Sunday, January 24, 2016

When he opened it

Scripture Lessons: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, and 8-10; Luke 4: 14-21, NT page 61 Sermon Title: When he opened it This Thursday I’ve been invited to give a lecture and a sermon at Columbia Theological Seminary where I went to school, and I’m very excited about it. I’m excited to have been asked and I’m even excited to get back on the campus of my alma-mater, which probably has a lot to do with the reality that I am one of those extremely fortunate people who is actively using the degree that he earned from the school he attended. It’s just this unfortunate reality that too few people actually get to do that. Some people have these gifts and skills that they never really get to use, so the world is full of actresses who work as waitresses, playwrights who become electricians, engineers, writers, hairdressers, and designers who have to settle into a job that pays the bills even though for them it’s just a job that pays the bills and not the vocation that they love. This is a hard thing – it must be – to force yourself to go to a job that you hate – but what’s worse is to settle into a life that you hate because your whole identity has been compromised. I’m afraid that’s what we’re doing to our new dog. We went to the pound and found this coon hound. We didn’t know at the time that she was a coon hound, and being from Atlanta we didn’t really know what it would mean to own a coon hound, that they cannot be dissuaded from their vocation, but that’s what we have – ask any of our neighbors within a two-mile radius, a coon hound is exactly what we have. She slipped out the front door yesterday and I chased her, but she’s a lot faster than I am, and I even slipped and fell in the snow in front of Matt and Miranda Campbell and Zach and Ashley Maddux who were kind enough to help me catch her. And every time a cat walks into the neighbor’s yard you can hear her howl and you can’t make her stop. You watch her and you know that she is genetically engineered to chase that cat and as long as it’s in the yard that’s all that she can think about. Part of me wants to have her vocal cords removed. Sometimes I’m tempted to remove her vocal cords myself. But other times I watch her watching that cat, and I just feel sorry for her. How frustrating it must be to never get to do the thing you were born to do. But, though we are called to be a royal priesthood, holy and set apart, so often we are like our coon hound - stuck inside just looking out the window. In reading our second scripture lesson, this passage from the Gospel of Luke, I know that the Lord refused anything but his true calling – that our Lord was born to do something – he was meant to do something – and by the grace of God he is choosing to do it in this 4th chapter. He returned to Nazareth – this small town “where he had been brought up” – and while he was in the synagogue there he stood up to read, and I can just imagine that when he took the scroll it was one of those moments where those who were present knew that they were witnessing something significant. Then he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To let the oppressed go free, To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, sat down, and with the eyes of everyone there fixed on him he told them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He’s saying: This is who I am, this is what I was born to do and now I am ready to do it. It’s a significant moment. Think about the first time Mozart saw a piano, or when Henry Ford took apart a bicycle to make his first automobile – these must be something of a glimmer of what it was to witness Jesus claiming his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. It’s in this moment, when Jesus takes the scroll, that it becomes real. Jesus becomes the person that he was born to be, and according to Dr. Fred Craddock, “this event announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists,” and “what his church will be and do.” To me, the unfortunate reality is that we, the Church, in many ways we are more like the actress who’s making a living as a waitress because we’ve given up our true purpose for something that appears to be more realistic. We were created to make a difference in this world, but rather than actually doing it we are stuck inside watching it happen on the news – rather than being active agents of change we have been lulled to sleep. Of course there was a time when the frontier was expanding and churches were popping up from here to the Pacific. The Seminaries were following close behind to provide the pastors for those churches, but as times changed, one by one those seminaries closed up. And it’s not bad – even though so many have closed there’s still plenty – because the seminaries that remain can still produce more than enough pastors because the churches have started closing up too. It appears to many that the Church is becoming this dated institution that has gone the way of the mule drawn carriage and the pay phone – so in an effort to fight the trend I’ve seen the Church try to remain relevant. Now there’s a dangerous word. To be a relevant church – well – if you’re a relevant church and the people say they don’t need the religion of their parent’s or their grandparent’s than you go and give them the religion that makes sense to them. It’s not altogether a bad idea. As society changes, in many ways the Church has to change with it. Back when my