Sunday, January 29, 2017

What does the Lord require of you?

Scripture Lessons: Micah 6: 1-8 and Matthew 5: 1-12 Sermon Title: What does the Lord require of you? Preached on January 29, 2017 I love to read the paper, especially a good local paper like ours which covers a lot of local news. That’s what I really like to know about – how the sheriff is doing and what’s going on with the school board, so I mostly gloss over the articles that the Daily Herald prints from other newspapers covering state or national issues, but last Monday our paper ran an article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press titled: “Corporations make their employees use scripts, but what do customers think?” He was talking about the likes of Chck-fil-a. You’ve been through the drive-through at Chick-fil-a and maybe you heard them say, “It’s my pleasure!” And maybe you heard them say it so many times you wanted to start eating at Zaxbee’s instead. Or in the drive-through at Taco Bell as soon as you pull up they’re supposed to say, “You can order when you’re ready” because the higherups at Taco Bell corporate believe saying “Can I take your order?” puts too much pressure on the customers. And the one I’d never heard before is at Kohl’s, if you call them on the phone, they’re supposed to answer saying, “How may I help deliver greatness today?” “How may I help deliver greatness today?” Are you kidding me? Well, Tim Omarzu is the journalist who wrote this article all about these phrases or scripts that corporations are making their employees use, and we can all recognize the benefit of these scripts – not everyone is naturally polite or has been trained in how to respond to customers appropriately, so a restaurant manager should teach her workers how to speak just as she should teach them how to flip burgers, but according to Omarzu customers don’t like it when the people taking their order sound fake. That’s a problem: when you don’t really mean the thing that you are supposed to say. Maybe you can remember as a child having to go apologize to your sister. Your mother was standing right behind you with her arms crossed just waiting, and since you must say it you do, but you don’t even look her in the eye. Looking at the floor or the wall, “sorry” you say, but just saying this word does not have the desired effect so your mother says, “say it again, and this time, say it like you mean it.” Perhaps you can tell that I’m speaking from personal experience here, but even if you’ve only ever given heartfelt apologies maybe you can agree that saying words with your mouth without meaning them in your heart is off-putting, false, certainly fake just as Omarzu said, but still we do this, certainly Christians do this. Did you notice that a few years ago, you’d ask someone how they’re doing and some would respond, “I’m blessed”? Or you’d be saying good-bye and they’d say, “Have a blessed day.” This is good thing to say – it’s the perfect response based on the 2nd Scripture Lesson that I’ve just read where Jesus says again and again, “Blessed are you – even when you suffer, even when you are oppressed, even and especially when you face hardship.” So, on the one hand, could there be a more appropriate thing, a nicer thing to say? I can remember numerous times when just this word, this little blessing brought tears to my eyes because the one who said “have a blessed day” really meant it – but on the other hand – how does it sound if you say the words without meaning them. When I think about being blessed or blessing someone I realize that maybe all things are possible to say, but some of the things that we say are very difficult to really mean. I wonder how many Christians who would tell you that they are blessed really mean it. That is what these Beatitudes are about. Jesus is making that statement. That blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted, and I’m sure that any and all of them could say that they are blessed even as they face such hardship, but how can one say “I’m blessed” without being fake? How can you really mean it when you say, “I’m blessed?” That can be a challenge. For me, the easier thing, especially when I am poor in spirit, is regret. Looking back again on my childhood, I can remember how much I loved hitting the reset button on video games. I’m making my age clear here – I’m young enough to have grown up with video games but old enough that most of the video games I played were pretty horrible and never really caught my attention. But there was one game I could pay for hours, Civilization it was called, and you’d start with this one settlement and you’d move around colonizing other parts of the world, until you were either wiped out or achieved world domination. What I would do when I played this game is I’d send out my little colonies, and occasionally the native inhabitants of that land would attack my colony, taking it over, and whenever that happened I’d just hit the reset button on the game and could start over with a clean slate. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do the same thing with life? Hit the reset button on your dinner party so that you could start over with the roast that ended up burnt. Hit the reset button so you have the chance to not say the mean thing that you said. Hit the reset button on college or high school, hit the reset button on a marriage – go back and do it all over – wouldn’t it be nice to just start over and do something to avoid the outcome that you’re stuck with? But Jesus points us towards something different. His is a step beyond regret and wishing you could do it all over to see that even in times of hardship that we caused or are the victims of - still we are blessed: blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who mourn Jesus says, but what I say or think most often is not “blessed are those who mourn” but “blessed are those whose loved one never got sick, who never smoked that first cigarette which led to lung cancer, who took better care of themselves, blessed are those who avoid death altogether, and wouldn’t it be nice to hit the reset button and do somethings differently?” I remember my father thinking along those lines when his mother suffered a stroke; a stroke which led to her losing her ability to drive, her ability to paint, then