Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your faith in God has become known

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 45: 1-7 and 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 Sermon Title: Your faith in God has become known Preached on 10/22/17 I’ve just read the opening to a letter. That’s what 1st Thessalonians is, a letter, and letters are interesting things. I remember running out to the mailbox after elementary school, going through all the letters only to be disappointed because everything was addressed to my Dad. I didn’t know anything about bills back then, so only now do I see the benefit of mail that’s addressed to someone else, however, I wish this letter that I’ve just read were addressed to us. In a sense, it is. We believe that Paul wrote this letter that we call 1st Thessalonians to a church in Greece, in the city of Thessalonica, and like we often do when the letter is particularly meaningful, this church saved his letter. We know they did because we have it now and can read it as they once did. I think it would have been an honor to receive this letter, because Paul’s words here in the first chapter are so encouraging. It would have been extremely encouraging to read: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers,” and it would have been a matter of great pride to read “in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.” Think about that. Paul wrote these words to the church in Thessalonica because the neighboring Christian communities would brag on them to Paul. We read there in verse 9: “The people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living, and true God.” Two things then – hospitality, and idolatry. We can do that. But that requires knowing what idolatry is. What is idolatry? On the one hand, it’s obvious. It’s number one on the 10 Commandments, a copy of which is displayed right by our front doors that once hung in the Cobb County Court House: “You shalt have no other gods before me.” What’s idolatry then? It’s worshiping something else, somebody else, giving anything the kind of priority in your life that only God should have. A good example of idolatry from the Old Testament is the golden calf from the book of Exodus. You know the story well. Moses went up on a mountain to get the 10 Commandments and when he came back down, these people who had been without his supervision while he was up on Mount Horeb, had melted down their gold to make a calf that they worshiped. They shouldn’t have done that. That’s idolatry, and on the one had we don’t do that now. Paul might as well be proud of us just as he was of those members of the Thessalonian Church who had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living, and true God.” We don’t have any Golden Calves around. The closest thing to a golden calf around here that I could think of is that statue of Alexander Stephens Clay on Glover Square, which doesn’t count because a statue isn’t the same thing as an idol. We don’t worship Alexander Stephens Clay, but this statue, which I take a moment to look at every time I walk through the Square so I can check on this hornets’ nest that’s found shelter right under the front of his overcoat, does help to describe what idolatry is, because while I was checking on the hornets last Wednesday I finally read the inscription at the base of the statue: It reads “Alexander Stephens Clay – his life was largely given to the service of his people.” Idolatry. What is idolatry? One form of idolatry is selfishness, because the devotion that should only be given to God is given instead to self. The great preacher and theologian Fredrick Buechner describes idolatry as “the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth,” and in saying that selfishness is a form of idolatry I don’t mean that the self is worthless, but that plenty of people go around trying to make themselves happy by thinking only of themselves, and when that’s the case what happens is they make themselves miserable. I have this friend. His father spent all his money on this beautiful house in Montana. The scenery is absolutely magnificent, but his wife divorced him, his children never come to visit, so this friend of mine told me that his father’s home is basically a prison cell with the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen. Idolatry. Selfish idolatry, will leave you empty and alone. So, when Paul applauds the church at Thessalonica for turning away from idolatry, what we must see is that they turned from death to life. From giving devotion to the created to giving devotion to the creator. They turned away from chasing after all that will never lead to true fulfilment and towards the only thing that ever will. What they did was they turned away from idolatry, and we must do the same because we worship idols as well, and I know it not because we have graven images all over our houses that we need to get rid of, but because if you looked at our credit card statements you’d be able to tell what it is that we think is going to lead to abundant life. We live in a culture of idolatry I believe. We worship fun and entertainment. We spend our money on toys that we think will make us happy, but you know what they say, the two happiest days for a boat owner are the day that he bought it and the day that he sold it. Why would we spend our money on what won’t make us happy? Why would we go into debt for things that won’t make us happy? I don’t know, but I’m good at doing it. Before I checked on the hornets’ nest I spent $20.00 on a salad. And I was hungry again about 15 minutes later. What will fill us up? What will lead to fulfilment, satisfaction, and joy? It’s there on the statue: A life largely given to the service of his people. A life largely given to the service of his God. To some degree I learned that a long time ago. My parents taught Sunday School here. They modeled for my brother, sister, and me what it means to give yourself to something larger than yourself, so it seemed only natural to go with the group on the Mexico Mission Trip following my Freshman year of High School. I remember being intimidated by the days of travel, in an old bus, that was reported to have air conditioning. My shirt would stick to the red vinyl seats. We’d spend the night in cheap hotels. And then when we finally made it to the border we’d get stuck for hours because Rev. Robert Hay refused to bribe the customs officials. All this we’d go through, and why? Because there were families down there who needed houses, and back home I would have spent that week sleeping late and watching TV but down there we were stacking cinderblocks and mixing cement and nothing could have made me happier. Selfishness is idolatry you see, because the cult of selfishness tells you to treat yourself, to buy your way to happiness, but devotion to such an idol will only lead to the same emptiness you felt before – only this time you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of stuff you don’t need. You want to talk about joy. You want to talk about abundant life. Then you have to talk about living your life for a higher purpose. Turning away from the cult of self-centered idolatry that permeates everything in our culture from the merchandise at Target to the Storage Unit where that merchandise will eventually be stored. We must turn from idolagry so that we can live the kind of abundant life that Jesus talked about, of loving your neighbor as yourself. Of living a life largely given to the service of our people. Of being a part of the good that our God is doing in the world. And when we turn away from all the false gods of our 21st century culture – the gods of war who promise peace but only give more violence – the gods of greed that keep our eyes searching for pleasure around every corner while keeping satisfaction ever out of reach – the gods of self-interest, self-love, and self consumption who worship at the temple of narcissism and whose priests deliver their message on your televisions, phones, and computers calling you to fame and fortune – when we turn to God from these idols, to serve a living and true God, then we are a part of the great act of salvation that our creator is enacting in our world. We read there in Isaiah: I am the Lord, and there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things – and is his presence not among us now? Like the vibrations of the train, does God’s presence not resonate through these walls? Resound from our roof top? So why would we worship in the temple of self-interest, bowing before the American Idols, chasing after the dreams of the soulless, when we have been invited to proclaim the Gospel of the Living God? Stewardship Season begins today, and as a guiding phrase this year’s committee adopted 2nd Corinthians 9: 8, “Share abundantly in every good work.” It’s not just that we want you to share what you have, and we do, it’s that we want you to share in the work that the God of Creation is doing here in this place. We have been invited participate in the redeeming work of our lord Jesus Christ. We have been invited to serve the living and true God. We have been invited to give our time, our treasure, our pigs, and our hearts so that the Kingdom would be advanced and so our joy would be complete. Yesterday at a Presbytery Meeting they took up an offering. I didn’t have any cash, and I was embarrassed. Martie Moore could tell, so she gave me a dollar. Denise Lobadinski did the same. It felt good to put money in the plate. Mike Velardi told me that a chicken brought a basket of eggs to the farmhouse, proud of her contribution, until she saw the pig, who stood before the smokehouse prepared to make a real commitment and while we want real commitments, let me say this – Stewardship isn’t about giving until it hurts. Stewardship is about giving until it feels so good you can’t imagine not doing it. Share abundantly in every good work. Share abundantly in all the good work that we are already doing. Share abundantly in all the good that we will be doing with your help. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not having a righteousness of my own

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 5: 1-7 and Philippians 3: 4b-14 Sermon title: Not having a righteousness of my own Preached on 10.8.17 A Monday morning can put things in harsh perspective. Last Monday morning Kelly Dewar’s 8-year-old daughter Linley asked her, on the way to elementary school drop off, before Kelly had even had her first cup of coffee, about the difference between irony and sarcasm. Think about that. This is obviously a question that displays Linley’s intelligence, but how did it make Kelly feel? A question like that is a hard way to start your week as a mom. Instead of starting your week with a feeling of “everything is under control and I’m fully equipped for the days ahead,” a question like that is sure to make you wonder if maybe it might be better to crawl back into bed. And this is what happened to me. Sara had been quizzing Lily for a quiz on air pollution. “What are three things we can do to fight air pollution Lily?” she asked, and having just dropped the girls off at school on their bikes, I was riding from the school to the church, while proudly thinking about how we’re setting the example for our kids here. We’re reducing exhaust because we ride our bikes to school. This is great. “In fact,” I say to myself, “really, we’re setting an example for a whole community. People in their cars are probably thinking – look at that nice family, all fighting air pollution on their daily commute.” It was as this self-satisfied thought was passing through my consciousness that I missed a turn, hit a holy bush, and flipped over my handle bars. It was a good thing someone suggested that I start wearing a helmet, so the only real damage done was to my ego. As soon as I got up I scanned the sidewalks to see if there were any witnesses. There was only one, but that was one too many. What would Paul say? Romans 12:3 – “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you out to think.” Or to quote our 2nd Scripture Lesson for this morning: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” What does that mean? “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” In this passage from Philippians Paul may sound like he’s boasting. This morning’s 2nd Scripture Lesson begins with him giving us his resume of accomplishments: -Circumcised on the eighth day -A member of the people of Israel -Of the tribe of Benjamin -A Hebrew born of Hebrews -As to the law a Pharisee -As to zeal, a persecutor of the church -As to righteousness under the law, blameless But he only lists these accomplishments so that we can see them as he does, in the perspective cast by the next to last – he had done everything that would have rendered him blameless and righteous but where did that lead him – to persecute Christ’s church – to hold the coats as the disciple Stephen was stoned. His intent in sharing his testimony is the same as the intent of that great hymn that we sang just last Sunday: When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride. You can see the point he’s making, and he makes this point