Sunday, December 17, 2017

The One Who Knows How to Turn on the Lights

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 1: 1-5 and John 1: 1-9 Sermon Title: The One who can turn on the Lights Preached on 12/17/17 Every night our girls humor me by asking me to tell them a story, and last Monday Night Lily wanted to hear a story about when I was her age, so I told her about how when I was 8, my favorite school lunch at Hickory Hills Elementary School was something called a taco boat. You might remember those things. The taco shells were flat, but pulled up on the edges like a square corn pie crust, and the lunch ladies would scoop taco beef into them, then lettuce and salsa. I remember all that because this was my favorite school lunch, and talking about these taco boats reminded me of one day when I was going through the lunch line with my best friend Matt Buchanon. I was new at Hickory Hills in 3rd grade when I was Lily’s age, and Matt was in 3rd grade too but had been at the school longer so he was kind of showing me the ropes. We were going through the line, and right before we got to the cash register he says, “Watch this.” Lunch was 85 cents in those days, and Matt pulled out a dollar, handed it to the lady, and said to her, “Keep the change” and with the wink, he walked to our table. I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was like was going through the lunch line with James Dean or something. So, I take out my dollar, hand it to the lady, “keep the change” I say, but she handed me back my 15 cents. The moral of the story: some people have it and some people don’t. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes you just have to stay in your lane, and Matt Buchanon was the Fonz of Hickory Hills and I was lucky to be his less cool sidekick, which was fine because you have to know who you are – and you have to know who you are not. I’m not Matt. I’m also not Sara. There was a month when Sara asked me to take over paying the bills for our family. She gave me instructions, all the passwords. It was still the most stressful month of my life. She’s also who the girls want when they’re sick – unless there’s throw-up involved. That’s me. And when we all leave the house in the morning Lily and Cece both say, “I love you Mama. You’re the best Mom ever.” They love me too, I know that, but there’s something about a mom. That’s just how it is, and that’s fine because it’s good to know who I am and who I’m not. There’s freedom in coming to terms with that, and there’s suffering if you never do – so it is with some joy that I say I’m just Joe. Not Matt, not Sara, not Jesus either, and while that last one may sound the most obvious of all, I’m not the only mortal who attempts to live up to immortal standards. I’m not the only human who has trouble accepting the reality of his human-ness. Consider just the last two campaign slogans for President of the United States. I’m not trying to make a particularly political statement. I just want to say this morning that all those supporters who believe that President Trump is powerful enough to go right up to Washington and “Make America Great Again” are going to be disappointed, because no mortal can do it – especially not on his own. But this is politics. Human politicians promising the impossible. They say they can do these things that they can’t, and we are fools to believe them. You remember President Obama’s campaign slogan? Hope. No human should promise that because hope is not ours. We mortals have to come to terms with mortality. We have to understand the limits of our power. We have to know who we are and who we are not – and that’s why it’s important that we go back to the river this morning – back to the Jordan River to visit John for the 2nd Sunday in a row. And who is John? There’s some descriptive information about him in our 2nd Scripture Lesson, but this passage gives us mostly a description of who he is not: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” So, who’s John? He’s not the light and he knows it. A preacher and Bible Scholar named David Bartlett said it like this: “What Would Jesus do?” the button asks. He would walk on water, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.” We have to know who we are not – and who we are not is the light of the world. That sounds obvious enough, but it’s not. Or it’s not for me any way. Last Sunday I was nervous, and it was because I was confused about my limits. I was thinking all Saturday after we’d made the decision not to cancel the 11:15 service – that if these people are going to go through all the trouble of getting here on a snow day, I better have a pretty good sermon. That might be true, but you’re not here for me. If I spend all this time pointing to myself, if this church becomes all about me or you or anyone else, if the focus of our attention is on what any mortal has to say and think and do, then we are a shell of the Church that we could be. Because it’s not me or my words that matter. It’s who I’m talking about. It’s who they’re singing about. It’s who we’re praying to. It’s who we honor and thank with our tithes and offerings. The focus of our praise must never be on a mortal. For it is the call of we humans to use our words and actions to point to the One who spoke light into the world. A great theologian, some would say the greatest of the 20th Century, was a man named Karl Barth. From 1921 until his death, over his desk hung a copy of a painting by Matthias Grunewald. In the center of the painting hangs Christ crucified, and to one side stands John the Baptist – one hand raised and pointing to the Light of the World. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light” and what we can learn from John is that John the Baptist knew he wasn’t. He knew himself well enough that he knew who he was, the gifts that God had given him, and he used those gifts so well because he pointed to someone worth pointing to. He is, therefore, the very definition of humble. The definition of humble is simple. It’s knowing what you can do and what you can’t do, who you are and who you are not. And John was a messenger, not the light itself. We can learn a lot from just that. After all, this is a time of year when everyone is going overboard. Doing too much. Attempting to make real the impossible. Trying to make someone’s dreams come true. This time of year, we forget who we are and who we are not, and that leads to doomed expectations. Grandma died, so someone is going to try to make macaroni and cheese just like she always made it. But even if it’s perfect, we can’t bring grandma back. And last Christmas Charlie was disappointed, so someone here is going to find the perfect thing in the perfect size, but listen – be realistic – you can’t buy