faith is the willingness of a widow to wake up morning after morning, day after day, rejection and rejection, still believing that justice will be hers. Faith can help us accept the things we cannot change, but faith can also fuel our fight, granting us the courage to change the things we can. Faith is perseverance. Faith is determination. Faith is never accepting injustice as the way things are, and this is where being nice won’t always cut it, because you know what nice people do when they knock on the door to demand a little justice? They say, “Pardon me sir, but I didn’t think your ruling was very fair and I’m so sorry to bother you but would you please reconsider?” You know what nice people do when the political climate gets crazy and people start arguing and writing all kinds of divisive things on Facebook? They graciously excuse themselves from the conversation. And do you know what nice people do when you hurt their feelings or when you treat them like a doormat or when you don’t respect their boundaries? Too often they do nothing – and there are two reasons injustice continues to exist in the world: on the one hand are some ruthless people with bad intentions but on the other hand are a whole bunch of people who are too nice to say or do anything about it, they’ve mastered the acceptance part of the serenity prayer and they lack the wisdom to know that they can change far more about this world than they ever imagined. We can’t just accept and move on, because not voting is not going to change anything. Not speaking is not going to change anything. Being too nice to say or do anything about it is not going to change anything. So here’s the thing about this widow. She was dissatisfied with the judge’s ruling and she was bold enough to do something about it, again and again she was bold to do something about it and if a judge “Who neither feared God nor had respect for people” changed his ruling and gave the widow what she asked for why would you or I ever stop knocking on the door of our Father in Heaven, crying out to him for help and justice? Too often we are just too good at the acceptance part. We learn to live with it – and we’d rather learn to live with it than cause a stink about it. After all, nobody likes someone who causes a stink. Those people who just can’t accept things the way they are – do you know how difficult it is to have lunch with people who just can’t accept things the way they are? Who want to make all those changes to their order? They see the menu, but they say to the waitress, “I’d like the chicken, but it comes with onions and I’d like for you to leave off the onions, and instead of fries I’d like a salad, and rather than the bun I’d like a croissant.” Some people are so bad about this that they might walk into the Chick-fila to order a roast beef sandwich. Now what kind of person can’t order off the menu? I’ll tell you what kind of person – the kind of person who sees what’s there, but who isn’t satisfied with it. And what’s there? Out in the world, there’s conflict between police and crowds of angry people. Plenty of people have thrown up their arms in frustration at these problems. Plenty of people have said that there’s nothing that can be done, but the Chief of Police here in Columbia, Chief Tim Potts – a little more than two years ago as he recognized that East Columbia is a high crime area, he asked his police officers to patrol the Eastside on foot. And in the Daily Herald about a year ago there was a picture of an 8-year-old African-American boy playing basketball in his driveway with a police officer. Here there was something different – here the reality was becoming different, but that takes the leadership of a police chief who won’t accept the way things are, convinced and faithful that things could be different, that things can be better. The same thing is happening out at Cox Middle School. I was eating lunch again, this time with the Director of Schools, Dr. Chris Marczak, and I was trying to make some nice conversation so I asked him to tell me about nice things happening in Maury County Schools and he said that he was the most excited about Cox Middle School. “Cox Middle School,” I said, “but isn’t that place really bad?” And I asked, since I had heard some pretty bad stories and I read last year about how the school’s discipline issues were so bad that all the clubs and sports were being taken away as punishment for poor behavior. Well, Dr. Marczak told me that I had gotten the wrong impression and asked me to come out with him to tour the school which I did last Wednesday. Here’s the thing about this school – last year there were 4,000 disciplinary referrals. What does that mean? That means that pretty much every day last year our own Matt Campbell who teaches out there had to break up a fight. 4,000 disciplinary referrals are so many disciplinary referrals that the principal and two assistant principals spent no time in their office because they were out in the halls dealing with unruly students – in fact, they put what they needed on push carts and made mobile offices so they would be closer to the problems as they were happening. Last Wednesday Principal Webb met us there at the front. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and then introduced me to the students who were walking with him who in turn shook my hand, looked me in the eye. That was the case with every student who I met last Wednesday at Cox Middle School – Principle Webb knew all their names, even Jevon who was there for his first day of school, and everyone who he introduced me to shook my hand and looked me in the eye. Not only that – there on the wall by the front entrance were test scores reporting 56% growth in 7th grade math, an improvement from 16% proficiency – there numbered were total books read for each grade numbering in the thousands. At some point I asked him, “where are all the bad kids?” And he told me that there weren’t any bad kids. These were just kids, and every one of them had the potential to be a great student. How does this kind of thing happen? It happens when someone – a widow, a police chief, a principal – refuses to accept what is right in front of them and instead knocks and