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.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Come to the Waters

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55: 1-5 and Romans 9: 1-5 Sermon Title: “Come to the Waters” Preached on 8/6/17 It is such an incredible gift to be here. I have loved relearning this church, amazed all over again at the scope of our ministry. I walked into the Great Hall two weeks ago. The whole back side of that huge room was covered in sack lunches. The members of our church who volunteered must have assembled thousands of lunches for kids in our community. It was incredible. Certainly, I can see that a lot has changed around here. But some things have stayed exactly the same, and our determination to serve this community seems to have stayed exactly the same. Another thing that’s the same: on Thursday, I received a note from Andrea Freund: “Drive by High School to see toilet paper memories.” It took me a second to realize what she meant, but if you drove by the High School on Thursday or Friday or if you saw the front page of Marietta Daily Journal Friday morning you know what she was talking about. Again, I can see that a lot has changed around here, but some things have stayed exactly the same. Marietta High School Seniors are still wasting hundreds and thousands of rolls of toilet paper by throwing it into trees and through arches to cover their High School in soft, white, toilet tissue. But some things change, and what has changed is the administration’s reaction. Did you see that Principle Gabe Carmona, according to the Marietta Daily Journal, called the event, “a great bonding experience for the class of 2018.” And then new superintendent of schools, Grant Rivera, “actually cooked out Wednesday night ahead of [the] rolling party,” and said, “It’s an almost 60-year tradition, something school administrators want to embrace.” This is new. According to the paper, when Mary Ansley Southerland, daughter of the late Mayor Ansley Meaders, was a senior out late at night with toilet paper filling her mother’s Cadillac, she was pulled over by the police – and that experience is much more like my own. At that time, I drove a checkerboard Chevrolet and believe it or not, after seeing the school the night we filled the trees with toilet paper, the police thought my friends and I had something to do with it. The next day the principal had us pick up toilet paper all morning. He made an example of us…not a good example either, so this business of seniors being allowed to roll Marietta High School is new. Some things change, others stay the same. The tradition of High School Seniors decorating the High School with toilet paper is still alive and well, but what has changed is how the administration deals with it, and that change is significant because how we deal with people, how we speak to them, especially when they’re not doing what we think they should, matters tremendously. Consider people who don’t attend Church, ours or anyone else’s. In the time in between serving First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, TN and coming here I had several Sundays off. On one occasion, I was at Home Depot at 11:00 Sunday morning. Now that hasn’t always been possible, but there I was, and there a whole bunch of other people were to. None of us were in church, we were all at Home Depot, which is a strange phenomenon. They say that there was a time when everything was closed on Sunday, because everyone was in church – that’s changed – and all at once we have these people, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, who don’t necessarily think of church on Sunday morning, and might not be able to tell you why they should. The question for Presbyterians is this: what should we do? How can we get more folks out of Home Depot and into a sanctuary? Some would say that this is an issue that Presbyterians have always had a hard time with. There’s a great joke – what do you get when you mix a Jehovah’s Witness with a Presbyterian? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know what to say. What should we say? According to Peter, we must all be ready to “give an account of the hope that is in us.” And, likewise, Paul writes here in the 9th chapter of Romans, not a biting opinion piece raking atheists and backsliders across the coals, but here he offers words of lamentation to his brothers and sisters who do not believe, saying in this morning’s 2nd Scripture Lesson something very close to: “Don’t you know what you’re missing out on?” Isn’t that something? And isn’t that something different from the ways that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are relating to those who haven’t been to church in a while? In the middle of July out on the marquee out front a church right here in Cobb County were the words: “You think it’s hot now?” The church as fire insurance is what it is – the church as deliverance from Hell. Some churches offer that, and consider any who would darken the doors of a Home Depot as on the road, not to home improvement, but fire and brimstone. Others take a page out of the medical profession’s play book, so after worship on Sunday you feel about the same way you do when you leave the Dentist’s office, “You know, I really should do better. I really should be better. I should, I should, I should” and there’s truth in that – we all should be better, we all should do better. Who in this sacred room doesn’t have an area of his life that he’d like to improve, but is that what the Church is? Is that the message we want to send? Sometimes the Church sounds like the angry citizens of our community reacting to a High School covered in toilet paper: “It’s just a shame what they’ve done,” and maybe it is, but shame – sometimes shame does far more harm than good. Paul wrote to his brothers and sisters, the Jews, and this is what he said: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Isn’t that beautiful? Paul knows the abundant life that they, his own people, are missing out on, and he so desires that they know the joy that he has in his heart, that in Christ like love, he wishes to sacrifice himself for their sake. This is love – not guilt or obligation. Before that we heard from the Prophet Isaiah: “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” because here we have all that the world is searching for, working for, spending their way into debt in the hopes of finding – here we have the water for the thirsty and the food for eternal life, but all so many churches are advertising to the world is either Hell or guilt. A lot has changed, but some things have stayed exactly the same, and I say that because even though there’s snapchat and Facebook and Instagram, these new technologies are promising the same thing that people have been thirsting for since the beginning: acceptance, love, friendship, and community. A woman named Diane Maloney brought that to light for me. She still serves the church I did in Columbia, TN, and she told me that what technology promises – namely connection – technology cannot provide. You’ve witnessed it – you know someone who has 500 friends on Facebook, but not a single person to call when he needs help moving. There’s another who works so hard to put together the perfect pictures for Instagram, but has no one to talk to about the feeling of inadequacy she just can’t shake. Technology promises connection – but haven’t you seen the couple who sits there looking at their phones, ignoring the human being who sits on the other side of table? This abundant life of connection – to quench our thirst for community and our longing for satisfaction – Apple is trying to sell what the Church has been giving away for 2,000 years. A lot has changed, but some things have stayed exactly the same – this table is the same. The Gospel is the same. The love of God is the same – and we, as Christians, must preach love, hope, community, forgiveness, leaving fear and judgement behind. So, if you find the love and acceptance that feeds your heart here, then I pray you won’t keep such a gift as this to yourself. The deep longing of our human heart has always been the same – it’s as true for me as it is for everyone who is at Home Depot this very minute. What has changed is that so many have forgotten that they’ll only find what they’re looking for in a place like this one. That’s why we must tell them, “come to the waters,” and find rest for your soul. Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Great and Steadfast Love

Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 3: 5-12 and Romans 8: 26-39 Sermon title: “Great and Steadfast Love” Preached on 7/30/17 I’ve been pretty nervous about this. In the last few days it’s been wonderful to have friends call and wish me luck on my first Sunday in the pulpit. Many of you have asked me how I’m feeling about today. Nervous has been my answer…to everyone. I took Lily and Cece to the toy store on the Square last Friday. The lady who runs the store was really nice. I even told her that I’m feeling nervous about today. I think she felt sorry for me. Or she was just being motherly because she told me about the same thing that my Mom told me. This lady in the toy store, Lynn is her name – she says, “You have a wonderful smile. You just be yourself and stand in that pulpit and smile and the congregation will love you.” That was a nice thing to say. She may have just wanted me to buy some more toys, but it was still a nice thing to say. And isn’t that just what a mom would say: “You have a wonderful smile, so just be yourself and everyone will love you”? Surely some of your parents will be telling that to your children this week should they be nervous about their first day of school: “Honey, you have a wonderful smile. Just be yourself and everyone will love you.” But kids – don’t believe it. Back when I was in Middle School there was this one guy whose mom wouldn’t buy him name brand Oreos and he got called Generic Eric from 6th grade on. Can you believe that? It’s true. I’m sorry to say I was one of them. Kids can be mean. Judgmental. That’s the truth. You can’t just smile and be yourself at school because if they’ll pick on you about the contents of your lunch box you know that they’ll pick on you about everything else. So, it’s important to show up with the right stuff, the right look, but not everyone does. Not everyone can. That’s another reason these drives for school supplies are important. I’m so glad you just took part in one, because some kids are judgmental and they’ll be looking for little shortcomings, and then other kids are self-conscious so while maybe you and I know that it won’t be the end of the world if you don’t have a new box of colored pencils. There are plenty of 3rd graders out there who will feel like everyone is staring at them if they show up for the first day of school without every single item on that school supplies list. It’s not always enough to have a