joy. You just can’t. Even if this Christmas you were to wake up to a Lexus in your driveway with a big red bow on it, you’ve shot for the moon without reaching it, because you can’t be hope, you can’t be Christmas Joy, and you can’t be the Light of the World, and if we’re busy trying to be that, not only are we doomed to frustration, but we’re missing out on the blessings that our God longs to give if we just stop trying to provide them ourselves. We’re trying to scrape by on your own while he promises abundant life. We’re trying to fill the table for a feast, but he’s the one who turns water into wine. And maybe we’ve thrown some Christmas lights in the tree, but he’s the light of the world. A preacher named Bob Woods tells a story about the light in a cave. This couple took their son and daughter to Carlsbad Caverns. The tour of this cave is like a lot of them. The guide takes you way down there, to the cave’s deepest point underground, and then turns off the lights, just to show how dark darkness can be. Enveloped in complete darkness, the little boy began to cry. Immediately was heard the quiet voice of his sister who said, “Don’t cry. Someone here knows how to turn on the lights.” You see – this time of year we’re busy talking about remembering grandma through the perfect replication of her macaroni and cheese, while Jesus is coming to make the dead alive. We’re busy searching the internet for the greatest gift money can buy while Jesus is born bringing hope to the world. And up in Washington DC they’re doing very mortal things while promising what only God can give – so do not be deceived. Do not be frustrated. Instead, look to the Manger because the one who knows how to turn on the lights is coming. Our Clerk of Session, Carol Calloway, and I were texting back and forth last Saturday trying to decide what to do about opening the church. I asked her if she had power back yet and she wrote me back, “I am very aware of where our real power comes from. Being without power kinda makes that obvious.” My friends, there are limits to human power, but rejoice in this: the one who knows how to turn on the lights is coming to be with us. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark 1: 1-8 Sermon Title: The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness Preached on 12/10/17 This has been an interesting weekend. It snowed. It’s the very thing we hope for in December, and after enjoying it for about two hours we want it to go away. Isn’t that funny? But that’s life. This week got off to an interesting start for me – it had me really thinking. Lily, Cece, and I were on our way to school Monday morning on our bikes, running a little behind before we had even made it out of the house, and you know how those mornings are – we were late so we became later. Someone had snuck into our house and hid all the shoes and backpacks in places we couldn’t find them. So, after several delays, we finally made it down our steep driveway and we were well on our way when I realized that I was peddling but my wheels weren’t moving. I stopped to see if the chain was off, but it actually seemed as though my chain ring was no longer properly attached to the wheel. That was a problem, and this was one of those frustrating moments – we were already running late; my daughters were ahead of me – their peddles worked you see, and so they had already made it across the street and were on their way around a corner. I didn’t know what to do or how to catch up, and just then, Whitt Smith, who was a year ahead of me at Marietta High School, he stopped in his pickup truck to say, “Ya’ll are running a little late for school.” That was true, but it seemed like an obvious point to make. Then I told him my bike wasn’t working. He told me to throw it in the back of his truck, that he’d drop it off back at our house so I could catch up with Lily and Cece and get them to school safely. I did, and we were only about 15 minutes late for school. Under reason for being tardy I wrote “bike problems,” and then wondered if anyone had ever thought up that excuse before, but here’s the real question that I want you to ponder with me: On my walk from Westside Elementary School to the church, what will occupy my thoughts? Will I spend this quite time walking along the sidewalk stewing in the frustration from a malfunctioning bicycle – or, will I rejoice in thanksgiving for the kindness of an old friend who stopped to lend me a hand with my bike when I needed it? It’s been like this for me all weekend – will I enjoy the snow for the rare gift that it is, or will my cheer be overcome by frustration because the power’s out and so I can’t make coffee properly? I can tell you how it’s been for me – and I don’t like it. I’d much rather focus on how it was for our children who know how to enjoy a gift. We adults – we don’t always see so well. Snow looks like an inconvenience. A friend’s display of kindness gets lost amid frustration. Miracles happen – but we don’t always see them. I’m afraid that it’s always been this way. It’s been this way since the beginning. We just read the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. The first line there is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and while this first line seems standard enough, consider all the other news that hit the papers that Monday morning 2,000 years ago competing for attention: It was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but in addition to that, back in ancient Israel, Herod was the king, and his rule was oppressive and tyrannical. His primary concern being building palaces rather than establishing order and fairness. But not only was their plenty of reason for good people to be consumed with hatred of the local government, Rome was the power that controlled the known world – and Rome maintained that control through public violence, any who rose up in protest were nailed to crosses that marked the major roads into cities. These crosses, they were like our billboards and as you entered Jerusalem they were your warning not to step out of line. Think of that. This good news of Jesus Christ that the Gospel of Mark speaks of – it was first proclaimed in a time when most people believed there was only bad news. Had we been there with them, we would have heard about the Good News among a chorus of government control, taxation, oppression, and poverty – for just as it has been true of us this weekend, so it has always been - in the midst of real, human life – this is when we choose to hear the good news. And I said choose. That’s what I meant. For the Good News is a light – but it’s a light in the darkness. It is a whisper in the cacophony of a city street. The news is good – but it’s good in the midst of bad, so we must be practiced in how