Sunday, April 24, 2016

What God has made clean

Scripture Lesson: Acts 11: 1-18, page 130 Sermon Title: What God has made clean Preached on 4/24/2016 I could make the statement that we live in a small world, but statements don’t always have the impact of a good story, so let me share with you a story. On Tuesday I went to the bank – and there I ran into long time member of First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Herald Pryor. Now that’s not the story. You already know that we live in a small town where you run into people you know in the bank. The point I want to make is that this is a small world, so here’s the rest of the story. Dr. Pryor asked me where I was last Sunday since there was a substitute preacher. I told him that the Session was gracious enough to want me to have a Sunday off, so I was able to go with my family to spend the weekend at Fall Creek Falls in the Cumberland Mountains. Dr. Pryor then shared with me this story: he was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany after World War II and was given a two week leave and he took the opportunity to travel to Switzerland. There he was taken aback by the majesty of the Swiss Alps, staying in a little hotel in Luceren (Lou-seern) called “The Beautiful Scenery” (that’s the English translation). Once, during his two week stay he had a table in the dining room and was there for the evening meal in his army uniform. Since he was there by himself an elderly couple who spoke English invited him to share their table. To make conversation Dr. Pryor was talking about how beautiful the scenery was, the mountains, the lakes, the snow, and the woman said to him that “yes it was beautiful, but not quite as beautiful as the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.” Isn’t that a wonderful story? And so you see that, yes, it is a small world, and the point is made by sharing a story – not launching into an argument, not by making a statement – and that’s important to remember because so often when we are trying to make a point we present data, accumulate facts, and should we become a little defensive in our opinions we might raise our voices to make our point, but in doing so, rather than convincing our friends and changing their mind, instead we may find that they no longer wants to be our friend. It’s true – get into a good political debate and see what happens. Challenge the taboo of talking about religion in mixed company and watch as the dinner guests excuse themselves from the table. If you make it your practice to tell people what’s on your mind you can get into trouble, but something different happens when you share a story. That’s what Peter does in the 11th Chapter of the book of Acts. “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” It’s hard for us to understand what circumcision has to do with anything – you might think this is a private issue not to be discussed in decent company, so even though we are in the midst of a bathroom debate at the state capital it’s still hard to understand why this issue of circumcision mattered so much to the early church, but it did. It mattered who you sat with, and if you were a man and wanted to be a Christian, at this point in time the thinking was that you first had to become a Jew and that meant circumcision. Here Peter disagrees with the norm. He and the Apostle Paul both contend in the Book of Acts that we are saved by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alone and not by the kosher food that we eat, not by any rite of purity or initiation involving the flesh, but rather than start an argument with these guys or try to make the theological point that stops them in their tracks, Peter just shares with them a story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’” Now, I’ve read some good Bible Scholars talk in some pretty profound terms about what this means for you and for me, but I’d rather share with you another story to help explain what I believe this Scripture lesson has to say. The year after I graduated college and before I started seminary, I worked for a high-end lawn maintenance company in Atlanta. Sara and I had just gotten married. Somehow we convinced her parents that marriage was a good idea – I was after all making $7.50 cents per hour. One morning I remember distinctly. I was approaching the shop a few minutes before 7 and I noticed that the car in front of me hit a rabbit and killed it. I didn’t think much about it, pulled into my normal parking spot and started loading up the lawn mowers, weed-eaters, and edgers on the truck I was assigned to drive like I did every day, when one of the guys on my crew rode up on his bicycle with one hand on the handle bar and the other holding that dead rabbit by the back legs. Before he would help me finish loading up the truck he wanted to clean that rabbit, and somehow or another he convinced me that it would be a good use of our time to stop by his apartment on our way to our first job so he could put the rabbit in his refrigerator. I had never seen anyone clean a rabbit, but I’ve grown up removed from agrarian culture. I’d also never eaten chitlins before Ron Neal taught me how, and I didn’t know folks ate rabbit either before that guy on my crew from a rural town on the gulf side of Mexico convinced me to stop by his apartment so he could put it in his refrigerator. I guess all that happened on a Tuesday, and at the end of the day on Friday my co-worker with the rabbit invited me back to his apartment for a drink and something to eat. I was too polite to refuse, but was pleasantly surprised to see that steak tacos were on the menu and not rabbit enchiladas. I was also surprised to see that not only my coworker but five other guys from the company all lived in that little one-bedroom apartment, the same size as the one Sara and I shared back then. I was invited to sit on one of the coveted couch seats, and by the end of the afternoon we had shared so much food and so many stories