Sunday, October 30, 2016

Stand at my watchpost

Scripture Lessons: Luke 19: 1-10 and Habakkuk 1: 1-4 and 2: 1-4, OT pages 871-872 Sermon Title: Stand at my watchpost Preached on October 30, 2016 This is a sermon about views, and I wish everyone could see the view from my office window. My office window looks out on our church parking lot, so from my desk, as I face my computer, I can see the library and just the tops of the dream forest sculptures, also known by some as Presbyterian Stonehenge, but the thing that I wish everyone could see at least once is a day in the life of Melvin Taylor. Melvin sits in our parking lot. He’s out there this morning as he always is unless it’s too cold, and the reason that I wish you could look out my window is that watching Melvin for a day changes how you see the world. Last Friday morning Renea unloaded his groceries from Piggly Wiggly. After lunch Bill brought over hot dogs and hamburgers. On Sunday’s Frank brings him lunch from Captain D’s. Last Monday three people stopped that I saw – the Bugout man stopped just to talk a while, two guys in overalls in a yellow truck brought him a two liter of coke, and Renea brought him a meatloaf sandwich. On Tuesday James brought him his coffee and his pills. On Wednesday morning, I unloaded his order from Walmart, and on Wednesday evening Bill brought him a plate from our fellowship meal. Then on Thursday, if you could see out of my window, you might have seen Marcy challenging him to stand with his walker or a man drop off a coat or a woman hand him a blanket. Last Christmas a man brought by gift wrapped up in paper – it was a DVD player, and on his birthday, our parking lot was full of people with cake and ice cream and balloons. You see, I got to watch as Joan helped him with his checks, as Judy brought him water to bathe, as Joe Graham stopped to talk about the weather and the Bible and the news. I see cars honk and Melvin waves. Little kids wish him “Good morning” and the lady who walks around the block every day – if he’s not out by the time she walks by she knocks on his door to make sure he’s alright. I get to see all that because that’s the view from my office, which is different from the view from my living room where I look out on the world through the evening news. What is the view like from where you are? Our 2nd Scripture Lesson begins with the prophet’s lament: Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So, the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” Of course, I’ve seen that, and I know you have too. Murder, theft, and corruption. Drugs, guns, and violence against women and children. Racism, war, anger, disrespect. And it’s all right out there, and maybe you like the prophet are asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” But then the prophet goes to his watchpost. He stationed himself on the rampart. “I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint,” and when the prophet goes up to the watchpost to take in the view, he sees not only the suffering of the innocent and the injustice of the world but that “the righteous live by their faith.” That’s what I get to see. And I get to see it every day. A box of tissues is on my desk as the righteous brush away tears to testify to the mighty power of God. And did you hear that we have a pig? Because a member of the Presbyterian Church in Lynnville gave to God what he had and the preacher there called me and I called Will Satterwhite and now we have a pig. Or did you know that we prayed for healing as a church and the healing came – or that an unemployed woman was ready to give up looking until we prayed for a job and the very next interview – they gave her a job on the spot. Did you know that on my phone is a voice mail from a woman named Tracy who called to say that she got to move in to a new house with her son, and that as she thanked our church for the assistance that we gave she just barely got the words out through her tears, “We now have a place that we can call home.” Some people pray for faith enough that they can believe – but if you could just see what I get to see from the view of my office you would know. And it’s not that I don’t see the suffering, because I do. I see that too, but from my office window I see that in the sea of suffering and injustice and death and broken hearts the righteous are still living by faith. And that kind of perspective changes things, for the same world looks so different depending on your view. It’s something like the difference between how your mother saw you and how your grandmother saw you – the you is the same, but the view is so different. Danny Rosenblitz lived next door to me when I was very young and I was always jealous because he lived on the second floor with his parents but his grandparents lived on the first floor, so whenever he got in trouble with his mother all he had to do was run downstairs. Zacchaeus is kind of like that too. Only he had to climb up. In our First Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Luke we heard that great story of the tax collector Zacchaeus. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, so he climbed up that sycamore tree to see him. He adjusted his view – but what’s so important in this story is not just that Zacchaeus saw Jesus from up there – once he got up there Jesus saw him. And its Jesus’ view that really changes things you know, because he doesn’t see the way the world sees – and he doesn’t see us the way the world sees us. A tax collector was what the world saw – but what did Jesus see? His host for dinner. The world looked at him and saw someone who was lost and who should be forgotten, but the Lord looked on him up in that tree and saw a man who might have lost his way but all he needed was for the Father to call him back home. Now this place – this church – this faith of ours, it has a lot to do with shaping our view of the world. It has a lot do with shaping our view of life and death. But more than that, this place, this church, this faith of ours proclaims that while the world may look on us and see one thing, our Lord sees from his view something different. So, Zacchaeus, he climbs up that tree just like the prophet Habakkuk climbed up to his watchpost, and from his view he got a good look and lo and behold, here comes hope incarnate walking up the road. And Hope looks up at him and he says, “Hey there, I need you. I need you to feed me dinner tonight, but then I need you to show the world that even tax collectors can change.” Not only does Jesus see Zacchaeus, Jesus invites him to be a part of the change that he brings into the world. He invites us to fight the shadow with him. To sing a song of praise to God in a world of broken promises and half dead dreams. Jesus came into the world and he’s not just faithfulness in a sea of disappointment – he invites you and I to be a part of it. A part of the difference. A part of the change. A part of the hope. And I want you to know that I want in, because I want to be a part of what our Lord is doing. I want to be a part of the work that our church is doing and has been doing for over 200 years. And I want you to be a part of it as well. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

If I only had

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 3: 1-9 and Luke 18: 9-14, NT page 81 Sermon title: If I only had Preached on October 23, 2016 Last Thursday the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee held a meeting at the Donelson Presbyterian Church in Nashville. Jeff Smith, Carolyn Fisher, and I were in attendance representing our congregation, along with representatives from most other Presbyterian Churches in Middle Tennessee, and as is often the case at these meetings – a retiring pastor was recognized. Dr. John Crawford served several Presbyterian churches throughout his career and as members of those churches as well as his colleagues stood to mention his various accomplishments, a former Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church Nashville rose to share Dr. Crawford’s role in one of that church’s most legendary events. Several years ago, he told us, the staff of First Presbyterian Church were meeting in a board room overlooking the church’s vast tree lined property on Franklin Road. Dr. Crawford was leading the meeting, but he was interrupted by a member of the church who told them that one of those “natural people” was outside on the front lawn. The staff all stood and went to the widow to see what this church member was talking about, and they quickly realized that “natural” didn’t adequately describe this woman, for once they spotted her this “natural person’ was in truth a nude sunbather. Well, the sunbather stood and moved her blanket to a different place on the church front lawn and the staff shuffled over to the next window to get a better look. The woman moved again, and the church staff moved also not able to believe what was right before their eyes and having no idea what to do. Upon realizing that parents would soon be arriving to pick up their children from the church’s preschool, Dr. Crawford found a rain coat, went out to the woman and very compassionately helped her cover up and find a ride home – and the point I want to make with this story is that rarely do people make themselves so comfortable at a church. The church is a place to be put together, is it not? We come here wanting to look and be our best, for here we stand before our God to sing our praise and give our respect. Rev. and Mrs. Blythe, a couple who regularly visit our church now that Rev. Blythe has retired from his ministry in the Assembly of God tradition, have complimented us for our reverence in worship, and I take pride in that. I value the respect that we pay this room that we call “sanctuary” and the respect that we pay our Lord Jesus who we are bold to call King of Kings, but we must not become so dignified that we stop being honest about who we are. So, on the one hand I think of that “natural person” who paid a visit to First Presbyterian Church up in Nashville and on the other I think of Adam and Eve. Our first Scripture Lesson came from the book of Genesis, and you know this story well. Adam and Eve have broken the one law that God told them not to break. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” God said. But the serpent spoke to Eve, Eve spoke to Adam, and after eating the forbidden fruit – after eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze and Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. They were hiding there when the Lord called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” Where are you? Isn’t it an awful thing to hide from God? And the problem with hiding is that hiding prevents relationship and the more you hide the less relationship you have because the more you hide the less you can be known. We enter this sanctuary and we show reverence, we dress well to show respect, but there is a thin line between showing reverence, dressing well, minding manners to show our respect and doing these things to pretend that we are people who we are not. Adam and Eve don’t want to face God – they don’t want to get in trouble – they don’t want to be punished – they don’t want to disappoint God, so they hide themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden and what they don’t realize – what people who hide never realize – is that more damage is done with the hiding than the confession. I was 10 or 11, building a campfire in the backyard with my neighborhood friends, something my mother had explicitly told me not to do but that I was doing anyway – so when I heard her car pull into the driveway I smothered the fire, scattered the evidence and ran out to the driveway with a nice big fake smile on my face, “Hello Mom!” I say. “What are you up to this afternoon Joe Evans?” she asked me, “You weren’t building a fire back there were you?” I told her that I was just hanging out with my friends in the backyard, and “no, no fire Mom. You told me not to do that,” I say despite the smell of smell of smoke on my clothes and the mark of ashes on my hands. My Mom had a friend in the car that afternoon who looked at her as soon as I turned and walked away to say, “he’s lying through his teeth Cathy.” And it was later that evening, when I finally confessed to the truth, that my mom told me how she was disappointed that I had disobeyed her but that I would be grounded for 3 weeks because I had lied. How can you build a relationship, a relationship based on trust, if you hide the truth? If you stop being who you are and start hiding your true self under a mask of you want to be. And people hide like this all the time. Adam and Eve literally hid among the trees of the garden but there are so many others who hide the truth – the truth of who they are - right in plain sight. In our Second Scripture lesson, there were two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The funny thing about this parable is that Jesus makes this man out to be the bad example, though every preacher I know, myself included, believes that this is how he should be. Growing up at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, Georgia I came to know and admire the preacher there. His name is Dr. James O. Speed and I became convinced that his character was so solid, his ethic so pristine that should he walk over to a river or any body of water and do his arms like this the waters would part and he would be able to walk through on dry land. The Pharisee here presents himself as one who is not like other people. Some people don’t fast at all; upstanding people fast on the Sabbath – but this man – this man fasts twice a week. Some people don’t give anything to the church. Some people give a portion. But this man – this man tithes his full 10%. So, he doesn’t just go to the temple to pray – he stands in the temple for he is not ashamed – it appears he has done what he is supposed to do. On the other hand, was a tax collector, and standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and this is how he prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Now which would my mother have preferred? Which does Jesus say that God prefers? “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Now think about that for a minute. There are several things that make it hard to be a preacher. Trying to understand why Jesus says what he says is just one of them. Buying beer at the grocery store is another. You see, I relate to this Pharisee so much, because when you feel the pressure to be good, to be holy, to be set apart, someone who is an example – you’re tempted to hide the parts of yourself that you’re ashamed of and to take pride in not being like other people. Did you catch what the Pharisee prayed? Not only did the Pharisee make sure that God knew what he had been doing, the Pharisee also let God know who he was not like. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” And I know what this is. I told you before that last Thursday I was at a Presbytery meeting with Jeff Smith and Carolyn Fisher. You should have seen us. There we were – looking good. Jeff Smith – church treasurer. Carolyn Fisher – elder and former moderator of the Presbytery. And did you know that there are churches who didn’t even send any representatives? But there I was with these two great commissioners. And we were hearing about these other churches – one who had lost $600,000 because the bookkeeper had been stealing from the church for the past 10 years. Another who had lost her pastor due to his impropriety. And as we heard about these things I just prayed to myself, “God, I thank you that my church is not like other churches.” Do you see what can happen? Do you see what can happen if our prayer is more a resume than a confession? Do you see what can happen when we are so busy hiding the broken parts of ourselves that we take pride in the brokenness of others? That’s why I get so tired of politics and why I’m so glad that the last presidential debate is over. It seems like all we hear from Mr. Trump is a report on how bad Mrs. Clinton is and all we hear from Mrs. Clinton is how bad Mr. Trump is and the Pharisee was doing the same thing in his prayer – Lord I thank you that I am not as