we listen and where we focus. Because we have to filter through all the chaos to get to the beauty and the truth. Back in ancient Israel, in order to hear it, some had to leave the city, and they went out to a place where they could listen – they went out to the river to see John. Did you catch those details about John from our 2nd Scripture Lesson? Clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. Who looks like that? Who expects to be taken seriously looking like that? I once had the chance to ask this big time, New York City preacher for advice and he looked me up and down and told me that I need to shine my shoes. That was it. My confusion must have shown because he explained – Presbyterians are respectable people who expect you to look like someone worth taking seriously, and that’s true. I know not to wear my Christmas suit in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, but what do we do with John? What did he wear? A business suit? No. A robe? No. Two articles of clothing did he wear, a camel hair something and you can bet it wasn’t a sport coat, then a belt, nothing more. Why listen? Because that’s what prophets wear – that’s why. And just because we’re used to listening to the news in the paper and the news on TV, sometimes it’s from weird looking prophets that you hear the real truth. But that makes listening hard. That means discernment. Because often times it’s lies coming through a bullhorn while the truth is proclaimed by a man dressed in camel hair. We have to learn how to listen – how to focus our attention, because we’re distracted. I saw a truck advertisement last week. Two little girls in the back seat looking at their IPads: “The new 2018 Ford F-150 with SYNC Connect and available Wi-Fi means you and the family can stay connected.” Connected? What do we mean by connected? How are we supposed to hear with all these distractions? How are we supposed to be a family with all the entertainment? Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent, and today we are called on to consider peace, and to prepare for peace’s coming in the birth of our savior. But how if we don’t even know what being connected means anymore? To start, I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to choose how you’ll focus. To watch for beauty, and to listen for truth. A Bible scholar named Walter Brueggemann says it like this: It is written in Deuteronomy that the poor will always be with you. It is written elsewhere that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. It is written in the American psyche that the big ones will always eat the little ones. It is written in the hearts of many hurting ones that their situation will always be abusive and exploitative. It is written and it is believed and it is lived, that the world is a hostile, destructive place. You must be on guard and maintain whatever advantage you can. It is written and recited like a mantra, world without end. [But] In the middle of that hopelessness, Advent issues a vision of another day, written by the poet, given to Israel midst the deathly cadence. We do not know when, but we know for sure. The poet knows for sure that this dying and killing is not forever, because another word has been spoken [but will hear it?] There was a lady I once knew. She was hard to visit, because she never had anything nice to say. She was always sick, so I’d go to her home or to her hospital room. She was always cold, and in the summer time she’d bring a toboggan to put on in the sanctuary because she didn’t like the air conditioning. She was huddled up under blankets this one day when I went to see her in her home, and she cried and cried telling me that no one from the church ever called, which broke my heart to hear – but in that moment the phone rang, because Doris from the church wanted to check and see how this lady was doing. My mouth hung open because of the miracle, but this lady hung up the phone and said, “Where was I, oh yes – no one from the church ever calls me. It’s horrible!” It’s like the hymn says: And man, at war with man, hears not The love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing. They do sing and they will sing, but we have to be quite and calm enough to listen. We have to be careful with what we pay attention to. And we have to watch our hearts – because you and I can stew all day long on what doesn’t ultimately matter, while ignoring the miracles. They are like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Listen – because that’s hope calling. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Shine, That We May Be Saved

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 80: 1-7 and 17-19, and Isaiah 64: 1-9 Sermon Title: Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Sine, That We May Be Saved Preached on December 3, 2017 Today is a special day. All Sundays are special of course. I used to work with a Music Director who said that the most important Sunday of the year is the next one coming up, but today is a special Sunday - the first Sunday of Advent, plus we have these new hymnals, we have communion. I have an early memory of communion here at this church. I was a couple years older than Doug and Andy Miller, who were twins and close friends with Mickey Buchanan, and the first time those three were allowed to sit by themselves in a worship service it was a communion Sunday. I guess they were 8 or 9 and when the bread came they did just what they were supposed to do, but when the cup came, before drinking they all toasted each other with the tiny little communion cups. It’s amazing what kids do without their parents sitting close by, but the truth of the matter is that when no one is watching, all people act a little differently. Even a little bit of freedom can be dangerous for anyone. I remember the first-time wine was served at Sara’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It was several years ago now, and when we gathered around the Thanksgiving table with my wife Sara’s family, the adult places at the table came complete with a wine glass, and while that may sound normal enough, this is something that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were alive. While Aunt Ester was alive, all alcohol was forbidden, and every Thanksgiving dinner at her house, a group of us dissenters, we would assemble with sweet tea in our glasses – but we were mad about it. We’d huddle together on the deck or front yard, just out of ear shot from the matriarch – and together we’d dream about the day when prohibition would end on our corner of Knoxville, Tennessee. It did. Wine was served the first Thanksgiving after Aunt Ester’s funeral. That year Thanksgiving was hosted by another member of the family who was excited to take up the torch, and