nice smile and to be yourself, is it? You also have to have the right clothes and the right shoes and all the right school supplies and the right food in your lunch box. Maybe you were one of the kids who never had all the stuff that you needed while there were others who seemed to have everything. Imagine showing up on the first day of school when Solomon’s in your class. Imagine it’s many years ago in ancient Israel. Your parents scraped together enough shekels to get you a hammer and a number 2 chisel. Some college rule tablets. Mom put you in your best Sabbath robe and a pair of hand-me-down sandals, but you walk into class on the first day and there’s Solomon, the king’s son who has everything served to him on a silver platter. He has Olympic grade sandals on his feet, the finest linen robes. His dad already called the teacher to make sure that he’s always first in line to take a drink from the well. I like school uniforms because they cut down on this a little bit, but even still there are those who have it all together and then there’s the rest of us, or so it seems. We have to listen closely to come to terms with what it must really have been like to be Solomon. In our first scripture lesson, he identifies himself before God as David’s son, and when people know your back story that can be a good thing or a bad thing, it depends. We moved here to Marietta from Atlanta when I was entering 3rd grade. I was a new student at Hickory Hills Elementary School, and as you know, Marietta is one of those great places where some families have deep roots. Hickory Hills was that way. Some of the teachers had been there for a while, so I was jealous, even two years later, as Ms. Cook, my 5th grade teacher, called role and told Andrew that she had taught his brother and sister. Told Molly that her big sister had been such an excellent student and that she knew she could expect the same from her. I was so jealous of their social capital. But being known can be negative too. Dr. Jim Goodlett chaired the Pastor Nominating Committee who interviewed me. He and the entire committee have been incredible. I could not be more grateful for them and their hard work, but soon after you voted to call me here at a congregational meeting, Jim told me that the “Joe Evans stories are really flowing at the church now. Everyone is talking about what they remember of you from when you were in High School.” It was in this moment that I really got nervous. It can be a wonderful thing to be known. It can be a wonderful thing for people to know you before they meet you. It can be a wonderful thing to be remembered, for people to think well of you because of your older siblings, your grandparents, your mother or your father, so long as the skeletons stay in the closet and everyone keeps their deep dark secrets to themselves. What would it have been like to be Solomon? If Solomon were a new student on his first day of school and if we think of God as a mighty cosmic school teacher then surely as Solomon stood there before the all-knowing creator of heaven and earth who knew his father and knew what David had done, then could Solomon possibly have felt as though he had it all together? Could he possibly have felt as though God would love him if he was just himself smiling his nice smile? To stand before God as he did in our First Scripture Lesson from the book of 1st Kings – what would it have been like, not only to stand before the one who created you, who was there forming you in your mother’s womb, who knows your going in and your coming out, your inward parts and the number of hairs on your head – but not only that – who knows what your daddy did when he looked down from his roof and “saw from the roof a woman bathing.” You know the story too. King David, Solomon’s father, saw Bathsheba, called for her. Her husband was away at war. So, Solomon stands before God in our First Scripture Lesson, and if this were his first day of School, if God were his new teacher what would God say? “Good morning Solomon. I know your father. I remember what he did, so please excuse yourself from my presence.” Some wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. That’s what happens all the time, so that’s what some of us expect to happen. You can’t just be yourself, because yourself isn’t perfect – I’m not, you’re not, and neither was Solomon. The temptation, then, is to hide who we really are, to be like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. To hear God walking, calling our name, but to hide from his presence. This is a great temptation – to hide – for fear of rejection – for fear that our names will be deleted from the Book of Life the way old Bill’s name was painted right over on the front of their restaurant. Last I was here in Marietta, GA I used to go eat at a place called Bill and Louise's. Bill’s name has been stricken from the record – painted right over. Apparently, he died, but I don’t see how Louise can be so upset at him for that. That’s how life out there can be however – they’ll turn your back on you if you don’t have an iPhone 7. If you have generic Oreos. And Louise will turn her back on you if you die. Life is hard this way. People judge you based on your school supplies, your clothes, your past, and your parents, but the question is, while some people will paint right over your name, is that what God does? Let me read again a little bit from Romans chapter 8: “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Did you get that? Maybe not, because you’ve heard the opposite so many times before. Because you’ve lived the opposite so many times before. But while we stand before God just as Solomon did: as broken, imperfect people who have failed to live up to the standards set by school, work, society, or church – all these places where there is the pressure to do so much more than smile and be ourselves, before God it is something else altogether for before God it is in revealing our weakness that we gain what we need. This morning I stand before you as Solomon stood before God. I can’t pretend. I can’t hide what I’m ashamed of. I’m so thankful today that Facebook wasn’t around when I was in high school, because there are already so many here who I’m going to have to pay off so you’ll keep quiet. No. There’s no pretending here is there? I have to be brave enough to be myself, because you already know who I am, and apparently you wanted me to come here anyway. You already know that it’s just me up here, and still you’ve called me to be your pastor. Still you’re here listening to what I have to say, and once again you’re teaching me what you’ve taught me before – that so much of what makes this church a church is that here I am invited to be honest enough to say that it’s the first day of school for me and I don’t have all my school supplies ready. I don’t have all the right clothes. In fact, all I can do is stand up here and smile my smile and be myself because you know that anything else would be a lie. That’s why I take considerable comfort from Solomon this morning, because here he shows me that wisdom is one of those wonderful things that you only receive when you admit your frailty. You can only become wise when you’re brave enough to confess that you’re not wise already. He said: “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. [So] give your servant therefore an understanding mind.” That’s a counter-cultural request, because we are all trying to look like we have it all together. Having the right school supplies for the first day of school and keeping the secrets of our past hidden. This week at school, as much as we can, we want our children to walk into their new classrooms with all the right stuff and the perfect outfits – ready to pretend that they’re not the beautiful little messes that we know them to be. So, let us also encourage them to admit that they are not ready, that they don’t know, and that they don’t have to have it all together because no one does – and no one has to. That’s right. Forgiveness, wisdom, salvation – these precious things in this life that we only receive when we stop pretending that we have them already. We are fools if we come into this church pretending, for what is our purpose here if not to bow before the one who helps in our weakness? A Christian who pretends he doesn’t need a savior - that’s like a student who shows up to school pretending he has nothing to learn. But if we are here it is because we know that we are in need – in need of a savior who can bring us the salvation that we could never earn for ourselves. Who can take us, our brokenness and can put us together. Thanks be to God for this great and steadfast love that sets us free from pretending. Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2017


Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 20: 7-13 and Romans 6: 1-11 Sermon Title: Sanctified Preached on 6/20/17 My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a wonderful person. She died in the first year that I was here, and while we had only been here a few months there were those of you who gave memorial gifts in her honor. I can’t really say how much that gesture meant to me. I remember her fondly, and she was a character. She worked as a labor and delivery nurse for 50 years, and so dedicated herself to her work that she developed no hobbies other than shopping. Her favorite store was a place called Hammricks. It’s a place full of nick-nacks and potpourri. It’s one of the levels of Hell in Dante’s inferno to a 12-year-old boy, and I was there often with her at that age, walking through aisles, trying to understand how my grandmother could spend so much time in a place like that. From Hammricks my grandmother purchased a cat. It wasn’t alive or anything – it was decorative. A little cat curled in on itself for people like my grandmother to decorate their beds with. Before Sara and I were married, when we’d visit my grandmother, Sara was always asked to sleep in the master bedroom in the big, king sized bed, decorated with hundreds of pillows and this one cat curled up like it was sleeping, that Sara would kick onto the floor and bury under the pillows because she was sure the thing was going to come alive at any minute. Sara is smart. Perceptive. And it isn’t surprising that she was pretty much right about the cat. It was front page news in the Summerville paper: Hammricks sells stuffed Chinese alley cats to area residents. As soon as my grandmother heard about it, that these decorative cats of hers, had, in fact, at one time, been real cats, she rushed over to her favorite store and spoke to the cashier. “Good morning,” she said. And that’s all it took for the cashier to start apologizing: “Mrs. Bivens, we’re so sorry about those cats. We’re just mortified. I hope you can see past this horrible mistake. We’ve already packed the ones we had left and we’re ready to ship them back where they came from.” “So, you haven’t sent them back yet,” my