her ability to remember, and finally took her life. My dad would look back on the year leading up to the stroke and wonder what could have been done differently to have prevented it all. He would say: If only I never would have let her go out in that canoe alone, then she never would have fallen into the cold lake water. If only we had watched her diet. If only I had been there when stroke happened then we could have gotten her to the hospital faster. If only, if only, if only I had a reset button, and that hope is so different from what the Lord expressed as he taught up on that mountain. We wonder why bad things happen and wish for a way to avoid them, to start over and steer around tragedy. “Why do bad things happen to good people,” we ask – and to this question I can imagine the Lord’s answer based on these beatitudes – “don’t be so quick to be defined by the bad, for you are not children of suffering, but of blessing.” So when bad things happen, while I look back wondering why or what could I have done, the Lord calls me to look forward – to see that beyond mourning is comfort. To see that the meek may have little now – but they will inherit the earth. That those who hunger now, will be filled. That those who are persecuted now – their suffering will be turned to joy for great is their reward in heaven. A preacher once said that there’s a reason the windshield on a car is so big and the rearview mirror so small – so that we can keep our eyes focused on what’s ahead, only glancing from time to time at what’s behind and the suffering and hardship of the past or present must not cloud our vision of what is to come. We cannot live mulling over again and again what should have happened. We must be about looking forward to what will. It is a promise you see – that blessed you are because the future is yours – and seeing beyond your past or your present circumstances is just what these Beatitudes call us to. Blessed are the poor in spirit – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek – for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and their reward will be great. I heard William Ralph Inge quoted this week. He was an Anglican Priest and author and is famous for saying all kinds of things but the one I heard this week is: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” To apply such a thought to the Beatitudes would be to quote the Apostle Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” We may suffer today – we may face hardship and challenge and setback today – but we are not married to the suffering of this present time for the future is ours. He is our Lord, and so we are blessed. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Leaving Father Zebedee

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 9: 1-4 and Matthew 4: 12-23, NT pages 3-4 Sermon title: “Leaving Father Zebedee” Preached on January 22, 2017 There are several good questions to ask when you first read this Second Scripture Lesson from the book of Matthew. I think the first one that I ask is, “what was it about Jesus?” These four fishermen – they just stopped and followed. How did they know it was him? How did they know Jesus was one worth following? There are some good explanations. We’re not unfamiliar with the leadership quality called “command presence.” Command presence is this quality, a quality that’s not easy to define exactly – it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things. Looking back at history - George Washington must have had it. As a man over six feet tall in the late 18th Century he was always the tallest man in the room. He was known to be the best horsemen as well, and when he barked an order most people fell in line – he had command presence – and the same could be said of others like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Rev. Clementa Pinkney. Rev. Pinkney was the pastor killed in the church shooting in Charleston, SC and one of the church members there said that when Rev. Pinkney walked into the room it was like the future just showed up. What was it about Jesus? Was he tall? Was he commanding? Could he persuade a crowd with the truth of his words and the sound of his voice? Dr. Roger Nishioka thinks that it’s something more than that when it comes to Jesus. Many of you know Dr. Nishioka as he was the Spiritual Renewal Speaker seven years ago, and in a commentary on this passage he quoted his father who said, “We are imprinted with a memory of God, and God is imprinted with a memory of us, and even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.” What was it then about Jesus? According to Nishioka it is like those newborn baby seals numbering in the hundreds or the thousands on a single beach, these beaches are packed with all these baby seals who all look alike, but as their mothers return from the ocean with their catch the pups find the mothers or the mothers find their pups because from the moment of birth, “the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory, and the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.” Could it be then that even before we are born we are imprinted with the memory of God, so that when we hear his voice we just know to follow? I think that must be how it is, and St. Augustine was so bold to write at the beginning of his Confession that “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. The through of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” For him, even while his childhood and young adulthood was spent wandering so far that he was at first rendered ineligible for baptism for they said, “He was a great sinner for so small a boy” – still he found no satisfaction in the pleasures of the world, but only found peace by resting in the Lord, for when we hear his voice we hear the call of home. Or to put it as GK Chesterton does in his great poem of Christ’s birth in the manger: There fared a mother driven forth Out of an inn to roam; In the place where she was homeless All men are at home. For men are homesick in their homes, And strangers under the sun, And they lay their heads in a foreign land Whenever the day is done. To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To an older place than Eden And a taller town than Rome. To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home. What