Aunt Janie was not a teetotaler, so not all, but many members of the extended family quietly sipped from wine glasses at that first liberated Thanksgiving, whispering to one another, “This never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around”. The next year, wine was served more openly, then by the third year everyone was just about comfortable; but by the fourth year after Aunt Ester’s death – the invitation to this big Thanksgiving dinner for the whole extended family never came. The host family needed a year off, and Aunt Janie asked that families celebrate their own thanksgiving, a meal for all the cousins and everyone at her house was just too much. We all understood. And we gave thanks in smaller numbers, around dining room tables in Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, and Spartanburg, SC, all looking forward to getting back together the next year. But another year passed. Then another without the invitation, and now we don’t even look for it, so today, on Thanksgiving we take the wine for granted, but we miss our extended family. Now a Thanksgiving where we don’t all get together - that never would have happened if Aunt Ester were still around. Do you know this feeling? You’re finally free to do what you want, only the freedom is not as wonderful as you thought it would be. Maybe you’ve been like me, unsupervised at Home Depot, shopping for Christmas lights, buying without moderation, only to get home to wonder, “Where am I going to put all these Christmas lights?” Freedom is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Hear again these words from the Prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” What the Prophet means here is that without God, the people left unsupervised have so lost track of who they are that they call on God to return even if it means punishment. “Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” According to the Isaiah we are all like kids who come home from school to an empty house. The computer is locked, but we figured out the password, and the liquor cabinet is too, but we’ve had enough time to find the key. No one is there to stop us. As adults, we face the same problems with freedom - we spend what we want on credit cards sent in the mail, because we’ve been given the freedom to take on debt, even debt that we’ll never emerge from. We eat what tastes best, forgetting the doctor’s orders even when it jeopardizes our health. We speak without thinking, act without thought to consequence. Sometimes when I read the headlines of the paper it reminds me of that book I read in English Class years ago: Lord of the Flies. We have freedom, but Piggy’s dead and we need some real grown-ups to save us from ourselves. We’re losing decency and moderation. Even our leaders speak without thinking, take without asking, because no one is around to supervise us. Maybe you saw the political cartoon in this morning’s paper. “More harassment Charges” is the headline and the woman says to a friend – “I used to have coffee with my morning shows, popcorn with my moved…now, I just eat tums.” The Prophet cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” because you are the glue that holds us together and if you are gone than things fall apart. “You hid yourself, we transgressed,” because temptation is too much if you are not there to stop us. “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” We have done all this – created a world of materialism where we all rush through giving thanks to get to spending more money than we have. We work and we work, and no one is there to tell us when to stop, so tension rises in our homes. There is no rest, even on the Sabbath, because who is there to speak over the loud voice of our culture that never stops telling us to produce and spend? And so, we are entertained, but seldom happy. Our bellies are full without ever being satisfied. We keep going at a fools pace, but where are we headed? “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Deliver us Lord, from the hand of our iniquity. Come, Lord Jesus, we cry, for we are like grown children home from college, sleeping on God’s couch, lulled into the illusion that we own the place and can do what we want. But he’s coming back. We anticipate his birth during this season of Advent, preparing for his arrival as a precious mother’s child. May your prayer and mine this Advent Season be a simple one: Restore us, O God; Let Your Face Sine, That We May Be Saved from our selves. And in His face, see the abundant life that can be ours. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

All We Like Sheep

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 34: 11-16 and 20-24, and Matthew 25: 31-46 Sermon Title: All We Like Sheep Preached on November 26, 2017 The book of Genesis begins our Bible, and tells us that out of an outpouring of love, God created the heavens, the earth, and the living things who inhabit the earth. On the earth, the Creator set a garden, and in this Garden, among other things, there was notably a man, a woman, a serpent, and a forbidden tree. You know the story – you know that the Creator said to the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” This was clear enough instruction, drawing the line between obedience and disobedience, but of course, the serpent suggested to the woman that they eat from it, and she did. Then she took some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. This was wrong, but it gets worse for after they ate they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” They were hiding, because that’s what people who have been disobedient do. Years ago, we were 10 or 11 and had the great idea that we’d explore the great big storm drain running beneath the Charlton Forge neighborhood where we lived. I don’t remember that we were explicitly forbidden from doing so – maybe our parents never imagined that we’d do such a thing, but we didn’t want to risk missing out, so without permission we explored the underbelly of our neighborhood and when I went back home my parents asked me what I had been doing. Assuming that they didn’t want me exploring the sewer, I told them I had just been over at Matt Buchanan’s house, which was sort of the truth, though it didn’t explain why I smelled so bad, so I was then grounded for two weeks, not only because I had disobeyed, but because I lied about it too. Such a two-fold ethical failure is what Church history calls the Fall of Man. And since the beginning, since the 2nd chapter of Genesis, we have been falling and falling again – first with an act of disobedience, then the cover-up which always makes things worse. This is the human condition. All we like sheep have gone astray. That chorus was in my mind this week as I read two of the