grandmother said, “in that case, could you go back there and get me a couple more. I need them for the guest bedrooms.” That’s about my favorite story. And it’s funny, because if you know better, if you know the decorative cats are real cats, you shouldn’t buy any more. If you know better, you shouldn’t. It’s like chitlins – if you know what they are, you shouldn’t eat them, but I do. And it’s like sin – if you’ve been saved from it, forgiven of it, then you shouldn’t anymore, but considering what we’ve learned about justification, what’s to keep us from doing it? Many churches don’t preach the kind of justification that you heard preached last Sunday. In some churches, a warning is preached: don’t you sin or Hell awaits. In those churches, you avoid sin and you do what is right so you can avoid eternal punishment, but we’re not that kind of a church. We believe, what Paul wrote in Romans chapter 5: that Christ has saved us – that we’re justified – and it’s not our work that’s going to get us into heaven, it’s what Christ has done for us. But, without the fear of eternal punishment, what’s to keep us from returning to a life of sin? That’s the question Paul is trying to answer in Romans 6 – if salvation is all about grace, then why live a righteous life? Why be sanctified? Or, in other words, when you take out the fear part – it’s hard to get some people to do the right thing. Think about home inspections. We’ve been getting our house in order these past couple weeks. After having a bathroom renovated we had to have a final inspection, and one inspector came over and he gave me a punch list of 5 or 6 things he wanted done. I wanted to pass the inspection, so it didn’t matter what he asked for – out of a fear of failing I installed something called a Studer valve and a bunch of other stuff. A couple neighbors helped, I watched some do-it yourself videos, made 5 or 6 visits to Lowe’s, spent a handful of money and wore myself out for a day and a half to get all this stuff done. Well, the inspector came back after I finished, but it was a different inspector this time, and she walked into the bathroom, turned on the water in the sink, made sure the toilet flushed and we passed. She didn’t even look at my Studer valve. Now what is the point of doing right and living right if we’ve already passed the test? That’s what Paul’s critics wanted to know, so here’s what Paul told them and what he now tells us: while our eternity is secured by our Lord Jesus Christ – what hangs in the balance is how we will live today, so he asked: “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” One of our county’s finest teachers took me out to Puckett’s last week. He told me that parents call him often about grades. They want to know why their son is failing or why their daughter, who has a 99% doesn’t have 100%. This is frustrating he said, because people call about grades and why don’t they call worried about whether their children are learning? Will we learn anything without grades? Will we keep our bathrooms up to code without inspectors? Will we live righteous lives without fear or eternal punishment? That’s the question that Paul answers here in Romans chapter 6, and that’s what Sanctification is all about – ““How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” If all we want to do is pass the class – then we can sleep while the teacher is talking, but is school not more than grades? Is righteousness not more than just doing what you should? Is the burden of sin not a punishment in and of itself? So much of life is about trying to prove ourselves – and justification takes the struggle away – by what we’ve done and left undone, we’ve proven that we deserve condemnation. But in Christ’s saving death we’ve been redeemed and forgiven – now the struggle is over – by grace you and I have been saved and there’s only one reason to do what is right. Not because we should, not because there’s some great big judgmental Father in heaven looking down and wagging his finger. No. Do what is right because it’s worth it. Floss – not because you should, not because the dentist will get angry, but because teeth come in handy. Be honest – not because you’ll go to hell if you lie, but because those who live a lie are strangers even to themselves. Live in love – not because your mother raised you to be a good little boy or girl, but because hate is too great a burden to bare. This is sanctification – this act of living a righteous life, not because we can earn our way into heaven, Christ has already justified us, heaven is ours because of him – but live a righteous life because there is no better way to live and because there is no better way to thank our God for the gift of creating us and redeeming us than living by God’s great laws of love. You might remember that legendary question and answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. To enjoy him. To enjoy the fruits of a sanctified life. To benefit from a healthy marriage. To rejoice in loving friendships. To live filled up by an abiding peace that guilt nor hardship can touch. We forget that God tells us to love one another, not because we should, but because there is no more miserable person than the one who only thinks of himself. You see – sin is its own enslavement. Sin is death enough on its own. Remember that. I just want to leave here knowing that you know two things: 1. That you are justified, not by anything that you’ve done, but by what God has done. 2. That you must grow in righteousness, you must live the sanctified life, because there is no other way to live. What Christ has done is given this gift of eternal life – you are justified; and by living according to his commands, we can have the benefit of that eternal life today. Be sanctified. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. In 6 and a half years, I’ve never said anything more important than that. And we do so, not out of a place of fear, wondering where we’ll go when we die. We do it because what else could we do? When you think of what God has done for us – how could we live any other way. And that’s what motivates us to do all great things – it’s love, not fear. I want to be a good father to my children, not out of obligation, but because I love them so much. I want to be a loving husband to Sara, not out of obligation, or even because she’s stronger than I am and could probably take me in a fight, but because when I think of her my heart fills up. And I have worked to be a good pastor, not just because you’ve paid me to, not just because I should, but because I love you, and I want everyone who I love to have a pastor who works to preach the truth and to stand by the bedside. It’s never been an obligation to baptize your children or to preach at your weddings. It’s never been a burden to speak at a funeral – it’s only ever been an honor. This is sanctification – living a righteous, loving life, not just because we should or someone told us to, but because love drives us to it. Amen.

Monday, June 19, 2017


Scripture Lessons: Exodus 19: 2-8a and Romans 5: 1-8 Sermon Title: Justified Preached on 6/18/17 The title of this morning’s sermon is “Justified” - a one word title that I chose deliberately because this is the subject of my sermon today – “justification” or to be “justified”. This is my next to last sermon here, and I’m taking this Sunday’s sermon and next Sunday’s sermon to preach about two essential Christian principles – justification and sanctification – so the sermon title today is “Justified.” The sermon title for next Sunday is “Sanctified.” Clear enough, right? Well, it’s clear enough if you know what being justified means. People use this word. Christians use this word. Maybe you’ve heard it in church or in a court of law, but of course, you know that people use words without knowing what they mean all the time – take for example the word “superfluous.” I used that word in a sermon two weeks ago but Sara told me that I used it incorrectly so I used it again last Sunday just to redeem myself. “Predestination” is a word that Presbyterians are supposed to know a little something about, but I’d rather not be put on the spot to talk about it, and “justification” is another theological term – this one of crucial importance – but you just about have to read a book on the subject to understand what it means. “Justified.” What do I mean when I say “justified”? Or, more importantly, what did Paul mean when he wrote the word “justified”? Our Second Scripture Lesson began: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” You can tell from just this passage that being justified is about Grace, and grace is one that we all know well. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Being justified is about standing before God, not as one condemned, but as one forgiven. Justification is about salvation, how it works, what it means, what it is that Jesus has done for you and me. Justification is the difference between this religion that we call Christianity and a religion that masquerades as Christianity in popular culture that I’ll call moralism. Moralism is all about being good, doing right, following the rules, and doing so enough of the time that you get to go to heaven. That sounds a lot like Christianity. In fact, I’d wager that if you asked most Christians to describe their religion, that’s about what they’d tell you. They might say, “I go to church to learn how to live, so that on judgement day I’m deemed worthy of entrance through those pearly gates”. But Christianity is not about worthy. Moralism is all about being good enough, and Christianity is about knowing that you’re not, you never were, and you never will be, but God loves you still. If moralism is about goodness, then Christianity is about grace. And if moralism is about being good enough to go to heaven, then Christianity is about knowing that heaven is ours not because we are good, but because we’re justified. Moralism is the religion of the school classroom, the courthouse, and the dentist – it’s all about whether you have listened well enough, followed the rules enough, and flossed your teeth enough. Moralism is about measuring up to certain standards – and I don’t mean that moralism is foreign to Christianity, but Christianity is more than that. Christianity goes beyond measuring up to provide you with this Good News: that if you know that you never have, and that you never will, rest in the assurance that what you can’t do for yourself, God has done for you. Speaking of measuring up, or trying to measure up, yesterday I had to drive down to Dalton, Georgia. You might know this – that for a Presbyterian minister to serve a church in a different region, a different Presbytery, he or she must be examined by the pastors and elders of that Presbytery and receive their approval – to see if he or she measures up. I’ve been through the process three times now. Once to begin ministry at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church