then did these men – these fishers - see in Jesus as he wandered up the beach? What did they sense in his demeaner? What did they hear in his voice? They heard a voice they had always known but couldn’t place and they saw a man they recognized but whose name they could not remember, for they had always known him and yet they hadn’t met and they knew to follow though they could not have told you why. The words of the Prophet Isaiah that made up our 1st Scripture Lesson is quoted again in the 2nd claiming that seeing him is as “the people who sat in darkness” seeing a great light – “for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” It was Jesus you see, and when you’ve seen him and when you’ve heard him you knew. Meeting him is like looking into the eyes of your new born child – she’s breathing her first breaths and yet you recognize her face somehow. You hear his voice and you don’t need explanation – for the truth isn’t so hard to recognize when you hear it. It’s like water to the thirsty, like water to the thirsty who didn’t even know that they thirsty, for in him is the satisfaction for our deepest needs. Bind our wandering hearts to thee, we sing, because our hearts find no rest until they rest in him for we are imprinted with a memory of God, and God is imprinted with a memory of us, and even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other and when we do we will finally be at home. He found those four…. and they followed. Perhaps this is where there is sometimes a difference between them and us. I want to argue that you would have known it was him as they did, because the imprint of your creator is inside you just as it was inside them – you know his voice when you hear it, but the question, the moral admonition is in the question: would you have followed? It’s not whether you would have recognized him – you would have and so would I – but would we have followed? Think for a moment about what had to be left behind? Don’t just think about hearing the Gospel and accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, think about the cost of discipleship. In becoming his first disciples, what were they willing to give up? Verse 18: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” What were they willing to give up? What did they leave behind? Their nets, their livelihood, all that they had known, their trade, their heritage, their people, their home, their family – and poor old father Zebedee is left in that boat. I say that when you hear the voice of God you know it, but are we able to get up and follow? That’s a big part of the challenge of being a Christian today – preachers like me make it too easy. Someone will ask me what are the requirements of church membership and I’m just so glad they’re interested I don’t ask them to do a thing – “Just join the church, please!”. But here’s the truth – if you want a new life in Christ, you must leave the old life behind. In Chapter 10 of Matthew he says it himself, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What then is the cost of discipleship – what do you have to give up to really follow him? Everything. You must be ready to leave that old life behind. We sang about it last Sunday night. So many of you were there with me at Bethel Chapel AME for our third joint worship service, and the service began with a song that was easy to learn but profound in its message. Our Music Director, Marcy Lay and I pick hymns out of this blue hymnal of ours and the hymns state the truth in the lyrics – the only problem is that sometimes you need a master’s degree to understand what the song is about and you sometimes need to be a professional musician to follow the tune. It was nice then to sing at Bethel AME. Our girls memorized the song and we sang it so many times on Monday that Sara finally made us stop. The hymn went like this: Victory is mine Victory is mine Victory today is mine. I’ll tell Satan Get thee behind Victory today is mine. We sang that until we got it, then the Music Director at Bethel AME changed the words a little bit and we sang: Happiness is mine Happiness is mine Happiness today is mine And the part that I want to emphasize here that struck me so profoundly – for happiness to be mine I must “tell Satan, get thee behind.” To inherit the gifts of God To have the joy he intends To follow where he leads, we must leave our nets, leave our old life, maybe even leave our father behind. And perhaps, when you consider how clear Jesus is about the cost, how upfront this story is about what must be left behind, you’ll see that those who are worth following never gloss over the fine print. You remember well the words: “It’s not what this country can do for you – it’s what you can do for this country.” There’s a cost. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Now that’s a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And he died in a Nazi Concentration Camp. Why? Because following Jesus is risky. It costs something. Some things must be left behind, for do not forget that the promise of our Lord is not a Cadillac but a Cross – and should anyone promise you a Cadillac for nothing, they are not worth following. What have you been asked to leave behind? Nets. Fathers. Bad habits. Old dreams. Whatever it is, know this – “this present time [is] not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Do not cling too tightly to the present, to what you have, for we have been called by the Savior to something better. Go tell Satan – get thee behind – for I have heard his voice and I want to follow where he leads. Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Getting Out of the Way