many passages of Scripture that describe God’s people as sheep. This morning we have two Scripture passages where humans are personified as sheep, and so the song that was in my mind reading this last week was that great chorus from Handle’s Messiah: “All we like sheep, have gone astray.” That’s true. And what’s worse, is that once we’ve gone astray, we lie like Joe Evans or we hide like Adam and Eve – and why would we hide? We hide, because we misunderstand love, assuming that the natural result of going astray must be rejection, but that’s not so with a loving God. Here’s another familiar Bible story – a young man asks for his inheritance before his father has even died. Then he takes the money and squanders it on loose living – and loose living is exactly what you imagine it is – all the money’s gone, spent on things that nice people don’t spend money on. Assuming that he’ll be punished by his father for losing everything he’s afraid to return home. So, instead, he works as a laborer for so little that he winds up jealous over the pigs, who at least have pods to eat in their slop bucket. Only in desperation does he return home. Realizing that his father’s hired hands live better than this, and hoping to become one of them he goes back – but upon his return his father rushes out to embrace him, and treats him like a long-lost prince. Why? Because this is who God is – this is who the Bible describes God to be – not just the one who created us and legislated the great commands to guide our behavior, but the God of Scripture is also the Father who so deeply longs for his son to return home that he is full of forgiveness – the God of Scripture is a husband who’s love for his wife can never die – the God of Scripture is a Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep even after they’ve gone astray, then become trapped in the brambles of fallen-ness. All we like sheep – have gone astray – and the great God of heaven and earth longs to gather us in – “For thus says the Lord God (from the book of Ezekiel): I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” That’s God. That’s Scripture. Can you believe that? I hope you can – because it’s hard for me sometimes. Sometimes I go back to that image of God that I remember from fiery, manipulative preachers – who convinced me that the question was not whether or not I’d be going to Hell, but how soon. However, the message of Christianity as recorded in Scripture – is not condemnation for the imperfect. The Bible is not a record of continued abuse on the fallen. No, in the pages of Scripture are the magnificent stories of grace for the lost, and so that great hymn goes like this: 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 All we like sheep, have gone astray, and the Shepherd longs to bring us home. That’s Christianity. Not perfection, not condemnation, not self-righteousness, not judgmental legalism that calls some good and some bad – no – this faith of ours is all about the Great Good News that Jesus Christ, Lord of all, created you and redeemed you, and now wants you to come home, and if you’re too ashamed, the Good Shepherd will even go out to find you so that he can bring you back. Here’s again what we read from the book of Ezekiel: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. But there’s a catch. The catch is in the next verse from our 1st Scripture Lesson: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” And our Second Scripture Lesson put it another way. In this last parable of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the separation of the sheep and the goats, we hear that there will be no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven without a recommendation from the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the least of these – for if you believe that all we like sheep have gone astray but are welcomed home, if you’re ready to accept that kind of grace and that kind of undeserved salvation, then the requirement is that you remember that once you were lost – that once you were blind – that once you were wretched - so how can you not offer your kindred lost sheep the same grace that you have received? If you believe that all we like sheep have gone astray but are welcomed home, then you have to be ready to pass grace on to some other people who don’t deserve it either. And that’s hard – because once you’ve made it, it’s easy to forget where you came from. Think of Middle School – she was our best friend one minute, but the second she got caught picking her nose in class we all pretended we’d never met. Now we know that’s wrong, but it’s easy to keep doing it. If all we like sheep have gone astray – then we all have to remember who we were. So, life of a redeemed sheep has to look different too than that of the self-righteous. Those who won’t even speak the word divorce. Who pretend like their houses are always clean. That relative who makes you feel insecure when she asks about your children because you know what she’s really listening for. You know this lady – you probably saw her at Thanksgiving. There are too many like her – and there are far too many who call themselves Christians but who rejoice in pointing out the speak in their neighbor’s eye, blind to the log in their own, having long forgotten that all we like sheep have gone astray – and even they were once lost but have been found. We, who have received grace, cannot disassociate from those who need it. We cannot operate according to the rules of middle school or proper society. Because while many are mindful of being seen with the right kind of people, who you are seen with matters to Jesus too, but he expects you and me to be seen with the lost. His law is so different from the law of Middle School, for according to Scripture, the hand extended with dirt under the nails and no shoes on his feet is the one who holds the Keys to the Kingdom. The voice that’s dry and raspy, lips cracked – “sir, if only I had some water to drink” – it is this one who shows us the way to Eternal Life. The stranger who walks into town with a name that no one recognizes from a place that no one has ever heard of – she has an opportunity to offer you and me. For some who sought salvation asked: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ These are questions that the condemned ask, because they failed to offer their kindred lost sheep the same grace that they once received. May these words guide your behavior: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ All we like sheep have gone astray, and we can’t forget it. Because the lost sheep who has been found is obligated to share the same grace that she once received. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

They Were Stewards of Their Lives