bad as this guy huddled over there in the corner. I thank you that I am not as bad as this tax collector. Sometimes we compete this way, not realizing that our attempts to look like we have it all together are ruining our relationships – and not just our relationship with God, but our relationships with each other. Do you know how hard it is to be friends with someone who is always trying to hold it all together? Do you know how hard it is to be honest with someone, to be vulnerable to someone who is incapable of sharing with you their own failings and shortcomings? It’s like being invited into someone’s house who has plastic on the furniture. Do you know what I’m talking about? You’re invited over for tea and you get to sit down on the sofa and you hear plastic crinkling and if it’s hot, you feel your leg start to stick to the plastic and you must peel your skin off it to move your leg. How much would I rather sit down in a living room with a few stains on the furniture than a living room that must be kept pristine because the owner of that living room is too interested in the appearance of perfection. Adam and Eve chose to hide rather than confess. I chose to lie to my mother rather than admit to my disobedience. The Pharisee could only mention the things that he was doing right, too afraid to confess the things he was doing wrong and he had to put other people down to lift himself up. On the other hand, was a tax collector, and standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and this is how he prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Can you see it? Can you see why he was the one who went down to his home justified? For one thing, he stopped hiding, but for another, while the Pharisee was focused on the people around him and was busy taking pride in himself by comparison to his neighbor – the tax collector was just focused on his relationship with God. Now this matters. This sermon is titled, “If I only had” at the prompting of our church secretary, Renea Foster, who got the line from a Dr. Phil episode this week – and in this episode Dr. Phil was interviewing people who had been through a near death experience and they were talking about what they learned and what lessons they had to offer. No one on the show said – If I only had been more disingenuous in my relationships. No one said – If I only had been less open with my feelings. No one said – If I only had a more beautiful living room. And no one said – I only had done a better job of hiding who I really am. We come into this place – this sanctuary – like Adan and Eve coming out from hiding. We must come into this place to sing – not so concerned with being heard by the people around us that we whisper the words, but singing to God who loves to hear our voice. We are reverent and tidy and we look so upstanding – so we must be careful - for if we can’t be ourselves here, if we can’t be honest here – than how will we ever learn about grace? Now I do hate it a little bit that in today’s Second Scripture Lesson Jesus is telling us not to be like the one who tithes his 10% to the church right in the middle of Stewardship Season, but I want to tell you this – Jesus says that because he is warning all of us that we cannot trust in ourselves. Verse 9 read, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” and if you are using that card to prove that you are righteous – if you are using that card to check off all the boxes so that you know you are doing OK – if you are using that card to justify yourself before God and your neighbor than you have no need for the card nor do you really know about grace. But on the other hand – if you are using that card because this is the place where you can be you and still find love and acceptance – if you know you need forgiveness and you want to thank the God who has provided it – if you are using this card because you know you need a savior and you know that you have one and you just want to thank him because he loves you with a love that you can barely understand – then use this card to say “Thank you” and leave this place justified. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Do not lose heart

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 31: 27-34 and Luke 18: 1-8, NT page 81 Sermon Title: Do not lose heart Preached on October 16, 2016 Last Sunday night – you might have missed the last question asked during the presidential debate. It’s understandable if you changed the channel long before then – but if you managed to weather the storm then you got to hear the most interesting question of the night, the very last one posed by a man name Karl Becker: “My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?” Mrs. Clinton answered first. She said, “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald,” but as nice as it always is to hear someone talk about your kids, at the time I felt like this was kind of a non-answer, so my hat’s off to Mr. Trump who jumped right in there and said, “I will say this about Hillary: She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.” Now that was a real compliment I thought, and it put a nice bow on an incredibly strange presidential debate, and it also gave me a lot to think about – because like Mr. Trump I agree that Mrs. Clinton is a fighter and that being a fighter is a good thing, being a fighter is a virtue, but so is acceptance and one of the great challenges in life is