pesters and fights until justice comes. And why wouldn’t justice come? If a widow can get justice from a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When the Son of Man comes, what will he find at First Presbyterian Church? I’ve been here with you for nearly six years, and for these six years I have been amazed – amazed and overjoyed to witness the ways that you proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, not just on this corner, out in the world – but more and more I become convinced that we are not doing everything that we can. That we are not having the impact on this community that we could. That while our building is beautiful and are staff is paid fairly and the heat and air work most of the time I can’t help but imagine what would happen in this town if we were able to double our support to the Family Center. Last year when we were blessed with a donation large enough to buy our new church bus we were able to donate our old church van to the Family Center and now they use it to transport food and donations and they take homeless men and women to shelters – but is that all that we can do? Two months out of the year men and women from this church give up their time and their talent to cook for hungry people right here in this community – but is that all we can do? I worry that we are all getting too good at acceptance – and I don’t want to be good at acceptance – I want to be good at fighting for the world to change and I believe that God will be on our side. So think with me – and during this month of Stewardship is just as good a time as any – think with me not just about what you’ve done, not just celebrating all that you’ve done, but think with me about what you could do. For if a widow can squeeze justice out of a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people, will not God grant justice to his chosen ones? Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

One turned back

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 29: 4-7 and Luke 17: 11-19, NT page 80 Sermon Title: One turned back Preached on October 9, 2016 Sometimes people wonder – what’s the matter with kids today? So many lament pervasive ingratitude and the abandonment of manners, so I’ll begin today’s sermon with a quote that articulates the sentiment: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” You may agree with that, and if you do you’re not alone. As I said before, what I’ve just read is a quote. But the greater meaning comes from learning who the quote is attributed to. I’ve just been to visit my grandfather, and back when I was in high school he sent me this quote, possibly to make me reflect upon my lack of manners and contempt for authority, but while he may have related to the quote’s sentiments these are not his words nor do they belong to any of our contemporaries who currently stand in judgement of young people today. The quote is attributed to Socrates, proving that at least since the four-hundred years before Christ was born it has been observed that manners are in short supply. So, maybe not surprisingly, when Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, going through that region between Samaria and Galilee, and having healed the 10 lepers who came out to him begging to be healed – only one prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And where were the other 9? They had forgotten their manners it would seem, and neither Socrates nor my grandfather would have been surprised though Jesus was disappointed: “Were not ten made clean?” he asked the one who returned to thank him. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” This account here is a call to gratitude, but the double-whammy to any and all who have ever heard this passage from the Gospel of Luke is that the only one who had any manners was the foreigner, the Samaritan, and it is the foreigner, the lowly Samaritan who becomes the hero in the Gospel of Luke again and again. You know well the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s a parable told in the Gospel of Luke just before our 2nd Scripture Lesson in chapter 10 and it is in this parable that the only one who stopped to help a robbed and wounded man on the side of the Jericho Road, the only one to embody any manners is not the priest nor the Levite but the foreigner, the Samaritan, who knew what it meant, not just to mind his manners but also how to love his neighbor as himself. Jesus is making a point here – it’s not just that 9 forgot to say “thank-you”, it’s that the one who was never invited into proper society embodies the standards we’ve forgotten. And we’ve all seen that before. It’s kind of like when you’re packing lunches for your kids on a Tuesday morning and one of them says, “I’ll take a ham sandwich.” “You’ll take a ham sandwich?” you say under your breath, and then you go on with lunch preparation while you watch the news hearing about the foster kids or the refugees who rejoice over a cup of white rice and you start to think to yourself – “What is wrong with my children!?!” It’s kind of like the time you reluctantly took the neighbor kid who talks too much out to dinner even though he basically invited himself, and as soon as the food comes it’s scarfed down and while you’re waiting for the waitress to bring you back the check only one of those kids sticks around to say thank-you. Good luck complaining about him now. Gratitude is in short supply. Is it really any wonder only 1 of the 10 returns to kneel at the savior’s feet? For nothing much has changed – still today some mind their manners and some don’t. Some stand for the national anthem and some don’t – and you can’t really make a judgement about what kind of person is grateful for this country and which one isn’t, because you can scan the stands at the football game and the veteran weeps as does the illegal immigrant. One refugee stands with her hand over her heart while the one who knows better won’t even take his hat off. Good luck trying to understand what makes people thankful. It’s not wealth or the lack there of for I’ve seen the rich embody gratitude while the poor talked me out of my last dollar and never said a word of thanks. Christmas comes and one kid gets a bike