Sunday, May 29, 2016

The god who answers by fire

Scripture Lesson: Galatians 1: 1-12 and 1st Kings 18: 20-39, OT page 325 Sermon Title: The god who answers by fire Preached on 5/29/2016 I was folding laundry last Friday and the only thing that makes folding laundry tolerable to me is finding something good to watch on TV while I fold. After surfing through the channels I ended up settling on Rambo 3, which means really I was unable to find anything good to watch on TV while I folded laundry. If you’re unfamiliar with the Rambo movies, the only background that you need to know is that they came out in the 1980’s and star Sylvester Stallone, and in these movies he is a one-man army, having been trained for the special forces during the Vietnam War. In Rambo 3 this idea that he is a one-man army really gets blown out of proportion as he faces this entire regiment of the Soviet Union’s military – they have tanks, a helicopter, several hundred armed men – all talking in those harsh Hollywood versions of Russian accents and all laughing in the face of Rambo who stands virtually alone, accompanied only by an injured guy who was his commanding officer back in Vietnam. The movie ends with a face-off between Rambo, who at this point has commandeered a tank, and the last surviving Soviet who is in a helicopter – one is coming from one direction the other opposite, neither backing off until they collide in a huge explosion of fire from which Rambo emerges unscathed. I tell you this because I was struck that in a very strange way, there’s actually a couple things that Rambo and our 2nd Scripture Lesson have in common. They both end in a fire – a fire that signals victory for the one man who faced an entire army. Of course the comparison ends there, especially when you think about how the battle worked in the case of Rambo. For one thing, in the case of Rambo the enemy was clear. The Soviets had invaded from the outside, and they could be fought out on a battle field. Biblically speaking, such an enemy as this would be like the Philistines who once invaded and encroached on Israel’s promised land and had to be fought in the valley of Elah where little David brought the Giant Goliath to his knees. This kind of enemy makes the best kind of movies, but the Prophets of Baal are different. Fighting them is more like how a body fights cancer, how a nation fight terrorism, or how a mother protects her child from the neighborhood around them – the enemy that the Prophet Elijah is trying to defeat has so infiltrated his own country that he is trying to save his homeland from what she has become which is different from defending it against a foreign army. The Prophets of Baal were absorbed into the culture, accepted as neighbors, and even held high office in the land for the source of this corruption was married to the King of Israel. You know what this kind of situation is like. It’s a gradual kind of invasion. Your son comes home from school on a Friday and tells you that he’s been invited over to spend the night at a friend’s house. “What about going to the synagogue the morning?” his mother asks. The son says “that his friend’s parents will take him to the temple where they worship Baal” and mom and dad say, “We’ll that’s a little different,” but they figure it’s probably good enough. After all, at work dad’s been dealing with the same kind of thing. He’s been passed up for a promotion because he insists on following that old time religion with Moses and the 10 Commandments while his co-workers who are trying out this new thing imported by Queen Jezebel are getting the nod from the king. “Sure it’s a little different”, they say “but what’s the big deal?” According to our Second Scripture Lesson the big deal is that this new religion is empty. It can’t deliver on the promises that it’s made so the Prophet Elijah stands before all the people and says, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” What Elijah is doing is not giving a lecture to guilt the people back into righteousness, but he is instead calling for a contest to prove that the gods they are turning to aren’t even real. To do so he calls for two bulls on two alters. The lone prophet, Elijah, will be calling out to his God to light the fire and roast one bull while the 450 prophets of Baal will be calling out to their god to light the other and “the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” Now I can see the genius in this scenario, but it also makes me a little bit nervous. Just the other day a friend told me that if she never applies she never has to open the rejection letter – so this scenario makes me a little bit nervous because it is a moment where everything is put on the line. However, I also know how this is going to turn out, and that’s not just because I’ve read the story a few times but because I know that there are gods who claim to answer by fire but who cannot and never will and that there is another God who promises to do so and will again and again. Most people would rather see a movie where the good guy just shoots the bad guy, but this approach that Elijah takes – just asking the question of whether or not the object of your devotion deserves your devotion is one that we can use every day because I know that there is so much