that we were no longer co-workers, we were friends. Miracles happen over shared meals and shared stories. The issue that Peter was facing: one group of believers was sitting at one table, the others at another and the divide was bridged with food a story, but today it’s not just that those who are a little different sit at different tables most of the time, but even families have a hard time sitting down to eat in one place and if that’s the case, are we friends or are we co-workers? Are we individuals or are we family? What was dividing the Church in the days of Peter was this issue of circumcision – and what divides us today? Everything. The great Bible Scholar and author of that well-read translation of Scripture called the Message, Dr. Eugene Peterson, shares the story of a time when his wife Jan was invited to speak at a women’s conference. These women all longed for advice regarding their families who it seemed were all the time running in different directions. “How can we be a stronger family,” they wanted to know. Jan just gave them one challenge – sit down and eat dinner together for at least 5 meals a week – but the ladies were incredulous and told her that doing so would be impossible. Can you believe that? But it’s true. That’s where we are, and I won’t try to convince you by arguing with you because all I have to do is tell you that in Chick-fil-a there are boxes on the table and if a family can place their phones in one of those boxes without removing them for an entire meal than the restaurant staff will reward them with a free ice cream cone. Who would have ever thought that a family would be rewarded for talking to each other at the dinner table? If you thought that it was strange that Peter be chastised for eating with uncircumcised believers how much stranger is it that today children and parents are forgetting how? I suppose that what was true then is still true today – there are forces in our world that are trying to pull us apart. But if we are pulled apart, forced to sit at different tables or drawn into isolation, numbed by television, seduced by the internet, disconnected from the people right next to us, are we not easy prey for the evil one? So God calls us to remember that we must not call unclean what God has made clean – and what God has made clean is not the table where you sit all alone – but the table where you are joined by people who already are or will quickly become family. Of course – that’s a lesson we have to be taught in today’s world because we are forgetting so much about community that we should have remembered, and Susie Baxter shared with me a story of a mother who was doing just that for her children. She took them out for a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen, but they wouldn’t say thank-you, nor did they so much as acknowledge the young woman at the cash register who handed them their desert. So the mother took the blizzards from her children’s hands, threw them in the trash, and explained “that one day, if they were lucky, they would work a job like that young lady. And I would hope that people would see them. Really see them. Look them in the eye and say thank you. [She said] we are too old to move through our days without exercising manners and basic human decency.” God calls us to relationships, because it’s relationships that matter, and to finish making my point let me share with you the rest of Dr. Pryor’s story: Through the course of his dinner in that Swiss hotel, Dr. Pryor learned that the English couple had three daughters, and that one had married a high ranking officer in Hitler’s military. They had given grandchildren to the elderly couple, and they asked Dr. Pryor to try and deliver a letter to this daughter married to the officer because while they longed to know how she and her family were, the infrastructure of much of Europe had crumbled during the war and they had been unable to make any contact. Dr. Pryor was diligent in tracking the couple’s daughter down, and as an officer in the army himself, he discovered where this German officer had been stationed, but on locating the town, he also learned that the place had been bombed to the ground and that the daughter and her family had likely not survived. But that’s not where the story ends. Several years later the details began to fade in Dr. Pryor’s memory. He told his wife that he knew something interesting had happened during his stay in Switzerland – something with an English couple who had a daughter who was married to an officer in Hitler’s military, but you know how details can get. Well, Larue Pryor just went to the place in her room where she stored all the letters he had sent her, because all those years later, she still cared about the stories he had shared with her. Now, in our world of fragmentation and isolation where friends are few and families are scattered, where everyone knows how to form an opinion but we are forgetting how to build a relationship, be mindful that while we are well trained in the work of building up walls, it seems to me that our God is so very interested in teaching us how to build bridges. My charge to you today is a simple one: eat together, share your story, and see what happens. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Follow me