Scripture Lessons: Micah 3: 5-12 and Matthew 23: 1-12 Sermon Title: They Were Stewards of their Lives Preached on 11/12/17 I heard a joke at a Kiwanis meeting last week. Andrew Macintosh and I were proud to be the guests of Margaret Waldrep, and after lunch the speaker was introduced. Buck Rogers is his name. He’s the president of the State Bar of Georgia, and he gets up there and he says to the group, “Do you know how many lawyers there are in the state of Georgia?” And some smart Alek in the back shouts out: “Too many.” I like lawyer jokes, and I like them a lot better than preacher jokes. A group of kids were standing around having a lying contest, and the preacher over heard them. Offended by the idea that they’d compete in telling the biggest lie rather than practice being trustworthy and honest, he marches over there and tells them, “You boys should stop telling those lies and should be more like me. I always tell the truth.” They look at each other, and then shout: “You win pastor! That’s the biggest lie we ever heard” This morning Scripture demands that we come face to face with the reality, that the Church is not nearly so unlike Wall Street or Washington as I would like. That those many politicians, so self-serving as to be completely ineffective, that those business executives, so cutthroat as to worship the might dollar, are not so unlike a lot of clergy I know. And I went through college and seminary preparing myself to be different. That I would be real, faithful, and honest, but every day I face the same reality of being human, and spearing far more like a Pharisee than I would like. Jesus’ warning to them – it could be directed at me just as well. Jesus said that, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” And last Wednesday Night, there I was, finally in the kitchen, cooking for Wednesday Night Supper, so proud of myself that I put my picture all over Facebook, because I love to have all my deeds seen by others too. Did you see me posing with that pot? Jesus said that the Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others,” and I have to be careful about that. Jesus also said that “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues” and have you seen where I get to sit in here? Right up front. And then those Pharisees – Jesus said that, “They love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them Rabbi,” and maybe we don’t have a marketplace and maybe no one calls me Rabbi, but watch me walk through Kroger, scanning the aisle for who I might know. Unless I’m in the beer aisle that is. I am a sinner. There’s no doubt about it, but this is a reality, not to run away from or hide, this is a reality that I have to come to terms with, because here I am up in this pulpit. I have on this fancy robe, and this microphone that makes me feel like Madonna. But every time I put the stole around my neck, do you know what I think of? This stole represents the towel that Jesus used to wash the disciple’s feet. We preachers need to remember that. Because the model of Jesus is a different model than the world of business or commerce, politics or power. I’m not the CEO of First Presbyterian Church of Marietta, GA. No – to quote the Psalms: “I’m a doorkeeper in the house of my God.” That’s what I am. A sinner who can write a sermon and lead you in prayer, invited to help keep the doors of this mighty house of God open. Don’t let me forget that, because bringing honor to myself, falling down that trap that the Pharisees fell into, it will lead to the kind of self-serving misery that I long to avoid, for there is no more miserable person than the one who seeks only to honor himself. There’s a better way to live, and Jesus shows us how. Think about him – the Creator of the Universe, who comes down from heaven to wash the Disciples Feet. The all-powerful God – who takes on human sin and dies a criminal’s death. We know that he is full of mercy and truth, that he all divinity and majesty, but he lived a human’s life to proclaim a mighty Gospel. “Live this way,” he says. Not like those Pharisees who teach one thing and then do another – no – remember that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Think about that. And remember – there’s no more miserable person than the one who always tries to get ahead without thinking of her neighbors. Joanne and Jim Taylor are different. You might know Joanne and Jim. They don’t live far from here – just over the railroad tracks and off Maple Street. Joanne and Jim Taylor were sitting on their porch one evening, talking about the lot across from their house, thinking that if the lot every came for sale, how they’d like to buy it. Well, two weeks later it did come up for sale, and Jim was out of town so Joanne called him and told him that she was ready to make an offer. Jim asked her what she’d like to do with the property. She didn’t want to fix up the little house that was on it; she’d rather just tear the house down, plant some flowers and turn it into a little park for the neighbors – that’s what she told her husband. Jim thought that sounded fine, just so long as she didn’t put any tacky yard art out in it. Well, you might know, especially if you live somewhere along Maple, that Jim relented on the tacky yard art. In fact, the 6-foot cowboy boot that sits out there is his doing, and he just ordered his wife Joanne a life size cow statue to put out there for Christmas. These two bought a park, and I wanted to understand why they did it, so as Marti Moore and I were talking to Joanne last Tuesday (Marti and I, we like to patrol the neighborhood every once in a while) and as we were talking with her you could just tell that Joanne loved her park, and she didn’t even mind it when other people use it. In fact, she was on vacation and her neighbors called to tell her that someone was having a wedding out there and did she know anything about it. She didn’t, and she doesn’t mind at all, because the park, it doesn’t make her any money. It doesn’t do anything in particular that she can put her finger on, it just makes her happy. That’s a big deal, and she’s not the only one. Herald is like that. A lady named Dawn Taylor told me his story. She wrote about it and it appeared in the local paper back in our town in Tennessee. She’s the lady in charge of the Family Center, an organization there that’s a lot like our MUST Ministries, so people who need something to eat go there, homeless people who need a shower go there, and every year there’s a big drive to raise money for Thanksgiving turkeys, so that every family in Columbia, Tennessee has a big, happy, Thanksgiving. Well, Herold heard about it. Herold sleeps in his car and every month he receives a disability check, so he has money to eat, but he sleeps in his car and he uses the