mother was a child she sat right in that pew and if she squirmed my grandmother would pinch her in that soft skin on the underside of her arm. Some would say that this is what parents need to do now, but we’re a little more relevant than that. Susie Baxter provides our children with these wonderful coloring books and crayons and nobody has to get pinched... hopefully. I think that’s fine. That’s the good side of being relevant. You change a little bit. You get creative. You see old problems with new eyes and come up with something better. But I fear that in other ways being relevant hasn’t been so good for the church. Consider the first line of Jesus’ mission statement: “Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” If that’s his call, if that’s what he did – and we know that he did – than has the Church lived up to such a calling? In so many ways I know that we do, but in other ways I’m not so sure. In fact, I believe that the Church in the United States has changed her focus just a little bit so that the ministry of the Christian Church in the United States and the World focuses not so much on the poor, but among the privileged, the pious, and the powerful. We want to be relevant. We’re losing influence and we don’t want to lose any more, but just because there’s a Presbyterian running for President – that doesn’t mean he’ll be representing our values – I don’t care if he can quote “Two Corinthians” or not. To represent Christ is to preach Good News to the poor, release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free. Will any of the candidates be doing that? We can’t just settle for getting by. But too often that’s exactly what we are doing. Just trying to – make a living – hold on – pay the bills – get some shade of a Christian in the White House, but we were not born to just get by. According to legend, there was a time when the Church was so powerful that the prayers of our forefather, John Knox inspired such fear in the Queen of Scotland that she is famous for saying, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the armies of England.” Now maybe we’re not as powerful as we used to be, but what if we tried a little harder to be true to ourselves and not so hard to just survive? What if we spent a little more time preaching good news to the poor, and not so much time just preaching? What if we spent a little more time proclaiming release to the captives and a little less time looking at them suspiciously? What if we spent a little more time praying that the blind would recover their sight, the oppressed would go free and not so much time trying to appear respectiable? What if we reclaimed our identity as followers of the one who changed the world? What if, when the scriptures were read, the people wept for joy – for by our actions these words were fulfilled? Ralph Waldo Emerson is one who might call us away from the work that we’re doing and to our true calling. Dawn Taylor reminded me and everyone else of Facebook that he said, “The purpose of life is not [just] to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” We were created for a higher purpose and a greater calling – so do not settle. Live with purpose and know what it means to live the life that God created you for. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

When the wine gave out

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 62: 1-5, Song of Solomon 8: 6-7, and John 2: 1-11, NT page 93 Sermon Title: When the wine gave out Weddings. You plan and you plan, but something always seems to go wrong. There’s a great story of a Maury County wedding – the groom and his father walk out from the front, but during their processional they somehow trip and fall into the baptismal font. “I guess they got a two for one deal – married and baptized in the same ceremony,” someone said last Wednesday night at Bible study. I’m proud to be a part of weddings. I’m proud to have been a part of some of your weddings, but our own, when I was the groom I only had one job – to secure a soloist. A friend offered to sing at our wedding and I took him up on it which took care of that, but I never thought to ask whether or not he could sing, so the first time I heard him sing was when Sara and I were up there, just having made our vows and he was so bad that my cousin asked if I had asked him to sing that badly on purpose to get a few laughs, and I had not. Weddings. I get to stand right up front next to the groom as the bride walks down the aisle. It’s my job to catch him if he decides to run, and I’m thankful that I’ve never had to do so, which bodes well for not just the wedding but also the marriage. It’s that much harder to have a successful marriage if in high stress situations you are the kind of person who is quick to walk out. In our Scripture lesson for this morning it’s not the groom who might leave. It’s not the bride – but the guests. The wine gave out – that’s what went wrong with this wedding – and if you’ve ever been at a wedding reception when the drinks ran out than you know that this would bring an embarrassing and abrupt end to the party. According to Dr. Bill Creasy, a celebrated Bible scholar, the hosts may have planned to perfectly accommodate the guests, but this itinerant preacher, a friend of the family, he came with a whole crew of disciples with him, so why did the wine give out? John, Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, Nathaniel and the others – that’s why. Maybe knowing this to be the