Sunday, June 26, 2016

From one generation to the next

Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 19: 15-21 and 2 Kings 2: 1-14, OT pages 332-333 Sermon Title: “From one generation to the next” Preached on 6/26/16 I have a collection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons. He was a preacher first, as you know, and as his reputation grew to national prominence he was invited to preach all over the country. One sermon that I listened to last Wednesday is entitled, “A Knock at Midnight,” and in this sermon he characterized the different churches of our nation and their preachers. He said that there are so many in our world who come to the Church in search of hope or love or forgiveness, but the preacher, maybe the preacher is one who freezes up or maybe the preacher is one who burns up. The ones that freeze up are in the dignified churches, says Dr. King. Maybe the preacher there at the dignified church preaches a nice little essay on Sunday, but really he’s afraid to get into the sermon, to really say it like he means it and believes it, which is bad, but on the other hand is the church that burns up. In this kind of church, says Dr. King, and in this church the people have more religion in their hands and feet than they have in their hearts and souls, so maybe in this church the pastor doesn’t prepare a sermon. He doesn’t worry about content. He just relies on the force of his voice. Dr. King said that as the folks at this kind of church go home on Sunday afternoon after worship they say to their neighbors, “You know we had a great service today, and the preacher just preached his sermon,” but then the neighbor asks, “Well what did he say,” “Oh I don’t know, but he preached this morning.” Dr. King saw all kinds of churches, and there are all kinds of churches right here in our community today. There are conservative churches, where the women dress so modestly in long skirts but they must keep quiet because only the men are allowed to speak. There are hell-fire and damnation churches with signs out by the street during the summer saying: “You think it’s hot now?” Then there are these modern storefront churches that don’t look much of anything like churches. You walk in and there’s a Starbucks and a bookstore, and you deposit your children in a wing of the church that looks just like Chucky Cheese, and the preacher stands up in his jeans and he has one of those fancy microphones that wrap around his head like he’s BeyoncĂ© and the band plays and the congregation just sings right along. You know, there’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re not that kind of church – we’re neither that hard-shell traditional church nor are we that modern storefront church, which raises the question that I want to deal with in this sermon: what kind of church are we? There are a lot of interesting qualities that we possess as a Body of Christ. We worship in a 100-year-old building, but unlike most churches who worship in 100-year-old buildings, the majority of our members are much younger than the building. You look around the sanctuary on a lot of Sundays and you’ll see a lot of young families around, which is wonderful, but that’s not all, because we’re not a church just for young families, and that makes us even more unique. We are a church where you are expected to dress up a little bit, where we sing from a hymnal rather than a projector screen, the preacher wears a robe and most people are quiet during the sermon, and all of that says something about who we are, but the phrase I want to start using to describe us is that First Presbyterian Church is a multi-generational congregation. That when you get right down to the qualities that set us apart from the other churches in our community, no one generation is in the majority because we have a cross section of several different ages. Now what does that mean for us? It means that last week we had 77 children enrolled in Vacation Bible School. 77. That’s as high as it’s ever been, and when you compare that to other churches in the region, especially when you compare that to other Presbyterian churches in the region, that’s a great big number that says all kinds of things about our congregation’s youth and vitality, but let me say that in addition to the 77 kids who were running around this place, from our congregation there were more than 50 adult volunteers and so many of them did not have a child enrolled in the program. Now what does that mean? That means that not only are there young people here – young couples, young children, young men and young women who all what to learn more about who they are in the eyes of God – but there are also many people who aren’t as young and who have more experience and who are willing to pass on what they’ve learned to the generation that’s coming up. The theme of Vacation Bible School this year was caves, but the foundation of Vacation Bible School is the same as some of these qualities that I’m saying our congregation possesses: that there is something that children here need to learn and that there are adults here who are willing to teach them. That we are a multi-generational church means that we have both: people who have something that they need to learn and people who are willing to teach them, and ideally not one of us is all the time learning and not one of us is just teaching because we all have things to teach and things to learn but the point that I’m trying to make is that having one congregation made up of several generations puts us in this advantageous position where none of us have to try to figure everything out on our own. Assuming that we all have more to learn and that we all have more to teach, today our Second Scripture Lesson is appropriate, because here in 2nd Kings, on the one hand is the aspiring prophet Elisha and on the other is the knowledgeable and experienced prophet Elijah. Elijah called to Elisha in our 1st Scripture Lesson while he was out plowing the field. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him, a definitive invitation to become his disciple, but to truly become a prophet as Elijah had been, Elisha must follow behind his teacher to the very end of his road. Our 2nd Scripture Lesson from 2nd Kings describes the time when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind. Elijah knew it of course, and so he said to his student, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you? Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But Elisha responded, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” When they came to Jericho Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But Elisha responded just as he did the first time, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha is persistent. He is determined to stay with his teacher no matter where he goes, which is a strange thing to do according to the company of prophets, this group of 50 who said to Elisha twice: “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” I suppose that these 50 in the company of prophets represent plenty of people out in the world today who think that it is better to stick with people their own age. That it is better to stay away from older people because staying young is the thing to do, but I have found that doing so won’t really help me learn all that I need to know. There is so much that I’ve learned from people who are older, and there was a lot that I learned from a man named Jim Hodges. He chaired the committee who interviewed and called me to my last church outside Atlanta, and if you’ve been in my office there’s a picture of Jim’s thumb there on my desk. The story behind the thumb, is that after my first sermon at that church Jim gave me a thumbs up, and every sermon after that he did the same, even if it didn’t deserve a thumbs up, and then, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and lay in his hospital bed dying, he took a picture of his thumb one last time so that I would always know he is cheering me on. Now you receive those kinds of gifts if you can follow the wise all the way to the end – so when Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven, Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan and there he struck the water just as his teacher had done before, and the waters parted to the one side and to the other and Elisha went over just as his teacher had done. Those 50 prophets in the company who kept telling him to stop and go home, that his teacher had taught him everything he had to teach didn’t know about this kind of wisdom – the wisdom that you only get to learn when you follow behind someone who really knows something. But too many in our culture are out there trying to make their own way in the world even when they don’t need to because they could sit at the feet of teachers who blazed the trail in the generation before. In a place like this one there are those of the generation who remember the Twin Towers falling, and they’re sitting right next to the ones who also remember when Kennedy was assassinated, and they’re both sharing the same sanctuary with some who know where they were the moment they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. In a place like this one, the one going through a divorce sits by the one who’s seen the light on the other side. The young parent who feels like nothing could be so long as a summer day when one child is crying while the other is falling asleep, while the third flushes the TV remote down the toilet sits right next to the one with an empty nest who reminds the young to enjoy every minute of their young children because it all goes by in the blink of an eye. In a place like this – where one learns from the other as knowledge is passed from one generation to the next – there’s a baby just teething and a 6-year-old losing her two front teeth alongside the teenager in braces who’s next to the 80-year-old with a new partial. But more than that – I’m talking about a church where a young man learning his way in the world receives support from another who already has. A church where the discouraged are encouraged by a generation who said that disappointment would never get them down. A church where the faith is passed from one generation to the next because the ones who know care enough to teach the ones who don’t, and we all gather around the cross of Jesus giving thanks for the truth that sets us free. Elisha stuck the water of the Jordan with the mantle of his teacher saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” and as the water was parted to the one side and to the other, Elisha knew that the faith of our Mothers and Fathers had once again been passed from one generation to the next. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Help along the way

