Sunday, December 18, 2016


Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 7: 10-16, Matthew 1: 18-25, NT page 1 Sermon Title: Emmanuel Preached on December 18, 2016 I had to make some changes to my sermon this morning. Just in the last hour or so I was adjusting it, and I had to – at the early service I put three people to sleep. Now one? One is OK, but three is over my limit. You know, I get to go preach at some of the African-American Churches in town. St. Paul’s up the street and Bethel AME kind of by the cemetery and there I know when the sermon is good because I can hear it. Based on what the congregation shouts out to me I know that the sermon is good and that no one is falling asleep. According to an old Fred Craddock story – they’ll let you know if the sermon is bad too. You know that the sermon is bad if the choir starts singing. Dr. Craddock was a guest preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – that’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and after the service he says to his host preacher, “I didn’t know the choir was going to sing during my sermon,” and the host preacher says, “We thought you needed a little help.” This morning at the early service I needed a little a help. Presbyterians don’t shout out if the sermon is good but they do fall asleep if the sermon is bad and 1 is OK but 3 is too many so I changed my sermon. And now maybe some of you are saying – it’s up to the person listening to pay attention, and sometimes that’s true. I had my annual review last month. Each of the Elders reviewed my performance in several different areas. One of those areas was communication, and one elder gave me a 2 out of 3 I think, but left the caveat – “I’m not sure how Joe could ever be completely successful in communicating with us, because so much of the time we just don’t listen.” That’s true – I don’t know how many times I’ve announced that the Christmas Eve service will be at 5:00 but still – I guarantee you, that I will be asked that question from now until next Saturday every time I run into a member of this church in Kroger or anywhere else. But communication – it’s not just that sometimes congregations don’t listen and sometimes preachers are too boring to listen to – it’s that there is a chasm here – a divide. I’m up here in this pulpit and week after week I’m wondering to myself – “How can I help the congregation see how good this Good News is? How can I preach so that the congregation hears?” My job is to take the world of Scripture and to make it accessible, but week after week I struggle because preaching hinges on communication and communication is hard. There’s a divide that must be bridged. And we use words sometimes to bridge the divide – so you can hear and relate to me and so I can hear and relate to you, but that’s a challenge. I’m up here and some of you are way in the back. It’s a difficult gap to bridge. But there are so many difficult gaps to bridge – think about the gap between Washington D.C. and Columbia, Tennessee. General assumption says that those career politicians don’t know us and can’t relate, and how will they ever? Or here’s a bigger one – think about God way up in heaven and us all way down here on earth. Do you know how small we must be from God’s view? Like ants scurrying around the earth – but then we hear this word – Emmanuel – by this name we know that God has bridged the divide for Emmanuel doesn’t mean God way up there. Emmanuel means God with us. I think it’s something like this: In the movie I wrote about this week in an Advent Devotional, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” There’s a Nazi officer is promoted to the office of commandant of a concentration camp in the countryside. He and his family live in a house nearby. The commandant’s son, Bruno, can see the barbed wire fence of the camp from his bedroom window. From there he can also see what he thinks are farmers who are working inside the fence wearing what he assumes are “striped pajamas.” As the family’s home is remote, there are no Arian friends for Bruno to play with. Lonely then, despite his father’s prohibition, Bruno curiously explores what he calls “the farm” and meets a young boy his age wearing those striped pajamas. The two boys become friends. At the end of the movie, Bruno so values his friend that he puts on striped pajamas himself and digs under the barbed wire fence to help his friend find his father. Now there’s a substantial divide – a fence with a free German on one side and an imprisoned Jew on the other, and yet Bruno puts on the clothes of his friend, digs under the fence, becomes on his friend’s kind and the fence is gone. What has God done? The choir just sang: See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below; Lo, within a manger lies He who built the starry skies; Here I am struggling to preach, and with my words, to bridge the gap between you and me – to say something that you can relate to – to say something clearly that has meaning and substance, and yet here I am, a servant of God the who built the starry skies and comes to lie in a manger that the gap between us and him would be no longer. That’s what Emmanuel means – that’s why we sing for him to come – because God understands us – sees us – yet our world is full of division. We can’t understand each other, we struggle to be understood and to understand. There are divisions of culture – there are divisions of race – there are divisions of husbands and wives – liberals and conservatives – Christians and Muslims – we’re all failing to understand each other and how will the distance ever be bridged? Think of Joseph and Mary now – the account from the first chapter of Matthew that we just read begins with Mary’s miraculous pregnancy that Joseph, at first, isn’t sure is so miraculous. He is a kind man, and so he plans to have her dismissed quietly, but when you think about husbands and wives you should wonder how it is that one moment a wedding is being planned and the next moment the punishment for adultery is considered. We are understood one moment – loved one moment – but how often do we come home from work or school – walk in the door and fail to see the person waiting