Sunday, March 27, 2016

Can you go back home?

Preached on 3/27/16 – Easter Sunday Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 25: 6-9 and John 20: 1-18, NT pages 114-115 Sermon Title: Can you go back home? Have you ever felt like you just aren’t ready to go back home yet? Sometimes you want to go home, you need to go home, but other times you just can’t go back home. You just aren’t ready to go back home yet. I can think about instances in the Bible when going back home was hard, like with the Prodigal Son, who for shame didn’t want to go back home, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. What I’m thinking about is when you can’t go back home because something has changed, like when Abraham is called by God to the Promised Land and so he can’t go back to the land of Ur because he’s had a vision of a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky, and so he can’t go back home. I’m thinking about how there are times when your team loses, and they lose by a lot, and you can’t get out of that stadium quick enough, but then there are other times when your team wins, and it’s a big win, and then you leave the stadium but aren’t ready to go back home so you take the celebration out to the streets. Have you ever felt like that? Like you just aren’t ready to go back home yet? Like when she said, “I do.” Maybe you couldn’t wait to go home because you wanted to tell your mother or maybe you weren’t ready to go back home yet because you wanted to climb to the top of a mountain and howl at the moon. Or the first time you got the keys to the car. Do you remember that? I had a friend growing up named Dave Elliot and he was so proud of his used truck that he could now legally drive that he drove and drove going nowhere in particular on the day he got his license so that he had burned an entire tank of fuel just because he wasn’t ready to go back home yet. Think about it – sometimes you can’t wait to get home so you can hide under the blankets or eat a pint of ice cream in your P.J.’s – that’s one thing. But other times, you just aren’t ready to go back home yet because something has happened. Something has changed. Did you notice that when the two disciples – Simon Peter and the other disciple who reached the tomb first, when they bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself, we read in verse 10 that “Then the disciples returned to their homes.” It says that after seeing the empty tomb that the other disciple who reached the tomb first “saw and believed” but what could he have believed if he saw that empty tomb and just went right back home? To go right back home – is that the response the Risen Lord desires? Now, part of me can’t wait to get back home because Sara made a ham, but here’s the thing that we all need to remember – this is Easter – and something is different. We can’t just go back home, but some of us do. This past week we had noontime community worship services. Pastor Dennis Lawson of St. Paul AME preached from this pulpit on Tuesday and he talked about giving up something for Lent, and he asked if our Lenten discipline of giving up something for the 40 days of Lent is truly worshipful if after going without chocolate or cream or sugar for 40 days we pick it right back up on Easter morning. Is it right to return to normal today? To just go back home? Something has happened – and we don’t understand it completely if we can hear this good news and then get right back to life as usual. The Gospel of John explains it this way in verse 9: “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary – Mary stood weeping outside the tomb... “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” said a voice from a man she assumed was a gardener, but then Jesus said to her, “Mary!” And “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Now which is it for you? Will you leave here today to go out into the world, knowing in your heart that you have seen the Lord who has risen from the grave to conquer sin and death, or will you just go on back home? Will you leave here today to get back in that car, pull out into the road and resume the stressful commute that makes your shoulders ache with tension – or will you be mindful of the gift of this day? Will you go back home, rush to get the food ready, eat as fast as you can with the mother-in-law that you resent and the cousins who chew with their mouths open – or, will you look around at the dinner table and see the brothers and sisters who the Lord looked upon and called beloved? Will you stay in the shadow of anger and resentment or will you rise to praise the Lord? Will you keep holding on to frustration or will you open your eyes to blessings? Will you look into the tomb and see death and destruction, hopelessness and heartache and long to crawl back under the covers – or will you join the choirs of angels who sing “He is risen! He is Risen indeed!”? There he was right before Mary. At first she thought he was the gardener; did you notice that? Some Bible scholars believe that this case of mistaken identity is to remind us of a garden from long ago – the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were given the opportunity to live in joyful obedience but chose instead to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God punished them as they fell and exiled them from the Garden, but the author of the Gospel of John bids us to return there because we don’t need to leave this tomb to go back to punishment, exile, or even life as usual. Instead, the Lord calls us from this place to someplace altogether new, altogether beautiful, altogether different. Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” and because of him and what he has done, you will go there too. Hear again these words from the prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on his mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” You see, you can’t just return home, because Christ has made you a citizen of the kingdom of Heaven. You can’t return to sin, because Christ has freed you by his grace. You can’t return to the past, because Christ has opened the door to the future. Instead of just going back home, let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation. Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