Scripture Lessons: Acts 9: 1-6 and John 21: 1-19, NT pages 115-116 Sermon Title: Follow me Preached on: April 10, 2016 I was eating lunch and eavesdropping on the table in front of me. I’m not always so nosey, but sometimes I am, and this conversation was so loud and so interesting it was hard to ignore. It was between a young man who was sitting with two young women, and the young man said to these two young women, “She called me today,” and then he paused for dramatic emphasis, and I noticed myself leaning in just a little bit even though that was totally inappropriate. Then he continued: ““She called me today asking where the divorce papers were. I told her they were in my car, and so she said, “Well, when are you going to take them to the lawyer’s office?”” Then he leaned back and crossed his arms to position himself for dramatic effect, “So I said, I’ll get them to the lawyer’s office when I get around to it.” It would have been even more nosey if I would have said something at that moment, but here’s what I would have said if I were even more nosey than I am already. I would have said to that young man, “Is that how you prioritized her when you were married? Because if that’s how you treated her I’m not sure I blame her for wanting this divorce.” I’ll come home…when I get around to it. I’ll fold the laundry…when I get around to it. I’ll take you out for dinner…when I get around to it. I’ll say I love you…when I get around to it. Now that’s no way to be, but sometimes people are that way. The problem with having a lot of time (says the man who spent his lunch hour eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation) is that you create for yourself this illusion that you have plenty of it and so you can postpone the things that you really need to do. I had a baseball coach in high school. David Dunham was his name, and from time to time he’d hear from one of his players, “You know coach, mom and dad want me to quit the team because I don’t have enough time to study,” and Coach Dunham would respond, “You do whatever your parents think you need to do, but when I was in high school I had just enough time to study because of baseball practice and baseball games. In fact, outside of baseball I only had time to study, so during the season my grades actually went up because I didn’t waste any time doing nothing.” The great preacher William Sloane Coffin said about the same thing, but used fancier words: “Death is more friend than foe. Consider only the alternative – life without death. Life without death would be interminable – literally, figuratively. We’d take days just to get out of bed, weeks to decide “what’s next?” Students would never graduate, faculty meetings and all kinds of other gatherings would go on for months. Chances are, we’d be as bored as the ancient Greek gods and up to their same mischievous tricks. Death cannot be the enemy if it’s death that brings us to life. For just as without leave-taking there can be no arrival; without growing old there can be no growing-up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living.” “Without death there can be no living.” Think about that and hear again what Jesus says to Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” Now, why would Jesus say these things? Why would Jesus look this disciple in the eye and tell him how he would die, what life would be like in the end? What could be the point of telling Peter that in your last days “someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go?” Think for a moment about what this sounds like to you. It sounds to me like what life is now, right now, what life is now like for my grandfather. We were able to visit with him last week. Going to Charleston, SC – all the way to Charleston, SC is good for a number of reasons, but one reason it is so good to me is that I can go to my grandfather’s room at his nursing home, I can sit in the chair next to his, I can see his smiling face and I can hear his voice – but what is different now is that he is too deaf to hear mine. Not only that, while his memory is good enough to remember my face, I don’t know that he remembered my name, and when he does get up out of that chair he needs someone to help lift him, and when he walks down the hall he needs a walker to stabilize his steps, and when he gets dressed he needs someone to tighten his belt. “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” I am so thankful today that I have so many memories of my grandfather. On so many occasions he took the time to tell me that he loved me and he never hung up the phone without telling me that he was proud of me, and I say that I am thankful. For while he could. While he was able. During that time when he was fastening his own belt, he said what I needed to hear. Now here’s the message for Peter, and here’s the message for you and me – if we are lucky, we will grow old and we will stretch out our hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around us and take us where we do not wish to go, so we must quit fishing and follow Jesus. Did you notice that – did you notice that those disciples were fishing when Jesus showed up on the beach. This is the third time he appeared after rising from the dead, and after he taught them, fed them, kneeled and washed their feet, gave them his body broken and his blood for the forgiveness of their sins, and sent them out to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel to the world – what do they do but go back to the place where he found them in the first place as though nothing had happened at all – they just go back to those boats and fishing nets that he told them to drop way back in the Gospel of John chapter 1. What were they thinking? After all they had been through – all they had heard and all that they’d seen – how could they just go back to life as normal as though nothing had happened? Or maybe they said to themselves, “I’ll be a disciple, sure…just as soon as I get around to it.” You, me, none of us, have as much time as we think we have. My little girls who were just born yesterday – one can read books, they both can ride a bike without training wheels, and rarely does a week go by without someone saying, “don’t blink because they’ll be going off to college before you know it.” It just goes by so fast, so don’t say, “I’ll get them to Sunday School…just as soon as I get around to it” or you’ll be sending them off to college without any clue about who they are in the eyes of God and how they should be living. Don’t say, “Once I have a chance I’ll talk to them about growing up and what happens in parked cars and what they should stand for and what they should watch for and how they