Scripture Lesson: 1 Kings 19: 1-15a, OT page 326 Sermon Title: Help along the way Preached on: 6/19/16 Today, being Father’s Day, I want to say that I’m proud to be a father and I’m thankful to have a father, but I’m also mindful of the reality that fatherhood brings with it such an interesting challenge because a father can do harm, both by not doing enough for his children and by doing too much. And I say I’m thankful to have a father, and more than that, I’m thankful to have a father who was there on Saturday mornings to make me chocolate chip pancakes all throughout my childhood. I’m thankful to have a father who wanted to celebrate after I hit a two RBI single to give my High School Baseball team the lead, and so he took me out to a steak dinner at the only restaurant that was still open and serving steak after the game – Waffle House – but he insisted that I order the T-Bone because he thought I deserved a T-Bone. I’m also thankful to have a father who taught me how to drive a car. That wasn’t always a pleasant experience for either one of us, but what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the day I drove out of the driveway for the first time as a 16-year-old by myself, because just last month my Dad told me that was both a moment of pride and a moment of sadness, because as I drove away my Dad was thinking, “Well there he goes.” Father’s know about this kind of moment, and I never thought about what it was like for him that day I drove out of the driveway, but now that I’m a father this is the kind of thing that I think about all the time. Am I there for them enough? Or am I there for them so much that I’m overbearing? When do I let them decide and when do I make the decision for them? When do I let them fight their own battles and when do I fight for them? As many pancakes as my Dad cooked for me and as many T-bone steaks as he treated me to, there came a time when I had to leave the driveway to go out into the world – and this is the part that I’m learning little by little even now because I watched a little girl climb out of my car and walk right into McDowell Elementary School all by herself. Fathers and mothers both, we only get to hold those little hands for so long – and little by little they go off and we stand in the driveway thinking, “Well there she goes,” and we stand there hoping and praying that we’ve given them enough of what they needed to make their own way in this world. I think that’s a hard thing, but I know it’s also a wonderful thing. I heard a story about a little girl off to Kindergarten. Her grandmother asked if she was nervous and the little girl said that she’d been waiting to start Kindergarten for her entire life. I remember so well these words from a mother after she sent her oldest off to college: “The only thing worse than seeing him go off to college is not seeing him go off to college,” and that kind of sums it up – that success as a parent means seeing the chicks fly from the nest, but it’s still a little hard, and I think part of the hard thing is trusting that our children will receive the help that they need along the way, even if that help along the way can’t always come from us. We can’t cook all their meals for them, and Sara and I have learned that lesson already. Now our oldest daughter’s favorite food is something called Beefy Cheesy that comes from the McDowell School cafeteria. In our house it’s this meal prepared by hands that aren’t ours in a kitchen that’s not in our house that we’ve grown to celebrate, because at our house this meal is the sign that while we are still giving her as much of what she needs as we can, Lily Evans is starting to make her own way in the world one plate of Beefy Cheesy at a time – and as she makes her own way, there are gifts provided by a hand that is not ours. Plenty of parents have trouble trusting in such provision – trusting their children’s teachers or camp counselors with the child they love more than anything - and I’m not trying to toot my own horn here this sermon. I have no right to. Right after the first time I had to drop our little girl off at McDowell School I parked the car in the parking lot so I could sit in the car and cry. What I’m trying to say is that when those children go out into the world parents don’t always know where help is going to come from, but not knowing where help will come from along the way in no way means that help will not come. For Elijah help came; and it was a meal even more miraculous than Beefy Cheesy for it came not from the kind hand of a cafeteria lady – this help came from the unseen hand of an angel from heaven. The help that came along his way as he fled for his life going far from home was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. The angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” His way, the way that surely his father wished his son would be spared from, had been a difficult journey. A dangerous journey. He had been running from the King of Israel, King Ahab, who had had enough of the Prophet Elijah always messing in his affairs and putting limits on his power, calling the cult of Baal idolatry and keeping the king from owning Naboth’s vineyard, so Elijah fled, first a day’s journey, then another, then after the second cake baked on hot stones and jar of water he went “in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights,” and made it all the way to Horeb, the mount of God. And there he found a cave and went to sleep. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to that kind of place before – but I know Elijah’s not the only one who’s gone off into the world having to make his own way only to find that the way God is leading him down is absolutely terrifying. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells the story of such an experience. For him it wasn’t a long night in a secluded cave but a long night in Birmingham, AL. His life and the lives of his wife and children were threatened because of the words that he had said and the changes that he supported, and his father was about 150 miles away. Dr. King got up and made a cup of coffee, pondered the brick that had been thrown through the window of the house his wife and children were sleeping in and he began to pray, praying for what he said may have been the first time he had ever really prayed in his life. The old saying goes that the Lord doesn’t have any grandchildren – and what that means is that developing a relationship with God isn’t something that parents can do for their children – those children must learn what it means to be the children of God on their own – and so I rejoice to hear our daughter Cece sing the Kyria and pray the Lord’s Prayer all by herself because it is not nor will it ever be enough that she has a father who does these things professionally, she has to have her own relationship with God. The same was true with the prophet Elijah to an even greater degree. He is there in that cave up on that mountain absolutely on his own and his daddy wasn’t there to hold his hand. The word of the Lord came to him and said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, which made sense and would have made sense to Elijah because he had heard about God being present in the wind – back in the time of his forefathers God had been present in the wind many times. There was the wind that drove back the waters of the sea giving the Hebrew people dry land to cross as they fled Pharaoh’s army. King David believed he had seen God in the wind when “[The Lord] rode on a cherub, and flew; he was seen upon the wings of the wind.” But this time, the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake, and his forefathers had known God through the earthquake – earthquakes that caused the earth to reel and rock, “when the foundations of the heavens trembled because the Lord was angry”, but this time, the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then after the earthquake was fire – and the Lord had made himself known to the ancestors of Elijah in fire – in the burning bush that called to Moses, the light that shined in the darkness leading the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, but this time the Lord was not in the fire. Where then was God present? How then would God be known if not in all the places where God had been before? In this instance for the Prophet Elijah, God was made known in silence. For the first time, God made himself known in silence. Elijah had been very zealous for the Lord and he knew the traditions of his ancestors, but the traditions of our ancestors, like the aid of our fathers – can only take us so far and after that we are called to go places where they have never gone before – even walking out in faith that we will know God’s presence even where God has never been before. The question that we are faced with today is “where is God present now?” These are uncertain times – times that our ancestors could not have predicted. Times that our fathers prepared us for but not times that they can face for us. I think about technology. A few years ago I saw Christian Corbin reading Call of the Wild by Jack London on a Kindle, and I remembered how my grandfather told me that when he was young he was so entranced by the same book that he would sneak out of bed and read it to the light from a candle on his dresser, carefully listening for his mother’s footsteps for she would have been disappointed to see him out of bed. In just a few decades we’ve moved from candle light to the glow of screens, and knowing that so much has changed and fearing so much of it, I called him lamenting the internet not long ago. I told my grandfather that I was thinking about having the internet disconnected from the house, what with child predators and everything else that I didn’t want to expose our daughters to. Not expecting him to have any advice at all, having little experience with computers, he said, “Well Joe, you’re their father and it’s your decision, but there’s a lot of dangerous information in the library too, so while you’re protecting them so well maybe you should make sure they never learn how to read.” These are new and challenging times that can no more be avoided than Elijah could have avoided his escape from King Ahab, but on the foundation laid by our ancestors, we will figure this out. Maybe these are new and challenging times, but stepping out in faith, trusting that God will be present in new and different ways but present just the same, I say we will make it through. For while these may be new and challenging times – just as God held the whole world in his hands yesterday, so our God holds this whole world in his hands today and will hold it tomorrow. I don’t have to tell you that there is much to be afraid of. Thinking of Orlando, FL and the long list of other places we once thought of as safe I don’t have to tell you that there is much to be afraid of, and so much that our fathers on earth or our Father in heaven must wish they could protect us from - but as we go, as our children go – can we be bold enough to trust that God will still be God and will still see us through? As we all go on our way – can we still trust that there will be help and provision? As we go out on our way can we be bold enough to sing that our God who was our help in ages past is also our hope for years to come? That our shelter from the stormy blast is still our eternal home? As we go out on our way and as we watch our children go out on theirs our God will not be far, for he has led us this far and he will lead us farther still. Do not be afraid – for fear will deliver you right into the hands of the evil one. “Go, return on your way” for hope is far from gone and even the future rests in the powerful hands of our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