and another gets an orange but gratitude isn’t proportionate to the gift. Gratitude is something else. And this is a strange thing I believe. But a miracle – as amazing as a miracle ever is – even a miracle won’t necessarily result in gratitude any more than winning the lottery will change the attitude of a bitter old man. Give a man on the street or a spoiled little girl exactly what she asked for again and again but don’t ever expect her to be thankful, expect her to ask you for something else in a couple minutes. In the same way – you think about the lepers – all 10 received a miracle, all 10 were healed, but sometimes getting what you want and being thankful for it are two completely different things. Being healed and being made well don’t always go hand in hand. I realized this while we were coming home from South Carolina during the hurricane evacuation. Last week we drove the 9 hours to get there to visit my parents and my grandfather, but with the chance of a hurricane striking the coast we left early Wednesday morning after arriving on Monday afternoon. You might think that being able to escape a hurricane would give a person enough to be thankful for on a Wednesday morning, but I was in a bad mood because after driving all that way we were having to turn right around, so as we stopped for breakfast in a tiny little town at a restaurant called Rusty and Paula’s I wasn’t very grateful at all. The thing about little girls is that pancakes are all the concession needed for having to leave their grandparent’s house two days early, but their father on the other hand was still a little bitter. So who knows what attitude I was presenting to all the locals there who wanted to know where we had come from and where we were going, but by the time we had finished eating the place had pretty much cleared out and that was when the waitress came over to tell us that someone had already taken care of our bill. Now this is a small thing compared to leprosy – a very, very small thing – but in this little example lies a lesson that I hope will stick with me – the lesson of letting go of the disappointment for a visit that didn’t go as expected so that I might spend my time being grateful for a stranger who cared for my family. In a study on gratitude a psychologist at the University of California named Robert A. Emmons and his colleague, Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, assigned participants in a study to keep a short journal. One group of the participants were to briefly describe five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and a third group, the neutral group, was asked to list five events or circumstance that affected them, either positive or negative. 10 weeks later, the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25% happier than the group who spent their time recording daily hassles, which isn’t too surprising, but what is surprising is that the gratitude group also reported fewer health complaints and exercised an average of 1.5 hour more than the others. So, what’s the matter with kids today? What’s the matter with everyone today? On the one hand there are those who, like me, have so much to be thankful for, but we live in a world where restaurants have a box for us to leave our complaints at the door but no place for us to leave our gratitude. I remember the song from that great Hollywood Musical “White Christmas” - but do I fall asleep counting my blessings like Bing Crosby told me to, or do I fall asleep mulling over my anxieties? I was running just last week – and running as I so often do – huffing and puffing and complaining about being out of breath, but last week I was running through a cemetery. Now can you believe that – here I was complaining about being out of breath in a cemetery, and all of a sudden the irony hit me and I could see the dead rising from the grave and grabbing me by the collar to say, “You think you’re out of breath?” There’s a point in our lives where we have what we need and all that we wanted and dreamed of – but if happiness still remains elusive than maybe the answer is as simple as going to the source of all our blessings to voice a simple word of thanks. My grandfather has always been able to do that, and before evacuating South Carolina, I was able to visit with him. His dementia is severe now; I don’t think he recognized my face or my voice. Certainly he didn’t call me by my name, but the same smile was on his face that has always been there and when I talked with my Dad about it he told me that a friend of my grandfather’s had said, “the only way to explain it is that he’s mastered the art of happiness.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing to say about somebody? That they’ve mastered the art of happiness. And I think that’s right. My grandfather never made it through a family event without celebrating his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He never hung up the phone with me without telling me he was proud of me. He never missed the chance to tell the women he loved that they were beautiful. He never sat down at a Thanksgiving meal without saying, “Now, let us return thanks.” On the other hand, too many miracles have passed by me without returning thanks. It’s not that I haven’t been given enough gifts, it’s that too many gifts I’ve been given without taking the time to celebrate them. If you feel the same way then let me challenge you to end or begin each day by listing out your blessings, and by acknowledging our God as their source. And know that later this month you’ll be asked to fill out a Pledge Card. And while these cards mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, I can’t think of a pledge card without remembering the words of CS Lewis who told the story of a boy who had been given 10 dollars by his father. It was his father’s birthday so the boy spent 9 dollars on himself and one on his father. Now 1 out of 10 doesn’t sound like very much does it? But to give thanks for all that we’ve been given, that’s all that has ever been required. Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Great Chasm