for us? I got to see A Christmas Carol last Sunday. It was at the college – produced and directed by Kate Foreman who so many of you know. The story is all too familiar it’s the one with Ebenezer Scrooge, and by way of the Ghost of Christmas Past we learn that Scrooge’s great ability to ignore the suffering of others – that of the poor and his co-worker Bob Cratchet especially – had its root in this one great moment when he chose his work again and again and the woman he loved finally walked away. She was invisible to him. He ended up in one of those situations where he didn’t really hear her, and as the years went by Dickens describes what he turned into: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Who then was his neighbor? No one now, for time had blinded him to the needs of others – time had even blinded him to the need for love that he himself had. But fortunately for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Joseph in Matthew – a dream came upon them and they changed course. Scrooge could see his neighbor as himself and he saved both himself and Tiny Tim from imminent death. Joseph knew that what Mary had told him was the truth for her claim was verified through the voice of an angel, and before he got to dismissing her quietly as he had planned, he took her as his wife. But what about us? How will we ever hear each other. How will we see each other clearly? How can we recover our sight to see the humanity in the other? How can we see our brother and become friends? How will we ever see that our neighbor really is us, just as we are our neighbor? See amid the winter’s snow, born for us on earth below; See the tender Lamb appears, promised from eternal years; Hail, thou ever blessed morn; Hail, redemption’s happy dawn; Sing through all Jerusalem, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Lo, within a manger lies He who built the starry skies; He who, throned in heights sublime, sits amid the cherubim: Sacred infant, all divine, what a tender love was thine, thus to come from highest bliss own to such a world as this: Teach, O teach us, Holy Child, by thy face so meek and mild, Teach us to resemble thee, in thy sweet humility. In listening – in striving to understand – in valuing the people around us, we are continuing the work that our God began. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

And Mary said

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Luke 1: 46-55, NT page 57 Sermon title: “And Mary said” Preached on 12/11/16 Years ago, I was a camp counselor, and this camp was a church camp, a lot like our NaCoMe over in Centerville, and every week of camp there’d be a preacher who would lead the evening worship service for all the young campers. One week the preacher had a lot to say. He was focused on the Lord’s crucifixion. “Did you know children,” he says, that the Roman soldiers whipped our Lord. They whipped and whipped him within an inch of his life, but it wasn’t the whip that killed him.” “And then, they put this awful crown of thorns on his head so that blood dripped down his face. But children, it wasn’t the crown of thorns that killed him either, because then children, they took these old rusty nails – and they took these big rusty nails and they nailed him through the arm and to this wooden cross, but it wasn’t the rusty nails that killed him children. Do you know what finally killed him children?” And I could hear it. From the back of the group, a boy of 8 or 9 spoke up: “Was it tetanus that killed him?” I love that story. The preacher is trying to make one point, a young boy speaks up to make another, and in that moment one sermon may be ruined but a better sermon takes its place. Isn’t it amazing, that some time when everything goes wrong – it goes exactly right. Some of our favorite Christmas movies know that. Think about Home Alone – everything goes wrong. What could be worse than forgetting your child at home when flying to Europe or wherever they were going. He’s no older than the little boy in my story and he’s left all alone – at Christmas. But why does little McCauley Culkin learn his lesson and value his family? Because they forgot him and left him at home all by himself. Now that wasn’t a well-executed family trip, but something so good came out of it. Think about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No one hopes to have their tree stolen by a broken-hearted man covered in green fur, but when the Who’s down in Whoville find that everything is gone on Christmas morning – they sing. And then there’s our favorite, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold works and works and works to enhance everyone’s Christmas cheer, but nothing goes right – the turkey is dry, one lady wraps up her cat as a present, Snot the dog gags under the table, and Cousin Eddie empties the you know what in the storm drain – for despite all our hard work it appears as though all we’re going to get some years is a subscription to Jelly of the Month. But look to Mary. Do you think she planned to be an unwed teenage mother on Christmas? The subject of whisper and rumor – a stress on her poor mother and a shame on her father – did anything go according to how she envisioned it? No. But still she sings, because Christmas isn’t about her plans. This is about God’s – and rather than sing a sad lamentation Mary rejoices for she knows that sometimes God makes a mockery of our best laid plans to give a gift that’s even better. That’s why some remember best the Christmas when they received the least. That’s why we love most the Christmas card where the kids are looking everywhere but at the camera and mom is about to lose it and dad can’t stop laughing. And that’s why Mary sings how God will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, because Christmas isn’t about throwing the perfect party or cooking the perfect dish or giving the perfect gift – it’s about a Perfect God coming to dwell with an imperfect people and the proud are too busy working towards perfection to see it. Sometimes, when everything went wrong – that’s when it came out exactly right and Mary can see it. But can you? We tell our kids to be good, which is good. We work hard to