balancing the two: fighting for change and accepting what cannot be changed. So we pray the Serenity Prayer written by that great saint of the Church, Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Isn’t that the trick – the wisdom to know the difference? Too often that’s the part I’m lacking and I so often excel at the acceptance part. I once I had a mentor, she was my supervisor during the summer I spent at the women’s prison as a chaplain in training – she looked me in the eye one day and she said, “Joe, you’re really nice. I’ve seen you be nice to just about everybody, but you need to learn that there’s a difference between being nice and being kind.” Up until this point I kind of thought that being nice was the same as being Christian, but Jesus wasn’t always nice. When he saw the Temple turned into a marketplace, he didn’t nicely ask that the money changers evacuate the premises – he toppled their tables and went after them with a whip. When the woman caught in adultery was right on the edge of being stoned, he didn’t accept this behavior – he kneeled by the woman and challenged the crowd saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. He looked at Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus didn’t always accept people as they were nor did he always accept society as it was – for so often he was using his words and his love to work for something different so he tells his disciples this parable. “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’” For a while he refused – and of course he did. He neither feared God nor had respect for people and you can imagine that he was one of those judges who thrives in the bureaucracy, taking responsibility for nothing, deaf to anyone’s complaints. Maybe he would have done well at the DMV, but in this case he was a judge and how difficult it is to gain justice from a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. How frustrating to realize that the judge – the authority you depend on to stand up for what is right cares more about getting to the golf course than standing up to defend the widow and the orphan. Given the situation, the attitude of the judge, some would have prayed that Serenity prayer and emphasized the first part: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” but the widow, this widow was a fighter and so she just followed him out to the golf course. He’d go home for a 5 o’clock cocktail and guess who just happened to stop by. The phone would ring at his house and you can see him – he asked his wife to pick it up and he said, “if it’s that widow, tell her I’m busy.” A person can ignore someone that way for a while and eventually – most people take the hint and pray for the power to accept the world as it is, but this widow kept praying the second part of the prayer: “God grant me the courage to change the things I can” and went on saying to that judge, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ “For a while he refused; but later – later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The parable ends with this harsh question – “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And what is faith? What does Jesus mean here by faith? Faith is the willingness of a widow to wake up morning after morning, day after day, rejection and rejection, still believing that justice will be hers. Faith can help us accept the things we cannot change, but faith can also fuel our fight, granting us the courage to change the things we can. Faith is perseverance. Faith is determination. Faith is never accepting injustice as the way things are, and this is where being nice won’t always cut it, because you know what nice people do when they knock on the door to demand a little justice? They say, “Pardon me sir, but I didn’t think your ruling was very fair and I’m so sorry to bother you but would you please reconsider?” You know what nice people do when the political climate gets crazy and people start arguing and writing all kinds of divisive things on Facebook? They graciously excuse themselves from the conversation. And do you know what nice people do when you hurt their feelings or when you treat them like a doormat or when you don’t respect their boundaries? Too often they do nothing – and there are two reasons injustice continues to exist in the world: on the one hand are some ruthless people with bad intentions but on the other hand are a whole bunch of people who are too nice to say or do anything about it, they’ve mastered the acceptance part of the serenity prayer and they lack the wisdom to know that they can change far more about this world than they ever imagined. We can’t just accept and move on, because not voting is not going to change anything. Not speaking is not going to change anything. Being too nice to say or do anything about it is not going to change anything. So here’s the thing about this widow. She was dissatisfied with the judge’s ruling and she was bold enough to do something about it, again and again she was bold to do something about it and if a judge “Who neither feared God nor had respect for people” changed his ruling and gave the widow what she asked for why would you or I ever stop knocking on the door of our Father in Heaven, crying out to him for help and justice? Too often we are just too good at the acceptance part. We learn to live with it – and we’d rather learn to live with it than cause a stink about it. After