shower at the Family Center, and last week he walked right in Dawn Taylor’s office and gave her $23.00. “I saw you were collecting turkeys form the newspaper. I want to help, I want to buy someone a turkey.” That’s what he said. Dawn wouldn’t take the money. She said, “Herold, you’re homeless. You can’t give me any money. You need that money.” But he insisted saying, “I saw the article in the paper. I want to help. It’s not Thanksgiving unless you are eating turkey and watching the ball game, I want to help someone do that.” Can you imagine? Where’s he going to watch the ballgame? Where’s he going to cook his turkey? Why is he giving away his last $23.00? Because it is better to give than to receive. Because there is something there in our hearts. We’ve been preprogramed to think of the needs of others. We stop being who God created us to be when we become self-consumed like the Pharisees, and so Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And Herold wasn’t giving until it hurt. No, he gave and as a result there’s this joy that just oozes out of him. Don’t you want some of that? You can have it. I know that so many of you already do. Because you gave it to me. One of the most wonderful things that’s happened since coming here is introducing my two daughters to my 3rd Grade Sunday School teacher. Mrs. Florrie Corley – for years she did that. And then there was Tim Hammond who drove me back and forth to Mexico beginning when I was about 14 years old. This was back when he was about 10 feet tall. He’s still doing it, and there are plenty of people who would like to know why. Why would Jimmy Scarr show up here every Sunday night to feed our youth group? Or these days - what is Mike Velardi doing with an apron around his neck every Wednesday by 1:00 in our church kitchen and why does he stay from then until the last pot is clean? Why does Melissa Ricketts work 60 hours every week and then sit up there with the cameras for two services every Sunday morning? Why? Why? Because it feels good – that’s why. Our Stewardship theme this year came from 2nd Corinthians: “Share abundantly in every blessing,” and I want you to know that I’m not talking about sharing abundantly in every burden. Sharing abundantly in every bill. Or sharing abundantly in every grueling task that it takes to keep this church going – I’m talking about inviting you to share in the blessing of living out your life for a bigger purpose. Thinking of others besides yourself. Knowing the true joy that giving brings. And finding out that when you do – God takes what you offer, and does far more than you could ever imagine. Think about Mike’s pig. Think about how God used Mike’s pig. You see – some would say, “But I’m just a regular guy. Or I’m just a little old lady. Or who am I to be used by God for some great big purpose?” But that’s the strength of our Scripture Lesson for today – we clergy are tempted to think that we know everything and that God can use only us, but again and again experience teaches me that the Church is the sign of God doing miraculous things through you. I remember the first Sunday our Lily got to sit in big church with her friend, McKennon Jones. They were 3 or 4 and I walked in the sanctuary and got up to the pulpit, and McKennon looks to Lily and says, “What’s Joe doing up there?” And Lily says, “I don’t know.” A long time ago I knew that I wanted to give my life to ministry. When I meet my Maker I want to hear, that sure I binge watched the 2nd Season of Stranger Things on TV, but for the most part I used my life to do some good. How much more will that be said of each veteran who stood this morning – they who have given their lives for a higher purpose. Have not they been Good Stewards of their lives, setting an example for us to follow? They were Stewards of our lives, and their example calls us to do the same, because our church today and our world out there – it needs our voice and our example now more than ever – and if you look into your heart you’ll know that you need it too. Take your pledge card – consider your gift – and use your life, your treasure, your time to make this church stronger – to make the witness of this Church louder so that our world in need will hear some good news. Be a Good Steward of Your Life, and Share Abundantly in Every Blessing.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Great Ordeal Will Not Stop Them

Scripture Lessons: 1 John 3: 1-3 and Revelation 7: 9-17 Sermon Title: The Great Ordeal Will Not Stop Them Preached on November 5th, 2017 Revelation is really something. There’s a part of me that always wants to avoid it. It’s a book of the Bible that’s hard to understand, but plenty of people think they know what it means, and so many people who don’t know have tried to tell us, and now we all carry baggage to this book of the Bible with all its symbols and prophecy. But we can’t just avoid Revelation because it’s a wonderful book of the Bible, an important book of the Bible, and if we let fear of this book get the best of us than we’d miss out on all the beauty that it contains. The passage that I’ve just read is full of beauty. There’s this great multitude – so big that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They’re all there in heaven and they’re singing, “Salvation belongs to our God.” This is a powerful image. And just the composition of this group is enough of a subject to preach a sermon – there is this great big diverse group there in heaven and one of the elders addresses the author of the book who’s also the narrator, the visionary. This one elder asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” The Elder wants to know who this great big diverse group that just arrived in heaven is, and the meaning of his question is like that old joke Presbyterians tell about Baptists. One Presbyterian, arrives in heaven and says to another Presbyterian, “Why all the whispering up here?” And the other Presbyterian says, “Because God put the Baptists just on the other side of that hill and they think they’re the only ones who made it here. We don’t want to spoil it for them.” There are all kinds of people in this world, aren’t there? And some people believe that they’re the only ones with the answers, that they’re the only ones who have a right to the Kingdom, but in our world, there are all kinds of people who believe different things and who come from different places. Every color, shape, and size, they are precious in his eyes, Jesus loves the little children of the world. We’ve been singing some version of that song for a long time, but the words are still radical. An old friend back in Tennessee told me one time, that it’s not just that the members of West 7th Street Church of Christ think that Presbyterians are going to Hell, it’s