get a nice picture for our Christmas card, and that’s important. Then we clean the house because guests are coming, and there’s food to cook and presents to wrap, and there’s just a lot of work to do because this time of year needs to be perfect. Right? If only we could be. That first story about the preacher at summer camp reminds me of myself now. Last June I was up there with you at NaCoMe and I was preaching about how we must be mindful of how God is at work in the interruptions – when right then someone’s car alarm went off interrupting my sermon. A friend asked me if I had planned it that way, but the truth is I was so frustrated that I proved my own point – sometimes we are so dedicated to how things are supposed to go that we fail to see God at work right there in front of us. Christmas is about a gift that we receive, not one that we bought or made or planned for – so don’t work so hard this time of year for Christmas is about celebrating what God has done, is doing, and will do. He has shown strength in his arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, And lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Watch and listen, for God is at work. Be strong and do not fear, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

One more powerful than I

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Matthew 3: 1-12 Sermon Title: One more powerful than I Preached on December 4, 2016 There’s a great video on our church’s Facebook page. I referred to it in an Advent Devotional that was emailed to you last Friday as a part of the Christian Education Committee’s Advent Calendar. The video is of a group of little kids telling the Christmas story in their own words and one of my favorite parts of this video is their account of the Three Kings who came bearing gifts. According to these kids the Three Kings brought the baby Jesus a stuffed hippo, diapers, wipes, milk, shoes, and Frankenstein. I assume that Frankenstein is supposed to be frankincense, but it might be that bringing a toy Frankenstein, a box of diapers, and some milk just makes more sense to little kids. Sometimes when kids tell the story as they remember it, it’s easy to see the parts that they really get and the parts that they’re still a little confused about, so in hearing the kids in this video tell the Christmas story it was easy for me to see that there are some elements to our celebration of Jesus birth that need a little clarifying. Why did the Three Kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh? For the answer to that question you’ll have to go read the advent devotional we sent out last Friday, but there are so many other “why” questions to answer: Why do we give gifts at Christmas? Why do we put stockings on the mantel? Why does grandma HAVE to make her macaroni and cheese? Why are there chunks in the gravy? Why do we have a Christmas tree? That last one is my favorite. We bought our Christmas Tree from the Satterwhite’s last weekend and it is a little strange if you stop to think about it. I don’t remember ever asking my parents why we brought a live tree into the house at Christmas, but since I was young in those days before a parent could search the internet for an answer on his phone I can imagine that my father would have told me that we put up a Christmas tree “because we always have” or because “I said so that’s why,” and I wouldn’t blame him had that been my father’s answer because now I know that the question of “why” when you don’t have a clue can be so frustrating you just want the questions to stop. But kids want to know, especially when it’s strange. Can you imagine what it would be like if you weren’t expecting it – one day your dad drags into the living room a pine tree. If you had never seen it before, and your mom had always made you wipe your feet or take off your shoes before coming into the house – if she’d checked your pockets at the door for frogs and spiders – or worse yet, if your mom made you take off your mud covered blue jeans before coming into her freshly vacuumed living room then you’d probably wonder why she wasn’t yelling at your father who is suddenly dragging into the house a whole tree. But plenty of things happen – year after year - without question. Why do Presbyterians clap at plays and concerts but never at church? In the Lord’s Prayer, why do Methodists say “trespasses” but Presbyterians say “debts”? (Because we’re right, that’s why.) I could tell you the answer to both these questions, but there are about a million that I’ve been asked here lately that I have no idea about: Why, when we go out to eat, do we always eat Mexican? Why do some people smoke cigarettes? Why doesn’t Melvin have a home? Why do only light skinned people go to church with us? I don’t know – and – unfortunately, even Google can’t answer those questions, so that should make me wonder if maybe some of these things could change. John the Baptist was all about change – and his message was so profound, so attractive, that even though he was preaching out in a desert away from the city people streamed out to him. They couldn’t help it and here was his message in a nutshell – “Repent.” Another way to say it, maybe the way John would have said it if he were with us here today – “turn around, change course, think about what you’re doing and do something different.” His word hit people right between the eyes knocking them out of their ruts – you don’t have to be the way you are – you can change – you can repent – your old self can be washed away and you can be made new and now is the time to do it. Now that’s a profound message for some people, especially people who have given up the discipline of asking why. My sister in-law has a bumper sticker: “Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?” John the Baptist would say, “I’m glad you’re finally asking yourself that question, and if you want to make a change now is the time.” We ask a lot of questions like that: Why am I stuck in this rut? Why am I always so angry? Why am I tiered, why am I hurting, why don’t things get better for me? The profound nature of John’s message is this: you can change right now; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” When