You shall say to him

Scripture Lesson: 1 Kings 21: 1-21a, OT pages 328-329 Sermon Title: You shall say to him Preached on June 12, 2016 D-Day was last Monday, and last Monday veterans like our own David Locke remembered that day 72 years ago when an invasion force of 4,000 ships, 11,000 planes, and nearly three million soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors was assembled in England to invade the German occupied beach of Normandy. Just before the first attempted to set foot on the sand, David Locke remembered the voice of the ship’s chaplain over the PA system as he read this letter from General Eisenhower: Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-1941. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble Undertaking. Dwight Eisenhower. There is so much power in words like these – and I’m thankful for people who say the word – who are chosen by God to say just the right words at just the right time – because words like these are a force against evil. Think about the words of President Ronald Regan, who on the 40th anniversary of D-Day stood there on that lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France and said [today] “The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon.” Then he referred to those veterans present and quoted the poet: you are men who in you “lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.'' Maybe you are among those who, knowing the power of words, wonder which of the current presidential candidates would be able to motivate the fighting men and women of our armed forces to face death in the name of liberty – wonder which, if either, of the presidential candidates would be able to commemorate the next D-Day Anniversary with words that honor those who gave their lives and warn the world to the cost of war. Maybe you are among the many who, knowing the power of words – fear what will become of our nation if either one is elected because neither Donald nor Hilary represent your values or inspire you to think not of what your country can do for you but of what you can do for your country. Words. It takes courage to say the right words at the right time and as we read our 2nd Scripture Lesson for this morning I realize how grateful we all must be for the example of the Prophet Elijah. His nation was governed by King Ahab of Samaria – a man influenced by the voice of his pagan wife Jezebel who had no respect for the Laws that governed Israel because she was one of those who believed that there should be no law but the will of the king. She was bold to wonder: If he wanted a vineyard for his vegetable garden than who would ever stand in his way? You’ve now heard the story of how she conspired to have Naboth stoned, and once owner of the land was dead, Queen Jezebel said to King Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” In these words, I hear the confidence of all those who put their trust in intimidation and fear – all those who fail to believe in the power of the empty tomb – but Christians know that the powers of sin and death never get the last word so it comes as no surprise to us that “the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: have you killed, and also taken possession? Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” These are the words that stop absolute power in its tracks, and remind people that even the king can be stopped in his tracks. These are the courageous words that finally call tyranny - tyranny Oppression - oppression And one must be brave to say them – so some wonder - who will be there to say them now? In years past we knew, but I stood at the grave of Roscoe Stephens last week, and Raymond, the man who dug his grave looked me in the eye and said, “This generation is leaving us and they’re taking everything with them: honesty, decency, courage.” Today we want a president who will say the things we long to say – and that makes sense because we all want a hero who will bravely say the things we long to say. So also we want a president who can articulate the faith that lives in our hearts - one who will stand up to the oppressor, not held captive to the fear that holds us captive and fuels our capitulation. So many wonder: will either of our candidates be able to do so? That is yet to be known, but for the purpose of this sermon – let’s all wonder if sometimes we want our president to do these things so that we don’t have to do them ourselves. Last Sunday a friend of mine, Brandom Gengelbach, was called on to preach at his church out on Pulaski Pike. He preached a sermon on leadership, and pointed out that Jesus didn’t ask anyone to kneel and worship him. What he asked instead, again and again, was for any who would be his disciples to follow him. In reading this passage celebrating the Prophet Elijah I remembered the tradition of leaving a seat open at the Passover table should Elijah choose to join – but what if we’re guilty of hoping that a president will fill a vacant seat that we should be filling ourselves. In our nation today I believe that we are too often indifferent, too willingly apathetic, because we want everything done for us – we fear we don’t have the words, so we’re afraid to speak – and I’m not just talking about the big things because me – I’m afraid to ask the waitress to take back my coke when I asked for a sprite. I can’t even think about giving a speech to address a fighting force poised to throw itself on the enemy’s shore because I’m afraid to stand up to the rude man in line at the store, preferring instead to apologize to the clerk once he’s gone. Thinking of myself – I wonder if we