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49: 1-7 and John 1: 29-42 Sermon Title: Getting Out of the Way Preached on January 15, 2017 Last Sunday we focused on John the Baptist just as we do today, but this week is different. Last week I was focused on John’s willingness to step forward, and preached a sermon on our need to step forward. Jesus called on John to baptize him in the passage we read from the Gospel of Matthew last week, and just as Jesus called on John, Jesus calls on us to be partners in his ministry as well, so even while John hesitated, not feeling worthy of baptizing Jesus, in stepping forward and answering the call to baptize the Lord in the Jordan, John models a courage that we need to have too. That was the point I was trying to get across last Sunday, but today my focus is quite different, for while last week I was so inspired by John’s courage in stepping forward to baptize Jesus, today I see that here in the Gospel of John, while John the Baptist had the courage to step forward, he also had the wisdom to know when to get out of the way. Last week he stepped forward. This week he steps back, and we must be able to do both possessing the wisdom to know which we should do at any given time: step forward or step back. Not everyone has that kind of wisdom, but people must know how to do both – step forward and step back. There are some people in this world who don’t know when to step forward to speak – but at the same time there are plenty of people who don’t know when to stop speaking. There are some people in this world who don’t know when to act – but there are others who do so much that they micromanage and strangle families or other groups by doing too much. There are some people in this world who don’t know how to accept praise, who have no capacity to receive a compliment, but there are so many others who never step back to give others their due, serving as the president of their own fan club and want all the good news to be about them. There are people who have trouble stepping forward, but there are others who don’t know how to step back, so I’m amazed by John again today because last Sunday we saw how he stepped up to ministry when he was called on, but today we see that he also steps back for when he saw Jesus coming toward him he points away from himself to declare: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I realize that I don’t always do this, and in fact, it’s frustrating in a way to face the reality that the great successes of this church or any church for that matter, have less to do with the pastor than the congregation. I consider all the greatest successes in my ministry either here at this church or in the church I served before, and I realize that all the high points I can take no credit for. I must step back, pointing away from myself to give credit where credit is due. You might remember this – the church I served outside Atlanta was facing a financial crisis, which the church emerged from going from a massive forecasted budget deficit to a large financial surplus. Dr. Herold Pryor had heard about it somehow and he asked me down in the Fellowship Hall what I had done to achieve such a success. I told him that I was a financial genius, which of course, wasn’t true, because I had no part in this success. The heroes in the story are the small business owners and bankers who knew what to do and the congregation who responded. And we have a similar success to celebrate today. The Stewardship Committee met last Tuesday for a follow up meeting to the recent Stewardship Campaign, and there our church treasurer, Jeff Smith, reported that pledges for this new year exceed last year’s pledges by $70,000. Now who do we thank for that? I know I would like to take credit for it, but this is one of those many times in the life of this church when the pastor has to step back to point to away from himself because the reason for this success has everything to do with the wisdom of the committee, Lee Maddox who made the Stewardship Video, the Confirmation Class who helped him, and all of you – some who pledged for the very first time, others who have always pledged, but this year on average increased your pledge by 15%. So often I focus on work, hard work. You may not believe this about me, but when something goes wrong at the church I want to be the one to fix it. Over the summer, you might remember well those two Sundays when the air conditioner wasn’t working. I was standing back there with the choir ready to enter the sanctuary to begin the worship service, someone came charging up to me reporting how hot it was in the sanctuary, and as soon as I heard that the AC was out I was heading to look at the unit myself. Why? Do I know anything about air conditioners? Hardly, but isn’t the pastor responsible? Shouldn’t the pastor be doing something? Only the problem is, while sometimes what is demanded is stepping forward. Other times, what is demanded of us is getting out of the way. John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The strength of this statement comes in knowing that John had followers of his own. We know from all the Gospel accounts that John the Baptist was a figure worthy in stature and that there were plenty who believed he was the Messiah. We don’t know how long his ministry was, but just before Jesus stepped onto the scene there were crowds who assembled out by the Jordan and they went, not hoping to see Jesus, they went out there to see John. Now if John has a following already – if he’d already stepped up to ministry in his own right, think about how hard it must have been for him to know that he needed to step back. How many times have you seen it before, that a new King is born, and the first thing he must do is fight the old king who doesn’t know when to get off the throne. That was the case with King David back in the Old Testament – God made the young man the new king, the Prophet Samuel even anointed him, but old King Saul wouldn’t get out of the way. We see it also with parents. So often it’s the case that the father or the mother never takes the step forward, but damage is also caused by that parent who never steps back. Kids know what I’m talking about. I was watching cartoons the other morning, or more accurately, Lily was watching a cartoon and I was thinking about reading the paper but became entranced by the cartoon she was watching, and there was the story of a fairy godmother who couldn’t seem to earn her wings. She had tried to make the dreams of several children come true, but had failed each time. There was a girl who dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when she got her big chance she froze on stage, and there was a boy who dreamed of being a great skier but on the day of the race he flew off a cliff. This aspiring fairy godmother tried to help them both but failed, and now, in the cartoon that we were watching, she’s trying to help a little