hoping that we’ll hear it, because like that great church in Philippi that this letter is addressed to, we are like runners who, rather than doing as Paul admonishes us to do, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” even while we run this race in faith, we are busy looking back to see who we’re ahead of. We’re like a certain self-satisfied bike rider, busy judging the minivans that pass by for contributing to air pollution not realizing that there’s a holy bush up ahead. There’s a sense in which competition can be good. We all know that. We want to win, but think of the lady in the restaurant moving her arm back and forth, trying to trick her fit bit into thinking that she really did get all her steps in. Think of the athlete so set on winning that he sacrifices his body to drugs. Consider the football player who sees himself, not as a boy in high school, but as a god among boys, walking the hall with an air of self-importance because he can throw a football further than anyone else. Is he not also a vineyard of wild grapes? That image of the wild grapes growing in the tended vineyard comes both from our Call to Worship (based on Psalm 80) and on Isaiah’s point in the 5th chapter that we read as our First Scripture Lesson. The claim is that while we were created by God, redeemed from slavery in Egypt and from slavery to sin, were planted in this fertile valley by a God who removed the stones and tilled the land, despite all this preparation, all these blessings, rather than yield a bountiful harvest, we are a vineyard of wild grapes. But we think of ourselves as Chardonnay. A man named Roy Brown told me a story once. He played on the Presbyterian College tennis team after serving in World War 2, and after that he always sent in a contribution through the alumni association to the tennis program at Presbyterian College. In his 80’s he received a special invitation to the ribbon cutting of the new tennis courts, and as we sometimes do, he began wondering why he received this invitation to this particular event, “What if they’ve named the courts after me?” he imagined. I would have encouraged him to think this way. After all, he was a veteran, a member of the tennis team, and a long-time contributor, but when they called him down on the court during the ceremony it was to present him with a coffee mug. “Most expensive coffee mug I’ve ever had,” he told me. Why is it that rather than run this race in faith, we want to be first in line? Why is it that rather than confess our struggles to our neighbors, we’re more interested in bragging to them about our European vacations? Why is it that while we are all in this life together, all imperfect people just doing the best that we can – that while not a single one of us has righteousness within her enough to save herself from sin – that while we are all sinners, redeemed, not by our own work, but only by the grace of God, we all still love to imagine that we are winning all on our won while looking back and to see who’s doing worse? Back in Tennessee, the Methodist Church across the street had this pastor who would fall asleep during the choir anthem. Everybody was talking about him and I was enjoying it, egging this on really, until Sara says, “You be careful Joe, because you know how this will hurt when it’s you they’re talking about.” Sara was right. She nearly always is. There’s a log in this eye, and for too long preachers and Christians alike have been walking around, one-upping each other, when really, if Paul says that he has no righteousness of his own I don’t know who we think we are. No matter how much time I spend in prayer. No matter how much more mature I am now than when I was in High School. No matter how low my emissions thanks to my bicycle, I’m still just a vineyard of wild grapes, who by the grace of God has been given the honor of running this race with you. That’s the difference between a Monday and a Sunday morning. On a Monday we feel like we are supposed to have it all together, but on a Sunday we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to look back. Because again, we’ve all done it together – publically said it out loud: “You taught us peace, but we wage war. You forgive us, while we withhold forgiveness from our neighbor. You seek us out, while we hide our face from you. Forgive us Lord – for when you expected grapes, we yielded while grapes – but by the Grace of God – there is something wonderful happening in here. When I think of this church and all that we’ve been through in the past few years I think of that Psalm that made up our Call to Worship. We are a vine, brought out of Egypt. Planted in fertile soil. God cleared the ground, and the mountains were covered by our shade. You remember it all as I do – there were so many of us at the Montreat Youth Conference that we nearly took the whole thing over. We were one of the largest Presbyterian Churches in the South. But then our walls were broken down, so that those who passed along could just pluck our fruit, and I was up in Tennessee wondering why, as I know all of you were. I don’t know exactly why God would permit such a thing to happen. Some have called it pruning, and I like that. But regardless, I know that God has heard our cry. That our God looked down from heaven to see, and has renewed His regard for this vine, and now I can’t walk in our doors without feeling that the Holy Spirit fills this place, but here’s what we all must remember - that’s why the Holy Spirit fills this place. That’s why there is joy and laughter within these walls. It’s not me, and I know that. Listen – I’m still just the kid who skipped out of Sunday School to run the halls and steal cookies out of the preschool cupboards. Like Paul and like you, “It’s not that I have already obtained [anything] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” That’s what we must always be about. Sometimes we are so desperate to see something good in ourselves that we only look for bad in our neighbor, and sometimes we are so practiced in celebrating ourselves that we take credit for what only God can do. And what has God done – revived us again. Let us forget what lies behind, staring forward to what lies ahead – the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

God at Work in You

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 18: 1-4 and 25-32, and Philippians 2: 1-13 Sermon Title: God at Work in You Preached on October 1, 2017 One of the great Christian thinkers of history is a Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard. He famously compared the sanctuary and the theater, saying that these two places look the same – both are big rooms with seats in lines turned toward something like a stage, but the difference is this – in the theater the actors are on the stage and you are in the audience, but in here, we are all the actors and it is God who is in the audience. This description makes sense to me, and I am confident that God, in the audience, loves to hear our choir sing. That our God rejoices as Cal plays the organ. That God listens as we pray, and smiles as children fidget in the pews. During this hour of worship, we don’t come to be entertained as we do in a theater, but to direct our attention away from ourselves and towards our Redeemer, for in this hour we are mindful that God draws near, is in the audience watching and listening as we worship God together. We gather here to offer our praises to God, that’s what worship is, and so we try to offer our very best. We don’t dress to veg-out on the couch. On Sunday mornings at a church like ours, we dress to bow our heads before our creator. So, mothers force daughters into dresses, slick down the rebellious hair of 9-year-old boys, and even if they were in the middle of an epic argument for the whole ride over here, families pull it together so they’d look like a Norman Rockwell painting before they walked in here. What we do is aspire to some version of perfection. We rise above the stress and conflict to put on a pretty face. Even when we know we’re not perfect, don’t some of us walk into this room pretending to be? But, in many ways, this is a bad habit. We humans are in the bad habit of masking despair and conflict, telling everyone around us that everything fine when it’s not, living a Spiritual life of false piety, as though Christianity were one long Stairway to Heaven that we have to climb just like the corporate ladder. But it is in this room that we remember how our God comes near to hear us sing. We read in our first Scripture Lesson of the God who came near, taking human form: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, Did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, But emptied himself, Taking the form of a slave, Being born in human likeness. These are words of the great Christ Hymn that the church in Philippi sang to remember that while we who worship comb our hair, put on our Sunday best, and try to rise to a standard of perfection, God does not call on use to rise up to him for he has come down to us. That matters, because that changes how we think. That changes how we live. Knowing that God descended to us changes how we lead. That’s really what Paul is writing about here. He writes this letter to address a crisis in leadership. Two leaders in this congregation – Euodia and Syntyche are working against each other, jockeying for control. You’ve seen this kind of thing before, because conflict is as natural to we humans as sleeping and breathing. Even if we can pull it together to walk into the sanctuary, we are prone to conflict. A mother used to say that if her children were awake, they were fighting. That’s just us, but, if we are Christians, how will we fight? How will we argue? When God looked down on us and our depravity God didn’t look down in disappointment from the security of heaven, fire off a few tweets and go back to life as usual. No, God came down from heaven to see first-hand what was really going on. That’s what parents do – we hear siblings arguing down in the basement – “don’t make me come down there!” we say. So, I’ve been interested in professional football lately, because while protesting during the National Anthem, failing to stand to honor the flag, is a complicated and emotional issue, there are those team owners who have remained up in the owner’s box, far above the field, and there have been others, who descended to the field to lock arms with their players. This is a radical thing to do. But that’s what Paul urges: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” When God heard the shouting of his children, God could have just brushed some clouds away, looked down, “eh, they’ll sort it out eventually.” Or maybe the Son could have said to the Holy Spirit: “What do you think about sending another flood? Wait, we said we wouldn’t do that, didn’t we?” No – when God heard our distress, God came down to us, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” What then is this bread and this cup? The reminder that God could have stayed up there. Christ could have kept his distance from all our quarreling – but instead, he came right down and offered us his very body and blood. In his life then, is the reminder that love thrives on proximity. That like a mother who holds her baby to her chest, God holds us close. With that example in mind, Paul’s admonishes us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” remembering that when it comes to love, physical distance can be bad. I once officiated a funeral of a woman whose family rarely visited. She planned her funeral with me years before she died, and chose two Proverbs for the occasion. One was Proverbs 18: 24 – “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.” After the service, a friend told me “that was an interesting way for her to tell her relatives that they’d be left out of the will”, but in this Proverb, is a truth that we all know already – we long for closeness and we pity the nursing home resident who no one goes to visit. Setting the example, what does God do? God shows up, bridges the gap, takes human form. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” This word, “Humble” is significant. Because just as physical distance can harm relationships, so can arrogance. Failing to be honest with yourself and others can as well. And acting like you’re more holy than everybody is just about the worst. There’s a story about John Calvin. His friends said that he was probably the most brilliant man of his generation, but what made it so hard to spend time with him, was that he knew it. In this story about the theologian who founded our tradition is a warning to every Christian so good at pretending that he’s perfect and so are his children, for if Jesus humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, then what sermon is our life preaching? The Prophet spoke to the people on the Lord’s behalf saying, “the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” [But] house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God comes close, but we keep our distance. God moves into the neighborhood, dwelling among us in Jesus Christ, but we keep our doors locked to our neighbor. And God humbles himself, taking the form of a slave, but how many of us take the time to learn the names of the people who clean our homes? This is what happens with distance and arrogance – we lose touch with our neighbors, because we’ve lost touch with ourselves. To live the Gospel, we have to be real. We have to be honest. We have to be human – crying in weakness, listening until we understand, while standing together. And we have to sing, not because we’re good at it, but because God likes it. Ours is a God who has come near – setting the table before us, as though He were the servant, to offer us his very body and blood. And this God is at work in you. Just as Paul said it of the congregation in Philippi, so it is true here of you. You – who don’t all think the same, who don’t all live the same lives, but who worship together. You who break bread together, and join in mission together – delivering meals to neighborhoods that few like to drive through. You, who have already given up on the illusion of perfection, to accept each other as you really are. The God who comes near to us, is at work in you. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Privilege of Suffering