in my life that doesn’t do me any good but that I continue to pay homage to without much thought. So Elijah just forces the issue: follow the real God. Follow the God that can actually deliver on his promises. Which is a thought that I’d like to bring up with everyone who isn’t at church right now but is out shopping at Walmart instead. I’d like to remind them that where your treasure is there your heart will also be – and I for one do not want to die only to wake up in Walmart instead of heaven. If ever there was a religion to compare to the worship of Baal, one that had infiltrated the hearts and minds of a nation without too much of anyone noticing, it is this religion of consumerism. The rituals of this religion are clear: you spend your way to salvation, buy yourself some happiness, and relieve your anxieties through shopping therapy. It’s been claimed that today we spend enough on diet merchandise to solve most of the world’s hunger problems, and the worst part is that those diets don’t even work. We drive the car off the lot and some get brought low by a case of buyer’s remorse or loath the payments that keep coming month after month because they thought they were buying more than a means of transportation – they thought they were buying something that could make them happy. We sign away our future on a high interest loan so we can get the stuff that everyone else has and we end up like everyone else – in debt up to our eyeballs and kept up at night by mounting payments. Could we outlaw the cult of consumerism that has invaded our entire nation? Or might it be more effective to just ask this question: “will consumerism answer with fire?” Will it supply us with what it has promised? Or will we end up with an empty wallet and a basement full of stuff that we’ll eventually throw away remembering the old saying that the two happiest days in the life of a boat owner are the day he bought it and the day he got rid of it? As much as things have changed in the 2500 years since our 2nd Scripture Lesson was written things have really stayed the same. At least two if not all of the great theologians of the 20th Century, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr agreed that the most damaging sin facing humanity is still that of idolatry – where we expect salvation to come from places where it simply never will. And rather than turn to the only source of salvation, the living God, we continue bowing at the altar of the idols created by human hands forsaking the creator for what has been created – and the worst part of all is that while we spend our time and our money on idols we’re not even getting anything in return. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they had more stuff. No one breathes their last breath worried about the fate of the junk in their storage unit. In the last moments the regrets are always the same – I should have spent more time loving the people who I love and making a difference in this world while I had the chance – so there’s a message here from the Prophet Elijah for all of us: turn to the God who answers by fire, who can actually deliver on his promises and drop those values within our culture that just aren’t valuable. And there are so many. In our world today we’ve absorbed all this junk. We hear about forgiveness on Sunday morning but the TV shows and movies who preach a gospel of revenge have a much larger audience. Once again – there’s one prophet on one side and 450 on the other. What can the lone prophet say but ask the question: “In choosing vengeance do you get anything in return? Will vengeance answer with fire?” And in asking this simple question this holy man of God helps us to see what works and what doesn’t in a culture that has adopted so many lies as truth. Rather than bow before the God who created the human body and gave it life, we bow before the human body, join the cult of youth and beauty, adhere to the discipline of attaining acceptance and popularity, and watch as young men and young women adopt the heretical belief that it doesn’t matter so much whether you like yourself so much as whether everyone else likes you. They say: It doesn’t matter how you feel so much as how you look. It doesn’t matter what’s between your ears so much as what’s everywhere else. And I hate to think about how superficial our whole culture has become with more emphasis on youth and skin cream and the habit of looking in the mirror and seeing what’s wrong rather than what’s right, and there aren’t just 450 prophets proclaiming the gospel of superficiality – there is a corporate machine that preaches on magazine covers and commercials and bill boards so all-encompassing that some will risk their lives just to look how they think they are supposed to look. What would Elijah do? Simply ask if this cult will ever give a return on what it’s promised, and some will wait all day for beauty to equal happiness but this god will never answer by fire because you can’t get what you need until you look in the mirror and accept what you see. The prophetic battle wages – and it’s not like that of World War I where the battle field was Flanders’s Field or Lorraine all across an ocean and waged at a visible enemy. A war like the first World War has a clear battle field, a clear