girl win a kind of go-cart race. The girl was building the go-cart herself, but to help, the fairy godmother built it for her. Then the girl was practicing, but the fairy godmother stopped her and provided her with a comfortable chair and something cold to drink. Later the girl is steering around a stack of hay bales, which the fairy godmother caused to disappear removing the challenge that this girl wanted to steer around herself – and that’s when I knew this was a cartoon for children that was meant for their parents, because while some parents never take the step forward to provide or protect their children, there are other who never take a step back and go on providing and protecting to such a degree that the child never learns to provide or protect for herself. So, we must look at John here. Jesus was coming toward him and there were so many things that John could have done: he could have been like King Saul who refused to leave the throne, he could have been like this aspiring fairy godmother who wanted to help so badly that he never allowed Jesus to come into his own, he could have been like big ego-ed pastor who wanted to take credit for every success, but instead, “he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” It’s not me – it’s him. The story goes that years ago, Dr. Bill Williamson preached his last sermon here after serving this church for 22 years, and he began his sermon wearing every stole of the church, but one by one he took them off and gave them back to you, to this congregation, saying, “It is your ministry as it has always been. It is your service, your stole, and so I leave it here with you.” I have a stack of his sermons. Mrs. Wanda Turner gave them to me, and when she did there was a part of me that was offended, and I wondered why it was she was giving me all those old sermons. But to learn anything, don’t you first have to step down, admitting to yourself and whoever else that you don’t know and aren’t the end all and be all. That’s what John does. And when he stepped back there were others who could see Jesus – these first disciples, one of whom was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. What strikes me today is the realization that too many preachers have been too anxious to step forward, so anxious in fact that they may have blocked some from seeing Jesus at all. How many opportunities for real discipleship have I prevented, when someone offered to help and I told him, “No, no, I can do it.” I so badly want to step forward. I so badly want to make a difference and serve this church, that the lesson for me here in this week and last week’s Scripture Lessons is that there is a time to step forward and there is a time to step back. For sometimes, it’s only in stepping back that we can see. It’s only in stepping back that we can be the parents and grandparents our children need us to be. It’s only in letting go that we had make way for the future. It’s only when we stop trying to save the Church and the world that we realize we already have a savior. The way Glenna Mingeldorff put it – she’s a counselor out at the Columbia Counseling Ministries, an organization that our church supports who provides lidding scale counseling to those who need it – she said that sometimes we must stop trying to fill our own cup, for he has already filled it. We must stop trying to be perfect, to be worthy of redemption, to realize that he’s already redeemed us. We must step back from our problems to see him answer our prayers. We struggle to be worthy, to be important, we want to be loved – but step back, because you are already. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Called but not Qualified

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 42: 1-9 and Matthew 3: 13-17, NT page 3 Sermon Title: Called but not Qualified Preached on January 8th, 2017 This is a time of year for reading some of the most familiar Scripture passages. We started last month with Mary and Joseph, then the baby Jesus was born and we read on Christmas Eve that he was visited by the Shepherds, last Sunday we read that he was also visited by the Wise Men. Considering all those passages telling of his miraculous conception and everything else, is it surprising that his baptism is equally amazing? As I said, these are familiar Scripture passages that we’ve been reading lately and every year at this time we read about Jesus’ baptism – the voice of God saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him – and these miraculous elements are vitally important in helping us understand who Jesus is, but with all the miracles that we’ve already seen, it’s not all that surprising is it? He was born of the Virgin Mary, conceived of the Holy Spirit – so why wouldn’t his baptism be miraculous – why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit of God be present? The Prophets spoke of his birth years before he was conceived – so why wouldn’t God speak at his baptism? He is the Son of God, we know this already, so the fact that God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” reaffirms what we already know. But what surprises me about this familiar passage, is that while the Divine is present in his baptism as at his birth, here in the Jordan River, the human is called on too. Now that’s been the case all along – Jesus has a human mother named Mary. A human Joseph is called on to raise the divine child as well, but it strikes me today to see and know that the voice of God is heard and the presence of the Holy Spirit is felt, but Jesus was baptized by a mortal man named John, who hesitates to be involved. Our Scripture Lesson begins: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The author of the book of Matthew tells us that John would have prevented him, and I can understand that. Getting called on by God can be a frightening thing. Our neighbor, Kile Patrick, he called his wife Connie last week and he says, “I just had the most incredible thought. If my cell phone rang and the caller ID said that it was God calling, would I pick up?” Not everybody would. Not everybody does. Think about it – isn’t it an overwhelming thought that God would call on you or me to do something for him? Just about every time it happens the one who’s called on hesitates. The Lord appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush and Moses says: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh.” The Lord woke young Jeremiah from sleep in the Temple and Jeremiah says: “I am only a boy.” The Lord calls Isaiah and Isaiah says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” The phone rings and God is calling – but not many people are ready to pick it up – so also Jesus came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him, and John would have prevented him asking, “who am I to be baptized by you?” Isn’t that what we all ask? Who am I to serve the church as an Elder? Who am I to teach Sunday School? Who am I to comfort those who mourn? Who am I to preach? How do we respond to the honor of being called? At first some are afraid, but we must all answer, because Christianity is not a spectator sport, though sometimes we treat it like it is. Sometimes we walk into this sanctuary, and because there are seats out there, there’s a platform up here, it’s easy to fall into the assumption that this place is something like a theater. In a theater, there are three basic stations – there are three basic roles. There’s the audience, the actors on the stage and then there’s the director who is back behind the curtain. That’s true in so many places we go. At a dance recital, there are the dancers on the stage, Millie Landers and Dorie Richcreek are behind the curtain helping them along, and the parents and grandparents are loving every minute of it in the audience. But this sanctuary is different. Every Church is different. According to the great Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in the sanctuary God is the audience, you are the ones on stage, and it is the job of those of us who stand up here to direct you in your performance of praise and worship. How then is it if someone falls asleep in the back? To God it is the same as if a dancer fell asleep on stage. Christianity is not a spectator sport, though many treat it as though it were. Many are called on but don’t pick up the phone. We don’t feel worthy, we don’t feel able, we don’t have the time, but the Lord calls on humans to take on divine work just as Jesus called on John at the Jordan. Maybe we hesitate saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” but still he does. He does again and again and again, and this is what surprises me today as I read this familiar passage from the Gospel of Matthew – God calls on the human to participate alongside the divine. And John doesn’t feel worthy to do so. Neither do I. We sing to worship God in here, but have you heard me sing? Still, here’s the truth – I don’t sing for you nor should you ever sing for me – for in worship the audience is God and God would rather hear my off-pitch voice than my whisper. It sounds strange that God would need our voices, maybe because we don’t know that God uses them, but let me tell you something – I was at a funeral last week. The little chapel was packed, and as the congregation rose to sing the family wept. That’s a thing that we don’t always remember. A funeral is scheduled and we wonder if we should go. They won’t notice if I’m there, we say, or we wonder who am I to believe that I would give any comfort with my presence, but if you could see what it is like as a congregation stands when the grieving family enters the sanctuary you too would know that your presence gives more comfort than any words this preacher could ever say. God calls us. God uses us. But like John we hesitate, saying, “I’m not worthy” but God doesn’t call perfect people. God doesn’t call the qualified. God qualifies the called. Christianity is no spectator sport, and just as Jesus called on John to baptize him in the Jordan, so also you are called on every single time a baby is baptized here. You are not to watch as I sprinkle that water on her head – you are to participate, making promises to everyone who is baptized here “to receive the child into the life of the church” and to “support and encourage her through prayer and example to be faithful in Christian Discipleship.” Now that I’ve explained it this way you might be thinking what John was thinking and wishing that you could have prevented all that, but hear what Jesus said to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Isn’t it a miracle, an amazing miracle, that all righteousness is fulfilled with the help of a human’s hands? That a church is called on to teach a child about the grace of God? But this is the way of God – the divine inviting the human, not to stand by and watch, but to play a part. So, do not hesitate – you may not be qualified, but you and I, we are called. Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Go and search diligently for the child

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12, NT page 2 Sermon Title: “Go and search diligently for the child” Preached on January 1, 2017 This is a familiar story. You know it well. I know it well, but I wonder what we are supposed to think about this familiar story? We just had Christmas – celebrating his birth, and now we have the Wise Men one week later. In a sense, I think this moment in Jesus’ life is like the baby shower. I can imagine Mary and Joseph sitting there, maybe Joseph is receiving the gifts while Mary holds the baby and he holds one of the gifts up to her and says, “Look honey, myrrh.” The truth is that Mary, Joseph, and even the Baby Jesus are a big part of this event. They are where everyone is headed and are who everyone is searching for, but they aren’t the main focus of this passage – for in this 2nd Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, all the speaking and all the coming and going is done by the Wise Men and King Herod. So, we know that Mary and Joseph are there, we know that the baby Jesus is there and that this event in the life of Jesus is revealing something important to us about who he is and what he means to our world, but not Mary, nor Joseph nor Jesus say or do anything in these verses, so most of this passage concerns the Wise Men and King Herod. And what’s interesting about these characters is that in all the action that these 12 verses from the Gospel of Matthew describe, the Wise Men and King Herod are so alike and yet they are so different. As people, the three Wise Men and King Herod