all, nobody likes someone who causes a stink. Those people who just can’t accept things the way they are – do you know how difficult it is to have lunch with people who just can’t accept things the way they are? Who want to make all those changes to their order? They see the menu, but they say to the waitress, “I’d like the chicken, but it comes with onions and I’d like for you to leave off the onions, and instead of fries I’d like a salad, and rather than the bun I’d like a croissant.” Some people are so bad about this that they might walk into the Chick-fila to order a roast beef sandwich. Now what kind of person can’t order off the menu? I’ll tell you what kind of person – the kind of person who sees what’s there, but who isn’t satisfied with it. And what’s there? Out in the world, there’s conflict between police and crowds of angry people. Plenty of people have thrown up their arms in frustration at these problems. Plenty of people have said that there’s nothing that can be done, but the Chief of Police here in Columbia, Chief Tim Potts – a little more than two years ago as he recognized that East Columbia is a high crime area, he asked his police officers to patrol the Eastside on foot. And in the Daily Herald about a year ago there was a picture of an 8-year-old African-American boy playing basketball in his driveway with a police officer. Here there was something different – here the reality was becoming different, but that takes the leadership of a police chief who won’t accept the way things are, convinced and faithful that things could be different, that things can be better. The same thing is happening out at Cox Middle School. I was eating lunch again, this time with the Director of Schools, Dr. Chris Marczak, and I was trying to make some nice conversation so I asked him to tell me about nice things happening in Maury County Schools and he said that he was the most excited about Cox Middle School. “Cox Middle School,” I said, “but isn’t that place really bad?” And I asked, since I had heard some pretty bad stories and I read last year about how the school’s discipline issues were so bad that all the clubs and sports were being taken away as punishment for poor behavior. Well, Dr. Marczak told me that I had gotten the wrong impression and asked me to come out with him to tour the school which I did last Wednesday. Here’s the thing about this school – last year there were 4,000 disciplinary referrals. What does that mean? That means that pretty much every day last year our own Matt Campbell who teaches out there had to break up a fight. 4,000 disciplinary referrals are so many disciplinary referrals that the principal and two assistant principals spent no time in their office because they were out in the halls dealing with unruly students – in fact, they put what they needed on push carts and made mobile offices so they would be closer to the problems as they were happening. Last Wednesday Principal Webb met us there at the front. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and then introduced me to the students who were walking with him who in turn shook my hand, looked me in the eye. That was the case with every student who I met last Wednesday at Cox Middle School – Principle Webb knew all their names, even Jevon who was there for his first day of school, and everyone who he introduced me to shook my hand and looked me in the eye. Not only that – there on the wall by the front entrance were test scores reporting 56% growth in 7th grade math, an improvement from 16% proficiency – there numbered were total books read for each grade numbering in the thousands. At some point I asked him, “where are all the bad kids?” And he told me that there weren’t any bad kids. These were just kids, and every one of them had the potential to be a great student. How does this kind of thing happen? It happens when someone – a widow, a police chief, a principal – refuses to accept what is right in front of them and instead knocks and pesters and fights until justice comes. And why wouldn’t justice come? If a widow can get justice from a judge who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” When the Son of Man comes, what will he find at First Presbyterian Church? I’ve been here with you for nearly six years, and for these six years I have been amazed – amazed and overjoyed to witness the ways that you proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, not just on this corner, out in the world – but more and more I become convinced that we are not doing everything that we can. That we are not having the impact on this community that we could. That while our building is beautiful and are staff is paid fairly and the heat and air work most of the time I can’t help but imagine what would happen in this town if we were able to double our support to the Family Center. Last year when we were blessed with a donation large enough to buy our new church bus we were able to donate our old church van to the Family Center and now they use it to transport food and donations and they take homeless men and women to shelters – but is that all that we can do? Two months out of the year men and women from this church give up their time and their talent to cook for hungry people right here in this community – but is that all we can do? I worry that we are all getting too good at acceptance – and I don’t want to be good at acceptance – I want to be good at fighting for the world to change and I believe that God will be on our side. So think with me – and during this month of Stewardship is just as good a time as any – think with me not just about what you’ve done, not just celebrating all that you’ve done, but think with me about what you could do. For if a widow can squeeze justice out of a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people, will not God grant justice to his chosen ones? Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