case Mary goes to Jesus saying, “They have no wine” and according to Dr. Creasy, she goes to him not only because it’s his guests who caused the shortage, but also, because she knows he can do something about it. Mary, the mother of Jesus goes to her son and makes a big request that masquerades as a simple observation, “They have no wine.” And Jesus, who knows his mother as well as or better than any other son, he knows what his mother is saying when she makes such an observation so he responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” He’s responding to her, not only telling her that he doesn’t want to do anything, nor does he feel responsible, but he’s also making a statement about how he will prioritize his time of introduction – yes He is the Son of God who can perform miracles, but not everyone needs to know that right now, “my hour has not yet come.” But despite the protest, Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” “Do whatever he tells you.” With this statement our Scripture Lesson offers us two options for those occasions when the wine runs out. When the wine runs out some will know that it’s time to go and they will leave, but the servants will stay and they will “do whatever he tells” them. A theological truth is that those who leave, the Lord may just let them go. You’ve seen it played out in Scripture. That’s just how God works. In a couple months we’ll read the parable of the Prodigal Son and in this parable the father gives his son his inheritance, allows him to leave with all that money, knowing well that he may take it to squander it away on loose living which is exactly what he does. When the money ran out he was looking at these pods that he was supposed to feed to the pigs longingly, wishing he could just eat those pods himself and fall even farther down the pit of shame. In a moment like this he had the option of turning farther away – leaving again, or turning and going back. You know the rest of the story. You know that the son does go back and that the father rushes out to greet him which is surprising every time we hear it, because it’s just so hard to believe that when the wine gives out there could be something so miraculous as God’s abundance. The Lord promises rivers of flowing water – grace greater than all our sins – but we are only so bold to hope for getting by from one day to the next. Mary knows the Lord better than we do, however, and so “His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” Now did that make any sense? Not to those servants, surely. What would have made sense would have been for Jesus to tell them to run down to the liquor store to buy a few amphora of the cheap stuff, but instead he told them to get these great big water jars – more like bathtubs than anything else – and to fill them up with water and whether that made sense to any of them or not they did it which adds something to the lesson that is already developing: there are two options – to leave or to stay and “do whatever he tells you,” and whatever he tells you may not make any sense but the best advice seldom does so do it anyway. An example - I remember seeking out advice from a retired pastor who had served these great big churches. We were at a Presbytery meeting and I asked him something like, “so what’s the secret to being a pastor?” He looked me up and down and told me, “Joe, you’d be a lot better off if you’d shine your shoes.” “Shine my shoes?” I asked. “Isn’t that just a little superficial?” Then he responded, “Well maybe it is, but people are so take advantage of it.” Shine your shoes. It doesn’t have to make sense to you for it to work. You know how many men have told me that they thought Valentine’s Day was a dumb idea hatched by the greeting card and chocolate companies to drum up some business. They’re out there shaking their heads – “they’re not gunna pull one over on me!” But just because you think it’s stupid doesn’t mean that your wife does. You hear this relationship advice – go out on a date at least one night a month, never go to bed if you’re still in a fight, go to church together, sit down at the dinner table and turn off the TV – not all of this makes sense to everybody, but who cares? You may as well try something. That may have been exactly what the servants were thinking. “Do whatever he tells you,” Mary said, and so they started filling up those big wash tubs and one said to the other, “You think this is going to work?” The other servant says, “We may as well try something” – and sometimes in life that’s all it takes. They filled up those big water jars, with the faith of those willing to try anything and they ended up with wine finer than what had been served first. Of course you can’t always stay and just be obedient. Sometimes the issues are so severe the advice of any sensible person would be for you to not only leave but to run away. But you know what the ones who make it say? You ask them to explain love and sometimes you’ll hear the wives say, “No matter what, he was always there.” He was there in the good times and the bad times. For richer or poorer, In joy and in sorrow, In sickness and in health. That’s what they stand up here and promise to each other, and it sounds simple at the time, but the ones who make it to their 50th anniversary, it’s because they chose to stay. “Do whatever he tells you.” Doesn’t that sound simple? Doesn’t it sound easy? Of course it’s not. So hear again the words the choir just sang: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, As a seal upon your arm; For love is as strong as death, Passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love; neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, It would be utterly scorned.” For those who honor such love, for those who stayed at that wedding even after the wine gave out, the Lord provided wine finer than the Steward served before. May it be yours as well. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