As he came near

Sermon for 3/20/16 – Palm Sunday Scripture Lessons: Luke 19: 28-40 and 41-44, NT page 83 Title: As he came near I’ve been enjoying poetry lately, which I haven’t always done, but for the past couple months I’ve really gotten a lot out of the poetry of Jeff Hardin, a local guy who teaches at Columbia State. In a poem I read last week I think he captured something about life these days. It’s titled “Reliable Citizen of the Times”: I wrote this poem while talking on my cell. And did I mention I was driving too while leafing pages of a magazine and scarfing down a clutch of curly fries? Authorities are watching me on screens that track my round-the-city whereabouts, reliable citizen of the times, preoccupied and fleet, an Orpheus regaling my pursuits through GPS. And somewhere databases keeping dibs have stored my mocha latte purchases. I’m dazzled, truly, that so much is known of me – I’m texting my acceptance speech here in the turning lane now turning green. I like this poem for a lot of reasons, but mostly I like the poem because it says something concisely that I know to be true – that these are strange times we are living in. The 21st Century so far has been a place where we are often too busy to really pay attention to much of anything, even the fellow motorists who are driving around us, and it seems like everyone is suffering from some degree of attention deficit disorder as we try to drive while also talking on our cell phones, leafing through pages of a magazine, and eating the curly fries we picked up in the drive-through because we don’t have time enough to sit down and eat at a table. And not only that, our lives, regardless of how boring or exciting, are documented to a new degree so much so that we no longer think twice upon realizing that we are on camera, we don’t hesitate to plug our coordinates into a GPS that tracks our location through satellites, and aren’t surprised that some file somewhere has accounted for and is keeping track of our recent debit or credit card purchases. This might strike you as strange if you compare life today to how things were just 25 or 50 years ago, but it doesn’t always strike me as strange. These days it mostly strikes me as normal, and so I laughed when Ron Swanson, fictional character portrayed on the NBC show “Parks and Recreation,” threw his computer into the dumpster and started using only a typewriter when he learned that the internet was tracking his on-line purchases. We are either complacent in the changes of our society or we resist them, and there have always been those who resist. Back in 2007 there was a man in Sydney, Australia who got in his own armored tank and with it tore down six cell phone towers in protest before being arrested while on his way to the seventh. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t use computers because they don’t know how to use them, or they aren’t on Facebook because it’s too confusing, but maybe there is a better reason to second guess recent advances in technology. My favorite line of Jeff Hardin’s poem is this: I’m dazzled, truly, that so much is known of me – I’m texting my acceptance speech here in the turning lane now turning green. Journalist Leonard Pitts made the case years ago that social media gives us a false sense of celebrity, making us feel like people are paying attention to what we are saying, that we are being paid attention to by people who we don’t even know, that hundreds of people like our pictures and hundreds more on Facebook are really our friends, so why not begin working on our acceptance speeches if we are so important? I imagine that we don’t because we know that those who are on social media are as fickle as people are in real life, and that our friends on Facebook, our followers on Instagram, are not really either, because popularity on the internet is a lot like popularity in High School – it’s there one minute but it could be gone the next. I think you can imagine from this morning’s scripture lessons, that Jesus would not have bought into any of this, that he would have seen through it, just as he could see right though the crowds’ cries of Hosanna the closer he got to Jerusalem. From the Gospel of Luke, we read: “As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it” saying “you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” There’s no acceptance speech given. There’s no triumph in his voice. In fact, there are tears in his eyes for just the second time in the Gospel of Luke, because he’s not excited by all this celebration and attention but knows the human heart well enough to say to himself, “Just because they are celebrating me today, they will be shouting for my crucifixion in just a matter of time.” Here’s the thing that hasn’t changed. The advances of 21st century technology, advanced techniques for political polling, news reported at a moment’s notice, social media that enables people to connect in new and varied ways – these things also illustrate clearly that people haven’t really changed in the last 