Scripture Readings: Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11 and Philippians 1: 21-30 Sermon title: The Privilege of Suffering Preached on September 24, 2017 One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Seinfeld. It hasn’t been on for a while, but you might remember that Elaine’s most notorious boyfriend was a guy named Puddy, and at some point Puddy became a Christian. Now how did she know? He didn’t tell her that he became a Christian. His behavior never changed – he was still self-centered and one dimensional. In fact, the only reason Elain found out about this major change in her boyfriend was she borrowed his car and noticed that all the radio presets were set to Christian Radio, and he put a silver Jesus fish on the back. Elaine peeled it off. What made me think about this episode, which aired in 1998, was this week’s Scripture Lessons that I just read – both of these lessons describe two men, both of whom would tell you that they are trying to follow God, live righteous lives, but how do you know? How can you tell that someone is serious about following God? The song we used to sing in choir with Mrs. Stephens during Sunday School goes like this: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love” - not by our preset radio stations and our Jesus fish, but by our love. So, what do we learn about Jonah? What sermon does his life preach? Jonah was really something. Considering all the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, John the Baptist – all these powerful voices who cried out: “Repent! Change your ways!”; out of all of them Jonah was by far the most successful, doing the least and getting the best results. He preached just once. His sermon wasn’t even that good. We read in Jonah chapter three that “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” that was his whole sermon. That’s it, and yet, there in chapter 3 verse 5, “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small put on sackcloth.” You don’t have to be Bible scholar to know that this never happens. What usually happens is the prophet proclaims a message, vivid and poetic, over the course of years. Maybe, like Elijah or Elisha, he offers some convincing proof of the validity of his message – a miracle, or a healing – or maybe like Ezekiel or Hosea he lives his message by cooking his meals over cow dung and taking a prostitute for his wife, but even after such miracles or dramatic displays, what usually happens is that no one really listens to the prophet until after someone kills him. Only Jonah preaches one sermon, one sentence long, and immediately a whole city of foreigners repents. You would think he’d be proud, but what happens next is even more surprising than his success. That’s what our 1st Scripture Lesson for today was – Jonah’s response to the most successful prophetic career recorded in Scripture. Following such a dramatic show of repentance he should be preparing his speech for his induction into the Prophet’s Hall of Fame, but instead, “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” He was so angry in fact, that he wished that he might die. Now, in many ways, Jonah was a righteous man. He dedicated his career to ministry – he was no dresser of sycamore trees like the Prophet Amos – this guy was a professional prophet charged with listening to God, doing what God commanded him, but even if there had been a Jesus fish on the back of the whale that he drove in on I wonder about him, because while he doesn’t steal. He doesn’t use crass language. He probably went to worship every Sabbath day; did he love the people he proclaimed his message to? Isn’t that really, the only thing that matters? Paul on the other hand – think about Paul. You remember 1st Corinthians 13? You should because it’s been read at every wedding in the history of weddings: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I’ll add to that – “even if there’s a Jesus fish on the back of your car, even if you preach through the streets a one sentence sermon, even if people listen to what you say and repent from their sinfulness, if you don’t have love in your heart for your neighbor what’s the point in what you’re doing?” Paul has some very important things to say to the Church today, because while many in our community listen to Christian radio and buy out Hobbie Lobby with all the trappings of Christianity – according to him it doesn’t matter what we listen to or what we hang on our wall if we don’t have love in our heart. I like Paul for making that point. And the whole time I’ve been here I’ve been preaching from Paul’s letters. I hope you don’t mind. We’ve just finished Romans last week, now we’re beginning four weeks of Philippians, and while I preach on Philippians Dr. Jim Speed is teaching a class on Philippians – so by the end of October we should all be experts. Of particular interest when it comes to Philippians is that Paul is writing this letter from prison. This physical location matters, because you can compare where he was in body and where he was in spirit as you read this letter. He wrote to a church that he loved, and you can hear it in his words how much he loved this congregation. He doesn’t start this letter: “To whom it may concern” – no, he writes in verse 12: “I want you to know, beloved.” That’s what he called them. And as you heard this passage from chapter 1 read I’m sure you could tell that here he isn’t so concerned with himself, whether he will be released, whether he will live or die, for in verse 21 we read: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, [but if I remain] I may share abundantly in your boasting Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” Consider that love – his love for God is so deep that he has abandoned any concern for his own physical wellbeing. He has surrendered to the will of God, and he is so free from selfishness, so full of love for God’s people, that you know this guy is a Christian. Then, compare Paul, who is in prison, and Jonah, who is not. That is a really a strong juxtaposition. Paul is in prison, but he’s happy. Jonah is sitting outside, but he’s miserable. Why is that? I believe that part of the answer comes from our Book of Confessions. As Presbyterians, we benefit from this beautiful legacy of faith – for generations faithful men and women have struggled to say what they believe. Most often we take advantage of this legacy by using the Apostles’ Creed – we today articulate our faith by saying what they – the first Apostles - believed, and that’s good, but in fact, we have a whole book full of such affirmations of faith. It’s called the Book of Confessions. Another confession besides the Apostles’ Creed is the Westminster Confession, which begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That’s a counter cultural thought, for in our world today, if many were to answer honestly, they might say that their chief end, their purpose, is to make as much money as they can, to gain power and to hold on to it. Some might say that their purpose is to get as many people to pay attention to them as possible. Another might say it is to suck the marrow out of life – that’s from Henry David Thoreau, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the best because when I think about the kind of people who can rejoice, who can embody joy, who are free from the kind of self-centered misery that so many in our culture, like Jonah, suffer from. When I think of people who, even while in prison chains, can find a way to keep a smile on their face, I think of those faithful men and women who could see beyond their present circumstances believing that their lives served a greater purpose – and the greatest purpose of all - to glorify God. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his greatest letter from the Birmingham Jail. Or consider Nelson Mandela who said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” That’s Jonah – still so consumed by his hatred of these Ninevites, that even though he’s free he’s in prison, while the Apostle Paul is in prison, but completely free because hatred can’t hold him captive. “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. Minds innocent and quiet take That for a hermitage. If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free Angels along that soar above Enjoy such liberty.” I wrote that poem for Sara yesterday. No, I’m just kidding – I wish I did. That comes from the final stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem, ‘To Althea, from prison,’ and in these words is the reminder that love can set you free. The world needs to remember that. But, to quote the Everly Brothers: “Love hurts” too. I’ve titled this sermon “The Privilege of Suffering.” I have trouble with sermon titles because I have to come up with them on Tuesday and I often don’t have a sermon written until at least Friday, but this title isn’t so bad because there are those of us who know that suffering can be a gift, a privilege, especially when we suffer out of love. Jonah isn’t suffering in this way. The sun is in his eyes and he’s winning about it. Don’t you hate being around that kind of person? He’s also suffering because he’s only thinking of himself, and that’s the worst. On the other hand, Paul is suffering in body, but this is what he has to say about it: should you face opposition and struggle, know that “[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering with him as well.” When we suffer out of love for God or our neighbor, we suffer with Christ – because we know that Christ suffered out of love for you and me. And his great suffering – he wouldn’t have changed it. He wouldn’t have avoided it. He went to the cross on purpose, because doing anything else would have been abandoning the people he loves and if those are the two options – loving and suffering or abandoning us – God chooses to stay and suffer every time. That’s not unlike the love that you who are parents have for your children. You try to give your children love, and for a while they just soak it up, but try to hold their hand when you know they’re scared walking into Middle School for the first time and see what happens. A few years down the line, you want to give them your stuff and they won’t take it. You know my grandmother told my mom for years that after the funeral, “if you dare drag my furniture out of the house for a yard sale I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.” Love is a source of suffering – you love people and it’s hard because it’s like your heart is outside your chest. The people who you love disappoint you. They hurt themselves. They do foolish things – and don’t you know that our Father in heaven knows all about it. But what did he do? Even after death on the Cross he rose again three days later so that he could love us more. Love hurts, but if there’s love in your heart you’ll be free, even in prison. And love shows – because even if there’s a fish on your car, if you cut in front of someone and give them the bird they’ll see who you really are. We’ll go out into the world today – and may they know that we are Christians by our love, and I charge you with this for two reasons: 1. Because that’s one way we glorify God, thereby living our purpose 2. Because our creator just happened to make living out our purpose the only thing that will bring us joy and fulfillment. So, even when it hurts, go on loving and be free. A groom told me a story last Monday night. He was talking about his wedding day. How nervous he was about remembering his vows. There he was up in front of the church – friends and family all around – “what if I freeze and it’s time to speak but nothing comes out?” he’s thinking to himself. But then the doors open. The congregation stands. And he sees his bride, the woman who will soon be and is now Beth Eckford, and in his heart, despite the fear and anxiety that had been coming him, now, upon seeing here, there is only joy and peace. Love does that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I in the Place of God?