should be” or you’ll be sending them out into the world like innocent lambs in the midst of wolves. Don’t say, “I’ll visit grandpa just as soon as I have some time,” because you don’t know how much time he has, nor do you know how much time you have. And don’t say, “I’ll take some time to appreciate Dakota Hill one of these days” because the clock is ticking and Beethoven Jr. is about to move on to the next place. We just can’t go back to fishing because the sheep need to be fed, and if we really love Jesus – if we love him as Peter said he loved him – then it’s going to take waking up and doing something today because we may not have tomorrow. Without death there can be no living. So hear this: Someday you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go. We are not spectators to the Gospel, but participants in it. We are not just hearers of the Good News, but preachers of it. And while we live in a consumer culture – being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not only about what you stand to gain – it is also about what you might contribute. So if you are waiting to live as his disciple, if you are waiting to feed his sheep, if you are waiting to follow him – then don’t you dare wait any longer because before long we will all be like those led where we do not want to go so follow him now. Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Those who have not seen

Preached on April 3, 2016 Scripture Lessons: Acts 5: 27-32 and John 20: 24-31, NT page 115 Sermon Title: Those who have not seen Some names are easier to live down than others. Johnny Cash sings a song about a boy named Sue. Me, I went to school with a girl people called Cornbread. It’s true, and it’s awful, but kids can be mean, so this poor girl – in third grade someone caught her eating the leftover cornbread off another student’s tray in the school cafeteria and the name stuck, but not just through the rest of our third grade year, this girl was known as “Cornbread” until the year we graduated as Seniors in High School. One event – one miniscule event – that marked Tawanna Jones’ life (and at least as long as high school lasted branded her as Cornbread). The same is true of Thomas. What do you know about Thomas? Chances are, you know this one event, this one morning when the disciples told Thomas that the Lord had risen from the dead but Thomas, he doubted and the name stuck. Doubting Thomas. That’s who he is, that’s who we know him as, the name stuck and there’s nothing that he could do about it – but the thing about a nickname is that, like in the case of “Cornbread” sometimes these nicknames are meaner than they should be, but also, in the case of Thomas, there’s more to the story than what you may have heard – but to hear the rest of the story you have to do more than scratch the surface. That’s the case sometimes too. As we were driving to Charleston, SC last week we passed a place called “Hard Labor Creek.” Now there must be a good story behind that name, and when I saw the sign I wished I knew the Bob Duncan of Charleston, SC so I could ask him for the story behind the name. And not too far from Charleston is a place called Ibo’s Landing - this small place in St. Simon’s Island, GA – where I’m sure that there are plenty of people who like the name but have never had the courage to ask anyone where the name came from – that’s how a lot of people are – but once I read that the name comes from an event during the time of slave traders, when a slave ship was trying to bring her cargo to shore, but rather than walk to the shore the enslaved members of the Ibo tribe were said to have taken flight and flew right back to Africa. Now isn’t that a wonderful story. I’m sure that too many have never thought to ask and so many others were afraid to, and that’s one of the other things about a name – sometimes there’s a good story behind the name but in order to hear it you have to be brave enough to ask someone who knows. Thomas is like that. While we know one story about him very well, there are others. There are many others, but to get to those stories you have to be bold enough to go looking. Now if you look him up on the internet, you’re more likely to pull up articles about Thomas the Train, but if you dig a little deeper in the Gospel of John you’ll read that the first words that he speaks in the Gospel of John are in the 11th Chapter. A group of Jews are already plotting to stone Jesus if he returns to the region of Judea and while the other disciples advise Jesus not to go, Thomas is bold enough to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Based on this story we might call him Courageous Thomas because he was bold enough to follow Jesus when the other disciples were afraid, and in chapter 14 when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also.” You know these verses, because they begin nearly every funeral held in this sanctuary, but these verses are mysterious – how will we get there, where is he going, what is Jesus talking about you may have wondered. In these wonderments you are not alone, but what good is wondering if you only wonder and never get closer to an answer? In verse 5 Thomas puts our questions out in the open, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” If any here have ever longed for a man bold enough to ask for directions, here is your man – the Disciple Thomas – a man who asks questions, yes, but more precisely, a man courageous enough to ask the questions that we all want to ask, a man willing to speak openly the questions that others would only whisper, a man who is willing to boldly claim ignorance without thought to image or pretense. Does he lack faith as his nickname “Doubting Thomas” would lead us to believe? Or would a better name be something that celebrates this man who is courageous enough to ask questions that are on his mind? Maybe you know what a good quality this is. Certainly I do. The subjects that I struggled with the most throughout school were