outside Atlanta. A second time to begin ministry here, and now a third time I’ve been examined so that I can begin ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, GA. So, I’ve just been examined by a Presbytery who knew me when I was a child… and as a teenager. There, with the right to ask whatever question they wanted, were people who remember me when I was 7 or 8, disrupting Sunday School class. There were people there who knew me when I was 16 years old, driving around Marietta, GA in a car painted in black and white checkerboard and they wanted to know if I was up to the challenge of a new church. This is a hard question to answer, because I’ve never felt worthy of serving the church I serve now. Yesterday there was no pretending: I have not always been a pristine example of being good, nor am I now, nor will I ever be. Yesterday, I didn’t need to pretend that I could measure up to the standards that some put on the office of pastor, because they knew already that I couldn’t. Instead, I stood as another example of one who has been justified by the mighty work of God in Christ Jesus, for I am a sinner who has received God’s grace. The Pope said it best. When Pope Francis was asked to describe himself he said, “I am a sinner.” And knowing that we cannot do any better, what good is it to pretend to be innocent when we know we have failed to measure up? However, while we may have failed to measure up, we do not stand condemned. We stand justified. Justified by faith, because our Lord Jesus Christ, by his death on a cross, gives us peace with God. Through him we obtain access to grace, so if we boast, we cannot boast in ourselves, for what have we done, we can only boast in what Christ has done on our behalf. To use the words of Rev. Diane Givens Moffett, Senior Pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina: “we cannot win God’s favor. We need only accept God’s grace.” And maybe that sounds easy, but it’s hard. Especially if you’re not used to it. Father’s Day is today, and maybe you have a father who helped you remember just how far you had to go before you measured up. Maybe you had a father you’re still trying to measure up to. You got a part in the play, but he wanted you to play football. The closest he came to saying he loved you was a handshake and a pat on the back. When you graduated High School, maybe you had a father who, instead of telling you how proud he was, asked you why you didn’t graduate with honors. Some of us think of God this way. If God is our Father in Heaven then surely, he remembers that summer when you wreaked his car and is still holding it against you. Preachers preach about that kind of God. I once believed in that kind of God, but there are many ways to be a father, and it’s important to know the kind of Father that our God is. A preacher named Ray Jones told it this way: he was walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. She told him again and again, “Daddy, just don’t make me cry. Don’t say anything that will make me cry at my wedding.” So he kept his mouth shut through the rehearsal dinner. Didn’t give a toast or anything, but as he walked her down the aisle he whispered to her, “I love you, and as long as you live you will never fully know the gift you are to your mother and me.” If God is our father in heaven, is God not this kind of father? The kind whose love for us, in just a few simple words, brings tears to our eyes? What does it mean to be justified – it means that whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, no matter how far you’ve gone – your heavenly father is waiting with open arms to welcome you home. To be justified is to remember that the God of the Exodus is still delivering his people from slavery out of profound and powerful love. To be justified is to know that the price of your imperfection has already been paid by a loving savior who laid down his life that you might know what a father’s love truly is. Now that doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. That doesn’t mean we should wallow around in sin and debauchery – but that’s next Sunday’s sermon – sanctification. For now, for today, remember this – you might not have been enough, you might never be enough, but God is, and God always will be, with grace enough to cover all our sin. That’s justification. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A wind from God

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 1: 1-4 and 2nd Corinthians 13: 11-13 Sermon Title: A wind from God Preached on 6/11/17 I sat down to talk with Mr. Rufus Ross this week. It was last Monday, and he, along with several our church members, lives at the Bridge on James Campbell Boulevard. He told me that he’s said many goodbyes, that he’s been saying goodbye to people he loved for a long time. He grew up in Mt. Pleasant, but was sent to school at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, and while Columbia students can go to school up in Franklin today, coming home to sleep in their own bed every night, back when Rufus was in school it was a long way from Mt. Pleasant to the Battle Ground Academy. And more than that, then, students were only allowed to go home the two weekends before Christmas and the two weekends after Christmas. So, by the time he was 16, Rufus knew that as he said his goodbyes at the beginning of the school year, he was probably saying goodbye to someone, though he knew not whom, who he would not see again. You think about how many times that was true for Rufus. It was true during his time at Battle Ground Academy. Last Thursday was the anniversary of the 58th flight he was on in World War II. 58 times he boarded a plane not knowing which of his friends he’d see again, not knowing if he’d even be landing the plane he boarded. He was a bombardier for a medium sized bomber, a three-man plane, but he trained with a different group of men. For some logistical reason, he was reassigned after training with this group, all of whom died before the war was over, and had he not been reassigned he would have died along with them. You might know already, that in the course of his life he had to say goodbye to two wives and a son, and last Monday, knowing that we’d talk again, knowing that we’d write, knowing that this was not the most final goodbye he’d ever said, still Rufus told me goodbye, and as he did he told me that he knew that God would go with me and that God would not be far from him. Paul was saying the same here in 2nd Corinthians. He was telling this group of Christians, “farewell” and “God will be with you just as God will be with me.” This was a church that Paul loved and that he worried over. This was a church that he had to write to, some scholars say more than any of the others because of their various crises of faith and issues of division, and as he said goodbye here in the final chapter of 2nd Corinthians he gave them this great Trinitarian blessing so fitting for Trinity Sunday today: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” We say “farewell” again and again – but let us always do so as Christians, boldly standing on the promises that we always stand on: -the promise that the Holy Spirit who swept over the face of the water of Creation has been with us since the beginning and will be with us to the end. -the promise of God the Father who breathed life into every one of us, and who watches over us like the lambs of His flock. -and the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose words we remember at every baptism that our church has ever been blessed to witness – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s easy for me to believe that today. Or it’s easier for me to believe that than it was a couple days ago. For one thing, Rufus reminded me of it, but for another thing – I picked this 2nd Scripture Lesson where Paul says “farewell” more than two months ago when I had no idea that we were going anywhere. Now, I am beginning to see what God could see all along, and it’s true what Blair Hickman says, you can all vote for me to stay here forever if you want, but if you let me go you will see what you and I have always known: that this church is faithful, powerful, and filled up with the Holy Spirit because God is here – not because Joe is here – and God is faithful still. Of course, saying goodbye is hard, but Paul didn’t spend any ink on celebrating himself – he used this “farewell” for some final, crucial advice. As he said “farewell” to his brothers and sisters in Corinth he told them again what he’d been telling them for years: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace. Greet one another with a holy kiss [and know that] all the saints greet you.” “Put things in order,” he told them. It is amazing how knowing that your time together is limited helps to put things in order. When you must say “farewell” you only do and say what counts. No more talk about the weather, no more hurtful words. You say what matters and you remember what is beautiful and true. “Put things in order” Paul wrote, because even when we aren’t saying goodbye some things still matter more than others and it’s the perspective of limited time that makes priorities clear. Paul charged the church to put what matters most at the top – and I charge you to do the same – to put your faith at the top, -because God isn’t who you pay attention to after you’ve satisfied all your other social obligations. -church isn’t the place you go when there’s nothing else to do. -it’s not right to pray once you’re done with your to-do list – you pray first, you give yourself to God the first fruits of your labor, not whatever’s left over, for God doesn’t finally get around to you once he’s free, God laid down his life for you and for me. But for us, there’s soccer. Then there’s dance. Then there’s a weekend at the river, so it’s difficult to put things in order, but if your time at this church were limited, if you were the one about to say “farewell” to this place, then you would see that gifts like this place are precious. Too precious to get lost in the shuffle of a busy life. Do you remember the Sunday when Parkes Hickman ran down the aisle with a bowl full of change? At the risk of being superfluous by mentioning the Hickman family a second time, I’ll remind you of that 5th Sunday when little Parkes Hickman, only 2 or 3 at the time, ran proudly with her bowl of change down the aisle a little too quickly. She tripped and fell and the change rolled all over the sanctuary floor. I’m sure she had some hard words for such a crisis as this: “Ham sandwiches” she might have said, but had you been watching from up here you would have seen this whole side of the church stand to help her find each coin, because picking up the pieces is just what this church does. “Put things in order.” God (first), family (second), then everything else. Because when life falls apart, that boss you’ve been trying to impress won’t be there to help you