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 50: 15-21 and Romans 14: 1-12 Sermon Title: Am I in the Place of God? Preached on September 17, 2017 To me, one of the most powerful lessons from our Lord Jesus Christ is the one he taught us when a woman was caught in adultery. You know this one well. A woman, we don’t know how old she was. We don’t know what she looked like. There are few details, so we don’t whether she was caught in the act, or if this punishment has come after the fact, nor do we know where her partner in crime was in this moment of condemnation, but what I imagine, without really knowing, is that she was alone, cowering as a crowd of self-righteous men gathered around her, stones in their hands. The Lord kneeled next to her, wrote something in the dirt with his finger, and said with conviction but to no one in particular, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” This is a radical word, and here in lies a radical lesson for all of us who would stand in judgement of our sister, for he doesn’t argue for her innocence. What he argues for, is for us to recognize our guilt. That’s important to do. And in a way, here at this church, we reinforce such a lesson every Sunday. Today like every Sunday when we first gathered here to worship God we began by confessing our sins – recognizing our guilt – which is important to do. I wrote the prayer of confession that we used today, and we prayed this prayer together, out loud, for everyone to hear, so now I can assume that you, like me, have trouble with forgiving your neighbor as you yourself have been forgiven because you made this confession with me. You might have just been following along with what everyone else was doing, but I’m going to call it a confession because you said the words: “The Lord does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities, but I retain the sins of my neighbor, refusing to let go.” Maybe now you’ll think twice before reading along with what’s printed. Maybe you didn’t realize I was listening for a confession, but that’s exactly the point of the prayer. What is required of us, we who gather here to worship, is so similar to what is required of those who gather for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The first step in AA is: “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” And this first step towards sobriety is the same as the first step towards salvation – what’s required is not innocence, but confession. We admitted we were sinners in need of a savior, and we found one in Jesus Christ. We aren’t here because we’re innocent. We aren’t here because we’re good. No, what qualifies our membership here is a confession of sin, an acknowledgement of our need for a savior, and a willingness to admit that we cannot save ourselves. The Good News for our world full of people struggling to save themselves is that we don’t have to. That Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners, but the problem that Paul addresses for us today is that while we may rationally know and accept the truth of that statement in our hearts, we are too often like those men with stones in their hands, as though not being guilty today were the same as being innocent. Sometimes, we act like vegetarians. Not the kind who just don’t eat meat – I’m talking about the ones who don’t eat meat and like to make sure and tell you about it. Did you hear the one about the vegetarian who walked into a bar? In 15 minutes, he had told everybody. Paul says it like this: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those eat; for God has welcomed them.” See the point? The point is not that vegetarians should eat meat. They’re just fine, and in fact, when you consider how our rainforests are so rapidly being depleted, not just by deforestation, but to make room for more and more grazing land for beef cattle, we carnivores who enjoy breathing would do well to thank a vegetarian every once in a while. Instead, we meat-eaters make fun of them. I saw a t-shirt for sale in a BBQ restaurant one time that said, “vegetarian” is the Cherokee word for “he who can’t hunt.” That’s not nice – and “who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?” Paul’s point here is that we are all the woman caught in adultery. Maybe we did less and she did more, or maybe we have even more to be forgiven for than she did, but that doesn’t matter. The point is – if you have been redeemed and forgiven than stop acting like you don’t need the same forgiveness that your neighbor does. “Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God [not the judgement seat of you or me or your daddy or your self-righteous sister] - we will stand before the judgement seat of God and if you’re judging your neighbor than you’re in the wrong seat. Get down from the judgement seat – that’s the point. That’s Paul’s point. And Paul must make this point because those who comprehend the grace of God should have no need to distract from their own guilt by pointing out the sins of their neighbor. Christianity can’t be about shaming or making someone feel guilty, but that’s the practice of so many who claim to follow Christ, so Paul has to make this point. Paul knows what motivates our finger pointing – we judge when we feel judged. We make others feel insecure because we feel insecure. We withhold grace from our neighbors because we withhold grace from ourselves, which is an awful thing to do in Paul’s mind for if we don’t enjoy the grace that God gives than to use his words, “Christ died for nothing.” That’s Galatians 2: 21: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And what does that mean? That means that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t be perfect. And if we go trying to be, if we go around acting like we are, then all that suffering that Christ endured for us and for our salvation was for nothing. We are saved by the grace of God – so don’t judge yourself or your neighbor by a standard of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect, because he was perfect for us. That’s Good News. And that’s the kind of Good News that changes things. Consider how it changed Joseph. There’s a picture of him on the cover of your bulletin. He’s there with his brothers, and you’ll notice that he’s in the judgement seat on the right, but on the left he is cowering in the shadow. If you were Joseph than most people would say that you had a right to be judgmental. Think about what his brothers did to him. Do you remember? They were jealous because daddy loved him the most, gave him the nicest clothes and the easiest jobs, and motivated by their jealousy they threw him down into a pit, which was better than their original plan which was to kill him, and then, they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelite’s who took him away. The story gets worse. I like to think that older siblings will look after the younger ones, but these guys – they sold him, told dad he had been eaten, he ended up in Egypt, then was falsely accused of a crime and ended up in prison – any and all of these events are good justification for being angry with these brothers when they come to him, now looking for help, but how could he be angry when it was these events that led to Joseph to rise in power, for it was in the prison that he met Pharaoh, interpreted his dreams, and became his trusted advisor. Now, as these brothers grovel before him, on the one hand what Joseph must have seen were the big brothers who now weren’t so big – but instead, what he saw, were the men who were used by God to help him rise in power and status, now putting him in a place where he can save his family from starvation, and so Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Can you really get mad if everything turned out this well? Can you hold a grudge, when God took someone’s evil intentions and did something wonderful? Would you dare stand in judgement, taking the place of God, when you know that through the grace of God life for you is good? To quote the Frozen soundtrack: “Let it go.” Just let it go. Forgive them, because you have been forgiven. That’s the lesson. And if you take it to heart, then you won’t be a part of the self-righteousness that fuels so much division in our country and our world. It’s hard for me to watch the news these days. A lot of the time current events reminds me of that old Buffalo Springfield song: “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Just as Paul addresses this congregation all torn up over who eats meat and who doesn’t, we live in a country where family’s divide and friendships end over who gets elected and who believes what. There are Fox News people and CNN people. Red States and Blue States. Prolife and prochoice and in this day and age to me there’s been no more helpful advice than the 1952 speech by Mississippi state representative and judge Noah “Soggy” Sweat Jr. Addressing the contentious question of prohibition, Judge Sweat stood before the Mississippi State Legislature and said: My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, this is how I feel about whiskey: If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally take the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentlemen’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, and pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise. We get so caught up in who is right and who is wrong – but are we not all wrong? And is he not the only one who ever got it right? So quickly we gather stones, but am I in the place of God? Knowing what is right and what is true? No, I am not. Thanks be to God, I am not. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our Heritage of Love

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 33: 7-11 and Romans 13: 8-14 Sermon Title: Our Heritage of Love Preached on September 10, 2017 Today is really something, isn’t it? Never in my life have I worn a kilt. Never in my life have I had the opportunity to wear a kilt. This is a new experience, and up until this point, the most I had ever done to celebrate my Scotts-Irish Heritage was to occasionally use Irish Spring Soap; eat at a little dining establishment founded by a couple of Scottish brothers called McDonalds. This is a special day. A day like this is a gift, because celebrating who we are, where we came from, can be joyful and life giving, but, celebrating heritage in this day and age can also get a little dicey. Just this word: Heritage. Considering headlines in the past few months, that word has been and will continue to be contentious, especially if you are a white-southerner, so for me, this has been another year of wondering how to celebrate heritage. When it comes to heritage, I am often wondering, how can we, without offending our neighbor, be proud of who we are and where we came from? That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time. I remember being on the 8th Grade trip to Washington D.C. when I was a student at Marietta Middle School – a group of us were gathered around a display case full of Rebel Flag patches. I bought one, used the hotel sowing kit to sloppily attach it to my jacket, which seemed like a pretty cool way to celebrate my southern roots, until some of my African-American classmates noticed it. The look on their face is something I’ll never forget. What do we do with heritage? Some say, especially in reference to the Rebel Flag, that it’s “heritage, not hate,” but if it feels like hate to my neighbor I’m a little reluctant to celebrate it. Simply put, that’s Paul’s message to us today – we worry over heritage wanting to celebrate what is near and dear to our hearts – but it must not be only our hearts that we are mindful of, for any commandment is summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Still, there are particular genes that make up my body, that I long to celebrate in a loving way. There is a particular blood flowing through my veins. I am from a particular place which makes up my heritage. There’s no denying that – I face it every time we go to the beach because I turn bright red in five minutes while my wife and children turn a gorgeous shade of brown. I also feel something when watching a movie like Braveheart – that these people are my people. This is some of where I came from, and today, what’s special about today, is that today I’m invited to wear a kilt and to be proud, and isn’t that wonderful? It’s so wonderful, that I understand the Episcopalians are wanting to have their own Kirkin' of the Tartan, even though that wouldn’t make any sense. In fact, thinking of how their tradition emerged from England just as ours has strong roots in