In His Hand

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3: 15-22, NT page 60 Sermon Title: In His Hand The book that had the greatest effect on my early adolescence was not the Bible, but The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and I’m not the only one. If you ask around a little bit, it seems like this book made an impact on everyone who was ever an 11-year-old boy. From the time the book was published in 1967 to now it’s as though the publisher just sent the book to your house automatically so many people have read it and remember it. The day I got it, I think it came in my Easter basket, and that Easter Sunday I started reading the book in the morning, I thought about it during church, picked it right back up after lunch and had the thing finished before I went to bed that night. It is the only book I’ve ever read in just one day, and it’s all about greasers. The main character goes by Ponyboy, and he lives with his brothers and hangs out with this gang of neighborhood kids, and they get called greasers because they wear their hair long and they use too much pomade. How they look matters. They don’t dress like the kids from the right side of town because they are not from the right side of town. They also carry switchblades and get into fights, but the main story line is watching who Ponyboy becomes. He’s one of those kids with potential, but will he do something about it? Will he grow out of being a teenage greaser who gets into a little bit of trouble from time to time or will he follow so many down this other path of holding up liquor stores and getting locked up in “the cooler” as they call it. There’s this defining moment near the end of the book where Ponyboy is talking with two of his fellow greasers, drinking a Pepsi, when a car load of the Socs drive up. The Socs are the rival group from the right side of town, and as they walk up to Ponyboy and his friends they use some threatening language, act like they’re trying to start a fight, so Ponyboy breaks the bottom off his Pepsi bottle and holds it with the sharp glass right up against this guy’s neck, and he says, “You get back into your car or you’ll get split.” Now why they fight and how they fight – those are two significant issues that the book deals with. Sometimes they fight in self-defense, but more often this gang of greasers fights for something else – honor. Somebody walks through their neighborhood and starts acting like they own the place – then the greasers have to fight to defend what’s theirs. Someone insults them and calls them trash – then the greasers have to fight for respect. And they’re always fighting the Socs – this group of upper-class teenagers who live in houses on the right side of town, have both their parents there waiting on them to come home at night. You read the book and you realize that the author gave this book just the right title, The Outsiders, because the greasers believe they are just that – outsiders – and they have to fight to keep their place in the world. Some will just fight with their fists, so there’s a difference in the book between the ones who fight with their hands and the ones who fight with chains, knives, bats, broken bottles. The ones who fight with weapons, as it seemed that Ponyboy would, they end up moving to greater levels of violence until they’re using “heaters” – the book calls them – guns. In this scene with the Pepsi bottle it seems as though Ponyboy is choosing to go down this road, walking away from his potential to follow all those neighborhood guys who are either dead or in jail because he has to defend, not just his physical self but his emotional self, his dignity, respect, and honor. But, once the Socs drive off, Ponyboy kneels down to pick up the broken glass on the ground because he didn’t want anyone to get a flat tire. What you have in your hand matters. What Ponyboy had in his hand is a sign of how he would chart his future, and that’s true in a lot of cases. He doesn’t have to tell anyone he’s going home to apologize to his wife – if he goes home holding flowers everyone knows exactly what he’s doing. We don’t even have to say that he’s asking for forgiveness – we use this expression that “he came home with his hat in his hand.” When the relatives show up for Christmas they might ring the door bell and say, “I come bearing gifts” because what you have in your hand communicates something, it means something, so when all the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answers them by telling them what the real Messiah will have in his hand. We read in verse 17 what John tells them: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” If you thought a kid with a broken bottle in his hand was a disturbing image – think about this one – a winnowing fork. A winnowing fork, as you probably know already, is like one of those wide baskets that so many still use to toss the grain – be it rice or barley, oats or wheat – you use it to toss the grain into the air just enough so that the wind