have all bought the lie that we are weak – and that’s why so many bullies rule the schools and tyrants run the nations – because we’ve forgotten who is always on the side of justice. We have to remember – that Moses was sure no one would listen – but by the power of God Pharaoh’s army was thrown into the sea. That Jeremiah told God that he was only a boy. That Amos said “he was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but a mere herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” and on the one hand they were both right but on the other they were wrong for we read in Scripture again and again that those of weak frame and fumbling words triumphed over tyranny because a power that was greater than themselves stood by them. This is the power of God you see – so even King Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” And the lone prophet answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” and these words resounded with the power of angels – for speaking truth always has more force than we ever imagined it did. Remember this: the powerful will always over step their bounds – and those who are willing to speak the truth will always be needed. The question is – will you be bold enough to speak up? Amen.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Gathering Sticks

Scripture Lessons: Galatians 1: 11-24 and 1 Kings 17: 8-24, OT page 324 Sermon Title: Gathering Sticks Preached on 6/5/2016 When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at a place just like this one in Georgia. I learned a lot at the camp that was founded and supported by the presbytery the church I grew up in was a part of. That camp was right off Interstate 75 and on Lake Alatoona. The camp, called Camp Cherokee, kept a rustic character, a lot like this one. There was no air conditioning in the cabins, the meals were all served in a dining hall a lot like the one we’ll eat lunch in, and every night after dinner we’d gather on an open-air pavilion that was nearly a carbon copy of this one, for a brief worship service. One of the pastors from within the presbytery would always preach to us and some were better than others, and it’s funny that you don’t always remember the best ones so much as the worst ones. The one that I remember the best came when I was a counselor at the camp for the summer. This pastor was a little more fire and brimstone than most and he had a sermon on the suffering Jesus endured leading up to and during the crucifixion. He was going on and on to this group of young campers about how the whip they lashed him with was made of leather straps, and stuck in the straps were bits of metal and glass that ripped his flesh, and how they whipped him and whipped him within an inch of his life, “but that wasn’t what killed him children,” the preacher said, “because after the whip came the crown of thorns” and they pushed that crown of thorns down on his head and the thorns pierced his scalp and blood ran down his face, “but that wasn’t what killed him children,” said the preacher, “because after the crown of thorns came the nails”. The pastor went into detail in how the Roman soldiers took those rusty, rusty nails, and with a hammer they took those rusty old nails and they nailed his hands to the cross, “but it wasn’t the rusty nails that killed him children,” the preacher said, and then he asked: “Do you know what it was that finally killed him?” A young boy raised his hand and the preacher addressed him: “yes child. It wasn’t the rusty nails was it. Do you know what it was that finally killed him?” The young boy asked the preacher: “With those rusty old nails, was it tetanus that killed him?” On a pavilion like this one at a camp very much like this one, in that moment I learned that God speaks through interruptions. Of course, preachers don’t always like interruptions, because the interruptions sometimes make a different point from the one that the preacher wants to make. Busy people don’t like interruptions much either because busy people have folks to meet and things to do, and even if the interruption is an injured man on the side of the road, sometimes busy people are just too busy to stop. And then, sometimes it’s hard to be interrupted when you’ve hit the bottom, and I don’t know why it is that you don’t want to be interrupted from your sadness and despair, but I know that you don’t because when I’m down or worried or preoccupied the last thing I want to do is hear a joke even if it’s funny or listen to someone else’s problems because it feels like I already have too many all on my own, so you brush off the friend’s comforting hand because you don’t think you can be comforted. I imagine it must have been something like that for this woman in our 2nd Scripture Lesson – this woman who is interrupted by a prophet while she’s out gathering sticks. Our 2nd Scripture Lesson tells the story of this un-named woman who was interrupted while focused on the task at hand by this prophet who called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink,” and while you’re at it, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Of course, he didn’t know what she was going through in that moment. Maybe if he had known he wouldn’t have asked, but he didn’t so he did and when he asked her to serve him some food and water she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Can you imagine? “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” I read it twice because the gravity of her words and the depravity of her situation take a second to wrap my privileged little brain around. Can you imagine what that must feel like? To be gathering sticks to