enemy, and even the costs of the war are more easily determined. We can just walk into the Narthex of our church to read the names of those young men who this church lost in defending our country during World War 1. On the day before Memorial Day we are mindful of all those who we’ve lost in war, but we must also be mindful of all those who we have lost and are losing because of passed down values that have no value and devotion to gods who can’t answer by fire. That’s what happened up on the mountain, and when Baal failed to light the altar Elijah mocked his prophets saying, “Cry aloud! Surely his is god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then the prophets cried even louder, but “there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” So also, every time we go expecting to be filled up by the approval of others, the altar remains unlit. Every time we think we can buy our way to satisfaction we can cry and shout and shout and cry until there’s nothing left but still there will be no answer. And every time we go putting our hope in human power – the politician, the pastor, the friend, or ourselves we will be left disappointed – so this must go for you just as it must go for me: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. For each and every time we kneel before the creator. Each and every time we bow before the father. Each and every time we call out to Hosanna, Lord of All, righteous judge of the nations, shepherd to his people we will know the God who answers by fire. We have to stop being consumers and start being Christians. We have to stop obsessing about the flaws of our appearance and focus instead on his wounds which bring us life. We have to stop looking for love in all the wrong places, because there’s only one place where we’ll ever find it. “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” Amen.

Monday, May 23, 2016

May understanding raise her voice

Scripture Lesson: Romans 5: 1-5 and Proverbs 8: 22-36, OT page 591 Sermon Title: May understanding raise her voice Preached on 5/22/16 This lesson from the book of Proverbs is appropriate for Trinity Sunday (which is today), because it’s been assumed for generations that this “wisdom” who calls and “raises her voice” in verse 1 is the third person of the Trinity or God the Holy Spirit. In this second Scripture lesson she accompanies the first person of the Trinity, God the Creator, through the great acts of creating the world, the land the sea, plant and animal life as well as human kind. So our passage reads: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, The first of his acts of long ago. When there were no depths I was brought forth, Before the mountains had been shaped” And then the Proverb goes further, detailing Wisdom’s unique role in creation: When he drew a circle on the face of the deep When he made firm the skies above When he assigned to the sea its limit So that the waters might not transgress his command When he marked out the foundations of the earth Then I was beside him, like a master worker.” This passage from Proverbs highlights the part that wisdom plays, so unlike the creation account that we are most familiar with in the book of Genesis where we read that God said let there be light and there was light, God said let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures and there they were, God said let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind and so it was, here in Proverbs we read that Wisdom was brought forth when depth was assigned to the ocean and when the height of the mountains were determined – in other words, Wisdom is beside God the Creator not to bring forth creation from nothing, but to establish what is the breadth and length and height and depth, how deep should the oceans be and how high the mountains. Wisdom then, what is wisdom? According to Proverbs chapter 8, Wisdom is the voice who tells the all-powerful God to “stop right there.” When “Wisdom raises her voice” it is the voice that says, “Enough!” even to God. It’s Wisdom who is there to set the limits – to decide where things should stop, and if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were anything like a group of mere mortals than I can imagine that by so doing she quickly established herself as the least popular of the group. Wisdom’s job in creation sounds something like the job of my fraternity’s treasurer. Back in college, when I was a student at a small Presbyterian school and a member of a fraternity of about 30 people, from time to time the brothers would decide that it was time for us to have a party and to hire a band. Everyone would be excited about the idea, calling out the names of the bands they thought that I, the social chairman should contact first, but then the voice of our treasurer, Moultrie Townsend would be heard, telling us that there’s no way we could hire any of those bands because we didn’t have any money. Today his cautionary words sound reasonable enough, but back then we’d all “boo” Brother Townsend and would throw cans at him and tell him to leave the meeting because some people just don’t like limits and like even less those who are courageous enough to set them. In the words of Bible scholar Bill Brown, Wisdom baby proofs God’s creation. She establishes