carries the husk onto the floor and only the heavier grain remains in the basket. The winnowing fork – that is what it was used for too – to separate the good from the bad, and the good will go into the granary, but the bad – the bad “he will burn with unquenchable fire.” According to John the Baptist, that’s how we’ll know him – because of what he is holding in his hand, and it’s not a broken bottle that he’s using to defend himself. It’s not his hat that is in his hand, it’s a winnowing fork that he’ll use to clear his threshing floor. It’s a harsh image. It makes you wonder, “Where I’ll end up, in the granary or in the fire.” Am I wheat or am I chaff? This is a fair question when contemplating this lesson from the gospel of Luke because so much of this Scripture lesson is about identity – is John the Messiah or is he not – that’s what the people are asking – who is John? But it’s also trying to tell us who is Jesus as well as clarifying the identity of you and me. Identity. This is a lesson about identity, and you’ve heard me harp on identity before. Every Sunday I end the worship service charging all of you to remember always who you are. My friend Billy Frierson listens to the service on the radio, and without fail, when he calls to talk to me he’ll end our conversation telling me that “he’ll remember who he is,” making fun of me just a little bit because he knows already and doesn’t need to be told again. Maybe you don’t’ need to be told again either, and I hope you don’t, but I feel like I need to tell you this all the time because there are times when you’ll be prone to forget. Identity – who are you? Where are you going? That’s what Ponyboy was figuring out, but Jesus – Jesus always knew. Regardless of what the world said, Jesus always knew and that’s how he’s different from us. He knew and didn’t listen so much to what the world kept telling him about being from the wrong town, speaking with the wrong accent, and not having enough to garner any respect. Did you know that at the time of Jesus, Nazareth, where Jesus grew up after being born in Bethlehem, was a community of between 200 and 400 people? That’s it. And Nazareth was in the region of Galilee, but to go to someplace big and speak with a Galilean accent – we’ll that was the kind of label that was hard to live down. Going into one of the places where there would have been some carpentry to do, among the Romans or landed aristocracy, Jesus and his father were something like my friend Will Shelburne from Kingsport, Tennessee. I went to college with him, and he left Kingsport one summer to go up to New York City for a conference or something and the first thing they asked him when they found out where he was from was whether or not they wore shoes back home. We so often and far too often are in the position of having to prove ourselves, and the world knows this about us and so the world comes up with all this stuff – clothes that do more than keep you warm, cars that do more than get you from one place to another, neighborhoods that are more than just a place to live – and money is made, all kinds of money is made, because people like you and me want to make sure that our identity is secure. We have to fight to maintain a strong sense of who we are, and maybe we don’t ever hold a broken bottle up to anyone’s neck, but there’s more than one way to defend your sense of self-worth. Do you remember playing basketball? I was on this team and I made one shot all year for three years in a row, so at some point I realized that I just wasn’t good enough to keep playing and to preserve my pride or something I just quit, but I remember too that the first year that I played I didn’t care whether or not I was any good, I just played because it was fun. Before I let the world or the voice in my head care about so much I played just because it was fun. We have to be careful, because when our station in the world is based on how many points we score or how much money we make or what kind of relationship we’re in, defending our sense of self can take up a whole lot of time. So much time, that you might start hoping that there’s an alternative, and I believe that there is. A pastor came to visit me this week in my office. He’s a retired Lutheran pastor – he’s a really great guy and I could tell that he wished he were preaching today because he wanted to tell me all his best baptism stories. They were all powerful, and of course they were, we pastors get to witness all kinds of miracles, and he’s telling me this one story. He was taking a group of high school students to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City back in the 80’s. They stop at a McDonalds, and some of the students, at this point they are getting pretty comfortable with the neighborhood, they strike up a conversation with a homeless man sitting nearby. This pastor friend of mine goes to sit down with him too, and after a while, after all the students have wandered back to the church van, this homeless man says that he wants to show my friend something. Out from his pocket he pulls an old yellowed sheet of paper. He’s kept it in his wallet where your driver’s license would go. He unfolds it and he says to my friend, “This is who I am.” My friend reads the man’s paper, which turned out to be his certificate of baptism. Remember who you are. I tell you that every Sunday at the end of the service. I say, “I charge you now to remember always who you are,” and even though my friend Billy Frierson