are very similar. King Herod is a king, obviously, but so often we also call the Three Wise Men the Three Kings not knowing exactly which office they held in their homeland. Certainly, they are all alike in that they were members of the elite and powerful class. They could travel freely, they had influence and wealth, but more important than that, they are also all seeking out the same person. Guided by a star that they observed at its rising, the Wise Men are searching to find this child convinced that he is born King of the Jews. And likewise, Herod is passionate in his desire to find the child. We read in our Second Scripture Lesson from the Gospel of Matthew: “Herod secretly called for the wise men and said to them, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” so we know then that the Wise Men and King Herod are all desperate to find him, all search diligently for the child – but - in finding him what they hope to do is so completely different - for the Wise Men seek him out because they have something to give (three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh), but King Herod seeks him out because he has everything to lose. It’s not much fun going through life with everything to lose. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge counting his coins, accounting for every single one. In a very “Scrooge-like” way, for some reason, last week I was thinking about the house we sold in Atlanta and what all we left in the attic that is now gone forever. Or think even of the Empire in the movie Star Wars (I have Star Wars on the brain after seeing the new one with my little brother last week) – but really, think of the Empire, they are powerful and they want to hold onto their power with everything that they have, destroying planets, creating weapons, they have nothing to give and everything to lose. King Herod is the same, and living with nothing to give and everything to lose can make for a very dangerous person. The kind of person who will do just about anything, and so, later in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew we read that “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men [for they didn’t tell him where the baby was, but went home by another road to avoid giving Jesus’ location away, so Herod] was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” Pharaoh did the same to the Israelites in the time of Moses. You remember the verses from the first chapter of Exodus: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Here the Gospel of Matthew is making King Herod out to be the New Pharaoh who works to hold the people captive and Jesus out to be the New Moses who will set his people free, but again, and again, throughout history there are those who have power and want to hold onto it – and here in Matthew they stand in opposition to those who have something to give. The Wise Men aren’t thinking like King Herod or Pharaoh – they aren’t trying to hold on to what they have – in fact, they travel, taking what they have, to give it away. There’s such a difference between the Wise Men and King Herod then, for while they both search diligently for the same child, when they find him they want to do such different things. Once the Wise Men made it to him, they celebrated his birth, knowing that here was the King whose kingdom is without end – but King Herod feared him and plotted his death, because he wanted to be the King whose kingdom is without end. What a difference. Just in that is all the difference in the world – even while they search for the same person – even while they search with haste and diligence for the same person: There are those who bend their knee before Him, and they are so different from the one who kneels to no man. There are those who offer gifts, and they are so different from the one who holds on to everything he has for dear life. And there are those who look with hope on the future, and they are so different from the one who holds on to power and control. That’s what I see in this Second Scripture Lesson, but the more I look, the more I see the same thing out in the world: There is on the one hand the mother who lets her children learn and grow, amazed at the gift they are to her and to the world – and on the other hand is the father who already knows who his children will be and what they will do and will stop at nothing to make sure that they grow up according to his expectations. On the one hand is leader who listens, knowing that God is still speaking – and on the other hand is the leader who thinks he already knows. On the one hand is the one believes that each new day brings with it a new opportunity to learn and grow and contribute – but on the other hand is the one who can’t let go of youth and regrets each passing day. On the one hand is the hopeful, the optimist, the faithful who searches the heavens for a sign trusting that God will provide what he promised – but on the other hand is the fearful, the pessimist, the one who has learned to trust only in himself, to look out for none other than himself. On the one hand are those who kneel before him offering gifts – and on the other hand are those who hold onto what they have for dear life – and here’s the crazy thing – those who struggle to hold on to what they have without giving anything away – they end up losing everything anyhow. My friend, Brother Tommy Vann, he used to say that the Dead Sea is dead because fresh water flows into it, but none of it flows out – and so the foolish hold on, but the wise always give. These Wise Men gave three gifts, and so, Jesus, in this Scripture Lesson, receives three gifts, but his life leads him to that place where he will so notably use the third. We’ll sing in just a moment: “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom; Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” This third gift, used to bury the dead, shows that just as the Wise Men gave him gifts, so also our Lord gave us his very life. Rather than fight to preserve what he had, the Lord shows us by his own example: “that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Let us live into such a challenge in the coming year – not holding on, but letting go. Not living as those who have everything to lose, but living as those who have everything to give. Amen.