One turned back

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 29: 4-7 and Luke 17: 11-19, NT page 80 Sermon Title: One turned back Preached on October 9, 2016 Sometimes people wonder – what’s the matter with kids today? So many lament pervasive ingratitude and the abandonment of manners, so I’ll begin today’s sermon with a quote that articulates the sentiment: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” You may agree with that, and if you do you’re not alone. As I said before, what I’ve just read is a quote. But the greater meaning comes from learning who the quote is attributed to. I’ve just been to visit my grandfather, and back when I was in high school he sent me this quote, possibly to make me reflect upon my lack of manners and contempt for authority, but while he may have related to the quote’s sentiments these are not his words nor do they belong to any of our contemporaries who currently stand in judgement of young people today. The quote is attributed to Socrates, proving that at least since the four-hundred years before Christ was born it has been observed that manners are in short supply. So, maybe not surprisingly, when Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, going through that region between Samaria and Galilee, and having healed the 10 lepers who came out to him begging to be healed – only one prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And where were the other 9? They had forgotten their manners it would seem, and neither Socrates nor my grandfather would have been surprised though Jesus was disappointed: “Were not ten made clean?” he asked the one who returned to thank him. “But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” This account here is a call to gratitude, but the double-whammy to any and all who have ever heard this passage from the Gospel of Luke is that the only one who had any manners was the foreigner, the Samaritan, and it is the foreigner, the lowly Samaritan who becomes the hero in the Gospel of Luke again and again. You know well the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s a parable told in the Gospel of Luke just before our 2nd Scripture Lesson in chapter 10 and it is in this parable that the only one who stopped to help a robbed and wounded man on the side of the Jericho Road, the only one to embody any manners is not the priest nor the Levite but the foreigner, the Samaritan, who knew what it meant, not just to mind his manners but also how to love his neighbor as himself. Jesus is making a point here – it’s not just that 9 forgot to say “thank-you”, it’s that the one who was never invited into proper society embodies the standards we’ve forgotten. And we’ve all seen that before. It’s kind of like when you’re packing lunches for your kids on a Tuesday morning and one of them says, “I’ll take a ham sandwich.” “You’ll take a ham sandwich?” you say under your breath, and then you go on with lunch preparation while you watch the news hearing about the foster kids or the refugees who rejoice over a cup of white rice and you start to think to yourself – “What is wrong with my children!?!” It’s kind of like the time you reluctantly took the neighbor kid who talks too much out to dinner even though he basically invited himself, and as soon as the food comes it’s scarfed down and while you’re waiting for the waitress to bring you back the check only one of those kids sticks around to say thank-you. Good luck complaining about him now. Gratitude is in short supply. Is it really any wonder only 1 of the 10 returns to kneel at the savior’s feet? For nothing much has changed – still today some mind their manners and some don’t. Some stand for the national anthem and some don’t – and you can’t really make a judgement about what kind of person is grateful for this country and which one isn’t, because you can scan the stands at the football game and the veteran weeps as does the illegal immigrant. One refugee stands with her hand over her heart while the one who knows better won’t even take his hat off. Good luck trying to understand what makes people thankful. It’s not wealth or the lack there of for I’ve seen the rich embody gratitude while the poor talked me out of my last dollar and never said a word of thanks. Christmas comes and one kid gets a bike and another gets an orange but gratitude isn’t proportionate to the gift. Gratitude is something else. And this is a strange thing I believe. But a miracle – as amazing as a miracle ever is – even a miracle won’t necessarily result in gratitude any more than winning the lottery will change the attitude of a bitter old man. Give a man on the street or a spoiled little girl exactly what she asked for again and again but don’t ever expect her to be thankful, expect her to ask you for something else in a couple minutes. In the same way – you think about the lepers – all 10 received a miracle, all 10 were healed, but sometimes