languages – Spanish in high school and college, Greek and Hebrew in Seminary, never did I show any great aptitude for translation or memorization and so embarrassed was I to not catch on to what I was supposed to be learning and what my fellow students were learning more quickly than I was that I was tempted not to ask questions for clarification when I was confused, but was often tempted to pretend that I knew what I was doing, to pretend that I understood when I didn’t, and rather than raise my hand I often chose to keep my pride and my ignorance intact. Think about what happens to people who ask questions in class – when he raises his hand the smart kids groan and roll their eyes, “Here he goes again – when is he going to get it?” The cool kids in the back of the class snicker a little bit wondering why he cares so much about learning all of a sudden. Maybe there are more students in the class who are struggling with the same question but are too afraid to ask because what I am saying here is true – it takes courage to doubt sometimes. It takes a willingness to subject yourself to some funny looks to ask a question that might make you appear dumb in front of the smart kids who already get it and that might make you seem like a loser in front of the cool kids who don’t care, but you know who will be impressed with your questions? Do you know who will be glad that you asked? The teacher. While I can imagine that Thomas would be scolded for his inability to trust his friends or that he would be lectured for his skepticism – for not just believing something he might never be able to know for sure – instead Christ enters the room and says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas then speaks what is known as the strongest statement of faith recorded in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God.” Here is an important lesson – when Thomas is honest about what stands in the way of his faithfulness – when he is honest about his doubt, Christ gives him exactly what he needs to believe. Sometimes we are so different – embarrassed that we don’t know already we sometimes choose instead to pretend that we do believe when we don’t, to understand when we still have questions, or that we don’t care about the answer when we do. If that’s the case, then we hide from Christ as the other disciples were hiding. Did you notice that? While Thomas was out the other disciples were present to see Christ the first time he came in our first scripture lesson because they were too afraid to go anywhere. The door was locked and the disciples were hiding behind it, but Christ walked right in to get to them. Always Jesus is seeking us, and always some of us are hiding. The disciples who were hiding behind the locked door are found – and Thomas, who must have been tempted to hide his questions is bold enough to speak them out into the open. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Do you know what that is like? When everyone else seems to know and understand by you don’t – do you pretend to know or do you speak? Did Thomas choose to keep his pride and his ignorance intact? No – he was bold to reveal his ignorance, his humanity, and when he spoke of the faith in him that was fragile - the Lord made his faith stronger saying to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” I wonder – do we have courage enough to do the same? Some do. Back in February Monty Williams, Assistant Coach for Oklahoma City’s professional basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, spoke at his wife’s funeral after she died suddenly in a car accident. He spoke not as a man with a lot of answers so much as one with a lot of questions, but he chose to speak at the funeral nonetheless. He said, “During times like this, it’s easy to forget that because what we’ve gone through is pretty touch and it’s hard and we want an answer. We don’t always get that answer when we want it…” Still he said, “All of this will work out. As hard as this is for me and my family and for you, this will work out. I know this because I’ve seen this in my life…back in 1990, at the University of Notre Dame, I had a doctor look me in the face and say, “You’re gonna die if you keep playing basketball.” And I had testing done. Test after test, shipping me all over the place trying to find a way for me to play, and it didn’t work out. And I kept that from Ingrid [who later became my wife]. She knew I was having some tests done, but she didn’t know the severity of the situation. So, my career was over at the age of 18, and we had a press conference, and I left the press conference by myself and I went to her dorm room and I told her what happened. And the very next word out of her mouth after we probably cried a little bit, she said, “Honey, Jesus can heal your heart.” Now the lesson that I learn from that story is the same lesson that I learn from our second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of John – the important thing is not whether or not you know all the answers, the important thing is whether or not you have the courage to turn to the one who does. Because we cannot comprehend cancer. Rarely, if ever, is there a good explanation for tragedy. I cannot understand heartbreak, debilitating poverty, injustice, slavery, kidnappings, human trafficking, or casual lay-offs. I don’t know why life can be so hard, death can come so fast, or illness can last forever. So what do we do? We pour out our questions, our doubts, and our struggles to the one we can be honest with when we have no way of understanding on our own. We Christians have been labeled as ignorant and afraid by the world, but we have such strong examples of faith to follow – one who in his not knowing was courageous enough to kneel before the Christ in hopes of finding an answer. If we are those who have not seen but might still believe, then let us be like Thomas – taking our questions, our humanity, our feeble minds and doubting hearts all to the Lord in prayer.