put life back together. “Put things in order.” Because death, divorce, cancer, war, college, something is on the way reminding us again that change is here and it’s times when we must say “farewell” that we finally see our gifts for what they are. Put things in order. For we all talk too much about getting something out of a worship service, and to quote Erin Hedrick, when we talk that way we have things out of order, we have things backward in fact, for its Christ like to ask what we might put into worship rather than what we might get out of it for the Lord didn’t come to earth thinking he might get something out of his human existence – no – we look to the communion table and are reminded that he came to this earth so that he might pour himself out for us and for our salvation. When we have all the time in the world we can squabble about what time we gather to worship and what hymns we should sing, but when our days are numbered we see worshiping together for the precious gift that it is. And when we live, offering our very lives to the Lord, we learn what it means to truly live. “Live in peace,” Paul said. And “greet one another with a holy kiss,” because as the old hymn goes: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but what witness is a handshake and a nod, so Paul called for a holy kiss. You have to think of David Locke when you think of getting a kiss in church. Not long-ago Mr. David Locke, another of our World War II veterans, another member of a bomber crew, I overheard him telling a friend, “I can’t hear what Joe says anymore. I come to church for the hugs.” In a culture of isolation, where people are lonely, hurting, and don’t know where to go for community – be a bright light of hospitality and love. Be the bright light of hospitality and love that you have been to me and my family to everyone who walks through your doors. Saying “farewell” to you is saying “farewell” to people who adopted our girls as their grandchildren. Saying “farewell” to you is saying “farewell” to a community we have been knit right into. Saying “farewell” to you is saying “farewell” to a piece of our heart and soul, so do not stray from who you are and what you can do for each other and for the world. Amen.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Would that all the Lord's people were prophets

Scripture Lessons: Numbers 11: 24-30 and Acts 2: 1-21 Sermon title: Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets Preached on June 4, 2017 Last week Bojangles opened in Columbia. The fried chicken establishment officially opened on May 30th. I didn’t make it by until the day after. I wanted to avoid the opening day crowd, but the line was still pretty long the next day when I just couldn’t stay away any longer. Now you might say that another fried chicken establishment in Columbia is superfluous, but this is different – this is Bojangles! I feel strongly about this. The chicken is that good, but my first visit was frustrating. The line was still pretty long, and what irritated me is that even after standing in the line, watching people order again and again – still, the two people right in front of me stepped up to the register and asked the lady, “So what’s good here?” It blew my mind. Not only does this question not make any sense – I mean, it’s a fried chicken restaurant – the fried chicken is good here. The other thing is that they had all this time in the line to figure out their order – but still, I’ve known what I was going to order since I heard that Bojangles was coming to Columbia two months ago. As soon as I got word that Bojangles would be coming to town I knew that the first time I had the chance I’d be ordering a large sweet tea and a chicken biscuit, but this is the human condition – sometimes we just don’t know what to say. Sometimes – when we should speak – we hesitate. Sometimes we freeze up. How many of your regrets have to do with the failure to speak some words like: “Would you go out with me?” “I love you too.” Or, “I’m so excited that you’re pregnant.” But instead, momentous occasions, momentous opportunities, were met either with silence or meaningless words or sounds like, “uh, uh, uh.” Not Peter though. We’ve heard about all the times when Peter waffled – when he tried to walk on water but sank and the time when he could have claimed Jesus as the friend and savior that he was but denied him instead. That’s not what happened on Pentecost. On Pentecost Peter spoke. He walked right up to that register and he ordered. You heard the story from the book of Acts: The Holy Spirit came just as Jesus promised. The Disciples spoke in languages they should not have known. All these people were trying to figure out what was going on. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” This account from the Book of Acts reminds us that if no one speaks sometimes there’s silence or confusion. Sometimes rumors get started, but more than that, in this instance, one of God’s greatest miracles could have gotten lost without someone to help the crowd understand what this miracle means. Peter’s words are crucial. “Standing with the eleven, [he] raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel – [this is the sign that God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on all people.]” That’s a big difference. When one guy says they’re drunk, another guy says it’s a miracle. So much hinges on who speaks and what is said; how this moment is explained. And thanks be to God Peter didn’t hesitate. He spoke. Now, if only all the Lord’s people were prophets. People like me, preachers – we talk a lot about church attendance. Numbers. Is the church growing or losing ground or what’s going on? More and more people wonder why folks don’t go to church like they once did. Is it that the culture has changed? Is it that the church has lost its relevance? What’s happening? I have an answer: God still provides, but at some point or another we went silent. I remember it well this one morning at the last church I served outside Atlanta. Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. We had a men’s breakfast one morning and the organizer, a guy named Corey Duncan, he says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had even more people come to this breakfast? Can’t you all think of someone at work or in your neighborhood who would get a lot out of something like this?” We all agreed, so he went on saying, “Well, I know we’re Presbyterians so I won’t ask you to invite someone to the next men’s breakfast. I just challenge you to tell someone about it.” That’s it. I just challenge you to speak. That doesn’t sound so bad – just tell someone what’s going on here – just tell someone about what you see. Here we are in Pleasantville, TN. Do you know how many people signed up to come today? Nearly 200. That’s around 100 more than last year. Why did that happen? There are plenty of explanations, but when you look around this place, who wouldn’t want to spend a day here? So, if you want the number to grow beyond 200 next year, tell someone about it. Today we’ll be confirming 9 fine young men and women. For the past year they’ve dedicated themselves to learning about their faith and what this church is and what we stand for. Wouldn’t it be a pity if all of this, if all of who we are, if the gift of this congregation were the best kept secret in Maury County? I’m not asking you today to go knock on doors (it would be great if you did) but all I’m saying is that you know someone who would benefit from just this kind of miracle – the miracle of what God does here, but a miracle without an explanation gets misunderstood or dismissed. Peter spoke. He had to. And it’s hard to believe that a miracle as profound and magnificent as disciples speaking in languages they didn’t know proclaiming the mighty works of God to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but miracles go unspoken and misunderstood all the time. You can change that. You can speak. You can speak words of hope in the midst of hopelessness. You can speak words of faith in a culture of fear. You can speak words of righteousness in our world of cultural relativism. You can speak, so tell someone about this day and about this place. Tell someone about what God has done in your life, because I’m sure they need something this good just as much as you and I do. Amen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You will be my witnesses

Scripture Lessons: 1 Peter 4: 12-14 and 5: 6-11 and Acts 1: 1-14 Sermon Title: You will be my witnesses Preached on 5/28/17 My Dad taught me how to ride a bike. It was a long time ago. I remember not wanting to. I had some roller skates that I was really into and I remember telling my Dad that roller skates were the thing. That they were all I needed and that I didn’t need to learn how to ride a bike. Well, my Dad was sure ridding a bike was something I needed to learn to do – he said something about independence and the freedom to ride where I wanted, so we went bike shopping at Walmart or somewhere and I picked out this really cool bike that had plates on the wheels instead of spokes. It was cool. But then I had to learn to ride it, and I didn’t want to, so my dad held the seat and we were riding along doing just fine. I was happy – wind in my hair, moving fast, feeling big, until I looked back to where my Dad had been to see that in fact - he was no longer there. As soon as I realized I was riding on my own I fell off my bike. Why do people have to let go? Why can’t they just stay? Why can’t we just ride bikes with dads always holding onto our seats? Our second Scripture lesson begins like this: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until… he was taken up to heaven.” Why? Why did he have to be taken up to heaven? Why couldn’t he just stay? Why can’t we just be Christians, living our lives with Jesus right by our side? Instead, he left those disciples, just ascended right up into heaven and the account of his being taken up to heaven goes like this: First he said to them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Then], when he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Now the next part is my favorite – “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Can you imagine them? One minute Jesus was giving them instructions, standing right there with them, but the next second Jesus was just lifted up – a cloud took him out of their sight, and these two men in white robes find them just standing there looking up at the place where he used to be. Now I can understand why they do that. They’re shocked. They’re sad. They don’t understand. But you can’t live your life staring up at the place where Jesus once was but is no longer. You can’t go out to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth if you’re just standing there staring up into heave. That would be like trying to ride a bike while looking back at the bike seat where your dad was once holding on but no longer is – if you’re looking back there you’re going to fall off your bike. There’s a preacher up in Chicago named Richard Landers. Thinking of this passage he wrote: “Transitions are a constant feature of our existence, but those transitions that involved losing and gaining people can be among the most significant. We are often engaged in the back-and-forth between encounter and dismissal, greeting and farewell. The ascension (that’s what you call this moment when Jesus is lifted up into heaven. The ascension) initiates a new era when Jesus is no longer present in the flesh, and when the community looks outward and begins adding to its numbers.” He’s right – this passage is between the time when Jesus was present and when the disciples do what they’re meant to do: look outward to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. That is eventually what happens. Eventually the disciples begin looking outward, doing what Jesus told them to do when he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” but to do that they must look, not up, but outward. They can’t stand there looking up into heaven any more than I could ride my bike while looking back at the place where my Dad’s hand used to be. You can’t ride a bike looking backwards saying, “Don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go.” At times I wish you could, but you can’t. I wish my Dad never had to let go, just like I’m sure the disciples wished he never had to ascend into heaven, just I wish nothing ever had to change, but sometimes it must. For us – me and you – to ride a bike, to live into our purpose, to grow and learn and stand on our own two feet – Dad let go and I, eventually, learned to ride a bike. Jesus ascended into heaven, and yes, those disciples starred up into heaven, but then they looked out and before long the Holy Spirit came and indeed – Peter became the Rock Christ’s Church was built upon. Tradition tells us that Thomas took the Gospel all the way to India, and that’s just two of them. They all went and did just what the Lord empowered them to do, but first he had to ascend into heaven and they had to look out into the world. I wish nothing ever had to change. I wish no one ever had to leave. But it happens. And when it does, you can’t spend too much time looking up into heaven because you have work to do. Now, it’s a funny thing for a guy to preach about Jesus leaving the earth the Sunday after he announced that he’s leaving town. I don’t mean to compare myself to Jesus, but it has happened here before. Back in 2010 Wanda Turner called her friend Mary Jane Cotham after the Pastor Nominating Committee announced that I would be coming here. Wanda looked at my picture and saw my age and told her friend Mary Jane, “But he’s only a boy!” Mary Jane responded, “Remember Wanda, Jesus was only 30 when he began his ministry. And let’s just hope we don’t crucify the boy by the time he’s 32.” I hate to leave this place, because you haven’t crucified me. I have felt loved and supported the whole time I’ve been here and I’m going to miss you, I’m going to miss how you’ve loved my family, and I’m thankful that you’re going to miss us. John Hill will be our realtor again and he called me Monday afternoon. I emailed you my letter of resignation Monday morning and John called to tell me that people were really sad…for a few hours. “Now they want to buy your house.” Nothing could have made me happier. And you moving on in this way just proves that what I knew you would do you’re already doing. I’ve never been the one who was holding the bike while you learned to peddle – you’ve been peddling this bike for 200 years. I think that I’m the one on the bike, and you’ve been holding the seat. In my top desk drawer, right where I can always get to it, are these words: Joe, a most daunting task I face today. First, I was one of those charged by this congregation to find you, and now I am faced with charging you so that you will find this congregation. I remember our PNC meetings when we reminded ourselves that our job really would not be hard if we simply let Christ lead us. I wonder if your job here really might be easy if you simply let Christ, but no, it will be difficult, because you will have to lead us to accept Jesus completely...completely, a daunting task for you, since we think you are our servant, and forget you are here as God’s servant. We will want to control you and dictate, but never mind…we will be as noisy as street clutter when compared to God’s silent whisper in your ear of how you can lead His people. Teach us love, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, and most importantly God’s grace. Love Sara, Lily, and your unborn child with passion so that they are your anchor rock, and we can see through such an example how we should love one another. Lead us with your passion so that this church can grow and prosper as true disciples of Christ, and God will know that his good and faithful servant, Joe Evans, is doing well. That’s what James Fleming charged me to do on February 6th, 2011, and I’ve been trying, struggling, to live up to those words since he spoke them to me, just as I struggled to ride a bike. How many times did James have to remind me of those words? You might have an idea, because you had to remind me too. I was talking with Tony Sowell on the phone this week. You know he runs Oakes and Nichols funeral home, and I remember asking him to sit down with me so we could talk about the best way for the crowd to flow through the visitation line at a funeral and he asked me why I was so worried about it and I told him, “Tony, sooner or later these people are going to expect me to get some of these things right.” So many things I haven’t gotten right. So many things I want to stay here and learn from you, but I feel like God is sending me to do something else and as I think of going I’m just so thankful for everything you’ve given me. Transitions are hard. Loss is hard. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and every time I walk in that Narthex I remember life costs something. You don’t get to stand still. And you can’t just look up to heaven. You can’t get caught looking backwards – you must look out to the future if you want to live so God can use you. That kind of gain has a cost. To win, you must risk losing. Joy and sorrow so often walk hand in hand, because to gain one you must pass through the other, and so I remember well my grandmother’s funeral, because that unborn child James was talking about in his charge was then an infant in a baby carrier and she was the person who could make my mourning grandfather smile. We walk by faith, and as we walk we rejoice for the times when we get to walk side by side. But we also walk knowing that the one who is by our side today may not be tomorrow. And that’s hard. Jesus was lifted up into heaven – gone - but remember what happens when people let go – when my Dad let go of my seat the second time, I kept my eyes forward and I’ve been ridding ever since. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Look," he said

Scripture Lessons: 1st Peter 2: 2-10 and Acts 7: 55-60 Sermon Title: “Look,” he said Preached on 5/14/17 Pretty much every Thursday morning at 5:00 I go on a run with a group of friends. I don’t run every Thursday morning, but it’s hard to skip because the group assembles right outside our front door. Greg Martin, an Elder and Sunday School Teacher here at the church is among them. Greg always runs with us, because Greg runs nearly every single day. But, one Thursday a month he doesn’t run with us, because one Thursday a month he leaves Columbia at the crack of dawn to drive to Virginia where he spends the weekend with his mother. Greg probably knows that when he doesn’t run with us we talk about him. But what maybe he doesn’t know is that when Greg doesn’t run with us we talk about the example that he sets for us – the behavior that he models to us – how in him we see a pattern of love and devotion to an ageing mother that we can follow. I think it was Roben Mounger who told Greg that people are watching him, and they’re right. I think that when Roben told him that it first made him paranoid and then gave him a big head, but we must all finally accept the reality that people are watching all of us, and I am thankful for the example that Greg Martin sets in his devotion to his mother. Mother’s Day is today, and Mother’s Day is a time to appreciate, celebrate, this most important office, this most important of callings, for people are always watching and children are always, no matter how young or old, among others, children are always watching their mothers. Today, just as I watch Greg model for me how a son should care for his mother in her old age, so also, I’ve watched my own mother care for her parents. Today my mother cares for her father, and I remember when her mother went to visit my great-grandmother in the nursing home even as she suffered with Alzheimer’s and lost all memory of who she or anyone else was. I’m confident that this example influenced my mother, so while she cares for her father today, when I was 9 years old, my sister was 5, my brother was a baby, my mother was 32 and her mother in-law had a stroke. My parents then faced the difficult decision – if my grandmother, my father’s mother, couldn’t care for herself and couldn’t live on her own, what would they do? Put her in a home? Hire a sitter? Renovate the living room to make a bedroom is what they did, and I watched as my mother, with my little brother on her hip, nursed her mother in-law day after day. People are watching. I was watching her. That’s how we learn how to live. That’s how we learn to grow old. And, that’s how we learn how to die. The book of Acts speaks of Stephen, who was stoned. As he died, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” As he died a martyr’s death, he looked into heaven and he saw the one he had modeled his life after. There in heaven was Jesus, and as Stephen died standing for the truth, there in heaven he saw the one he had learned from. He again looked to the one whose example had taught him both how to live and how die. So, even in death he wasn’t afraid, because in Christ he had an example that he could follow. Now from mothers we learn like that, but what we learn from our mothers is an incomplete example. My mother didn’t get to learn everything from her mother. Many things she had to figure out on her own or from someone else. Her mother, I’ve told you about a million times. She’s one of my favorite people to talk about. She died six years ago, and to the end she had red hair. My cousin Eric was in preschool and he reported to his friends that their grandmothers looked old with white and grey hair. Not his – his grandmother’s hair was red. “But it’s straight from the bottle honey,” my grandmother responded. She dressed up all the time. She wore pantyhose to the beach. She had a great big golden elephant belt buckle. She shaved