that the members of West 7th Street Church of Christ think that the folks over at Graymere Church of Christ are going to Hell, and so are the members of Mt. Calvary Church of Christ. They think they’re the only ones going, just like this Elder who asks, “Who are these, robed in white?” So, according to Scripture, who are these, robed in white? They’re the children of God, that’s who they are. And I’m one. So are you. As are the little children who come to Club 3:30. As are our neighbors in this great big diverse county that we find ourselves in. There are all kinds of people in God’s Kingdom, and that’s good. I met a different kind of a person last Wednesday morning. I was standing on the corner at the cross walk waiting for the cars to stop so I could walk, but you know this kind of lady. She wasn’t waiting for anyone, and she just walked right into that crosswalk with authority and the traffic stopped for her. Or it almost did. One car scooted in front of her and she yelled at the driver, “I’m walking here!” And I said, “Lady, I like your style,” and she showed me this whistle she has around her neck that she uses to blow at the cars who don’t respect the cross walk, and I laughed so she told me that her husband said he’s going to buy her a paintball gun so she can mark the cars who don’t stop for pedestrians. I was amazed by this lady. And only later did I put it together that here was this lady, standing up to oncoming traffic, the day after a man in a rented truck from Home Depot killed eight people driving down a bike path in Manhattan. And what’s worse – he did it in the name of religion. Now he claims to be a fundamentalist Muslim, and some people get caught up in that, but I want to say that this crazy idea of one person having all the answers and everyone else being so wrong that they’re less than human is an idea that infects every religion and every person, but any Christian who falls for this idea that religion is about you being right and everyone else being wrong, has never met the Jesus that I know. There’s this whole multitude up there. And one elder is wondering who they are because that’s a weird human defect we suffer from – the idea that I have it right and everyone else must have it wrong. The idea that I matter more. And that my agenda is so important that these other people in my way aren’t people but speed bumps. The extreme version, the sick version, is what we saw last Tuesday in Manhattan, but there’s a problem when any and all of us are so busy rushing through life with an overblown sense of our own importance that we fail to stop and consider the people in the crosswalk. Hurrying as though eternity depended on what happens in the next 15 minutes. We can’t speed through life. And, we can’t get so caught up in our daily routine that we are fooled into thinking that our lives constantly hang in the balance. I’m prone to that kind of anxiety, but not everybody is. Rev. Joe Brice seems immune to it. I was rushing around doing something one day and I realized I had forgotten to give Joe some piece of important information. Worried that he’d be as anxious about it as I was, I apologized to him and Joe responded, “Man, that’s no big deal. Don’t worry about me. Everything that really matters to me already happened.” Everything that really matters to me has already happened, says the sage of Paulding County. And like Joe Brice, these saints in the book of Revelation - they are defined by what has already happened. You see, they are those who have come out of the great ordeal. And we don’t know exactly what that is, but from the book of Revelation we can infer that the great ordeal is a time of suffering and religious persecution. A time in human history when life is challenging, when money is in short supply, when life is lived under the shadow of an oppressive government. When war is the rule and not the exception. When hardship surrounds us and every day seems a grueling struggle to make it from one day to the next. And what makes this multitude dressed in white exceptional, is that these saints, they have come out of the great ordeal, but the great ordeal has not stopped them from singing. They can see what God has done. They know the gift that God has given. And no matter the hardship and pain, it can’t overshadow the redemption and the joy. No matter the oppression, it can’t touch the freedom that they have in Christ. No matter the struggle, they say, “How can I keep from singing?” For my life goes on in endless song Above earth’s lamentation. I hear the real, thought far off hymn That hails the new creation. Above the tumult and the strife, I heard the music ringing; It sounds an echo in my soul How can I keep from singing? That’s what they sing. Because everything that really matters has already happened. For Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, That’s why tyrants tremble, sick with fear, They hear their death-knell ringing, And friends rejoice both far and near, So how can I keep from singing. Life can seem like a struggle, but the struggle cannot be what defines us, because what defines us, we whose robes have been washed in the blood of the lamb, is the great act of Christ’s salvation. Our lives, then, which have already been saved from the pit, must not be a hurried mess or a stress-filled struggle, but a great song lifted to the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us still. Our first Scripture Lesson from 1st John said it all: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” So, live your life, not complacent in the struggle, but singing your part with the great choir of angels and all the saints in light, giving your time, your talent, your treasure, to the glory of God the father, like so many saints of this church who we will remember later in the service, those saints who were such stewards of their lives that they made this church what it is today. . A pledge card was given to you this morning with your bulletin, and it’s important to consider what it is and what it means. I pray that it will cause you to stop, to take a break from the fever of life so that you can reflect on the gifts that you have received, and to take the time to show your thanks to the one who always gives us a reason to sing. For the Great Ordeal of Life – it must not stop us either. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your faith in God has become known

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not having a righteousness of my own

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

God at Work in You

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Privilege of Suffering

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I in the Place of God?

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