boundaries, creates limits, and draws the line in the sand where the waters would not transgress his command. Wisdom then, what is wisdom – according to Proverbs chapter 8, Wisdom is the voice who says: Those mountains – they are tall enough. Those seas – they are deep enough. Those oceans – they are wide enough. And those waves should go no higher. Think for a moment about how you felt as a child when the mother who told you the same kind of thing raised her voice. You were up in a tree reaching for the next branch when you heard: “Now come down from there – that’s high enough.” You were swimming in a pool in the heat of summer when you heard: “It’s time to come in from the pool – you’ve been in there long enough.” Or you were getting ready to walk out the door when you were stopped in your tracks: “Don’t you worry about what the neighbors are doing – I’m your mother and I’m telling you that your dress is short enough.” “And you’ll be home when I say – 11:00 is late enough.” Maybe you’d thank her now, but back then – back then the one who was making the rules was keeping you from the freedom that you wanted. But I imagine that now you can see that she was so wise as to know that what you thought was freedom was not freedom at all. I say that in setting the boundaries of height and depth Wisdom played her part in Creation, but she was there too speaking in God’s Law: That 6 days is enough to work, and that you must rest on the Sabbath. That in marriage, your wife or husband is enough, so don’t let your eyes be drawn to anyone else’s. And when it comes to money – be happy with what you have been given – and even take 10% of what you have been given and give that away because if you don’t stop yourself somewhere you will never be satisfied. TV makes this hard I think. Just when you think you have all the right stuff you see an advertisement for something else. Just when you think you’re looking pretty good, you see someone in a bathing suit looking just a little bit better. To all of this and more, “Enough”, she says – “enough”. Those mountains – they are tall enough. Those seas – they are deep enough. Those oceans – they are wide enough. Those waves should go no higher. And you might want to be free to take that paycheck and spend it on whatever wish that sweeps your mind, but that freedom that you call freedom will lead to bondage – the slavery of debt and bills and financial misery. The countercultural claim of our Scripture Passage from the book of Proverbs is that freedom, real freedom, comes from accepting the boundaries set by our God for life. There’s a great Fred Craddock story about this kind of wisdom. You’ve heard it before, but as Dr. Craddock said himself, if a sermon’s not worth hearing more than once you have to wonder if it was even worth hearing once, so remember this story again – Dr. Craddock was in a Waffle House, and Waffle House he says is a good place to get a BLT. You have to take a shower after, but it’s a good place to get a BLT. Once Dr. Craddock was in the Waffle House and he ordered from the waitress a cup of coffee. She sat the cup down on his table. Then, “Creamer?” she asked him. “Yes, two please,” he responded, and she proceeded to pat down her Waffle House apron looking for the creamer in her various pockets and he heard her say, “I can never find anything in this capricious apron.” “Capricious?” he asked. Then he asked, “Are you a waitress or a philosopher?” not having expected to hear such a word out of her mouth. She set down 5 creamers on the table. Dr. Craddock took 2 and pushed the three back to her but she slid the three back to him saying, “Better to have and not need than to need and not have.” Knowing now who he was dealing with, Dr. Craddock responded by saying, “Maybe, but true freedom comes in having what you need and being willing to give the rest away.” Then he slid the three creamers back to his waitress knowing he had triumphed in this philosophical contest, and I remember this story with you today knowing also that by doing so Dr. Craddock embodies the essence of wisdom. Wisdom is different from intelligence, because intelligence means knowing what to say, but wisdom is knowing that you shouldn’t always say it. Wisdom is different from power, because power means being able to, but wisdom is knowing when you should. And Wisdom is different from what we call freedom, because we think freedom is being able to do whatever we want but Wisdom says that doing whatever you want whenever you feel like it will result in bondage. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Just because the mountains could be higher doesn’t mean they should be. Just because the sea could be deeper doesn’t mean it should be. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean that you should have it. And just because you have the chance doesn’t mean you should take it. Wisdom is knowing when to stop, and I imagine that there was a time when we didn’t need quite as much wisdom as we need today because the lines were once drawn for us. We were at Miss Mary Bobo’s on Monday. Frank Bellamy drove a bus load of Presbyterians over there and the problem with a place like that is that once you’ve emptied out the fried okra bowl it comes back again full. Now self-control is nothing in the face of okra that good. But something else was true that I haven’t thought of in a long time. At the table there at Miss Mary Bobo’s we talked. We talked and laughed and talked and laughed and it reminded me of a limit my mother put on my life. That when we sat down at the dinner table and the phone rang, no one dared stand up to answer it. Today we have technology and access to each other that we’ve never had before. It’s as though the mountain keeps on growing, the sea keeps on getting deeper, our ability and our temptation is outstretching our wisdom and we must all get better at knowing when to say when. We need some rules. If we want family, community, trust, we need some rules. Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? She does, so listen. Listen to the one who took a table and made it sacred – so enough with the interuptions. Listen to the one who commands that you rest on the 7th day, that 6 days of work is enough. Listen to the one who calls you to give away 10% of what you’ve earned, because 90% is enough. Listen to the one who tells you to stop looking, who puts “coveting” what your neighbor has on the same list with murder because always wanting more will suck the life right out of you. Listen to the one who wants to keep you safe for “happy are those who keep her ways. Who hear instruction and are wise.” “Whoever finds her finds life.” Amen.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Advoating customs that are not lawful

Scripture Lessons: John 14: 23-29 and Acts 16: 16-31, NT page 136 Sermon Title: Advocating customs that are not lawful Preached on: 5/8/16 Today is Mother’s Day and Mother’s Day reminds me that sometimes God’s greatest gifts are those that require us to change. That a child can turn your life upside down, but really, in doing so, a child turns things right side up. Mother’s often embody the ability to change then, and not everyone always does. Some of us are even resistant to it. As a 200-year-old church it’s good for us to remember that change can be good every once in a while, but we haven’t always felt that way about change. When there were finally enough Methodists to call themselves a congregation they went to the Session of our church asking permission to use our sanctuary for worship. Now think about how many people walk across 7th Street as though they were just going over to their neighbor’s house today. Think about how many friends we all have over there right across the street. Think about how the greatest obstacle for us in worshiping with all the saints at First Methodist Church is remembering to say “forgive us our trespasses” rather than “forgive us our debts” during the Lord’s prayer. Just think about all of that and listen to this: 200 years ago when that band of Methodists requested the use of the Presbyterian’s sanctuary the Session voted and denied the request. Is that not incredible? I’m all for beating them in softball, but denying their request to use our sanctuary seems a little cold, a little resistant, and when you think about it, how we partner to serve this downtown, work side by side at the People’s Table serving meals to the hungry, worship together as one body during Holy Week, not to mention all the friendships that connect our two churches today it seems strange to think that there’d ever be a reason to forbid the Methodists from using our sanctuary, but to understand the session’s decision you have to get into the mind of the 19th Century Presbyterian. The Presbyterians of the early 1800’s had three big problems with Methodism and wanted to resist the changes they might have brought us. One was the way they worshiped. Thinking of how the Methodists worshiped, what was strange about the Methodists back then was that the Presbyterians were still singing an awful lot of hymns out of the psalter (that’s what you call the book of Psalms in the Old Testament when you use it as your hymnal) but the Methodists were famous for writing their own hymns. To write your own hymns as John Wesley and his brother Charles, two of the founders of the Methodist Church were doing, well, that didn’t make any sense to the Presbyterians. If the hymn wasn’t in the Bible it was a little radical to sing it, and if it made you too excited when you sang, well that was just plain dangerous. Now some might say that’s still our problem. Every once in a while someone will come up to me to talk about my hymn selections and he’ll say, “Joe, the hymns today made me feel like I was at a funeral,” and if he had said that to a Presbyterian minister 200 years ago the pastor might have thanked him for the compliment. Back in those days the Methodists were considered emotional – but on this side of the street, we were stayed, reverent, cerebral. Back in those days the Methodists were signing new songs just written – but on this side of the street we were still singing the psalms right out of the Bible. And back in those days – now this is getting to the second problem our Session probably had with those Methodists who wanted to use our sanctuary – back in those days the Methodists were called Methodists because John Wesley claimed that there was a method to salvation, that you could position yourself through confessing your sins, repenting and changing your ways, and