her eye brows and then drew them back on with a pencil. She had plastic surgery before anyone was really having plastic surgery, and I remember one day my Mom telling me that she wished her mother had taught her how to grow old. We look to mothers for a lot of things, but we can’t look to them for everything – so hear from Stephen. “Look,” Stephen said, and he saw Jesus, who he had always looked to, not only for an example for how to live, but as an example for how we are to die. Stephen looked to Jesus, and as he died what he said was inspired by what Christ said on the Cross. On the Cross Christ said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” So, Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” On the Cross Christ said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” and so Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Using nearly those same words that Christ uttered on the Cross, Stephen died – and do you know who was watching him? People are always watching, and as Stephen died a martyr’s death, standing with the witnesses’ coats at his feet, was a young man named Saul. Stephen knew how Christ died. This young man named Saul watched Stephen die, and you know who this young man named Saul became – the great Apostle Paul. People are always watching. I watch my mother, my mother watched her mother, and her mother watched as my great-grandmother got her hair done every week even in the darkest depths of the great depression. The children of this church are watching us, so we must be mindful, because we are being watched. Just as Stephen watched Jesus, just as Saul watched Stephen – we are being watched and we must be aware of the example that they see, while realizing that our example can’t be everything. In the words of theologian Gary Neal Hansen, noting how Stephen is stoned after he preached a sermon, writes, “Here Stephen receives the worst response imaginable to what was definitively his last [sermon]. Perhaps all unsuccessful preachers should take some comfort here. If their congregations merely complain or fire them, at least they do not stone them.” So even preachers are not Christ reflected to the world for we are feeble and frail, and on Mother’s Day it’s important to acknowledge that we are all being watched, that mothers are always being watched, but it’s also true that the source of so much pain in every mother’s life is the guilt that she is the source of all her children’s dysfunction. Remember Stephen then. How after preaching a sermon that elicits the worst congregational response imaginable, he looked to Jesus, the one who took a loaf of bread and a few fish and fed a multitude, the one who took water and turned it to wine, the one who still takes our lives and makes them something holy and sacred, a worthy offering. And he looks down on us as we offer him our lives just as he looked down on Stephen, which is so important to remember. Earlier this morning I spilled grape juice all over the communion table cloth. I bet that thing is 200 years old, so when I spilled the juice my heart sank, but I looked up and Sue Brinkley’s eyes met mine. She smiled. She smiled like a mother. Off your lives to the Lord your God. Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, and know that as you do, he smiles down upon you, not as a disappointed father, but as a mother, full of grace and mercy. Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Then their eyes were opened

Scripture Lessons: 1 Peter 1: 17-23 and Luke 24: 13-35 Sermon Title: Then their eyes were opened Preached on 4/30/17 Last Sunday we were focused on Thomas, also known as Doubting Thomas, and the more I think about him the more I’m convinced that doubt isn’t the worst thing in the world, because doubt, while not an ideal spiritual state, still often leads to faith. That makes doubt different from something like absolute despair when you are so down you can’t see the light. With doubt the light is still there, if only as a glimmer. When Thomas doubts, when he questions his friends, the Disciples, when he says to them after they tell him that they’ve seen Jesus risen from the dead: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” that word “Unless” is crucially important because “unless” leaves the door open. “Unless I see the mark” – with that unless the door to faith is open, if only a crack. Faith is a real possibility, and so there are more dangerous mental states to be in compared to doubt. Absolute and certain despair for one. With certain despair, there’s no “unless,” there’s no “I might believe if I just could see him.” With certain despair, you already know; hope is lost; the light is out; it’s finished. That’s where these two in our Second Scripture Lesson were. We read that these two were leaving Jerusalem, and why were they leaving? You leave a place when you’re certain that there is nothing left for you there. They were leaving Jerusalem and the new life style they adopted as followers of Jesus Christ. They were leaving the new teaching they had embraced that was proclaimed by a prophet mighty in deed and word. Certain that he was dead they were now returning to the life they had before headed to Emmaus. They tell this stranger who they were traveling along with: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped.” That’s past tense. And now, certain that hope was lost, what else should they have done? So, complete and certain despair is a problem, because certainty rules out new information that might change your mind and your course, but it’s foolish to be complete certain when it comes to lost hope. It’s like that Dr. Seuss book. You know the story, a character named Sam askes Daniel: “Do you like green eggs and ham?” Daniel is certain that he doesn’t, and so he says: “I do not like them Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham.” Fortunately for Daniel, Sam digs a little below the surface: “You do not like them. So, you say. Try them! Try them! And you may. Try them and you may I say.” Daniel, who was certain that he knew already, takes a bite and his eyes are opened. Every parent who ever attempted to convince a picky child to try something new have had this experience: where certainty was a barrier to faith, to new things, to expanded horizons, but certainty collapsed with a bite. And just like that story from Dr. Seuss, for the two who were traveling away from Jerusalem and towards life as it was. They were certain that hope was lost, but everything changed over a meal. Just when these two men are sure that Christ has died, certain that he’s gone for good, in the breaking of the bread their eyes are opened and they see that the Resurrected Lord had been walking with them all along. This is the power of a meal. In the breaking of the bread he was made known to them. And that happens a lot – maybe more than you think. Last Friday morning I was at a meeting. You might have heard that a man named Andre Norman was in town last week. It says right on his website that he is an inspirational speaker, business coach, and author and he was invited to come here to Columbia to speak all over: at schools and the Rotary Club. Last Friday morning I had the chance to hear him along with a group of pastors and civic leaders. At the beginning of his presentation, when I was still trying to decide if this guy was for real or not, he started telling us about his work in Ferguson, Missouri during the riots that raged after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. This speaker, Mr. Norman, he went up to Ferguson and wanted to help, so he put together a panel of major players in the conflict in the hopes of spurring some dialogue that would build relationships. For this panel, he got together the police chief, the mayor, a gubernatorial candidate, and two leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement – they were all seated behind a long table in front of a big crowd. As we watched the video of this panel we saw that people are tense, and before anyone spoke we could tell that most of these leaders had already lost hope, certain that no headway was going to be made by having this divided a group speak to a crowd of people on a panel, and it seemed they were exactly right. The panel was mostly white, but one of the leaders in Black Lives Matter stands up. He’s a young African American man who goes by Oooops. Oooops walked in front of the panel, told everyone there that Ferguson is filled with racists, that he’s certain all the political leaders present are racists, and how he’s absolutely certain that nothing has really changed in America since the days of slavery. Then he cussed at the crowd and finally sat back down. For him, whether he was right about any of that or not, hope was lost, and after he said all that, hope of a successful panel was lost too. But then, after the panel meeting ended, Mr. Norman asked these leaders – the police chief, the mayor, the gubernatorial candidate, Ooops and his friend from Black Lives Matter – he asked them to eat lunch with him. After lunch, they had dinner. The next day they ate breakfast together. Today, that young man who went by Ooops goes by Representative Bruce Franks Jr., serving district 78 in the State of Missouri’s House of Representatives. The young man who condemned the establishment, who blamed them for every problem his community faced, certain that the whole system had failed him and that hope for progress was completely lost, got involved and became a part of the solution. It’s hard, if not impossible, to see a man’s potential when he’s angry and in front of a crowd and a camera crew, but sit down and eat, listen and be heard, and the future opens right up. It’s also hard to throw stones at someone you just had breakfast with. You sit down and eat, you listen and feel heard, and hope streams forth. For years we’ve been making fun of ourselves about the relationship between faith and food. “Why do we always have to eat when we get together at First Presbyterian Church,” some joke. Then Garrison Keillor joked that the Lutherans of Lake Woebegone celebrate three sacraments: baptism, communion, and pot luck supper. Just last week our church provided food for about 25 people out in the parking lot for Melvin’s birthday party, 250 for Literacy Night at McDowell Elementary School on Thursday, about 65 meals on Wednesday Night, Mrs. Martha Boone and her team provided chili-dogs for 80 or so on Friday at the Peoples’ Table. That’s a lot of meals. But listen to this – it wasn’t just meals that we provided. You know that Melvin is a homeless man who’s been around here for years now. Before we ate BBQ for his birthday he wanted to say the blessing and he bowed his head and I heard him say, “Thank you God for all my friends.” That’s what a meal does. The center piece of this sanctuary is a table where we remember that when our Lord was at table with his disciples, the night before his arrest, he took bread, blessed and broke it – reminding them of a love so profound that the bread represents his body broken for our sake, the wine his blood, spilled for the forgiveness of our sins. Ours is not a religion of gold and silver but of bread and wine. Why then can’t we sit down for a real meal more often? There’s a story Dr. Eugene Peterson tells. He translated the Bible into a very readable version. It’s called the Message, and someone around here has an autographed copy. How many people get a Bible autographed by the author? Well, in his book titled The Pastor Peterson tells the story of when his wife Jan went to speak to a women’s group. They were all struggling with their husbands who worked all the time, their kids who were involved in baseball, dance, art club, Karate, church choir. “How can we hold our families together?” they wanted to know. “I challenge you to do just one simple thing,” she said, “eat dinner together, at least four times a week.” “Impossible!” they all replied. But how are we to see each other if we don’t eat together? How are we to learn about each other? How are we to grow as families, as couples, as friends; how are we to grow as a church if we don’t sit down at a table to break bread together? Not to mention the truth – that he’s still with us – but it’s possible to be as blind to his presence as we are to each other. These two walking towards Emmaus were so sure that it was over. They were so certain that hope was lost that they were leaving Jerusalem to go back to whatever life they had before. But in their certain hopelessness had them blind. It’s the same with you – it’s the same with me. We think we know so much – or we think we know nothing. We think we know each other – or we’re sure we never will. We think we know when hope is lost – but have you ever been so sure of something that was absolutely wrong? That’s how it was with them, and when they slowed down, when they ate, when the bread was broken, their eyes were opened and they recognized him. In this world of fast-paced blindness. When we are too busy to think and too busy to really see, stop and eat and may your eyes be opened – because hope, after three days, hope rose again. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When the doors were locked

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 16 and John 20: 19-31 Preached on 4/23/17 Sermon Title: “When the doors were locked” Every time there’s a group of kids it seems like one of them is a tattletale. Jane tells the teacher that Billy is picking his nose. A few minutes later, she reports that Greg keeps looking on her paper. Then Jane raises her hand to tell on Susie, who “keeps staring out the window instead of paying attention”, and to this comment the teacher finally responds: “Jane, don’t you worry about what everyone else is doing. It’s time that you stop staring at your friends and start paying attention to what you’re doing.” That’s how most teachers deal with tattle tales – they restore order by directing the tattler’s attention back to him or herself, and in his own way, I believe that’s what Jesus does to us in this 2nd Scripture Lesson. For generations, the Church has been tattling on poor Thomas. Jesus shows up in this room and if Jane were there (or if my little sister had been there) she would have raised her hand to tell Jesus that “Thomas doubts that you were really raised from the dead. And we tried to tell him but he wouldn’t believe us.” Such a report would have been true. Thomas does doubt, and that’s what little boys and girls have been reporting to Sunday School teachers, parents, and preachers for generations – that’s what preachers have been reporting to congregations for generations – but to tattle on Thomas misses the point of this Scripture passage, and it’s time for all of us to hear the admonition: “Don’t you worry about what Thomas is doing. You need to be worried about yourself.” That’s how our lesson from the Gospel of John ends. In the end, the focus is not on Thomas but on you and me. We read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” So, let’s not worry anymore about Thomas’ struggles with faith. Let’s not worry about what Thomas was doing, what he needed to do, what he should have been believing. Instead, let’s be worried about ourselves and what it takes for us to come to terms with this Jesus, resurrected from the dead. Rather than hear this account as boastful tattletales, let’s be humbled by this disciple’s faith, even though such a transition can be painful; and the transition from boasting to humility always is. It was for me just this past week. I was in the line at Hobby Lobby last week and I was inspired to feel pride. I was checking out – I had two frames because I was getting a couple notes that our girls wrote to me framed and the lady behind me in the line sees these notes and the frames and she starts to read the notes a little bit. I guess that was nosey of her, but I didn’t mind, especially after I heard her say, “those notes are just precious,” and I thought to myself, “yes they are.” Then she says, “that kind of thing makes it all worth it. I’m so glad you treasure those,” and I thought to myself, “so am I” and because this lady was so impressed with me and my notes I began to feel impressed with myself. I felt my chest swell a little bit with pride and a self-satisfied smile spreaded across my face – but then the lady at the cash register said: “Sir, your debit card has been declined.” So, I go from father of the year to dead-beat dad just like that. Which is about right. I do my best, but it is good to come to terms with the real me even though it hurts a little bit. That’s what Thomas does. Before Jesus himself, Thomas is saying, “Lord, this is the real me – with questions, doubts, struggles” and the point of this Scripture Lesson is not to give you someone to point your finger at tattling on poor old Thomas who doubted – rather – the point here is to force you and me to ask ourselves the question: “Do we believe?” Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Is that you? If not, then now is a good time to come to terms with that, which is what Thomas does. In humility, he comes to terms with his own disbelief. Had he been proud, he would not have opened his mouth. So, it’s not just that he doubts – it’s that he approaches the Lord with honesty. He doesn’t pretend to be more faithful than he is, but he stands before the Lord as a man in need – frail and doubtful. It’s when pride keeps us silent that we have much to learn from Thomas – because keeping our doubts to ourselves is not the same as faithfulness, nor is appearing to have it all together the same as having it all together. Pretending to believe is not the same as believing. Acting holy is not the same as being holy. That’s why we must come to terms with this man, his doubts that he lays before his friends, and his determination to stand before Christ with integrity. You know who he reminds me of – he reminds me of the kid in class who would always ask the question that everyone else was too scared to ask. Do you remember that kid? Maybe this was you. You remember: the teacher’s been lecturing, everyone’s lost. It’s finally time to go to lunch, but Thomas raises his hand to ask a question. That takes courage. He’s like the 8th juror in 12 Angry Men. Do you remember him? Every man in the room is ready to declare a young man guilty, or if they’re not ready they’re ready enough to keep quiet so they can get out of jury duty and on with their lives – but then Thomas doubts their assumptions. Thomas is a man courageous enough to be real. More interested in being real than in maintaining a fa├žade. Do you know how refreshing that is? How liberating that is? And do you know that this is the only road that leads to faith? We must stop worrying about what Thomas is doing or not doing to face Christ ourselves. We must stop worrying about his doubts and start focusing on what it is that we ourselves believe or don’t. We must be real before the Lord ourselves, which is hard but that’s what Thomas does, and interestingly the Lord doesn’t reject him. The Lord doesn’t have the question asker stand outside the room. Thomas doesn’t suddenly become a 2nd Class Disciple in the Lord’s eyes. You know what the Lord does instead? After Thomas stands before the Lord honest about his doubt, Christ gives him exactly what he needs to believe. It’s right there in verse 27: “Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” That’s what happened. When Thomas was bold enough to stand before the Lord as his real self – not in his Sunday best, not as he pretended to be, not the airbrushed Thomas, but the real, true, Thomas with real doubts – Christ gave him exactly what he needed to believe. That’s what happened. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In fact, you can’t. Do you remember that line? You remember that show Reading Rainbow. A man named LeVar Burton was the host and he’d say it so you’d go read the book yourself, but I’m saying you must come to terms with Jesus yourself. The onus is on you: “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” You can’t take my word for it. You can’t take your mother’s word for it. You can’t take your grandfather’s word for it. You must come to terms with who this Jesus is yourself. But, unfortunately, that might take a little bit of work. Attendance on Easter Sunday just about doubled average worship attendance last week, and as Jack and Doreen Walforth were walking into the worship service Jack stopped me to tell me a joke. A pastor was standing at the door at the close of the worship service on Easter Sunday shaking hands, and as one man left the sanctuary he said, “Thanks Reverend. See you next year.” We can’t know what is going on in this fictitious man’s life, but to make a generalization, I want to say that coming to worship on Easter isn’t going to cut it, even coming on Christmas and Easter won’t because you can cover up any manner of brokenness under a bow tie and an Easter bonnet and a cover up won’t cut it. The real question is – do you have faith enough to stand before the Lord as you truly are? That’s the essence of Christianity – not that we are perfect people – but that we are people honest about our failures, doubts, trespasses, debts, brokenness, unworthiness, knowing that our Savior provides grace greater than all our sin. But first, we must face him as we are. You know the hymn that goes like this: You must walk this lonesome valley you must walk it by yourself Nobody here can walk it for you You must walk it by yourself for your credit card has been declined and it’s time to face him as you truly are. We all must stand before him in faith and truth, stepping beyond the locked doors of discomfort, denial, doubt, pain – everything – to stand before our Lord in truth. That’s what Thomas did – he laid out his doubts before the Lord and he rose to declare “My Lord and my God”. May you and I be so faithful. Amen.