2,000 years. We are as fickle now as we have always been – popularity comes and goes – as does the human heart so one day we are like Mary, pouring out $10,000 worth of perfume onto the Lord’s feet, but the very next we may well be like Judas, orchestrating the betrayal that leads to his death. It’s true that on Palm Sunday they all shouted and they were all by his side, but during his trial they hid and in the end, even Peter betrayed him three times. Where is loyalty? we ask. Or, if the human heart is prone to be so fickle, why is Jesus so faithful? And – if Jesus, knew the human heart, knew that this crowd who is with him today will be against him later, remains true to us despite our swaying loyalty, why would we be loyal to anyone or anything else? Considering the issues of today, it’s important to see that the politician who pleases you one day is likely to disappoint you the next. The sports team will change course and lose not just the game but also the moral high ground. And while the 21st Century has made heroes out of humans. Celebrities out of housewives. And saviors out of the fallible, why would you put your faith in anyone or anything besides this holy man, this Son of God, who knows the human heart, the depravity of human kind, the prodigal son and the woman caught in adultery, but still he rides on. With tears in his eyes he rides toward that cross and towards his death because he is more for you than anyone else will ever be. He did not ride on because he was misguided or confused. He did not ride towards his death because he was prone to tragedy. He rode on for love, because even the fickle heart that beats within our chest is beloved by God. For me and for you, he rode onward towards the cross. Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Do you perceive it?

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 43: 16-21 and John 12: 1-8, NT page 106 Sermon Title: Do you perceive it? I’ve heard a lot of Jim Jones stories lately. Stories seem like a place to find comfort in the time of death, and there are plenty of great Jim Jones stories, but my favorite one took place before he was a Navy Captain, before he was the Commodore of the Pensacola Naval Base. My favorite story about Jim Jones is from back in the days when he was just a young boy wadding up and down Snow Creek hunting for mink or whatever else. One morning on his way to school Jim came across a skunk with a fur so pretty he couldn’t pass it up, so he took it with him to the Santa Fe school and skinned it in the boy’s bathroom. They had to evacuate the school that day, and I can understand why. The smell of a skunk assaults the senses, you can’t concentrate on math problems or literature, and I wonder how long school had to be cancelled – did it take days or weeks before the smell of Jim’s skunk finally dissipated? If we say it took days before the smell of that one skunk finally left the halls of the Santa Fe School, how long did it take until the smell of Mary’s perfume was gone? Smells, whether bad ones or good ones, they stick around, and if the smell of one skunk caused the evacuation of an entire school, what effect did a pound of pure nard have on the house of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha? And what is nard exactly anyway? Nard is a perfume made from a plant called spikenard or musk-root that grows in the Himalayas of China, India, and Nepal. Because of its distant origins, even a little of this oil would have been expensive. A small vile might have cost a week’s wages, but we know from Judas’ observation that Mary poured three hundred denarii’s worth, a full year’s salary for a low wager worker in that region and some Bible scholars say that those 300 denarii would be worth as much as $10,000 today. $10,000. Can you imagine what $10,000 worth of perfume all poured out at once must have smelled like? How it must have filled the room? How it much have filled the house? How it much have filled the neighborhood? Nard is a thick oil, resinous, not something that you’d get sprayed on you when walking through Macy’s, but like an essential oil and fully strong enough to cover the odor of an unbathed human body, worthy of anointing the heads of kings, but only used on the feet of the dead to cover the smell of decomposition. $10,000 dollars of the oil poured out on the feet of a living man. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks, and while the Bible tells us that he “said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief” I think he raises a good point. Why was this perfume not sold? Why was it, all of it, poured out on the feet of one man who wasn’t even dead? There’s a bottle of cologne that’s been sitting on the counter of my father-in-law’s bathroom for all the years that I’ve known him. It must have been full once, maybe 20 years ago, but even now there’s plenty left in that bottle because we use what is precious sparingly, we don’t just pour it out. Or, maybe we do, if we know that we don’t have 20 years. Our Scripture passage begins, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany.” Six days before the Passover. Six days before he sat at the table with his disciples. Six days before one of them betrayed him. Six days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He had six days left – and when time gets short you have to do everything you can to make sure that the ones you love know how much you love them. That the ones you love know you understand them, and that was a struggle that Jesus faced from the beginning of the Gospel of John – in chapter 1 the Lord is described as the light shining in the darkness, and while the darkness did not overcome the light, neither did the darkness comprehend it. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” reads verse 11 of the same chapter in the King James Version, but while so many did not receive him and did not understand him Mary knew. Mary knew exactly who he was, and to say goodbye, to express those feelings that words cannot express, she poured out $10,000 worth of perfume onto his feet and wiped them with her hair. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and the smell must have lingered there. And if it did, then that is the advantage of this gift over so many others. You give a young child a present, no matter how much thought you put into it, how much time you spent picking or out, or how much money it cost, he loses interest in a matter of time and starts playing with the paper the present was wrapped in. Or the church choir “labors to prepare an intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone,” not permanent but temporary, passing, here and then gone, but the smell of Mary’s gift, it lingered there, for weeks if not months, and just days later as he suffered on the cross, rejected and tried as a criminal, did the smell linger still? Did a gust of wind catch the sweet smell that remained on his feet to remind him even as he breathed his last that he was loved, that he was understood, that despite humanity’s cruelty and betrayal there is also alive in us the potential to love so deeply, to pour out everything that we have? At the church I served outside of Atlanta there was the funeral for a young woman, wife and mother who died of cancer. Her husband asked to speak at the end of the funeral service, so before the congregation he stood and he said that some people wondered how he was able to be by her side for all those hours just watching her suffer. The trips to the hospital, the tubes and the drugs. The rattle of her lungs in those last hours, he was there through it all and people would ask him, “how did you do it?” “I loved her, and I would have given her more even, simply because I loved her so much.” I’ve seen love like that more than once. And I wonder how is it that we are capable of such love on the one hand and capable of evil on the other. How that could be I do not know, but both are there in the Cross of Jesus. Both the inhumanity of mankind to nail the Son of God onto those boards, but also there is love – the extravagant love of one who did not hold anything back but poured out everything he had that you might know how much he loved you. It’s true that by so many he was misunderstood, but do not let this be the case with you. Every time you look to this cross, may the love of God linger. May the love of God in our Lord Jesus Christ live in your heart today as it lived in Mary’s heart. Unto him she poured out everything she had, and so truly, unto us, he poured out even his blood that our sins might be forgiven, that we might know our worth in the sight of God. This is a gift. It is an extravagant gift, given to you. Amen.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Everything old has passed away

Scripture Lessons: 2nd Corinthians 5: 16-21 and Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 Sermon Title: Everything old has passed away It is a particular feeling to walk into a waiting room and to notice that there is only one other person in there with you. I walked into a waiting room last week with a book. I was on time for my appointment, but sometimes doctors run late, so I was looking forward to reading a few pages of this thick Bible commentary on the Gospel of Luke, and I was averting my eyes from the smiling man who was also waiting to be called back, because I didn’t really want to small talk, I wanted to read, but, as I was signing in, determined not to start a conversation I hear, “Now that looks like a serious book.” I was caught. It’s not really that I’m antisocial. But don’t you sometimes just want to read and be quiet? However, I was raised not to be rude. If someone speaks to you, you speak to them, and I turned my head and he told me that he never reads much besides the Bible, and then I thought, “now I’ve really been caught.” When you’re a preacher caught by a smiling Christian man who is eager to share the Gospel with you, it’s not always clear to me exactly what I should do. How do you say, “Thank you for being courageous enough to share your faith, but I don’t really want to hear about it right now because I’m a preacher and faith is all I ever get to talk about”? You can’t say that, because you have to listen even if you don’t want to, and this is especially true for us because Presbyterians aren’t much for talking about our faith and we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who do, so I listened to the man – of course, I didn’t really have any other choice – but I’m glad I listened because he said the most beautiful thing about the Bible: “Every day I wake up eager to read Scripture because every day it tells me what God is like, and how we should be.” I hate to get caught, but sometimes I love it once I am, because rather than just read what the Bible scholars have said about our Second Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Luke, this smiling man provided me with a new framework to understand this tried and true story, this story of the Prodigal Son and his father that the great reformer Martin Luther called, “The Gospel Encapsulated,” because this story so truly tells us “What God is like, and how we should be.” First – what God is like. According to the parable, God is like a father, and just two weeks ago Jesus compared himself to a “mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wing” which offers us a metaphor to understand God, just as this parable about a father offers us a slightly different metaphor to understand what God is like. God is like a father, but a very particular kind of father. God is not like the father who comes in late for dinner, sits down at the head of the table, and promptly flies into a rage because the food is cold. God is not like the father who was never around. God is not like the father who loved you if your grades were good but disowned you when your grades were bad. I played baseball for years and years, and I saw so many different versions of fathers out on the little league baseball field. Some were reliving past glories through their sons, others never had time to show up, and one evening game when I was 8 or 9 and playing left field, I remember this one dad who yelled to his son as he stepped up to the batter’s box and while pointing to me he said – “hit it to that kid, it looks like he’s asleep out there!” If God is like a father, what kind of father is God like? To answer that question, we have to really get to the heart of what this son did. To start, when the son goes to his father asking for his inheritance, the son is basically saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead. If you were I could receive land and money, so would you just give me all that I stand to inherit now?” The father obliges, and I think the father shouldn’t have. Have you ever heard of a father who did anything like that? And then, what does the son do with the father’s kindness? He liquidates his assets – the property is sold and those who lived on the land for who knows how many generations, where do they go? Then, to make it worse, what does this son do – he takes the money and squanders it. He wastes it. All that money. All the work that the father put into earning and maintaining his legacy – where does it go but up in a puff of smoke that the Bible calls “dissolute living.” If ever there was a way to squander money it is dissolute living. This chain of unfortunate events leads us to the other part of our framework for understanding this Scripture Lesson: How should we be. If we are like a son who inherited wealth and property only to sell it and waste it away, we have two options: stay in the pig slop, just sleep in the bed that we’ve made for ourselves where no one knows us and no one will make us pay for what we’ve done, or, return to the father and be caught in our sin. You see the two options – and you see the danger in both. On the one hand there is the pig slop with the pods that the pigs were eating. Those can look good enough if you are choosing between living there in the pen and eating slop and returning home and owning up to what you’ve done. That’s not always an attractive option, and sometimes it’s not an option at all. This other option is to return home where everyone knows what you did. Where they’ll probably hate you and your father will probably disown you. To be caught is to be caught in your wrong doing, your sin, your pathetic mistake. So badly what I want when I find myself in this kind of situation is to hit a re-set button and start the whole thing over – if only I had never asked my father for my inheritance, if only I had never left my father’s house, but I have – so now there are only two options, stay in the misery that I have created for myself or return and face the music. How should we be? We should return home. Now that’s not how the world sees it, but the ways of God and the ways of the world are not the same. According to the world, the one who has been caught in wrong doing is most often dismissed, never seen from again, and never has to return home to try and make a new life out of the wreckage of his mistakes so they just go someplace else where no one knows who they are or what they’ve done. Even the church sometimes mimics the world in this regard, and maybe that’s how it sometimes has to be, but that is not how it should ever be with God, because God is like a particular kind of father. Let me tell you what I mean. I was young, 6 or 7, but somehow I was strong enough to climb up on our next-door-neighbor’s garage, and while up there I got the stupid idea to pull off the shingles of this garage threw them down into the neighbor’s yard. It was one of those things that was really fun to do, because if you’ve ever thrown a shingle you know that they spin kind of like Frisbees, so once you start it’s hard to stop, but once you do stop you realize what you’ve done and you worry about getting caught. Not only are you destroying property, you’re up on a garage roof! So after doing this I was consumed by guilt and the fear of getting caught. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want anyone to see. I imagined that we’d have to move away or something because in my mind, once you’ve been caught there is no way back to where you used to be. But hear the Scripture Lesson again and ask the question: what is God like? When the son returns, the father rushed out to this prodigal son, and wrapped him in his arms. So what if getting caught is something like jumping down from your neighbor’s garage until you are wrapped in the arms of the Father? What if when we are finally caught, we are caught by the grace of God? Oh to be caught. How we fear it, but how wonderful it can be. Everything old has passed away, and only love remains. Do you believe it? Is this good news too good? It was for the Prodigal Son’s brother as we all well know, but if the Father can forgive, then why can’t we? Why not accept the abundant grace of God and share such grace with your neighbor? Amen.