And the word became flesh

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 52: 7-10 and John 1: 1-14 Sermon title: And the word became flesh Preached on December 25th, 2016 What I just read as our Second Scripture Lesson, is the Gospel of John’s version of the Christmas Story. Last night I read Luke’s which told of the shepherds visiting baby Jesus in the manger. Next Sunday I’ll read about the Three Kings, but John’s account is different. In John’s account, there is no manger, no shepherds, no wise men, no angel, no pregnant Mary, no worried Joseph, no baby Jesus and no Santa Clause. What there is instead is the light and the darkness. This light has been shining since the beginning – since before the earth was called forth from the void, since before the mountains called up from the deep, since that time before life dawned and long before we humans were granted dominion. In those passing eons, despite the heat of summer and the cold of winter, despite death and war, extinction and holocaust, this light never went out, but shown through all that darkness. What there is in John’s Christmas story is light and darkness, so while this Christmas story is not the one that we remember around the Christmas tree or in the nativity scene, it is an account worth thinking of today, because through the years, just as is true today, the darkness was strong, but the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. As much as I love the manger, the shepherds, wise men, angels, pregnant mother Mary, worried Joseph, the precious baby Jesus and even jolly Santa Clause, as I read John I put all that aside for just a moment to consider light and darkness. First darkness. We don’t want to give darkness much attention during days like today, but it’s still there. To some, there’s no avoiding it. What’s so obvious is who is missing this Christmas. To others, what they see in all the hustle and bustle of shopping is also stress and anxiety, worry and debt, the ranting of racists in the checkout line. Even at the Christmas market in Germany – even there – was death and tragedy because there is darkness in the world even at Christmas. Not everyone gets to come home. Soldiers are still at war. Prisoners are still incarcerated. For many, work never ceases. There is darkness in this world – even at Christmas – but here’s the perspective that the Christmas Story in the Gospel of John brings – the darkness is there – yes it is and it has always been so – but the light shines in the darkness – and we are here today to gather around the light that shines in the darkness – remembering again this bright light that will never go out. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For years – since I was young – that imagine captured me. My best friend Matt Buchanan and I would talk about it, and we didn’t talk about Scripture much, in fact most of the time what we were talking about was far removed from Scripture – and as we grew up and I went off to college and then seminary, Matt stayed home and wandered some. For some time, he fought addiction and when he didn’t make it to my wedding I started to fear that I’d lost him completely. But I didn’t. And not long ago this was the passage that I read at his wedding, for despite all the wandering he found his way home. \ Despite the addiction, he found freedom. Despite the darkness – the light shined and the darkness did not overcome it. This same image has ancient roots in the history of God’s people. Yesterday, for our Jewish brothers and sisters, began the celebration of Chanukah, also known as the festival of lights. This is the eight-day festival when one candle on the menorah is lit each night, remembering that during the time of Greek occupation, when only a one-day supply of oil had escaped contamination, that one day supply lasted eight and so the light in the Holy Temple never went out. That is the promise of God, is it not? God doesn’t promise that life will be free from suffering or hardship. God never said that this life would be easy – but what God did promise, again and again, is that “I will be with you,” and so when the God of Scripture took human form, when the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, he told his disciples that “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.” And we remember this, and we testify to this, knowing that even as our friend Allen Richardson lay dying in his home last week, exhausted and ready to rest, still he told his wife Cherri to leave the back porch light on and the front gate open should anyone else want to come and visit, because even as he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, in his heart there was still compassion. The light sines in the darkness. So even in the tide of asking for more and more, eating more and more, wanting more and more, having rung those bells for the Salvation Army outside Kroger I’ve seen that amid all of that still men and women stop and put money in the bucket – mindful not only of themselves. And for some reason, it was those who I assumed had the least because of their dress and the small contents of their cart, who gave the most – and in them I could see the light shining. I love Christmas. I love the lights on the houses, and I don’t even worry that I see the Grinch and Charlie Brown in the front yards of neighbors far more than I see the baby Jesus. Christians rant and worry about who has taken Christ out of Christmas to such a degree that shouting out “Merry Christmas” is like a political declaration, but here’s the thing – there has always been darkness – the Roman Empire waged a true war on Christmas, so the question then as it is now is this: having witnessed Jesus, the word made flesh, the promise of God incarnate, the very light that shines – will you let this light shine in your life so that Christ could no more be ripped from Christmas than your beating heart could be ripped from your chest? Can you testify to the light that we see burning so bright with an untouchable joy – will your hope shines in hopelessness – will you remember the everlasting life that will not be confined to the tomb – will this freedom that no tyranny can erase live today and tomorrow and in all the darkness of the coming year? Will your life testify to the light that shines so brightly that even the darkness cannot take it away? On the first Christmas, so many years ago, in the dark of night, after seeing the baby Jesus: The shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The Three Kings left for their own country by another road – so how will you go back out into the world having heard and seen and known this light? “Listen! Your sentinels lift their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”