Scotland, what should really happen is next year we should all paint our faces blue and stand in their parking lot: “You may take our lives, but you’ll never take our freedom!” And maybe that’s back to the problem with Heritage: - you can’t talk about bagpipes without thinking about how they were once outlawed, and who outlawed them. -you can’t think about Scotts-Irish immigrants without thinking about how they faced such hardship, fled to escape it, only to find it again once they set foot on these shores. -you can’t talk about being from the South without thinking about slavery and war and discrimination, for as we go back in history, as we talk about heritage, we have to be careful because when we go back into history it takes about five minutes to find something that one group did to another, the scars of which are still all around us. Here we are in Cobb County, where the Cherokee People were removed. Where a Jewish man was falsely accused of a crime and was lynched. Where a war was fought and people died as the institution of slavery hung in the balance. When it comes to heritage, looking back on the past, it’s hard not to keep score. It’s hard not to keep track of who has been wronged, who has a debt to pay, who has blood on their hands, for in so many ways the story of human history is an account of one group of people, one culture, doing their best to lift themselves up while pushing the others down – so heritage gets tricky. However, as Christians, our heritage is not just a story of what was done or not done by our ancestors. Ours is not just a story of who is best and brightest, who’s family has been here the longest and who’s blood is the bluest for on a day like today, the point is not that Tartans were brought into this Great Hall in a grand procession, but that here at the chancel those tartans were blessed by God. So, yes – we have some trouble when it comes to celebrating heritage, but let us grateful for a day like today, when we are invited, all of us, to celebrate who we are, while claiming the truth of the Gospel – that truly, while we cannot be proud of all that our forefathers and foremothers have done, today we bow before the who God who loves us and calls us his children still. Therefore, what we must celebrate today, is not only the legacy of greatness, struggle, hardship, and glory nor only a heritage of prejudice, racism, genocide, and slavery. Instead, what we celebrate today is that despite our sinfulness, we are all the children of God. That’s what we remember at Pentecost too. I’m sure you remember how after the Lord ascended into heaven the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit came to them like a mighty wind, giving each of them the gifts of tongues, so that every inhabitant of the Holy City heard God speaking to them in their own native languages. These weren’t perfect people – among them was Thomas who doubted, Peter who denied him – in some way or another, like us they had all done things that they were ashamed of, but still, God worked through them, and it’s not that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were all able to speak the same language – no – they all heard God speak to them in their Mother Tongue, and that’s different. You remember that great quote from the first female governor of Texas, Miriam Ferguson: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas school children.” Now, there’s a problem with that statement. The problem is that Jesus, while we all like to make him look like us, was a Palestinian Jew. He spoke a particular language. His hair and his skin reflected the particularities of his native people, and when he traveled around people made fun of how he talked and what he ate, just as people up in Tennessee thought it was funny that I consider boiled peanuts a delicacy. And they are, but as we consider heritage, let me tell you something interesting about peanuts – the peanut was first domesticated in South America, and when the Spanish arrived there 500 years ago they took it worldwide, but where it truly flourished was in West Africa – and some have claimed that the ancestor of the peanut that makes up the contents of your jar of JIFF at home was smuggled over here in the pocket of a West African Slave. But not only that, it was not until former slave, George Washington Carver developed new growing techniques as well as hundreds of recipes for it that there was much agricultural production of the peanut in the South by white farmers, so therefore, without the South Americans, the Spanish, the West Africans, and a former slave, there is no peanut farming President Jimmy Carter, and there is no redneck boiling peanuts on the side of the North Georgia highway. We get so torn up about race and culture – heritage – but are we not indebted to each other? Are we not far more entwined than we are separate? And are we not above all, not vindicated nor condemned for our part, but rather, indebted to God who works through us despite our imperfections. Our history books are full of great deeds and tragic mistakes, a mixed bag of heroes and villains, and we Christians who pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” must be careful with heritage – for we all stand before God condemned, but we have received a grace that we cannot deserve. How then can we withhold such grace from our neighbors – that’s what Paul asks. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Still, there are those of us who are tempted to keep score and to puff themselves up just as we read in Ezekiel – the prophet has been given a message to preach to the people, but he only wants some of them to hear it and be saved. So, God had to correct him just as God must correct us: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” As I look at our world today, I worry that too few are ready for that kind of message. Are we ready for a God who wants to save everybody regardless of native language, skin color, or nationality? Are we ready for the God that Paul testifies to? In whose sight there is “no Jew, nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female”? The Gospel lays it on our culture pretty heavy. So many of us are ready to celebrate who we are and where we came from regardless of how it makes their neighbors feel. So many of us are only willing to treat the people who look like us and talk like us as equals, while pushing those who act a little different to the margins. That’s why Paul has to remind us of those radical words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s a hard thing to do…especially during college football season. You watch the crowds and listen to what they say, you have to wonder, if Georgia fans hate Florida fans this much, then how are we ever going to get along with people who really are different? How are we ever going to get along with those who we have done harm to and those who have done harm to us? Tomorrow we remember that horrible day when airplanes were used as weapons by men who called us infidels, and we’ll remember all the blood shed in the wars that have followed. But may the blood shed on our sanctuary floor so many years ago help us to remember something else – that while the war raged on Kennesaw Mountain, in this place there was healing. And we have been called on to be a place of healing again. Last week a Nursing Home in Savanna, GA called the church looking for a place of refuge during the hurricane. They needed us to be their plan B, for they had a place to go in Augusta, GA, but if the hurricane went that way they’d need a safe place to be. The Session met. Rev. Joe Brice, Martie Moore, and Andy Tattnall led the charge, all believing that what Joe Brice said was true: “That if this church has already been a hospital, then we can be a Nursing Home.” Of course, now, it may be us who are evacuating to them, but the Session amazed me in discussing all this, because opening up our doors this way to a bunch of people we don’t even know is a radical thing to do. There’s a part of our heritage that makes us suspicious of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, who aren’t from around here, but we, who know that we are sinners, know that we stand as debtors before the God of grace who has redeemed us. What is required then, is that we see our neighbors, not in light of what might be gained from them or what they might take away, not in light of what they’ve done to deserve our help or not deserve it, but to see them only in light of what we might give them, acknowledging the truth – that by God we have been given far more than we deserve, so we must pass our blessings on. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness [or any of the other ways that we humans have for treating our neighbors like objects of physical pleasure], not in quarreling and jealousy [for are we not all God’s children?].” Instead of rivalry and war, let us love on another. For it is in loving one another that we so truly celebrate our heritage, not our heritage of hate, but our heritage of love. Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

He Did What He Meant to Do

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 15: 15-21 and Romans 12: 9-21 Sermon Title: He Did What He Meant to Do Preached on 9/3/17 Last Thursday I faced a sort of moral dilemma. Last Friday night I faced one too – Martha Goodlett asked me whether a preacher should be cheering for the Blue Devils when they’re playing Holy Trinity, but I want to talk about the moral dilemma from last Thursday. I blocked off a small part of my morning to go to the Chiropractor. I’ve found that chiropractic really helps with all kinds of aches and pains, especially my migraine headaches, and I have this wonderful new chiropractor who you know – Dr. Janet Lewis, but I didn’t have an appointment, I just hoped the wait wouldn’t be too long, and I blocked off this time to slip in. However, it was 8:30, when everyone else was trying to slip in – or, when everyone else had made an appointment like a respectable patient. The waiting room was full, so I asked the receptionist how long she thought the wait would be. She said, not too long 15 or 20 minutes, but my car was at the mechanic and Sara needed her car that I was driving back, so I told the receptionist that I would come back later. Now the moral dilemma. Kelly Dewar keeps up with my schedule. She sees when I block off time for the chiropractor, and doesn’t plan any meetings for me during those times. It’s wonderful the order she brings to my life, but when I get back to the church, I’m thinking, what if Kelly asks me, “how was the chiropractor?” What am I going to say, since now I didn’t actually even go? I blocked off time to go to the chiropractor, not to drive in the car for 30 minutes. That’s not something I would ever schedule. So, what I mean here is this – what do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Or to think in terms of faith – is there such a thing as a non-practicing Christian? What do you call a person who says he believes but never puts that belief into action? Who never does the thing he meant to do? I had lunch with Dr. Sam Matthews this week. He’s the Senior Pastor over at First Methodist. We were at the Country Club and he pointed out this table in the corner. He said, “You see those ladies. That’s the No Sew Club.” “What is the No Sew Club?” I asked. He told me that, “They used to sew and now they don’t, which is like a lot of my church members – they’re in the No Church Club – they used to come and now they don’t.” What do you call it if you only used to do something? Or, what do you call it if you never did? You only meant to? Something that Paul brings to light today in this lesson from the 12th Chapter of his letter to the church in Rome is that Christianity is not a noun but a verb – when you stop being a Christian, when you stop living as a Christian, are you really a Christian any longer? These words are the perfect Benediction, because they send us out into the world to live our faith: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” You’ve heard these words before. As I’ve settled into my office upstairs I open the main drawer and there they are: Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted” – you know these words because Dr. Jim Speed sent us all out into the world to live them every Sunday. Every Sunday he preached here he reminded us as Paul does that we must live our faith. And it looks funny if we don’t. As I mentioned before, my car has been in the shop. Mary Margaret Doyle sent me to see a man named Gary at the Jett Shell on Roswell Road, and he told me that if I mention him in the