by dedicating yourself to prayer, Bible study, and worship – by doing these things or subscribing to this method, you could position yourself to receive the grace that only God can give. Now that doesn’t sound so radical, but let me tell you what was going on over on our side of the street – we were subscribing to this doctrine of election also known as predestination which held that there was nothing that you or I could do to receive the grace of God because it’s all up to God and whether God decides to save us or not. To say that there was a method to salvation, that there was a discipline that you could observe to receive it, now that just didn’t work for those hard shell Presbyterians because for them, and to some degree for us still today, the power of God is a force far too strong for anyone to harness with their method. The good thing about our doctrine of election which can seem so antiquated today is that it does a good job of capturing part of how our God works because it claims that our God is like the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts – it’s not something that you can control and it might not be something that you’d ever ask for – it’s like the hand of God that reaches down to make poor old Saul blind as he’s walking down the road minding his own business. It’s like the voice that calls Peter to go see Cornelius and leads him to challenge the very foundations of the Church. It’s like the wind of Pentecost that blows where it will and filled up all the Apostles leading them to speak in languages they had never spoken in before – it’s not in our control – it’s not ours to harness – it’s far too powerful to be bridled by any method. Again and again in the book of Acts, that’s the message. Last Sunday I preached from Acts chapter 1, the Sunday before it was Acts chapter 11, today it’s Acts chapter 16 we’ll continue in the book of Acts next Sunday as well, and the thing to know about the book of Acts that is not immediately apparent is that while there are plenty of human actors in the drama of the early church that is recorded in the book of Acts, without a doubt, the primary actor and the main character is the Holy Spirit who is often at work despite their very best intentions. So our Second Scripture Lesson begins this way: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we me a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Now – there are many Fruits of the Spirit, many qualities that Christians should embody, but being annoyed is not one of them. Nonetheless, it is Paul’s annoyance that prompts this exorcism. It is because this woman is driving him crazy that he casts out the daemon, and “when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Next, they were brought before the magistrates of the city, accused of “disturbing the city” and “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe,” they were attacked by the crowd, stripped of their clothing, beaten with rods, and finally thrown into prison, the innermost cell and fastened by the feet in stocks, and surely if I were Paul I would be thinking that this poor, annoying slave woman was hardly worth the trouble, but I’m not sure that’s how those early Christians thought. What keeps happening in the book of Acts is that the Holy Spirit keeps on interrupting the lives of the disciples. Paul – in his prior life as Saul, was a well-positioned Pharisee, but then the Holy Spirit came along, struck him blind and made him a disciple of Jesus Christ. Then he was on his way to someplace else when a vision of a man of Macedonia came to Paul in the night and Paul had to change course. Not long after that he’s walking along on his way to do something he probably thought was going to be productive when a slave-girl won’t leave him alone, so he casts out the demon within her and ends up locked up in prison – now a typical person would say that poor Paul needs to get his life back on track, but according to the narrative of the book of Acts it’s only now that Paul is finally positioned to actually do something constructive. Hardly discouraged, from the innermost cell Paul and his companion Silas sing, and as they sing an earthquake shakes the foundation of the prison, the prison doors were opened, everyone’s chains were unfastened, knowing that he had completely failed in accomplishing his charge the jailer prepares to hill himself – and here we see that in fact, Paul was perfectly positioned to save this man. Perfectly positioned to preach the Gospel to the one who needed to hear it. Perfectly positioned to do the will of God. Is there a lesson then for us in all of this? In a sense there is, but it’s not really a moral imperative so much as it is a call to reframe life’s many interruptions, challenges, and disappointments. Think about the person who set off the chain of events that led to this last conversion of the jailer and his household – it was the person who annoyed Paul the most. And what led to his conversion? It was the moment of his deepest shame, his biggest failure in life – the time when every prisoner in the jail could have escaped! So here is the lesson of Acts Chapter 16 and really the whole book – there is a more powerful force at work in our lives that is leading us to see that the annoying person who we