the people of Jerusalem and Judea heard this good news, they went out to him and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But – then the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up. “Why didn’t they like John,” you might ask. I believe it’s because they are like the parents who don’t like children who ask too many questions and hate worst of all the question “why.” If you would have asked any one of them why we put up Christmas trees they all would have told you, “Because our ancestor Abraham told us to, that’s why.” If you would have asked them why we must rest on the Sabbath, they would have told you the same. Why we observe the Laws, even the ones that are a burden to observe, they would have told you that “it’s because we’ve always done it this way, that’s why,” and here’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism – traditions are good, but to keep on doing the same thing without asking the question “why” – that’s dangerous, for following ruts for too long may lead to places we’d be better off not to go. My grandmother always had Christmas at her house – always. And, she always put up two trees, a fake green one in the formal living room and a fake silver one in the room with the pool table. We’d be shooting pool in there and you had to maneuver around the fake silver tree – and if my dad was losing he’d blame the tree. “Why does she have to put the tree in here anyway!” My grandfather would respond, “George, I stopped asking my wife to explain herself a long time ago.” She’d make macaroni and cheese for me. Creamed corn for my sister. Dressing for my mother. A ham for my grandfather. In addition to that we’d have potato salad, turkey, fruit salad, cranberry sauce – and every year she’d say that cooking all that was getting to be too much but we wouldn’t hear of it because having all that food was tradition, so she’d come home from working at the hospital in the maternity ward on Christmas morning and she’d cook and cook and cook. Why? I don’t know. And it took a long time before anyone asked that question. Don’t we go on letting people do things that aren’t good for them just because they always have? Don’t we go on doing things that aren’t good for us just because we always have? Had someone asked why we were all sitting back while my grandmother cooked after working all night at the hospital maybe then something would have changed, but we don’t always ask “why.” Some traditions we follow, even though we forgot why we do, but more importantly, some patterns we follow without question, even though people are hurt by them. Like records stuck in a groove we just go around and round, year after year, with the same traditions or the same bad habits, the same negative thoughts, a litany of regrets or hurtful patterns that we ride like a merry-go-round having forgotten that we can get off. So, hear John’s word again – “Repent!” and start the process of change that this word calls for by asking the question “why.” Why do our kids recognize the McDonald’s sign before they even learn to read? Because we rush from meeting to meeting and appointment to appointment and think that we can’t do anything but pick up something from the drive-through for dinner, but we can. We can change – repent. We make fun of the guy who was the high school quarterback and never got over it. At the 25-year reunion, he’s still in his jersey because he’s still the high school quarterback all these years later, but it’s amazing what we all have gotten so used to. Something as stressful as an hour commute becomes normal. Coming home frustrated and starting an argument with our spouse becomes routine. We give up on being happy because being unhappy is what we’ve had for so long. But the Kingdom of God draws near. Now is the time to repent. We don’t have to give up on being better. We don’t have to settle into mediocre. The Prophet Isaiah promised a day when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” but so many of us forgot to dream that big – we just hoped to get through Thanksgiving dinner without it breaking out into World War III. And speaking of dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for equality and we made it so far but did you hear what someone put on the door of the West End United Methodist Church? Did you hear what they’ve been saying to conservative journalist David French and his daughter? It’s so easy to get frustrated by political correctness, but some of this stuff just has to end. As a society, we can be better. Repent. Repent. Sin is real, but so is forgiveness, and you can still choose a different life from the one that you have – that’s the message of John the Baptist – so before you end up trapped in a pattern stop and ask “why.” It’s good to ask “why” – and when you do, if you don’t come up with a good answer to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing – then repent. But now let me get back to the Christmas Tree question. If you Google, “Why do Christians have Christmas Trees” you’ll come across all kinds of articles about pagan rituals celebrating the hope of Spring in the middle of winter, but you might also come across this wonderful legend that tells the story of how on the day of Christ’s birth all the trees of the earth celebrated with a flash of spring. The evergreens of the north shook off the snow from their branches and put forth shoots of new growth because something different had entered the world and his call to new life was heard even by the trees. Now, I hope you’ll ask yourself as I’ve asked myself, “If a tree can shake off the snow from its branches, why can’t I get this chip off my shoulder?” “If a tree can put forth shoots of new growth in the middle of winter, why can’t I change the way I talk to my wife and kids?” If a tree can be made new, why can’t I? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” preached John the Baptist quoting the prophet Isaiah, for “one who is more powerful than I is coming.” “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” He brings new life into the world, and to prepare for him, we need to get busy letting go of the ways of death we’ve grown so used to. Repent – repent – repent. Amen.