prepare your last meal and some guy you’ve never seen before interrupts you and places his order of a “little water in a vessel and a morsel of bread from your hand.” But now that I’m on a pavilion, so very much like the one at the camp I went to as a child, I am reminded of the reality that God speaks through interruptions, but sometimes we are too defeated to hear. Do you know what I mean? So much of life we are being tested. And some camps do a really good job of making you strong to prepare you for those tests. Knowing that I needed a little help grasping the finer points of baseball my parents sent me off to baseball camp at Young Harris College and when I came back I was stronger, more determined, and was self-confident enough to really play. Then there was another summer at a Boy Scout Camp on the Boundary Waters between Northern Minnesota and Canada, and with a troop we carried everything we needed on our backs, even picked up canoes and carried them on our shoulders from one lake to the next and after 10 days we had traveled over 100 miles and knew that we had the strength to do more than we ever thought we could. And it’s good to know how strong you are. Self-reliance is a virtue. But what about when you hit the bottom. What about when you’ve done absolutely everything that you know to do, and you’ve gone as far as you can go, and you don’t know anything else to do but to gather sticks and die? If that’s the state of things, then baseball camp can’t help you. Boy Scout Camp can’t help you either – because it’s not about gritting your teeth and getting through or finding some strength within yourself that you didn’t know was there – when you’re out gathering sticks to cook that last little bit of meal for you and your son you don’t have anything left and now you’re in need of the kind of strength that comes from the one who was in the world but the world knew him not. Christianity makes the difference between the church camp and all the other camps that parents send their children to, because it’s Christianity that teaches that just when you’re sure that there’s nothing left to do because you can’t think of anything else to do – that God has a tendency to interrupt. Elijah said to this woman who was gathering the sticks to cook her last meal, “Do not be afraid… For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.” This woman must have wondering how, because that’s what people do. We find ourselves gathering sticks, and it’s hard to trust the word of the one who interrupts us to promise that there’s more to this world than what we can see. We search for the words to say and are convinced that they’ll never come, because trusting the word of Jesus in Matthew 10 is so hard. You know this verse: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” I’d sooner tear my hair out than stand behind a pulpit without the words that I’m going to say. I’d much rather practice and type and revise, because like so many human beings I spend my time developing skills that I think I can depend on because they’re mine, but what about when I’ve reached the end. What about when I’m out gathering sticks because all the strength that I had is gone. All the thoughts that I can muster fall flat. In that moment Preaching Camp can’t help me. Only Church Camp can help me. Because it’s at a place like this one that I learned how to pray. After the worship service we’d sometimes still be up on the pavilion and the counselors would tell ghost stories. Or we’d hike to this abandoned graveyard and I’d be so scared walking back from the graveyard in the dark that I’d walk so close to the camper walking next to me that our shoulders touched, and when it was time to go to sleep I couldn’t sleep because I was too afraid to close my eyes, afraid that this ghost they called Green Eyes who liked to kidnap campers who wandered into the woods would come and snatch me. I’d just pray and pray and pray, completely dependent on a power greater than myself. When we find ourselves gathering sticks that’s our only hope, because all the power that we have gives out. And if that’s all the power that we believe in than the act of gathering sticks is an act out of complete despair. It’s like standing at the grave, because at the grave, if human power is all that there is than what is there to do but put out some flowers, shed some tears, say goodbye, gather some sticks? But even then there’s an interruption. Even then there is the word of one who says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 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?” What I’m talking about here is what Paul was talking about: the gospel not of human origin, not received from a human source, not taught but only received, that transcends human wisdom or human strength or human determination – because all of that human stuff only got Paul so far. He advanced in Judaism. He was zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. But where did all that hard work get him? Not gathering sticks, but gathering Christians, violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. It was then that God revealed his son to him and called him through his grace, and once again it is in that great interruption that the Good News can be heard. Now maybe we are far from interruptions way out here. Our cell phones don’t work. Fox News can’t knock on our door to find out if we know David French. But if you listen today you will hear it. It’s not about us, what we’ve done or haven’t done. What we can do or what we can’t. Christianity is about what God has done and will do, even in those times when hope seems to be lost. Amen.