would love to never deal with again is actually the hero who can make our life truly interesting. That when locked in the innermost cell God may be positioning us to preach the good news to the one who needs to hear it. But most of all – the slave owners who saw that their hope of making money was gone and the magistrates who said that “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe,” in saying so they got it exactly right, because what the Holy Spirit does is shakes life up so much that change starts to come. And that brings me to the third reason the Session of First Presbyterian Church may not have wanted those Methodists using our sanctuary – in the 1800’s it still wasn’t clear if Methodists were for slavery or against it and to harbor Methodists who might have been abolitionists in those days, well, that would have been a little too disturbing, and the Session may have been thinking that those Methodists very well may have tried to advocate customs that are not lawful to adopt or observe. Now that may not have been the reasoning at all – it might have had much more to do with the hymns, and still today I’m suspicious of any hymn with a tune that’s a little too catchy, but what still rings true is this: there are plenty of us who would rather keep things just as they are than advocate customs that are not lawful – but what if the Holy Spirit is disrupting our routines for a reason? What if our God is working in the one who annoys us the most because only we can set her free? What if our God is positing us in the most uncomfortable place because it is there that our voice needs to be heard? What if our God is calling us to question the customs, to advocate for a new law and a new way? If that were the case, it would not be the first time. Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why do you stand looking?

Scripture Lessons: Ephesians 1: 15-23 and Acts 1: 1-11 Sermon Title: “Why do you stand looking?” Preached on 5/8/16 I love what the angels say here: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This question that they ask the disciples of Jesus who have just watched their Lord ascend into heaven reminds me of the saying that some Christians are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. These disciples got caught looking, not up at Jesus, but up at the place where Jesus no longer was. Now that’s a common problem I believe, because all the time people are expecting things to be there that are gone. Hoping things to be like they used to be when they’re not. We have the problem of living in an ever changing world, but sometimes what makes the change even harder is pretending that everything is still the same. I remember well one-night driving to Charleston, SC. It was before the days of cell phones, so when the transmission went out the first thing I did after pulling over to the side of the interstate was I turned the car off and then turned it on again thinking that maybe it had fixed itself. Well, it didn’t. Next, I just sat in the car for a while. Stared at the dashboard for who knows how long, tried starting the car one more time before finally something told me that I had better get out and start walking. That’s what I did, and I walked for six miles. It wasn’t doing me any good pretending that nothing had changed because it had and pretending that nothing has changed when it has is something like wearing clothes that fit a body that we no longer have. And like a man in the suit that used to fit but now is too snug in all the wrong places, some of us are guilty of looking at a person who has changed, but still expect him to fit in the clothes he used to wear – we can’t see the person who is there now because we keep expecting to see the person who used to be there. Sometimes that’s what I do to my grandfather. He has dementia and he’s nearly deaf, but he still looks the same as he did before, he even smells the same as he did before, so sometimes I talk to him expecting him to be the person he was before even though my grandfather has changed. It’s hard to reconcile the reality of aging, so some children aren’t children anymore but they still act like their parents are the same people they have always been so when they need help moving they call daddy and when they go back home they expect mama to cook a big dinner even though daddy is feeble and mama is forgetful – and change can be awful but pretending that nothing has changed makes it even worse. These disciples got caught looking up at the place where Jesus no longer was, and there’s plenty to be sad about here, but sometimes getting stuck in denial can be even worse. Christians do that kind of thing to the Church. Someone new joins the church and we’re surprised that they come once a month or once a quarter, or a new year comes for Sunday School and it seems like this is going to be the year when things get back to normal, but what if the old normal is gone? The Church is changing. The Presbyterian Church as a denomination is changing. And if we only look for signs of Jesus in all the places where he used to be than we may not see him. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” What are you doing looking up into the clouds? Just because Jesus used to be there doesn’t mean he’ll be there still. Now Scripture prepares us for this phenomenon. The prophet Elijah went out to stand on the mountain before the Lord at Horeb. There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. In the book of 1st Kings it is important to know that God had been present in all three – wind, earthquake, and fire, but this time – “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” If Elijah had only looked for God in the places God had been before he would have missed the place where God was appearing now. So what if we are looking up at the place where Jesus no longer is? If we are like the disciples, like the Men of Galilee, caught looking up toward heaven, will we not miss the place where Jesus is appearing now? It’s happened before, and it’s a dangerous thing. It can be the stuff of a crisis of faith. I have a friend, a pianist, and for him, for years, to feel God’s presence all he had to do was sit down at a piano. After a bad day, to gain a little dose of hope all he had to do was let his finger dance across the keys, so to no longer feel anything when he sat down on the bench caused a crisis in faith because he kept going back to the piano expecting to feel the way he used to feel, but the God who was in the wind became the God who was in the earthquake; the God who was in the earthquake became the God who was in fire; but to go back to the fire just because God had been there before wouldn’t have done Elijah any good because now God was in the silence. This friend of mine found God again, but the first thing he had to do was start looking somewhere beyond the piano. In the same way, to face again our life here on earth – the reality that cancer breaks down the human frame, that jobs get downsized and the plans we engineer in our heads hit roadblocks, the reality that there are more Presbyterian Churches on life support than there are churches growing – all and any of these new realities can bring me low because I keep on expecting to find Jesus in all the places I’ve seen him before and he’s just not always there – but does that mean he’s gone? Or does that mean I’m caught looking up toward heaven rather than trusting in the one who said, “I will be with you, even till the end of the age.” The Lord may not be where we saw him last – but that hardly means he’s gone. Hear again the rest of what the angels had to say: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” That he ascends, this is the sign that he will return. And that reminds me of a story I was told this week. Mrs. Patty Ridley remembers being a young girl at home with her pregnant mother on their farm in Montana. You might not know that while Ms. Patty is so active and full of life, she has the memories of a person from another generation because she grew up in this remote area without electricity, phones, or doctors close by. In this particular memory Patty was young, her pregnant mother knew that the baby was coming but with her husband out in the pasture with the sheep she needed someone to drive her to the hospital but he wasn’t within shouting distance. There was no way to call him and Patty was too little to go fetch him so Patty’s grandmother was the one to go. Young Patty stood looking out the window as her grandmother walked down this six-mile driveway to find her daddy and she remembers her laboring mother saying, “Is she out of sight yet?” “Is she out of sight yet?” In this case, being out of sight was a good thing, because the farther out of sight she got the closer her father would be to coming home. And with Jesus, being out of sight is also a good thing, because as he rises into heaven he rises to rule over all the earth. We must be reminded from those words of our 1st Scripture Lesson from the book of Ephesians and see not with human sight, but with the eyes of our hearts enlightened. So don’t you see – yes he ascended into heaven – and the disciples just stood looking at the clouds – but consider this – what if the Apostle Paul is right in saying that our present sufferings are nothing compared to the glory that is to come? I am convinced that sometimes we can’t acknowledge what’s changed because to do so just hurts so bad. It’s so easy to pretend that it doesn’t hurt because the hurt hurts so bad. It’s so hard to admit that he’s gone, because without what was the world seems so empty. It’s not unlike so many in our culture, to be numb to the change is better than pain of acknowledging it, but if we fear present suffering are we not more masochists than Christians? Are we like the Israelites in the desert, afraid of turning back to Egypt but unwilling to step into the Promised Land? Are we Mrs. Habersham of Great Expectations, forever entombed in that wedding dress for the wedding that never happened? Are we like the child of C.S. Lewis’ imagination, choosing mud pies in the alley way, not yet ready to accept an invitation to the seashore? Something has changed. Or better yet, everything has changed and is changing, and the sooner we can acknowledge it the sooner we’ll be able to hear completely what those angels said: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And when he comes again, he shall be clothed in glory. Do not get caught staring up into heaven, for having ascended into heaven he is nearer now than before. Amen.