makes fun of me for it – I tell you this Sunday after Sunday anyway because in this world you need to remember – you need to remember your baptism because it is by the water of baptism that we really learn about identity. On the other hand, the world will look at you and judge your entire identity based on the clothes on your back, the car that you drive, the neighborhood that you live in. They’ll look you in the eye or pretend that you don’t exist based on nothing more than your appearance. Then they’ll count the money in your pocket and tell you you’re worth as much as you have or as much as you’re willing to spend. That’s why you have to remember who you are based on who God says you are. Jesus came with this winnowing fork in his hand – and with it he clears his threshing floor saving the wheat and burning the chaff and we always wonder whether we’re wheat or chaff, greaser or Socs, respectable or not, but that’s not what this is about. You see – the chaff – the chaff is the house, the car, the clothes, and everything else that you use to stand up to the Socs the way Ponyboy did with that bottle – all of that burns up to nothing sooner or later - and when it burns up, there’s only grain, or better yet, when it burns up there’s only water and when you come up from the water there are these words: “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” You spent all this time working for it, fighting for it – but you see, the Lord has been trying to give you for free all along. Here these words again from the Prophet Isaiah: But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, he who formed you, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Following a Star

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12, NT page 2 Sermon Title: Following a Star Through High School, College, and then Graduate School, the subject that gave me the most trouble was foreign language. As a high school sophomore I actually failed Spanish and had to retake it as a Junior. Then in College I nearly failed it again, and entered seminary with considerable anxiety because I knew that every student preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church would have to learn both Greek and Hebrew to graduate, two foreign languages. In the end, I did OK, but I complained a lot, and I assumed that it was English that was easy and these other languages – Spanish, Greek, and Hebrew – they were the ones that were so hard. I continued thinking that way until I really got to know my father-in-law who moved to Knoxville, Tennessee from South America and, in his first year of being here, took masters levels classes at the University of Tennessee. These classes, of course, were in, what was for him, a completely foreign language. Being from Columbia, South America, he grew up speaking Spanish, and before starting classes at UT he took an English emersion course and learned proper English. But here’s the thing about English – it’s one thing to learn English in the class room and it’s another thing to learn the English that people actually speak, and it’s another thing again to learn the English that people actually speak in Knoxville – I am sure that not one of his teachers taught him that “you-uns” is an appropriate 2nd person pronoun. I’ve told you before about the story that he tells of walking around downtown Knoxville. He was out buying a lamp for his desk and two ladies cornered him and asked him if he’d been saved. Having just opened a checking account his understanding of the word “saved” was very literal, based in finances, and assuming that being saved had something to do with a savings account, he told them that he did have a checking account but had yet to be saved. Then, on another occasion, he was going through the line at the UT cafeteria, he asked for biscuits and groovy, which is understandable, because there are so many words in the English language that sound similar but mean very different things. Advise – advice. Conscious – conscience. Lead – led. To – too – and two. English is complicated, so my father-in-law had to learn to laugh at himself, because the English language is full of intricacies that you can’t learn in a classroom, and still, after living here for nearly 40 years and speaking English every day, he’ll ask a question about this language that I assumed was easier than Spanish, Greek, or Hebrew. I’ve just read a great article to explain some of the challenge of the English language. The article, written by Dr. John McWhorter, celebrated professor of linguistics at Columbia University, begins with this: English speakers know that their language is odd. So do nonspeakers saddled with learning it. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a spelling bee. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal. While Dr. McWhorter is sure that English is not normal, many English speakers are like me, assuming that the other languages are the problem and that English is the one that makes sense. It was Texas Governor, Miriam A. Ferguson, who was famous for saying that if “English was good enough for Jesus than it is good enough for Texas School Children.” So you see, some are not just convinced that English is easier to understand than other languages, but are convinced that it is better and that the world should work to understand us and not vice-versa. The quote from Governor Ferguson represents generations who fear that the Spanish language, is taking over the United States, and this fear is rooted in reality. In June of this year the New York Post reported that our country now has more Spanish speakers than Spain, that we are second in Spanish speakers only to Mexico, and that by 2050 our country will be home to an estimated 138 million Spanish speakers. This shift is nothing if not dramatic and uncomfortable, but so many of the oddities of the English language can be explained because this is not exactly the first time its ever happened. Now surely, never before has our nation faced a migration of this magnitude before, unless you consider the way English swept away the language of the Native Americans, but Europe has faced such radical immigration before and our language reflects it. If you remember reading Beowulf in High School than you know already that Old English, essentially, a branch of German, is so unlike modern English that it now requires a translation – that Old English and Modern English are so different from one another that the two are virtually indistinguishable. And what spurred the change to make modern English so different from old English? Well, the Angles and Saxons who invaded what is now the United Kingdom, over time they blended their culture and language with those who were already there – the Celts, then the Vikings came bringing Old Norse, then the Romans brought Latin. Then the French came over and brought with them what I think are the most interesting oddities of the English language – have you ever wondered why a cow is called a cow until it is in your kitchen, when it is called beef, and a pig is called a pig until it is pork? According to Dr. McWhorter, we do so because, “English-speaking laborers did the slaughtering for moneyed French speakers at the table. The different ways of refereeing to meat depended on one’s place in the scheme of things, and those class distinctions have carried down to us in [this] discreet form today.” It’s amazing really. So many of our English words come from some other place, so an etymologist, or someone who studies the origins of words, has a lot to gain from studying our language because our words come from all over the place, whereas an etymologist has not nearly so much to do in a language like Arabic, where the words all came from the same place and remained basically unchanged from one generation to the next. English is, according to Dr. McWhorter, a polyglot smorgasbord, and smorgasbord is a word that we stole from Sweden, which proved an interesting point to me: that basically everything that I think makes our culture great, we stole from someone else! That’s the case with our language, but not only our language – think of the food that we call American – both the hamburger and the hot dog are German. The pizza is Italian. The French Fry – French. And then think of some of those things that are truly Southern, truly ours – like okra, but okra was brought here from Africa, stowed in the pockets of slaves. We have benefited, for just as the wise men came from the East, so the Nations have come, and brought things that we can use. Pigs were first domesticated in Europe and Asia, but they were not perfectly prepared for human consumption until the invention of southern barbeque. Horses were domesticated as far back as 3500 BCE in Central Europe, but no one learned to make them walk until they made it to Middle Tennessee. Our food, our language, our culture, has global roots, and we should be proud because it’s this ability to adapt and perfect what we’ve been given that makes us great, but we are not always so proud. In hearing our First Scripture Lesson from the book of Isaiah, that the “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” but we don’t rejoice when we see them coming. We say, “Well there goes the neighborhood.” I suppose that our focus cannot be so much on what might change, will change, or has changed already, but on the gifts that have been brought. The wise men came from another land entirely, and they knew something that so few understand even now, that he was a King – deserving of gold, and that he would die young and so he needed, so soon after his birth, frankincense and myrrh, the oil and incense that anoints the body for burial. You can tell by these gifts – like so many others brought here from some other place, some other nation – that even while he was misunderstood by his own, feared by King Herod, he was fully comprehended by the foreigner who saw in him, the light of the world. Today, our call is to see in him what they saw. While Herod saw in him a threat – they saw a promise. A hope. A King poised to change the world. Too often we are more like Herod than we are like the wise men. We look out on the world in fear, but these wise men saw that what had just come into the world had in fact made it better. Just as the foreign tongues of the world made English into English. Just as the immigrant brought with him the hamburger, the pig, and the horse. Just as the wise men brought him Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, so today these wise men bring us a new perspective on a very old story – that this one who has been born is bringing about something new that will make all rejoice. “Lift up your eyes and look around; They all gather together, they come to you; Then you shall be radiant; Your heart shall thrill and rejoice, Because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, The wealth of the nations shall come to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.