Scripture Lessons: 1st Timothy 6: 6-19 and Luke 16: 19-31, NT pages 79-80 Sermon Title: The Great Chasm Preached on September 25, 2016 I went into Walgreens Drug Store last Thursday morning. I was picking up some pictures they developed for me, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Walgreens on a Thursday morning but usually they’re a little short staffed so I was just standing there at the photo desk waiting for someone to help me with my pictures. I’m not always very assertive in these kinds of situations. I sort of freeze up afraid to ask for help, so I was just standing there looking around not wanting to trouble anybody, looking longingly at the pictures I was there to pick up with my name on them that I could see right there behind the desk and I wondered what would happen if I just went back behind the desk and grabbed them myself. That’s the direction I was moving in when a Walgreens employee walked up and she said, “Sir – are you authorized to go back there?” “Well, no, I guess I’m not,” I said, wondering what kind of authorization one would need to reach behind a desk to grab an envelope of pictures, but instead of challenging protocell I asked her if she would just reach back there behind the desk to grab my pictures. “They’re right on top of the stack,” I told her. “Sir, I’m not authorized to do that either,” she responded, which helped me to realize how many lines there are in this world, lines that maybe we need not be so afraid to cross. In our parable from the Gospel of Luke there is a gate. And at this gate lay a poor man named Lazarus. There was a rich man who lived inside the gate and while this rich man was dressed in purple and fine linen, Lazarus was covered with sores. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, and Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. When the rich man died he was buried and had a proper funeral, but when Lazarus died no one was there but the angels of heaven. Now isn’t it amazing how different life can be depending on what side of the gate you live on? Purple and linen or sores that the dogs lick. Sumptuous feasting or hunger. Proper burial in the majestic cemetery or a hole in the potter’s field. And to open the gate? Well, am I authorized to do that? Rather than just opening the gate to meet our neighbor too often some of us wonder: can I just go from one side of this line to the other? Can I really just drive to the other side of the tracks? Can the guest at the ball just walk behind the bar, no longer a guest but a servant? Should a rich man open the gate to let in the man who sleeps outside? I believe that this is one of the most interesting challenges that we humans face, not because it takes some feet of physical strength to cross the gate, but because the pictures are right there behind the photo booth and I just stand there as though there were something more required than to walk around the desk to pick them up. I was just standing there, too afraid or something to cross the line and walk around the desk to grab my pictures at the Walgreen’s Drug Store on James Campbell Blvd. and while I was waiting for someone authorized to get those pictures from behind the desk for me I noticed all the stuff for sale right around where I was standing. I’m confident that part of the reason there wasn’t anyone back there at the photo desk was so that I’d have a little more time to look around and pick out some stuff that I don’t need, and that’s exactly what I did. Right next to the photo desk at the Walgreens on James Campbell is a display case full of clear Pepsi. That’s right. Clear Pepsi. And when the Walgreens employee who was authorized to take my photographs out of the plastic crate behind the desk finally showed up I held up that bottle of Clear Pepsi, and I said, “Can you believe this – Clear Pepsi,” but she wasn’t as impressed as I was, and I thought to myself, “Well just because you’re authorized to take photographs out from behind the desk doesn’t mean you have to act like you’re better than everybody.” But even though she wasn’t as impressed as I was, I went ahead and explained to her how great it was to have Clear Pepsi for sale, and did she remember the first time Clear Pepsi came out? “It was back when we were kids”, I said, but it turned out that she wasn’t even born when I was just a kid, and it hurts when you realize that about somebody, but that didn’t slow me down too much because I wanted to tell her about how my best friend Matt Buchanan and I were so amazed the first time we saw Clear Pepsi that Matt dropped a 2 Liter of it in the middle of the aisle at the Ingles Grocery Store and it exploded everywhere. That’s probably why I was so excited about the Clear Pepsi. It reminded me of my old friend Matt who, until last week, I hadn’t talked to since his wedding. Isn’t it amazing how long you can go without talking to people who you care about? And the miracle is that sometimes the gap made by so many years of not talking can be bridged all at once with nothing more than a phone call. When Matt Buchanan called me last week it was as though we picked right back up where we left off – dropping that bottle of Clear Pepsi in the middle of the aisle at Ingles. But of course, I have to be thankful to Matt, for it was he who called me. I’ve thought of calling Matt a million times and didn’t – probably because of the fear that the gap couldn’t be bridged. I did his wedding, but have never called to wish him a Happy Anniversary and that starts to cause a gap. He’s had birthday parties, but I didn’t make it down for any of them and that makes the gap grow. There have been pregnancies and babies, and when I see pictures of those babies on Facebook I can’t believe how much I’ve missed out on. Each year that goes by, it’s like the gap grows and the chances of bridging that gap grow less and less likely in my mind – which makes sense for me because I’m too often the kind of person who sees lines too well and pays too much respect to division – I just stand there looking longingly at my developed pictures, waiting for someone who is authorized to bridge the gap between me and them but Matt is the kind of person who just picks up the phone and in doing so he bridged that gap in an instant. Part of the point that Jesus so brilliantly illustrated in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that the gate can be opened – the line can be crossed – and we should never mistake a gap that can be bridged for a chasm that cannot because if you wait too long to pick up the phone the gap that could have been bridged will turn into a Chasm that is fixed. The parable begins with a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen – and Lazarus, skin covered in sores. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day – and Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man died and was buried – and Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham, and in the afterlife with the rich man in Hades where he was being tormented he looked up and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus by his side and he called out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from here to us.” This is a parable that is certainly about a rich man and a poor man and all that divided them on earth. One was dressed in purple, the other dressed in sores. One feasted sumptuously, the other longed for crumbs that fell from the table. One died and there was a proper funeral, and when the other died there was no one there but the Angels of Heaven and with this contrast between the reality of the rich and the reality of the poor we are pushed to consider that while there may be between one and the other a gap or a fence or a wall, you must not pay any credence to these divisions that can be crossed or “the great chasm” will be fixed and we may find ourselves on the wrong side. On one side of town is a bank, and on the other is a place where you can get your check cashed. On one side of town is a grocery store, and on the other is a convenience mart. On one side of town one kind of people live and on the other side of town is where the other kind of people live and today Jesus is calling on all of us to do everything we can to walk over to the other side while we have the chance for no authorization is required. Here we are at First Presbyterian Church and there’s even one kind of people on one side of the parking lot and another on the other side – and every day we are given the chance to bridge the gap and so many people do. Many of you know who Melvin Taylor is. Our church secretary Renea Foster certainly does, and because he’s a man without a home and without a people to care for him, she brings him ibuprofen for his arthritis and a little pink pill for his heart ever morning. She washes his clothes and she helps him with his groceries and last Tuesday as Renea was waking up after dental surgery, the anesthesia just starting to wear off, the nurse went to her and asked her if her husband was out in the lobby waiting and Renea said, “Yes and his name is Melvin Taylor.” Now maybe that’s bridging this divide a little too much, but I believe we all need to put some thought into this parable, for in the life to come Renea will be sitting right over there with Melvin, so far they have come to build an unlikely friendship that is like a bridge over so many divisions. And Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Luke is big on bridging this divide between rich and poor. There’s no denying it. It is in chapter 18 that he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” and we need to sit down and think about these words and just what it is about wealth that Jesus thinks is so bad, and probably the best explanation is that of New Testament Scholar Dr. Charles Cousar who said that wealth causes blindness. So it’s not just asking the question of the rich man, “How many chances did you have to help out poor Lazarus? How many nights did you go to sleep with a stomach ache while he went to bed empty? How much money did you spend while he didn’t have two pennies to rub together” for the much greater question is, “Did you even see him out there sleeping by your gate?” or had wealth and privilege so clouded your vision that you couldn’t see that he had hands like your hands, skin like your skin, hopes like your hopes, and a heart like your heart? You see, this isn’t some kind of socialist, bleeding heart liberal parable here that Jesus is offering us today – this is a simple parable about speaking to the people who are around you so that you’ll realize that the lines which divide us are lines that we allow to divide us. This is a parable about bridging gaps – and these are not the kinds of gaps that we need any authorization to bridge – and these aren’t the kind of gaps that we need some big speech about – we don’t need a monologue about politicians reaching across the aisle – this is a parable about Jesus telling you to walk across the street. These are the kinds of gaps that the preacher who did your premarital counseling was talking about when she told you to never go to sleep while in a fight, because the fight creates a gap and the longer you go without bridging that gap the bigger the gap will grow until you’re on one side and she’s on the other and Abraham is saying “a great chasm has been fixed” and now there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s what the rich man had to face. He let the gap grow for too long and it turned into a chasm, so in desperation he calls out, “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have four brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” and so should you – so should I – because the longer we go letting our social fabric tear by not getting to know the people who live right next door to us, the longer we go trembling in fear of racial difference that we re-segregate ourselves all over again, the longer we stay right in our tax brackets without making friends who make more money or less money than we do – the more divided will be our city, our nation, and our world – and do you want to know why our society is so divided now? Because we let it be. So just go behind the desk and get your pictures – you need no authorization. Just pick up the phone – your old friend wants to hear from you as much as you want to hear from him. Just open your mouth and say hello – for the longer you wait to speak the harder it is going to be. Just love your neighbor as you love yourself today – for the chasm is not yet fixed. Amen.