getting what you want and being thankful for it are two completely different things. Being healed and being made well don’t always go hand in hand. I realized this while we were coming home from South Carolina during the hurricane evacuation. Last week we drove the 9 hours to get there to visit my parents and my grandfather, but with the chance of a hurricane striking the coast we left early Wednesday morning after arriving on Monday afternoon. You might think that being able to escape a hurricane would give a person enough to be thankful for on a Wednesday morning, but I was in a bad mood because after driving all that way we were having to turn right around, so as we stopped for breakfast in a tiny little town at a restaurant called Rusty and Paula’s I wasn’t very grateful at all. The thing about little girls is that pancakes are all the concession needed for having to leave their grandparent’s house two days early, but their father on the other hand was still a little bitter. So who knows what attitude I was presenting to all the locals there who wanted to know where we had come from and where we were going, but by the time we had finished eating the place had pretty much cleared out and that was when the waitress came over to tell us that someone had already taken care of our bill. Now this is a small thing compared to leprosy – a very, very small thing – but in this little example lies a lesson that I hope will stick with me – the lesson of letting go of the disappointment for a visit that didn’t go as expected so that I might spend my time being grateful for a stranger who cared for my family. In a study on gratitude a psychologist at the University of California named Robert A. Emmons and his colleague, Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, assigned participants in a study to keep a short journal. One group of the participants were to briefly describe five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and a third group, the neutral group, was asked to list five events or circumstance that affected them, either positive or negative. 10 weeks later, the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25% happier than the group who spent their time recording daily hassles, which isn’t too surprising, but what is surprising is that the gratitude group also reported fewer health complaints and exercised an average of 1.5 hour more than the others. So, what’s the matter with kids today? What’s the matter with everyone today? On the one hand there are those who, like me, have so much to be thankful for, but we live in a world where restaurants have a box for us to leave our complaints at the door but no place for us to leave our gratitude. I remember the song from that great Hollywood Musical “White Christmas” - but do I fall asleep counting my blessings like Bing Crosby told me to, or do I fall asleep mulling over my anxieties? I was running just last week – and running as I so often do – huffing and puffing and complaining about being out of breath, but last week I was running through a cemetery. Now can you believe that – here I was complaining about being out of breath in a cemetery, and all of a sudden the irony hit me and I could see the dead rising from the grave and grabbing me by the collar to say, “You think you’re out of breath?” There’s a point in our lives where we have what we need and all that we wanted and dreamed of – but if happiness still remains elusive than maybe the answer is as simple as going to the source of all our blessings to voice a simple word of thanks. My grandfather has always been able to do that, and before evacuating South Carolina, I was able to visit with him. His dementia is severe now; I don’t think he recognized my face or my voice. Certainly he didn’t call me by my name, but the same smile was on his face that has always been there and when I talked with my Dad about it he told me that a friend of my grandfather’s had said, “the only way to explain it is that he’s mastered the art of happiness.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing to say about somebody? That they’ve mastered the art of happiness. And I think that’s right. My grandfather never made it through a family event without celebrating his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He never hung up the phone with me without telling me he was proud of me. He never missed the chance to tell the women he loved that they were beautiful. He never sat down at a Thanksgiving meal without saying, “Now, let us return thanks.” On the other hand, too many miracles have passed by me without returning thanks. It’s not that I haven’t been given enough gifts, it’s that too many gifts I’ve been given without taking the time to celebrate them. If you feel the same way then let me challenge you to end or begin each day by listing out your blessings, and by acknowledging our God as their source. And know that later this month you’ll be asked to fill out a Pledge Card. And while these cards mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, I can’t think of a pledge card without remembering the words of CS Lewis who told the story of a boy who had been given 10 dollars by his father. It was his father’s birthday so the boy spent 9 dollars on himself and one on his father. Now 1 out of 10 doesn’t sound like very much does it? But to give thanks for all that we’ve been given, that’s all that has ever been required. Amen.