sermon he’ll give me a 25% discount. I’m just kidding about that. But he did give me a ride back to the church after I dropped off the car, which was wonderful. And this guy – he’s in a book club with John Knox, he’s been in the mechanic business for years, he’s a grandfather, he’s a wonderful person, and listen to this – his grandfather was a Baptist preacher. Gary the mechanic’s grandfather was bi-vocational, meaning that he worked in the mill up in North Georgia during the week and preached all around on Sundays, and Gary, as a young man, cherished this time when he remembers ridding the circuit with his grandfather, hearing him preach as he traveled from church to church. His grandfather, a seasoned preacher, told young Gary the story of the most memorable funeral he officiated. As he entered the sanctuary he could smell the flowers before he saw them. There were more flower arrangements than he had ever seen before. The chancel was covered. He could barely make his way to the pulpit. Obviously, this was a well-loved woman who had died. You could see it. But the last song of the service was that old Gospel Song: “Just One Rose Will Do.” The soloist sang, among all those flowers: When time shall come for my leaving, When I bid you adieu; Don’t spend your money for flowers, Just one rose will do. And yet the chancel, the pulpit, the whole room was covered in flowers. What do you do with that? What do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Can you sing the words without living them? Can you believe in the Lord Jesus without following him? Can you be a Christian without living out this faith? That’s what got me about my Brother Joel Osteen this week. I call him brother, but I love this church better than his. And I’m a little jealous of his hair, and while we are both preaching the same Gospel, what does it say about the whole Church if we declare a message of “extending hospitality to strangers” but the doors to our church are reluctant to open in the time of disaster and flood? Maybe you heard that eventually the doors to his church did open – that after three days the doors to the church opened to welcome in those who had lost their homes to the flood waters, and I don’t know the whole story. I can’t be self-righteous here, but it did strike me as odd that the Oscar Blues, Muller, Coors, and Anheuser-Bush breweries immediately shifted production from canned beer to canned water while the church took three days to open her doors. What do you do with that? We all have to remember that for some people, the only Gospel they will ever hear is the one that we live through our actions. When our doors are closed, they hear a Gospel of Condemnation. When our hearts are closed, they hear a Gospel of Rejection. When our noses are upturned and our chests inflated, they hear a Gospel of Favoritism. But when we open our arms wide in forgiveness and reconciliation they hear the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must live our faith. Christianity is about what we believe in our minds and carry in our hearts. The Prophet Jeremiah didn’t just carry around a Bible – he ate the pages and lived the words. So, we also must live what we believe, and what we believe is this: That our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth. And when he did, he loved sinners. He ate with outcasts. He treasured children. He forgave sins. He lifted broken women up from a society that had objectified them. He empowered fishermen to preach the most important message this world has ever heard. And he so lived what he believed, that as the great act of love to human kind he gave his life so that you and I might know our worth in the eyes of God. He did what he meant to do. And what does he ask of you? I’ll say it again – not as Paul wrote it in Romans chapter 12, but as the pastor who I grew up with said it every Sunday: Go Forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor all. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

One Body

Scripture Lessons: Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10 and Romans 12: 1-8 Sermon Title: One Body Preached on August 27, 2017 I’ve been in this room many times before. The first time that I remember being in this room it was to hear a children’s Christmas Pageant. I was in 3rd grade and some of my friends were up on a stage, that I think was right back there, and they were dressed as little angels – and it was in that moment that I never wanted to be a part of a choir. I’ve been in here also for Cub Scout Troop meetings. I was a member of Troop 252 which still meets here at this church, and every year we’d have the pinewood derby in this room. An enormous track stretched the length of this room and we’d line up the cars we’d made by ourselves or with our parents, a heat of 8 or 10 cars at a time, and they’d race downhill. It was terribly exciting. I’ve been in this room for youth group events too. Years ago, we had something called Ventures in here. It happened on Sunday Nights, and then in High School we’d do a big grilled chicken fundraiser to raise money for the Mexico Mission Trip. We’d eat in this room. I haven’t been in here for a long time, but when I’m in here I think of all those moments, especially those afternoons when we’d come here to play basketball – so excited as 15 and 16 year olds can be about basketball – but sometimes we’d hit that door only to realize that Scottish Dancing or something else was already happening in here and we’d have to go somewhere else to play. I remember complaining to someone about it, maybe it was Paul Sherwood who used to schedule which group had which room and at which time, and he told me that with a church this big we have to work together – we have to use a calendar and reserve our rooms, and no, I couldn’t just play basketball whenever I wanted. That’s the reality of life in community. You can’t just play basketball whenever you want. You have to think of others. You have to plan ahead. You have to be mindful of what everyone else is doing. So, Paul tells the church in Rome that we must think of ourselves, not as individuals, but as part of something bigger – as a part of the body of Christ: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” That makes sense when you think of a room like this – we have to be aware that there are many members but one body and we have to work together, we have to schedule, we have to be mindful, not just of what we want to do and when we want to play basketball, but of how we fit into the whole. That’s how it is in a church, that’s how it is in a family, that’s how it is in a marriage, that’s how it is in friendship, but today it seems to me that this way of thinking is no longer very American. Today, a lot of kids don’t need a basketball court like this one, because they have their own in their driveway that they can play on whenever they want. There’s a danger in that. There’s a danger in the ability to do what you want when you want, because you may have the freedom to shoot basketball whenever you choose, but you’ll almost always play alone. We were not meant to play alone, and so I worry about our society. I worry about what it is doing to us to have these freedoms that we have, this wealth that provides us two cars per household and we don’t have to car pool because we can just drive ourselves. There’s a danger in that, because if we are able to do most everything that we want to do when we want to do it we start to think of independence as a virtue, and of course it is, but we Christians know better than to think of ourselves and our success as independent of the work of others. So it is in our first Scripture Lesson from the book of Exodus. Certainly, you know who this story is about, the heading of chapter two tells you everything you need to know, it’s the story of the “birth and youth of Moses.” But notice that Moses wasn’t mentioned in our reading for today – he’s not given a name until verse 10. This story isn’t really his story yet – the first two chapters of Exodus is the story of strong women whose names have mostly been forgotten because our world values some functions more than others and imagines that success comes independently. The heroes of this story are Shiphrah and Puah. The king of Egypt said to them, “when you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” Perhaps Pharaoh was so foolish about power, believing that only a man would rebel against him toppling him from his throne, but here he underestimated two midwives who saved the lives of innumerable boys, saying to Pharaoh, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” This is strength – and these are two who Moses depend on. These two are named in chapter one of Exodus, because these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, matter. Without their faith in God, Moses would have been killed at birth. More than that, by these women we know that Moses was not the first to defy Pharaoh’s orders. He was not the first to stand before the most powerful man in the land without cowering. These two women went before him, defying Pharaoh’s power, refusing to follow his orders, finding a means to execute justice in a time of terror and fear. But their names could have been forgotten. Moses is the name that we remember today. He is the one who seems the most important, as it is his function as liberator of the Israelites, bringer of the 10 Commandments, and as the guide into the Promised Land that has been valued by generations of the faithful over these two who function as his crafty and brave midwives. When we remember their names: Shiphrah and Puah, we make two bold proclamations: 1. That the successful, the heroic, the rich and famous – they are always dependent, not independent. 2. While we are tempted to value some functions more than others, when we do so we are fools who fail to see reality for what it is. That’s why Paul said it like this: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment – for we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, ministry, teaching, but may the exhorter remember that without the musician there is no worship, without the printer there is no bulletin, without the person who knows how to operate the projector there are no words on the screen – without the one who gives in generosity there is no church, without the deacon there is no structure, without the elder there is no leadership – without you there is no me and without God there is no grace – we are not independent but completely and utterly dependent, individually we are members one of another. But - on the other hand, are there not those to whom names like Shiphrah and Puah are utterly forgotten? We know the names of the celebrity, but what about her mothers or housekeepers or agents of celebrities, it’s not their function as nurturers or promoters that society values, it is the one they nurtured or promoted whose name goes up in lights. The same is true for so many in our world who live their lives disconnected from reality and ungrateful to those who held them up. A pastor I know, Rev. Bill Williamson, was known for saying, “There are some people who we were born on third, but think that they’re there because they hit a triple.” So, it goes for the well born who go their whole lives believing that they deserve their privilege, the entitled who believe it is their right to receive gifts and handouts, the 15-year-old boys who get upset when the basketball court is being used for Scottish Dancing. For some life is easy, blessings overflow. And should they ever ask why, we should pity those who reach the conclusion that they deserve what they have been given. Paul urges you, “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,” as those who fall into positions of power, prestige, and privilege without recognizing how they got there miss out on the opportunity to be thankful. Tina Fey is not a notoriously religious woman. She’s a comedian, but in her book titled “Bossypants” she included a prayer titled, “the Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter.” The prayer begins, “First, Lord: No tattoos,” and it ends with this: “And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 AM, all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans [who knows what] off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” For Moses, there were two incredible brave women, without them he never would have breathed his first breath. Then for him there was a mother who hid him as long as she could before she placed him in a basket and prayed; and then there was his sister who watched the basket float downstream into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister was brave enough to suggest that a Hebrew woman be called to nurse him and Moses grew up nurtured in Pharaoh’s house by Pharaoh’s own daughter and his own mother. Without these women, there would be no Moses – so who can say that one gift is better than another. For you there are others – some whose names you remember while the memory of others has faded. There are generations of faithful, those who witnessed firsthand the mighty acts of God all the way to the forefathers and foremothers of this church who gave us a place to hear the Good News and be saved. We are the recipients of their legacy. Give thanks for them all, because without them there is no you – and honor their legacy by remembering that independence is an illusion, for we are all dependent on one another – and without interdependence there is no us. But we live in this world where so many want to have their own basketball court. If God were our Kindergarten teacher I believe he would give us all that harsh mark of: “doesn’t play well with others.” And what’s worse, we’re getting used to it. The constant bickering on the opinion page of the paper and the soapbox of Facebook is starting to feel normal. We have forgotten what it means to live together in this world, we study politics while losing sight of community, and you can see it because we are growing used to life on our own couches, watching the news channel that we agree with, forgetting how to interact with the person who lives next door doing nearly the exact same thing. A room like this then is precious, for our world is really no different than this Holland Hall where we have to respect that many people are working together, reserving space, racing pinewood derby cars one minute and Scottish dancing the next. There is room for all of us – but there is no more room for selfishness that thinks only of what I want and need, and there is no more room for arrogance – for we, who are many, are one body in Christ.” I saw it plainly ridding in a funeral procession. We passed the Havoline Express Lube on the corner of Whitlock and Polk Street. As we passed the men and women working there stopped what they were doing, rushed to the street, and placed their hats over their hearts. It was a vision of community – and to me, it was a preview of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Path of Totality

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8 and Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32 Sermon title: The Path of Totality Preached on 8/20/17 You might have seen a picture of me that I posted a couple weeks ago. Mike Clotfelter brought it by and maybe you saw it if you’re into Facebook and have seen our church’s Facebook page. It’s a picture of me and Matt Buchanan and some other guys when we were in High School. We had a band, though not everyone would call it that, so I use the word “band” loosely. We sort of made music, and seeing this picture was affirmation of something that I already knew: that it’s going to be a little different being a pastor in a church where people remember what I was like in High School. Since being here I’ve been overjoyed to shake hands with old Sunday School teachers – all these people who did their best to nurture me in the church. On my first Sunday here, four weeks ago now, one of the first people I saw was Nate Marini, and all I could think of when I saw him was, “I hope you can forgive me.” I’ve seen Bob and Vivian Stephens. She taught us music during Sunday School and I know that I can sing every song in that songbook verbatim. They’re all right here in my heart, and that’s saying something, because back then I wasn’t in a place where I was paying that close of attention. It’s a lesson in forgiveness being here. Forgiveness, acceptance, a lesson in love – all of that and I say this because the verse that people have been quoting to me since announcing this move has been Luke 4: 24: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” It can be a scary thing coming home, but then there are these moments, like last Thursday morning when Ken Farrah tells a group of 100 or so at a men’s Bible Study that he was my 7th grade Sunday School teacher. And while he had the chance, he left out the details about any misadventures or misbehavior. It’s a gift to be back here. It’s a gift to come home. And I say a gift, because I know better than to take this for granted. Not everyone feels like they can ever go back home, and it is a gift to know that we are welcome back. On the other hand, in fear, sometimes when we think of God, some of us imagine the great scorekeeper who’s been keeping track of what we’ve done and what we shouldn’t have done. One who has been keeping track of debts owed and wrongs to right, but the counter to this image is the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You know this one well. A son goes away, squanders his inheritance on loose living, and in desperation he returns home, just hoping that his father will allow him to come and work as one of his hired hands. He’s surprised then that his Father rushes out the door to meet him, and before he’s so much as apologized, he’s been embraced by the grace and forgiveness of a parent who is just so thankful to have his son come back home. This is God – a Father longing for a relationship restored. That’s a beautiful image, and I believe this image is important. I prayed something similar this past week. A friend named Marcy Lay, she is the Music Director at the church I served in Columbia, TN, she gave me a prayer book called The Valley of Vision. Marcy is the kind of person who will really wear out a prayer book. She gave me this book, and with the book came a note saying that she’d be praying for me as I begin my ministry here, and when Marcy says she’ll pray for you she means it and that’s a real blessing. One morning this week I prayed a prayer from that book with this phrase which struck me as timely: O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me And eclipse thy love. That’s poetic, isn’t it. And prayer books are good this way. The book of Psalms is good this way. The words prayed by others become personal, because they finally give voice to the deep feelings of our own hearts, and these words are way more poetic than any that I could dream up. But they do articulate something that I’ve felt – that the truly detrimental result of my sin isn’t punishment so much as separation, and what God desires deeply is to remove the sin that hides God from me. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a prayer for a restored relationship. This prayer is a request and acknowledgement, a prayer calling on God to remove this obstacle that stands in the way of a full, loving, relationship, and an acknowledgement that this obstacle, this road block, is of my own creation. However, what we believe about Christ is that in his death and resurrection the obstacle has been removed, forgiven, washed away in the waters of baptism so that the Father can rush out to embrace his son. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a good prayer of confession, that must be followed by a celebration, that the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting and in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven. But if you’ll remember, while the Prodigal Son was embraced by his father, the Prodigal’s brother stood smugly by. That’s a horrible place to be. Shouldn’t we all long for the day when God’s love would no more be eclipsed for anyone? And speaking of eclipse. Apparently, something is happening with the sun and the moon tomorrow. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about it. Sara and I plan to take our girls out of school early so that we can all be outside together wearing our ridiculous glasses to witness this moment of darkness in the middle of the day. The moon blocking the sun’s rays just as sin might block God’s love. Even though we are not quite in The Path of Totality, which is, without a doubt, the coolest phrase I’ve ever heard to describe anything – even though we don’t live exactly in that slice of the earth that will experience total eclipse, what I’ll now be thinking about as the moon blocks the sun are the ways that my sin would hide me from God, the ways that I might be tempted to hide from a loving Father. When in truth, what this loving God has done is sent his son to the earth to push the moon aside so that we might all bask in the warmth of God’s wonderful love. That’s grace. That’s forgiveness. But sometimes it is those of us who have received a gift that are the worst about passing it on. That’s why Paul lectures the Christians in Rome about the Jews, saying, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. [And] just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy…, so they have now been disobedient in order that…they may now receive mercy” from you. Now that’s big. And it’s a big warning to any of us who are tempted to act like the Prodigal’s brother. How can you, who have now received mercy, withhold mercy? The issue Paul is addressing here is both historic and timeless. In those days, there was the issue of understanding how the Jewish people could both be waiting for a Messiah while rejecting him once he showed up, and many Christians felt about those Jews the way we feel about any and all of the people who left or rejected us. They can just sleep in the bed that they’ve made for themselves. But, how can I, as one who has received mercy, deny mercy to someone else? That’s the word that Paul has for us today – a reminder of how this grace thing works – a lesson on what forgiveness is – and a call to remember that we are not here because we are perfect, because we are holy, because we are better than anyone else. No. What unifies us who are here is that we know that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and that we have received that forgiveness in a merciful savior who pushed the moon so that we might bask in the love of God. Therefore, it’s always important to remember that we must pass on the grace that we’ve received. Because the world is misunderstanding who we are and what we believe calling us judgmental and self-righteous. Because sometimes we are. And so, as the people of God, when we turn our backs and suspend grace to those who need it, we preach a gospel of condemnation to a people still walking in darkness. But did you hear it in what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” even foreigners and eunuchs. Our expectation must be that God is about the work of gathering more and more and more, rather than fencing out and drawing lines and building walls to keep so many out. We must be about gathering and not excluding. We must be about welcoming and not turning our backs. We must be about grace and love and forgiveness rather than debts and failings and shortcomings because returning home takes courage – far too much courage to greet the Prodigal Son with anything other than the grace that we ourselves received, and as our public discourse becomes harsher, as our country becomes more divided and more self-righteous, the goal must be to move closer to “the path of civility” as the Marietta Daily Journal put it just this morning, moving ever further away from the path of total and complete eclipse blocking redeeming rays of God’s love and mercy. It’s not too late for the Neo-Nazi to see the light – but he must realize that he is no more a child of God than the Jew. It’s not too late for the Klansman to bask in the light of love – but he must not be so bold as to deny such love to his brother with a different shade of skin. And the liberals must remember this as they march, recognizing that just because they believe they have some good solutions to old problems, if it’s only the liberals who are going to make it to the Promised Land leaving everyone else out than I’m not sure I’m very interested in going. No one has all the answers – and just as God is about the work of gathering all people together, so must we. We can’t be like Jonah, disappointed that the Ninivites repent and are reconciled to God. The hatred that infects this nation is the enemy – not the people who embody the hatred – because God wants them back too. God is about removing the stumbling block – pushing whatever it is that separates us from his love out of the way, so we must be about the work of pushing away what divides us – be that hatred, fear, or self-righteous judgment. The goal must be staying together, passing on the same mercy that we have received, rather than standing in judgement. We must remember that salvation is good and joyful. We’ve heard too much judgement and guilt, haven’t we? I remember too well one summer when I was a counselor at Camp Cherokee. The preacher gave his talk to this group of young campers. It was all about the Cross and the suffering of our Lord. He told them about the crown and how when they put the crown of thorns on his head how blood dripped down the sides of his face. “But that’s not what killed him children,” the preacher said. Then they whipped him, and how they whipped him within an inch of his life. “But that’s not what killed him children,” because then they took these big rusty nails, and they pounded those nails into his hands, “but even that’s not what finally killed him children. Do you know what finally killed him?” A young man, 9 or 10, he lifted up his voice and he asked, “Was it tetanus?” You see – salvation is Good News. Forgiveness is Good News. Grace is Good News. Too good for the people who have received it to cover it up with shame, fear, or judgement. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beautiful are the Feet

Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 19: 9-18 and Romans 10: 5-15 Sermon Title: “How Beautiful are the Feet” Preached on 8/13/17 This has been a big week for me at the Church office – I emptied my last box. I am fully moved in – you are stuck with me. As I unpacked my last box I remember what my friend James Fleming said back in Columbia. He was there as I was packing my books into the boxes I had picked up at the liquor store and he said, “I’m not here to say goodbye because it won’t be long before they send you back up here, showing up looking like you have a serious drinking problem.” James is a wise man, and he was worried about how I might be perceived, which is something that we all are worried about or ought to be worried about, because as we go through life people take a good look at us. They see how we choose to present ourselves, the boxes we chose to pack up our books in, and begin making assumptions. I’m not sure how one would define the word assumption, but I do know that assumptions are important, and while they’re not always accurate, they’re accurate enough of the time that they should be taken seriously. For example – if a restaurant has been given a failing score by the Health Department you don’t need to investigate further to determine the quality of the food, but, if a person has tattoos on her arms or a cigarette hanging from her lips, one might make a completely inaccurate assumption about the quality of her heart. Let me give you an example – I was once driving through Chattanooga on the way to Columbia, TN from a funeral in Stone Mountain. I waited too long to stop for gas so I had to pull off the interstate on an undesirable exit. It was dark, the gas station was not well lit, I noticed a creaky old Buick parked by the convenience store, motor still running. Wondering why someone would leave the motor running in this part of town, I jumped out of the car quickly, hustled to the pump only to realize that I had left my wallet in the car. I had changed out of my suit and into shorts before starting back, and as I was leaning over the driver’s seat to reach my wallet I heard the Buick shift into gear and then a raspy woman’s voice began shouting: “Young man! Young man!” I hoped she wasn’t talking to me, but she was, and I was thankful I didn’t have any cash because by the sound of her voice I knew that I would have given her all of it if she would just leave me alone. I cautiously turned around and the lady says, “Young man! You sure have nice legs.” With that she drove off. Assumptions. Based on my assumptions alone I had prepared myself for a conversation much less pleasant than that one, and that’s how assumptions are – they’re important because sometimes they’re right. But other times they’ll keep you from interactions that bring joy to creepy old gas stations and can sometimes stop meaningful relationships before they even begin. We must be careful about assumptions. Sometimes, what’s required is more research, more data, more investigation. Consider Elijah. Just before the events of our 1st Scripture Lesson take place: “He asked that he might die [saying]: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” That’s a state of hopelessness based on an assumption. Based on his observations he was a failure, abandoned by God. He battled King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, fighting for reform in a time of belligerent governance. He remained faithful in a time when idolatry was convenient. He spoke out in truth in a time when no one wanted to hear the truth, which is the kind of thing that will wear you out after a while. So, having hit a wall, having sunk down into a state of fear for his own life, he surrendered, abandoned his mission, vacated his position, Elijah ran away. You know what this is like. It’s in times of unemployment, infertility, cancer treatment – those dark nights where we knock and knock and knock on a door that no one ever answers. When we pour our days and our nights into the pursuit of something important only to be left empty that we make the assumption that the world would be better off had we never tried. But into his dark night, a voice spoke: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. What you need to know about the wind, the earthquake, and the fire is that the Lord had revealed himself in these three ways to the Israelites more than once. From the time of Moses, who knew God in the burning bush and the great pillar of fire, Elijah knew to look for God in the fire. Likewise, Scripture tells us that in the time of the Judges God spoke through earthquakes and wind, so Elijah knew to look and listen for God in earthquakes and wind. But this time – this time the Lord was in neither the fire, the earthquake, nor the wind. This time God came to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence, which is not the place anyone would have assumed that God would be. “When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Not preaching the truth in Israel, but hiding out in a cave, what are you doing here? Not standing for what is right at the palace, but huddled in the dark, what are you doing here? Not expecting to find me at work in the world, but assuming I had abandoned you and your people, what are you doing here? I know where “here” is. Don’t you? I wasn’t in a cave. For me it was on a subway train in New York City. For a week one summer during college I was able to attend a type of mission trip in New York. We spent our time feeding the homeless in all different types of shelters and soup kitchens. This was the first time my eyes had really been opened to just how many people are living their life without even a roof over the heads, and what hurt my heart the most was how little anyone could do anything about it. All these shelters. All these soup kitchens. All these agencies, but once you’re living on the street without a phone or an address you almost can’t get a job because you can’t be contacted for an interview. It’s just so overwhelming how hard it actually is to get back on your feet once you’re down. All these people, living their lives from one day to the next, and where was God? That’s what I was thinking about sitting on this subway train. I must have looked depressed and the man across the aisle he says, “So what’s going on?” “Nothing is going on,” I say because that’s how I felt. Nothing is getting better. Everything is getting worse. There’s no help, there’s nothing worth doing. I think I’ll just huddle up in the subway train without so much as lifting a prayer to the heavens. I’m done. Then the subway train came to a stop, the man stood up. “Make it happen” he says to me. “Make it happen.” It wasn’t an earthquake or a fire. This wasn’t a blowing wind that swept me up. Just a man on a subway who changed my whole life. That voice dashed my assumptions, and opened my eyes. It happened to Elijah that way. Hope was lost. He was lost, but God tracked him down and asked: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” Did you hear that – I alone am left. That’s quite an assumption, so the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way, [for there are] seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” I’m afraid that sometimes we give up too easily. We assume it’s over when the story has only begun, for it is when hope seems to be lost that God speaks one last word that changes everything. We forget, we assume, we despair, but there it was in Romans: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” and that word spoke to Elijah, that word spoke to me, that word is alive and well here and now finding us, redeeming us, filling us up – and sending us out. “Make it happen” the man said to me. “Go back to Israel” God said to Elijah. And “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” Paul says to us today. “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” Once God tracks us down and speaks to us, we are sent right out to speak to the world. But what will we say? Will we say it right? Will they listen? This is my third Sunday here. The first two Sundays I was nervous, but now I’m self-conscious, because I watched myself the other day. I’ve always tried to listen to myself to hear whether I’m speaking to fast or mumbling. But watching myself might do more harm than good, because Melissa up there in the sound booth who video tapes the 11:15 service has this one camera angle that’s like right on this bald spot that I didn’t even know was there. It’s true. And now as I watch myself preach I can also see who in the choir is really listening and who is just making notes on their music. Who’s sleeping. I couldn’t see anybody sleeping, but it is fun to watch you guys. Jim Goodlett’s face made me feel like I was saying some really good stuff up here, which is nice. Then there are some others who start out listening with their arms crossed but then loosen up and laugh a little, which I like seeing, but still, it’s hard learning how you look and considering how you might be perceived, because you might reach the assumption that nothing is happening and no one is listening. But it’s not just our lips and what comes out of them – it’s our feet. You’ve heard it said that 80% of life is showing up, and I believe that’s true. To show up, to try, to be present – that’s most of it, and there’s more Scripture to back that up. You remember what Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “When they hand you over [to be tried and persecuted], 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.” So, there’s a difference between actually being there and assuming they won’t listen so you may as well not show up. There’s a difference between showing up at a funeral not knowing whether or not they’ll even notice that you were there, and assuming they won’t notice so you don’t show up. There is a difference between setting foot in the hospital room to sit by a dying friend not knowing what to say, and assuming there’s no point in going. There is a difference between getting to know a teacher by seeing her in action, and assuming that education in this country is failing and teachers are the problem. There is a difference between setting foot in Roosevelt Circle or Juarez, Mexico and seeing our neighbors face to face, and assuming that there’s nothing we can do to fight crime and poverty in our world. And there’s a difference between walking up to someone who thinks differently and plowing into them in a silver sports car. Yesterday it was in Charlottesville, Virginia. A protest ends in murder as a driver speeds into a crowd of people he disagrees with. Is that what God would do? Is that what God would lead anyone to do? In this world of division, hopelessness, ignorance, hatred, racism, and misinformation, Paul writes, “How beautiful are the feet” of those who don’t put their faith in assumptions, but trust that God, who finds us when we are lost and in darkness calls us out to meet our brothers and sisters who are still there. Ours is a God who has drawn near, walked the lonesome valley with us, not looking down from heaven in times of our distress, but coming as near to us to know all our joy and all our pain, taking human form to know us rather than make assumptions about who we are. So, go and do likewise. Go to them. Go to them and do not assume that you already know who they are. Do not assume that they already know what you have to bring, and do not worry about what you will say – for it’s not the mouth, nor the words, but the feet. Beautiful are the feet. Amen.